“Fleishman” Reminds Us: We’re All in Trouble

All is not as it seems in Fleishman is in Trouble. This isn’t a spoiler. Nor is it a spoiler to say that when it comes to marriage dynamics, women do a lot of unrecognized labor–and not a spoiler to say that a privileged white man who thinks he’s entirely in the right might have it a bit (or a lot) wrong.  

But that’s the trick of this show, now streaming on Hulu: we actually feel a whole lot for the protagonist (or anti-hero), Toby Fleishman. Those of us from his milieu, or adjacent ones, know this guy. We were in USY with him.  We went to Camp Harlam (or maybe Ramah, or maybe “Marah”: they are used interchangeably with Toby’s kids dropped off at one and picked up at another) with him. We studied at Hebrew U during our junior year abroad with him.  He’s the nice guy, the one we are rooting for. The one who maybe read too much Philip Roth and never quite realized how much he slouches.  

And Toby Fleishman is in trouble, we learn at the very beginning of the show. But the fact that he is trouble, or maybe part of the trouble?  That takes a lot longer to understand, unless of course you are watching closely. Or unless you already knew that when it comes to men and women and power, and divorce, and aging (which is ultimately what this show is about) women get a rawer deal.

Only Seth gets to be the perpetually young finance bro who gets better looking and more opportunities with age. 

We are introduced to four main and perfectly cast protagonists, including Toby (Jesse Eisenberg), Libby the narrator who went to Hebrew U with Toby (Lizzie Caplan), Seth, the hot guy in the Hebrew U group, (Adam Brody), and Rachel the cold fish wife with the blunt bob whose blond hair signals that she’s accidentally Jewish, (and, unlike the others, is played by #actuallygentile Claire Danes).

Of these four, only one gets to be Peter Pan. Only Seth gets to be the perpetually young finance bro who gets better looking and more opportunities with age.  Libby spends the series lamenting her lost youth and her perfectly stultifying life in the New Jersey suburbs, wallowing in the ennui of privilege.  She’s called on multiple times: by her loving husband Adam (Josh Radnor, also perfect for this); by long-suffering Toby (who can’t see Libby’s pain through the starring role he has in his own); by the audience, who want her to snap out of it even though she’s our stand in.  Seth calls her on it too, just as he gets his life together by proposing – at 41 – to his younger Asian girlfriend named (in yet another perfect wink saved to the end) Vanessa Lipschitz-Finklestein.

Toby doesn’t get hotter with age.  He’s a dad, and a doctor, and a man in the midst of a divorce whose wife leaves him with the kids and disappears.  But to his chagrined delight, he still has an endless supply of potential partners and hookups. Of course he does.  He’s a dad, a doctor, the nice guy your mother wanted to fix you up with 2 decades later.  Which makes him hot in a way he wasn’t the first time around.  (A phenomenon rarely applicable for women.)

It’s a good thing this show dropped weekly instead of all at once. I couldn’t have taken it as a binge, even though I read the book (by journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner whose profile of Gwyneth Paltrow stands as one of the great pieces of writing in recent memory, and who also wrote the adapted screenplay and served as showrunner ) and knew what would happen. It’s too tense. There’s the parenting panic that Toby is plunged in when his kids are dropped on him (will I get them to camp on time?  How do I deal with a last-minute work meeting? What the hell will I do for supper? Will we make the bat-mitzvah meeting with the Rabbi on time?) and the existential panic that Toby, Seth, and Libby inhabit to an almost self-indulgent degree.  

But that’s nothing to what’s happening to Rachel, the evil absent mother, at least in Toby’s telling. Even if you hadn’t read the book you probably know enough to wonder how much we should trust Toby. You wonder when you see the opening sequence of the show, when everything is upside down. You wonder when you see how little he listens to his friends who are screaming for his attention.

Fleischman offers no major reveal, no clear climax, no punishments or self-realizations. The finale, which is the weakest episode of the show, betrays itself a little on this front with a big crying scene that it’s hard to not laugh at. And then everyone just gets on with it. Probably.  We don’t actually know what happens with Rachel, whose story is only half told.  I won’t give you too many details on the off chance you don’t know them yet, but hers is a narrative of pain, and struggle, that upends what we thought we knew. 

She’s blunt, and harsh (like her hair), but she’s also human and doing her best.  Toby doesn’t get it all wrong, but he forgets the human part, and that makes all the difference.  

The show reminds us that each person stars in their own life, but only some people lack the perspective to see the others around them. Toby was the hero of his own story, but only his, and the villain in Rachel’s, but maybe only hers.  It sometimes feels like the show is leading up to showing us that Toby is actually the bad guy, but he’s not.  He’s just not as good as he thinks he is. Just like Libby, and Seth, and even Rachel.  Just like all of us.

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Image via Fleishman is in Trouble: Hulu

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