Whose Midlife Crisis Is It, Anyway?

In the new FX/Hulu show Fleishman Is in Trouble, the story of a divorce isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

Claire Danes and Jesse Eisenberg in the FX/Hulu show 'Fleishman Is in Trouble'
FX

The television series Fleishman Is in Trouble begins upside down, with the camera soaring over an inverted Manhattan skyline—squat brick buildings in the top half of the frame, hazy blue sky below. It’s an appropriately destabilizing introduction for a show that’s constantly pulling the rug out from underneath us. The series is untrustworthy, in the best kind of way: It withholds and obscures and implies until it doesn’t. The initial focus is Toby Fleishman (played by Jesse Eisenberg), a newly divorced hepatologist on the Upper East Side whose recently downloaded dating app churns out more lifeless nudes per hour than Bernini in Rome. Toby’s ex-wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), has sequestered his kids in his apartment and fled to a yoga retreat upstate. Toby is angry; he has a job, too, Rachel, even if it’s her much more lucrative career as a talent agent that’s shaped the family until now.

If you’ve read the novel it’s based on, by the New York Times Magazine staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner, you surely know that things are more complicated than they seem. The tone can be pleasantly jaunty, the jokes sharp as daggers—one woman’s husband, we are told, “didn’t not have a photo of himself next to a dead giraffe and a live Trump son.” But as the story unfurls, it reveals its construction, layer by layer. Whose stories, the show wonders, are people more inclined to listen to? Whose version of the truth do we inherently favor without realizing that we’re doing so?

Fleishman explores these queries primarily through the narration of Libby (Lizzy Caplan), a college friend of Toby’s whose presence gradually gains more heft. It’s Libby’s diegetic voice that maps out Toby’s confusion at finding himself—after 15 years of marriage—more desirable than he had ever been as a bachelor. Slyly, the show suggests how efficiently sex has been defined in male terms, to the point where short, nebbishy Toby—Eisenberg plays him as intermittently flat and bilious—is overwhelmed by explicit overtures, as though he were the midlife Manhattanite woman’s Harry Styles. (The dynamics of dating apps do suddenly seem less benign when Brodesser-Akner, who also wrote the TV adaptation, applies them to a younger generation.)

Libby, a disaffected journalist also in her early 40s who quit her chronically frustrating job as a writer at a men’s magazine, has existential malaise of her own, although Toby never notices. She’s come to realize that, as a woman, anything she writes will always be a woman’s story, as opposed to a thrillingly human and universal one. The show is set in the summer of 2016, against the backdrop of the presidential election, and it jabs sporadically at the branded, ineffectual activism of that moment. People wear I’M WITH HER T-shirts; one of Libby’s essays gets included in a collection called The Dawn of the Badass; Rachel represents an artist who’s written a Hamilton-like smash called Presidentrix, which nods at the recent compulsion in literature to rewrite classic stories that feature male protagonists from a sidelined female character’s perspective.

It’s all funny and clever and wryly detached until, in the seventh of eight episodes, we see someone else’s version of the events leading to Toby and Rachel’s divorce, which happens to be devastating. So devastating, in fact, that you might wonder why so much of the story up to this point has been spent with boring, self-obsessed Toby and his ailing patients and his obstreperous children. This is where timing comes in: 2019 shouldn’t feel that long ago, but the years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic have done a striking amount to disprove Libby’s (and Brodesser-Akner’s) theory that tales about sad, suffering women have to be Trojan-horsed into being—enveloped in larger accounts of men existing. Maternal abandonment in particular, and the question of why a woman would give the finger to biological imperative and desert her children, has occupied all kinds of gorgeous, unconventional stories of late. In Fleishman, Rachel’s story is so significant—and so committedly portrayed by Danes—that when it’s revealed, everything else pales in comparison.

That’s not quite fair. So much in this show, as with the book, is fascinating, especially if you take it layer by layer. There’s the meta element of seeing three actors (Danes, Caplan, and Adam Brody as Toby’s friend Seth) who all became famous in different cult teen dramas and are now enduring midlife crises on-screen, as if we viewers didn’t feel old enough already. There’s the recurring relevance of the liver, an organ that we’re told repeatedly is capable of regenerating itself, like Toby in his new 40-something sexual prime. There’s the way the series continually goads us into overpraising Toby for taking care of his kids alone, as if doing so is a remarkable feat for a father instead of every mother’s obvious and entirely unfeted obligation.

Watching Fleishman Is in Trouble, you may occasionally resent its insinuation that people need to be tricked into finding women’s experiences compelling. But a lot, again, depends on perspective. The structure of our stories is broken, the original book argued. The show, because it has to hew strictly to an eight-episode format and the conventions of TV, sometimes feels like it’s indulging old patterns more than upending them. But its cast is so compelling, and its truths so sharp when they stick you, that it doesn’t really matter. There’s enough packed into it that you’re bound to find something that resonates. There are enough sides of the story that one will surely feel like it’s speaking to you and you alone.