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A very novel idea
Review: Fleishman Is In Trouble
It’s almost impossible to write anything about Fleishman Is In Trouble without unleashing virtually all relevant spoilers (you’ve now been warned), and this fact is down to the relationship between the miniseries’ narrative and its plot, and the way that both are meticulously unspooled. We live in an era whose most ambitious artists are encouraged to develop intellectual properties that can migrate with the liquidity of capital from format to format, platform to platform, and in this context the novel as such is often nothing more than a way station en route to film, television, or some streaming combination of the two. But Fleishman is a literary adaptation helmed by the original author herself, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who clearly didn’t just think of the book as the larval stage of a work that was ultimately supposed to be something with movie stars in it that people could watch. The TV version now streaming on Disney+ is stubbornly novelistic; an adjective very often promised during the putative Golden Age of television but very seldom delivered on.
There are two shots during the series’ eight episodes in which a bright, yellow hardcover copy of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint can be seen, first bedside, then shelved, and both in flashbacks centred on the titular character, Toby Fleishman, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Brodesser-Akner’s story is an heir, rebuttal, conversation partner, refutation, tribute, and corrective to Roth’s infamous work on middle-class masculinity, masturbation, intellectual machismo, cultural Judaism, Zionism, and sex in the American northeast. Rather than ejaculating into catcher’s mitts or deli liver, though, Toby Fleishman mostly comes into the virtual and actual fleshy vistas of the previously unimaginable bacchanal opened up by the apps on his cellphone (and, a step in the right direction: his encounters are, to borrow an image from Slavoj Zizek, mutually masturbatory; it would be too much to say that they offer real connection or reciprocity, but at least the sensual satisfaction mostly runs both ways).
Toby, 41, is a recently divorced hepatologist (not only does he not masturbate into liver; he saves them!) whose nearly $300k annual salary was, seemingly, not enough to match the ambitions of his talent agent wife, Rachel, played magnificently by Claire Danes. Rachel has left their two children at Toby’s apartment in the middle of a hot summer night and disappeared without explanation. This crisis comes just as Toby is being evaluated for a promotion to management at his hospital, and as he guides a bereft and baffled husband and father of two through the trauma of his wife’s medical coma and liver transplant.
Part of what retains the novelistic quality of Fleishman Is In Trouble are regular stretches of prose narration; the monologue which overlays the opening scene of the first episode is virtually identical to the paragraphs that open the book the itself. The narrator is Libby Epstein (Lizzy Caplan), a former men’s magazine staffer who once lionized a misogynist essayist whose work still affects her, and who quit her job when she realized that it held no future for a woman. Libby and Toby are friends from their early twenties, having spent a year in Israel together, along with a third pal, the dashing Seth Morris (Adam Brody). Rachel didn’t get along with Libby and Seth, and so only after his divorce has Toby reconnected with his friends, for the first time in 15 years. Toby’s post-marital traumas throw both of his friends’ lives into sharp relief from their own perspectives, pointing up the shallowness of Seth’s low-responsibility party lifestyle and the aching existential ambivalence of Libby’s petit bourgeois marriage and motherhood.
Libby is a narratological Trojan horse; by telling the story through the words of a smart, funny female friend of the male character who seems to be our protagonist, Fleishman Is In Trouble puts the viewer off our guard. Not only do we spend the first few episodes getting to know Toby asymmetrically well in relation to his ex-wife, but the sympathy of his cool, woman friend (and her antipathy for Rachel) validate the loyalties which begin accruing almost automatically for the good doctor. But as not only the details of the story become clearer but also Libby’s reasons for telling it, she, Rachel, and Toby each become more human.
Golden Age TV was supposed to be more like the novel because of the narrative space it offered to creators — to stay just in the mafia picture genre as an example, the sheer scale of the 86 hours of The Sopranos made the two and a half hours of Goodfellas, the three hours of Casino, or even the nine hours of the Godfather trilogy seem paltry time by comparison in which to explore characters or themes. And the eight hours of Fleishman do indeed serve the story and its telling in this way, giving real heft to relationships whose defining characteristics here are the ways in which they either fail or succeed to sustain across time. But if it were all just about screen time and the relative abundance of it, then All My Children would have reproduced the quality of the novel on television decades ago. The misdirected idea that prestige projects with enough budget, former big movie actors, and melodramatic scoring can produce an automatic alchemy of highbrow culture with lowbrow-sized audiences is partly responsible for the tidal wave of middlebrow shit making all the platforms creak. At a superficial glance, Fleishman Is In Trouble bears a passing resemblance to the members of that beige parade of shows about affluent people with deeply hurt feelings. It would be a shame if it got lost in that crowd.
What keeps the literary energies crackling is Brodesser-Akner’s interest in addressing issues of, to use Paul Tillich’s phrase, ultimate concern, and to do so not only through the content but the form of the work. Much the way Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal (1978) told the story of an infidelity in scenes of reversed, receding chronology so that the audience’s understanding of what they were watching — and so their certainties and sympathies — were made slippery, Fleishman Is In Trouble first places and then dislocates its viewers by flashback, perspectival shift, and the ever-widening of the narrative scope. Several episodes begin and end with a New York cityscape turned upside down; towards the end of the series, the title card crawls from the bottom of the screen up, so that Trouble Is In Fleishman.
Ultimately, Fleishman, with its focus on the nightmares and opportunities of middle-age, is a philosophical story about potential and change: are we Aristotelian substance, decaying ever further from our true essence with passing time? Or are we actually the change itself, like the process philosophers insist? For Alfred North Whitehead and the philosophical tradition he inspired, concomitant to the fact of a reality made up not by essences or substances but rather by events and processes was the primacy of relationship. The empiricists’ billiard ball universe was replaced by quantum entanglement, and human beings who were defined by the processes of their existences would be not only affected but fundamentally constituted by their relationships to others.
In one of the final episodes, Toby’s troubled young daughter, Hannah (played by the precociously talented Meara Mahoney Gross) announces that she is not proceeding with her bat mitzvah; she wants to figure out her own way in life, and also refuses to take responsibility, at age 11, for fixing a world that she didn’t break. After initially responding in dismayed shock, Toby quickly reconciles himself to pride in his daughter’s vote for “charting your own path.” This is supposed to be a satisfying conclusion to Hannah’s arc, because we’ve seen how destructively the girl has internalized her mother’s desperation for peer group approval and social acceptance.
But later, as we listen to Lizzy lament the hollow inevitabilities and let-downs both petty and profound which come from a life anchored exclusively by self-actualization, we wonder if “charting your own path” isn’t exactly what Hannah, and her mother Rachel, were already doing in the first place. Fleishman, in the end, goes looking for metaphysical ballast in secular Jewish-American culture without wanting to admit how much it inherited from actual Judaism; which is just a particular or culturally specific way of saying it does what’s been done in North America and Europe now for centuries — it tries to squeeze more out of secular liberalism than it was built to hold. It’s a horizon, and so a conceptual limitation, that Brodesser-Akner seems to share with her literary forebear, Roth; though short stories like “Eli, the Fanatic” at least allowed the latter to point up some of the ambiguities and ironies of this curtailment.
But to an extent, Fleishman transcends its philosophical limitations by pointing beyond itself; by the time we’ve witnessed Libby’s subtle shift from passive to agential — maybe even literally creative — narration, we’re made aware that there is an aftermath to this story beyond the possibility of our knowing. The series concludes in a place of genuine human and existential mystery, and it matters to its creator that such mystery exists. Know how to tell? They aren’t trying to make a second season.