TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews Fleishman is in Trouble

Josh Reviews Fleishman is in Trouble

Fleishman is in Trouble is a wonderful adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel of the same name.  Toby Fleishman is recently divorced and adjusting to this new reality.  Then one day his ex-wife, Rachel, drops their two daughters off at his apartment… and vanishes.  She stops answering Toby’s calls and texts, and no one seems to have seen her or have any idea where she is.  Toby tries his best to keep a handle on things, but his kids are in crisis and his personal and professional life starts to spiral.  Toby is in trouble.

I was incredibly impressed at how faithful an adaptation this eight-episode TV show was of Ms. Brodesser-Akner’s novel.  Obviously the reason this is the case is that Ms. Brodesser-Akner was the showrunner of the show, and she wrote seven out of the eight episodes.  This feels incredibly rare and special to me, that a book’s author was also such a central player in the TV adaptation.  Even more incredible: Ms. Brodesser-Akner is clearly as skilled a TV showrunner as she was an author, because the show works incredibly well.  This feels very unusual to me, because the skills of writing a novel vs writing a TV show seem very different to me, not to mention the whole other set of skills needed to actually oversee a show’s production.  I’m impressed.  (I don’t mean to suggest that Ms. Brodesser-Akner did all this on her own; there are a number of Executive Producers who I am sure were also key players in bringing this show to life.)

I was also impressed and very pleasantly surprised by how well the show captured the novel.  First off, from a plot level; the way the characters are depicted and the story unfolds is incredibly faithful to the book.  Even more impressive was the way Ms. Brodesser-Akner’s distinctive voice was captured by the show.  The book is narrated by Toby’s friend Libby.  So much of the tone of the novel comes from that very funny, playful narration.  I’d assumed that wouldn’t carry over to the show, but I was wrong – Lizzy Caplan as Libby narrates the show.  This could have gone wrong in so many ways.  Narration feels like a very retro device these days.  But it works beautifully.  Ms. Caplan is amazing, and the writing is so strong; her narration becomes the spine of the show, which we as the viewer follow through the twists and turns of this story.  It works incredibly well, and helps make the show feel different from so much other modern TV.  Bravo to Ms. Brodesser-Akner and the Fleishman team for their boldness in keeping the narration.  I can easily image many other lesser versions of a Fleishman adaptation that would have tried to tell the story without the narration.  I’m glad I didn’t have to watch them.

The cast is phenomenal, anchored by the three leads: Jesse Eisenberg as Toby, Lizzy Caplan as Libby, and Claire Danes as Rachel.

It’s fun to see the jittery insecurity that Jesse Eisenberg brought to so many of his roles as a younger man used to create Toby, a middle-aged fellow who nevertheless can act incredibly immaturely and selfishly.  This is a tough role to play, because the show, as did the novel, bounces the audience around in terms of our opinion of Toby.  At the beginning, we’re on his side — his ex-wife has flaked out and dumped the kids on him, which is cruel to the kids and disrupts what little stability Toby had in his post-divorce life.  But as the story continues, we see Toby do some pretty lousy things, and suddenly we’re not sure we should be rooting for this fellow anymore… and then the show manages to bring us back around to, at least, have empathy for what he’s going for.  Mr. Eisenberg has to play this all very carefully; this is a “warts and all” portrayal of this man Toby Fleishman; this is a flawed human being.  And yet, Mr. Eisenberg can’t take things too far so that we hate Toby or can’t find our way back to having empathy for him.  I was very impressed by how skillfully Mr. Eisenberg was able to navigate this.  This is a great performance.  Mr. Eisenberg’s movie-star charisma commands the screen; I couldn’t look away (even when Toby is behaving badly!!).

I’ve been a fan of Lizzy Caplan’s ever since Freaks and Geeks.  I loved her in Cloverfield in 2008 and then I became a fan for life with her work as Casey on Party Down in 2009-2010.  Ms. Caplan has incredible comedic and dramatic skills.  This is a perfect role for her, as it combines both aspects of her skill set.  I love Libby on this show.  She was by far my favorite character, and I felt the show kicked into a whole new gear whenever Ms. Caplan was on-screen.  And even when she’s not on-screen, Libby is a strong presence because of her narration.  I love the way the show gradually peels back the layers of this character.  The time we spend exploring Libby’s home life and the personal crisis she’s going through in the back half of the show’s episodes were some of my favorite moments of the series.  Libby’s crisis isn’t as dramatic as Toby’s, but in many ways, I found it even more heartbreaking.  Ms. Caplan performed those scenes beautifully.

