Fleishman Is in Trouble, the limited series adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner's 2019 novel of the same name that's now on Hulu (by way of FX), doesn't show its whole hand all at once. One of its smartest features is the way it takes its time sketching out an unhurried portrait of a divorced man getting his groove back and finding his footing as a newly single person. It's such a normal idea, however captivating it is in its ordinariness. And then, without warning, things get a little murkier when it starts to suggest that the divorced man might not actually be the hero of his own story, bringing the show into sharp focus.
In that way, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a loyal adaptation of its source material, a smartly written novel that meandered toward its climax and grew more distinct as it went on. That faithfulness has much to do with Brodesser-Akner's involvement; in addition to executive producing, she wrote seven out of its eight episodes (Mike Goldbach handles the one she didn't write), all of which were provided to critics for review. There aren't many glaring changes from page to screen, and as envisioned by Brodesser-Akner, it's still a shrewd study of relationships and aging, one that takes deep interest in the fact that there are always multiple sides to every tale.
When we meet Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a fortysomething liver doctor, he's in the middle of a nasty divorce with his wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), but comforted by his newfound foray into the world of online dating. For the first time in his life, he's found himself in the position of being sexually desirable to many, many women, and it's revitalizing him. "Who could've predicted that there was such life in him yet?" Lizzy Caplan's narrator inquires. Things are thrown into chaos after Rachel unceremoniously drops off their two preteen children early one summer morning before disappearing to a yoga retreat, and subsequently, seemingly, off the face of the earth.
She stops responding to texts and calls. She misses the kids' scheduled pickup. He can't track her finances, and Rachel's assistant (she's a busy theater agent responsible for discovering the feminist version of Hamilton) keeps blowing him off. Suddenly, Toby, a mild-mannered guy with a string of neuroses about everything from his body and to his privilege, is on his own. It's easy to feel for him and criticize Rachel for her absence, as he and his friends — Adam Brody's Seth and Caplan's Libby, who's revealed to be more than just an omniscient presence, but also a college pal Toby's reconnected with — are quick to do. And yet, Fleishman tells us, there are no heroes or villains in life, and unreliable narrators fill up every corner.
This is the kind of complicated love story that works so well on screen, calling to mind everything from the films of Nora Ephron to HBO Max's recent Love Life. There's a dreamy breeziness that makes Fleishman an easy watch, but it doesn't shy away from the more brutal aspects Brodesser-Akner has built into each character's lore. Episode 3 is an immediate standout, flashing back to the start of Toby and Rachel's courtship and following them right through to the painful end of their union. Eisenberg and Danes seem like a mismatched pair at first, but the illegibility of their romance works in the show's favor as we observe their giddy young love transforming into irreparable bitterness. They argue over money (Toby's a doctor, but not the kind of doctor Rachel wishes he was), and their social standing among the other bougie Upper East Side parents (Rachel cares, Toby doesn't). Rachel is never the same after she's violated by a doctor before giving birth to their daughter, and Toby can't connect with her as she withdraws from their family and focuses on her work.
For a series largely framed around the experience of one character, Fleishman Is in Trouble expands its scope gradually and gracefully. In all his high-strung eccentricity, Toby is solid, generally likable company for the audience, and Eisenberg, giving a grounded and empathetic performance, is right at home. Among a lesser cast, he'd be the highlight; among this one, Danes and Caplan run away with the whole thing, maybe by design. (In both the show and the book, Toby is a slightly dimmer light when compared to Rachel and Libby.) The dry-witted Libby is a former writer at a men's magazine who feels increasingly trapped in her existence as a stay-at-home New Jersey mom. She's yearning for the hopefulness of her youth, and her friendship with Toby brings her back to a time when the world seemed promising. As she inches her way out of his shadow, her sympathy for him becomes clearer, and Caplan plays her search for purpose with raw authenticity.
As Rachel, Danes is a knockout, reminding us that she's not only one of the most unselfconscious ugly criers in the business, but also the winner of three Emmys, thank you very much. She's essentially playing three different versions of the same person — the youthful, more hopeful Rachel; the Manhattanite girlboss seen through Toby's eyes; and the woman who is unraveling as she begins to understand that the life she has is not the one she wanted — and makes it all feel effortlessly cohesive. The parallels Brodesser-Akner draws between these two women, including their experiences with workplace misogyny, their relationships to motherhood, and the ways they look back on how time has passed them by, add layers to Caplan and Danes' already magnetic performances. They're both so good that you can't help but wish their characters were brought to the forefront a bit earlier.
Fleishman, which drops its first two episodes on Hulu on Nov. 17, is full of charming details, from its collection of colorful supporting players (Brody is in top form, while Mozhan Marnò brings a small role to full, breathing life) to plenty of oddball quirks (Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" plays a more earnest role in the plot than you might imagine). It takes its time, but the end result is an affecting spin on the divorce story, and the dating over 40 story, and the man vs. woman story. Episodes regularly open and end with the camera flipped upside down, an homage to the novel's cover. It's fitting, if a bit on the nose, for a series that makes a real effort to flip genre conventions on their heads and play with expectations. For fans of the novel who were concerned that its spark would get lost in translation, worry not: Fleishman Is in Trouble is in no trouble at all.
Premieres: Thursday, Nov. 17 on Hulu
Who's in it: Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Brody
Who's behind it: Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine), Alice Wu (Saving Face, The Half of It)
For fans of: Divorce, the New York dating scene, "Fight Song"
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8