How “Fleishman Is in Trouble”  Ditches the Clichés of the Female Midlife Crisis

The TV adaptation of the novel “Fleishman Is in Trouble” begins with the mildest and least interesting of the simultaneous midlife crises plaguing the show’s three main characters. On a cloudless summer day in Manhattan, Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent divorcé, wakes up in his sparsely furnished apartment, alarmed that he is “suddenly, somehow, no longer living with Rachel,” his wife of fifteen years. His angry confusion that Rachel (Claire Danes) has dropped off their preteen children at his place, in the middle of the night with little warning, briefly distracts him from his general dismay that his offspring have become products of the Upper East Side: his daughter (Meara Mahoney Gross) screeches that the clothes her mother packed for her are more suitable for the Hamptons than for camp, and even his sweetly soft son (Maxim Swinton) asks for golf lessons. Toby is overwhelmed, but he is also a wealthy, trim doctor in his early forties. A nonentity to women during his youth, he is so consumed by the endless prospects on a dating app that it takes him several days to realize that Rachel has disappeared.

Toby’s longtime friend Libby (Lizzy Caplan) is equally captivated by the possibilities that have opened up for him since his divorce. Her envy is a symptom of her more advanced malaise. A former men’s-magazine writer and now a dissatisfied stay-at-home mom in New Jersey, Libby narrates “Fleishman” in a suffocatingly relentless and writerly voice-over. (The character bears a biographical resemblance to Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who once worked for GQ and has translated—or perhaps transliterated—her best-selling book for the screen.) As Libby claws for an escape from suburban predictability and, in the process, imperils her marriage to an agreeable enough lawyer (Josh Radnor), she begins to dread going home. Wandering the city after a platonic sleepover at Toby’s, she says, “I always returned to the museum of my youth, trying to find the last place I’d seen myself.”

Rachel, the least solipsistic of the trio, would say that she can’t possibly squeeze another crisis into her schedule. As her ex-husband attempts to solve the mystery behind her vanishing, the show drops clues to its much larger reveal: that Toby has been an unreliable narrator of his marriage, and that, while his years with Rachel were disappointing, hers were harrowing. (Perhaps fittingly, the boyish Eisenberg and the balletic Danes never look quite right as a couple, even in their characters’ meet-cute chapter.) Because Rachel is a hard-charging talent agent—an “ambition monster,” as he calls her, with a blond bob so severe and exact it could’ve been cut by a scalpel—Toby is often blind to her vulnerabilities. When telling Libby and their mutual friend Seth (Adam Brody) about a time when Rachel was roofied at a work event, Toby maintains that “nothing had happened to her,” explaining that she had been brought home by a colleague. It’s not the last time he minimizes a humiliation or violation experienced by his wife. Over the years, as Toby persists in judging his partner, rather than trying to understand her, Rachel’s behavior and motivations only grow more inscrutable. When we finally revisit the marriage’s milestones from her point of view, contextualized in her needs and desires, they are devastating in their coherence.

Which Fleishman is in trouble? That we must first consider Toby’s grievances is part of Brodesser-Akner’s multipronged gender critique. The show is set in 2016, and the ubiquitous Hillary signs in the background allude to the leniency that society tends to grant men at the expense of women. It’s a testament to how quickly social movements can crest that the criticism already feels slightly dated. The series misses the opportunity to interrogate where this “himpathy”—the reflexive sympathizing with men in heterosexual disputes—comes from, especially as it pertains to Libby, the character most outwardly suspicious of women. In the Internet parlance of the late Obama era, Libby was probably a “cool girl,” a young female writer who aspired to make her mark primarily among men and whose literary hero was a celebrity journalist—played, in a casting coup, by Christian Slater—once acclaimed for his misogynistic divorce memoir. Until Libby opens her mind to Rachel’s version of events, her only meaningful friendships are with men. But her seeming aversion to other women, and especially to other moms, goes noticeably unexplored in this series about the overlooked layers of female interiority.

And yet it’s hard to deny how compassionately, even beautifully, Libby’s and Rachel’s midlife crises are rendered. Previously, television’s foremost chronicler of women at a graying crossroads was arguably Joey Soloway, whose series “Transparent” and “I Love Dick” (the latter co-created by Sarah Gubbins) were distinctly horny; their characters embarked on ethically messy pursuits of sexual rediscovery, the intoxication of their libidinal potential matched by the destruction wrought on their families. But, despite all her clever reflections on online dating, Brodesser-Akner is less interested in the erotic. “Fleishman” is also contemporary enough to ditch the cinematic clichés of aging women: the fretting over fading desirability and the long frowns in the mirror at emerging wrinkles or drooping body parts (not that Caplan or Danes possesses either). Libby obsesses over her youth because that’s when her days didn’t feel so prewritten; in one of the most effective instances of her voice-over, she says, “I didn’t realize the real power I had was that I had no obligations. . . . I can’t believe how briefly I held it, and how quickly I gave it away.” Her compulsive nostalgia leads to a housewifely haze, enabled by marijuana and monomania, that deprives her family of her mental presence, even when she’s home.

The middle-aged body takes a bleaker form in Rachel’s tale, where it becomes a site of accumulated trauma. The series’ freshest observations—and emotional wallops—center on the accrual of the sometimes uncategorizable breaches that women are expected to quietly endure and the isolation that results when loved ones don’t acknowledge their pain. An early red flag goes up when Toby turns Rachel’s complaints about her chauvinistic boss into a rant about his emasculation by the same man. The medical invasion that Rachel later suffers by an imperious ob-gyn during her first childbirth is distressing in its believability, and becomes more tragic when Toby’s misinterpretation of her helpless earliest hours as a mother chips away at their union for the next decade. Danes, a powerhouse crier since “My So-Called Life,” wrenchingly conveys the gradual stripping of the self that Rachel undergoes when it becomes more convenient for the men in her life to treat her—an unhappy wife, an incensed patient, a wronged employee—less like a person than like a problem to be dealt with.

But it’s a vexing slog until the season’s turning point, and Toby’s joylessness, Eisenberg’s familiar punchability, and Brodesser-Akner’s apparent distrust of the actors to do their jobs make for wearisome viewing. Only in the penultimate episode, when Rachel tells her side of the story, does the stock satire of tony private schools and ski-resort comparisons fully pay off—though I did relish a scene in which one of Toby’s self-righteous lectures to his kids about privilege veers into a galaxy-brain harangue about why “sunsets are also problematic.” There are other pleasures along the way. The visual template set by the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who helm several episodes, finds an appealing balance between urban romance and naturalistic warmth, and the composer Caroline Shaw’s gorgeous, hopeful-melancholy score climbs and sighs with the action. But, as a critic, I’m reluctant to recommend a show that sticks you with fairly grating characters who spend their time arguing about, say, whether a physician’s salary of three hundred thousand dollars is sufficient. The series teaches, in more ways than one, that impatience can also be a virtue. ♦

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