Then there is Claire Danes, a huge star who is in what is almost a cameo role… until the powerful seventh episode in which we get Rachel’s story and we see why Clare Danes is playing this character.  Ms. Danes is spectacular; she is such a powerhouse performer.  She’s fantastic with Mr. Eisenberg; they’re completely believable as a couple, both in the flashbacks of their days being deeply in love, and also the more recent flashbacks in which we see them being horrible to one another.  This show is all about digging deeper into the characters to discover what’s really going on underneath the surface.  As was the case with Libby, the show’s power lies in those late-in-the-season revelations about what had been going on in Rachel’s life; events of which Toby was entirely oblivious.  (Central to one’s understanding of both the novel and the show is understanding that Toby Fleishman isn’t the only one in trouble.)  Ms. Danes plays this character so beautifully; as we travel with her through Rachel’s story in that seventh episode, it is absolutely devastating.

The show’s secret weapon was Adam Brody as Seth, Toby and Libby’s good friend from the Israel program they were all on together as kids.  This is something of a supporting role to the central trio, but Mr. Brody is absolutely spectacular here.  He’s so fun and funny, with terrific comedic timing.  And he’s also wonderful in Seth’s more serious moments, as we learn that here his yet another character with a lot more going on than Toby Fleishman thinks.  I like Seth even more on the show than I did in the novel; Mr. Brody is so much fun to watch, and he brings a lovely amount of nuance to his performance.

I was tickled by how specifically the show depicted these secular Jewish characters, and how many fun little details the show wove in about their Jewish backgrounds that will be noticed and appreciated by Jewish audience-members.  From the flashbacks to Toby, Libby, and Seth’s time together in Israel, to the scenes at a Jewish deli where they meet up in the present day, the Jewish summer camp Toby sends his kids to or the scenes at the 92nd Street Y, there’s a lovely amount of Jewish-specific detail woven into the show.  Toby’s daughter’s preparations for her Bat Mitzvah are a big part of the story, and I loved hearing Seth wax poetic about jachnun!  I’d expected some of these details from the novel to have gotten washed out of the adaptation, out of a desire to appeal to the widest audience possible, but as with the inclusion of Libby’s narration, I’m pleasantly surprised that I was wrong.  This specificity anchors and enhances the story, which I think is a plus for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.

This is a secular show about secular characters.  Although we see Toby’s daughter preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, religious belief or discussions about God or faith are pretty much absent from this show.  I respect this choice.  These nebbishy Ashkenazi New York Jews are a familiar type of depiction of American Jews on television — see George and Jerry on Seinfeld or Ross, Monica and Rachel on Friends or Grace on Will & Grace, or many many other examples.  However, the Jewish details in the depictions of Toby, Lizzy, Seth and Rachel were far more specific and nuanced than those characters I just mentioned.  I liked seeing that.  I was happy that the show avoided the lazy cliche of the bearded ultra-Orthodox Jew that still pops up so often in TV shows and movies when they want to depict Jewish observance.  And my goodness it’s wonderful to see a very Jewish show that doesn’t mention the Holocaust.  The only off-note in the show for me was the casual scene in which Toby accepts his daughter’s spur-of-the-moment decision to cancel her Bat Mitzvah.  All of these characters clearly had strong Jewish roots — look how much their shared experiences in Israel seem to still be resonating in Toby, Libby, and Seth’s lives! — so it’s a bummer to see Toby and Rachel’s apparent complete failure to instill any Jewish connection in their children.  The moment in which Toby agrees to his daughter’s decision to cancel her Bat Mitzvah is framed as a victory by the show, but to me it was a huge moment of failure.  That was a scene in which I felt out of synch with the show.  I wish a depiction on screen of modern American Jews could depict characters who also find meaning and connection in Jewish ritual practice, as opposed to treating that as a joke or relegating it to the aforementioned bearded ultra-Orthodox characters.  I’d also love to see more TV shows or movies about different types of Jewish characters — not just the secular New Yorkers — though I try to avoid judging a piece of work on what I wanted it to be rather than what it is.  My last comment here on the show’s strong Jewish content is that I thought it was lovely and much appreciated that the show’s four main characters, all of whom are Jewish, were all played by Jewish actors.  That’s actually a surprisingly rare thing to see!!

The only downside of this show for me was that it’s so painfully real that I often found it difficult to watch.  All of the characters on the show are going through wrenching moments in their lives.  The acting is so good and the writing is so sharp that I felt very much involved in these characters’ lives.  And so I found it very difficult to watch these characters being so unhappy, and making bad choices.  (It was particularly hard for me to watch Toby’s kids being in crisis.)  I had to space out my viewing of these eight episodes — this wasn’t a show that I could binge.

I’m very impressed by how well-made this show was.  The acting, the writing, the production design, the editing, all combined to create a very immersive experience.  Bravo to Ms. Brodesser-Akner and the entire Fleishman team.

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