Which Fleishman Was in Trouble?

Now that the Hulu series has finished its limited run, we can know the truth

Fleishman is in Trouble, a eight episode limited series on Hulu, is based on Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel of the same name (also adapted and executive produced by Akner.) It takes place around 2015 or 2016.  And we know this because there are several mentions of Hillary Clinton and how she’s a shoo-in for the presidency. Characters discuss her disparagingly. No one likes Hilary for some inexplicable reason. