What Fleishman Is In Trouble Gets Right About Marriage, Midlife And Motherhood

The series, which stars Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes as warring exes, focuses on the wounding liberation of divorce.

Claire Danes plays Rachel Fleishman, an ambition monster and merciless striver. (Photo: Matthias Clamer/FX)

Friendship, sex, money, love and marriage are the themes that shape our lives, as are their companion pieces: disconnection, loneliness, hardship, hatred and divorce. These contradictory ties are braided together to make up the solidly entertaining comic drama, Fleishman is in Trouble, now airing on Disney+.

The series, which stars Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes as warring ex-lovers, focuses on the wounding liberation of divorce and the ways in which we can mistake point of view for authority. Here are five reasons it’s a must-watch.

It’s an intriguing study of the breakdown of a marriage

The eight-episode series is adapted from the 2019 bestselling novel of the same name by New York Times journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She also adapted the drama for the small screen, which means the series retains the novel’s structural surprises, sardonic spirit and singular narrative voice.

Like the novel, the series focuses initially on Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a divorced middle-aged hepatologist living in Manhattan, whose ex-wife Rachel (Claire Danes), a successful talent agent, disappears for the summer—leaving him to care for their two kids. Finding out what happened to Rachel contributes suspense and narrative tension, but the greater drama ensues from finding out what happened to Toby and Rachel as they transition from unhappy struggling couple to unhappy struggling individuals.

If you liked the novel, you’re going to like the series. If you haven’t read the book, it’s entirely possible you might enjoy the series even more, because you’re operating blind, unaware of what narrative twists lurk ahead (and the series, like the book, takes some wide turns).

A photo of a thirtysomething man in a white and blue checked shirt standing in a doorway

Jesse Eisenberg plays Toby Fleishman, a newly divorced doctor. (Photo: Michael Parmelee/FX)

It’s incredibly well cast

Despite sporting a haircut that should be prohibited by law on an adult man, Jesse Eisenberg portrays angry, heartbroken Toby with a mix of ferocity and vulnerability that makes him read human even when he’s being a jerk. (Despite his good-guy persona and high self-regard, Toby’s self-righteousness often veers into the asshole zone.)

Claire Danes, who plays his ex-wife Rachel, is equally impressive as the overworked and irritable family breadwinner—a modern plot point that will resonate for many women carrying similar loads. Rachel is an ambition monster and merciless striver, but Danes never falls into cliché in her performance. Rather, she convincingly communicates the psychological toll that toughness, however necessary or performative, can take on a woman, too.

Lizzy Caplan—who you might remember from Masters of Sex—plays magazine writer turned stay-at home mom Libby Slater (our narrator and Brodesser-Akner stand-in), while The O.C.’s Adam Brody is convincingly obnoxious as Toby and Lizzy’s playboy pal, Seth Morris. Josh Radnor in the role of Adam, Lizzy’s husband, rounds out the strong cast.

It paints a complex picture of motherhood

TV moms aren’t typically accorded this much space to enact their own version of conflicted adulthood—Fleishman permits Rachel and Lizzy to be individuals struggling with their own personal issues, while also failing to meet the impossibly high criteria that keeps the Good Mother crown always just out of reach.

Toby thinks Rachel is a bad mother, but as the series unfolds that POV is challenged by a more complex truth. It’s possible that Toby’s version of a “bad mother” is just a hardworking, driven mother—a mother with an impossibly exacting job who is doing her best. Through the character of Lizzy, an unhappy, bored stay-at-home mom, we see that it’s not just work that creates a barrier between a woman and the impossible role of Good Mother. It’s also her humanity. That is the real balancing act.

A thirtysomething man standing on the sidewalk in a green shirt with his hands on his hips, with a young girl on his left ad a young boy on his right.

After Rachel disappears, Toby needs to figure out what to do with his kids for the summer. (Photo: Linda Kallerus/FX)

Fatherhood gets a tune-up in the series, too, as Toby and Adam miserably pick up the slack as nurturers. Their simmering and long-suffering resentment toward their partners, however, suggests it’s maybe not that fun to play mom after all. That’s kind of funny when you think about it, amirite ladies?

It doesn’t shy away from talking about love and money

Fleishman takes a pragmatic view of love and marriage and as a result there’s not a lot of romance going ’round—but there is a lot of arguing about money. Rachel’s status as family breadwinner ups the stakes on the entire gamble of love and marriage by up-ending traditional power dynamics, which rankles Toby’s sense of who he is and what his status is as her partner. (Yes, he’s a doctor, but among Rachel and her even-more-monied pals, he’s considered a low earner.) Though we really are just vacationing in the financial woes of the affluent—Toby and Rachel are wealthy people among even wealthier people—it’s still rare to see money and the interpersonal status wars it begets depicted quite so nakedly.

It has a heart for its characters, a sense of humour and wisdom, too

The series begins with a focus on the inner life of Toby, his joys and angry sorrows (emphasis on the angry sorrows), but it soon starts to expand beyond his POV, and to fill out as an ensemble portrait, drawing in other characters who are struggling with the push-pull of marriage, parenthood, ambition and midlife. In the end, the picture that emerges is funnier, more emotionally affecting and more dynamic than any single point of view. In Fleishman, there are no heroes or villains, just human beings in trouble—a welcome perspective in the current climate where much of our shared humanity feels obscured by heroic and villainous caricatures.

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