Page-to-Screen Miniseries 'Fleishman Is in Trouble' Is a Stunningly Cast Character Study — and Mystery
This smart, sharp Jesse Eisenberg- and Claire Danes-starring series reflects upon a marriage breakdown after a doctor’s wife suddenly disappears.
February 03, 2023
The title doesn't lie: when Fleishman Is in Trouble begins, its namesake is indeed struggling. He's also perfectly cast. If you're going to get an actor to play an anxious and unravelling recently divorced man in his forties who's trying to navigate the new status quo that is sharing custody of his kids, having a high-powered ex, and being initiated into the world of dating apps and casual hookups, Jesse Eisenberg is the person to recruit. If his Zombieland character lived happily ever after until he didn't, or his Vivarium character was trapped into a different type of domestic maze, this page-to-screen series would be the end result. That's just Fleishman Is in Trouble's first stroke of genius casting, however, with the Disney+ miniseries supremely smart and astute in choosing its on-screen talent.
Arriving at the end of 2022 to become one of that year's best new shows, the eight-part drama has Eisenberg play Toby, a well-regarded hepatologist who is passionate about helping people through medicine. But for over a decade until the summer of 2016, when Fleishman Is in Trouble is set, he's been made to feel inferior about this work. As copious flashbacks illustrate, he's the odd one out among the Upper East Side crowd his theatre talent agent wife — now former — Rachel (Claire Danes, The Essex Serpent) favours because being in the healing business hasn't made him rich enough. She sported the same attitude as well, until she dropped their kids Hannah (Meara Mahoney Gross, Don't Look Up) and Solly (Maxim Swinton, Raymond & Ray) off at Toby's place in the middle of the night without warning, said she was going to a yoga retreat and stopped answering his calls.
Written to sound like a profile — something that journalist, author and screenwriter Taffy Brodesser-Akner knows well, and has the awards to prove it — Fleishman Is in Trouble chronicles Toby's present woes while reflecting upon his past. It's a messy and relatable story, regardless of whether you've ever suddenly become a full-time single dad working a high-stakes job you're devoted to in a cashed-up world you resent. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a mystery, too, as Toby, his friends and the show's viewers ponder the central question: what's happened to Rachel? That query hangs in almost every word that Eisenberg speaks, but it's also shaped by Toby's perspective. He wants to know where his ex has disappeared to and why she has upended his life, but he's far less interested in how the breakdown of their marriage has affected her, if she's in trouble and how that has contributed to his current dilemma.
As narrated by the ever-shrewd Lizzy Caplan (Eisenberg's Now You See Me 2 co-star) as Toby's old college pal-turned-writer and now stay-at-home-mum Libby — one of two old friends, alongside Adam Brody as Seth (no, not The OC character) — Fleishman Is in Trouble dives into the minutiae that makes Toby's new existence such a swirling sea of uncertainty. It's detailed. It's specific. The directing team, which includes Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Battle of the Sexes) behind the lens of three episodes, Alice Wu (The Half of It) helming one, and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (Things Heard & Seen) doing the honours on four, is never short on visual ways to reinforce how Toby's life has been flipped upside down. But at the same time, while honing in on the Fleishman family's situation and troubles, the series also ensures all that detail paints a universal portrait.
This is a show about discovering that more of your time is gone than you'd realised, and that your youthful hopes have faded and your looming future has receded. It's a series about the push and pull of being an adult, too — from dating, marriage, divorce and parenting to studying, the nine-to-five grind and that fabled work-life balance — that bears down on us all. It's a drama about the cumulative effect of our daily reality, plus the demands and expectations that come with it, whether or not we've started to feel the ebbs, flows and pressure. Everything from class inequality and constant social hustling to the roles that women are forced to play around men earns the show's attention in the process, as layered through a miniseries that's evocatively shot — and, again, meticulously cast.
Brodesser-Akner and the Fleishman Is in Trouble team — which also includes Michael Goldbach (On Becoming a God in Central Florida) penning one episode to her seven — have an extra tool at their disposal: capitalising upon the baggage viewers bring to their stars. Why does Eisenberg seem such an apt choice from the get-go? Because he could've wandered off the set of countless other projects and into this one, slipping into Toby's shoes like he's always been wearing them. His casting acts as shorthand, signalling what to anticipate if you've ever seen him frayed and fraught on-screen. (The waxing lyrical about social media, as surrounding an actor who was Oscar-nominated for The Social Network, is as comic as it's meant to be.)
With Homeland her best-known role of the past decade-plus, Danes' involvement has the same impact from the outset; when Toby describes or remembers Rachel, offering up an image of a woman who is driven, determined, career- rather than motherhood-focused and desperate to succeed at all costs, it feels like an instant fit. His recollection bakes in those traits even in their romance's earliest days, just softer and waiting to solidify. Again, why is this the case? Why is it so easy to accept that Rachel is this clearly defined, and that Toby's take is accurate? Fleishman Is in Trouble wants that question to linger, because how willingly its audience jumps onboard with Toby's perspectives on himself, Rachel and their relationship is as much its focus, and as important, as Rachel's whereabouts.
Watching Fleishman Is in Trouble evolve, getting sharper and deeper the more its viewpoint spreads and expands, is one of this exceptional series' many rewards. Watching Eisenberg and Danes unpack the type of personality traits they've frequently portrayed on-screen, the people who boast them, and the stereotypes, judgements, sympathies and hostilities they spark, is both thrilling and mesmerising — and while Eisenberg is excellent, Danes is phenomenal, especially as the show spends more time with Rachel and her struggles. Her masterful casting and the performance that follows cuts to the heart of Fleishman Is in Trouble's commentary on how women are treated if they focus on their professions or don't, or on motherhood or not, or make any move expected of them or rally against those dictated confines. And the fact that My So-Called Life alum Danes, Freaks and Geeks' Caplan and The OC's Brody are so tied to such seminal teen shows from several decades back? Well I guess this is growing up, Fleishman Is in Trouble posits.
Check out the trailer for Fleishman Is in Trouble below:
Fleishman Is in Trouble streams via Disney+.
Top image: JoJo Wilden, FX.
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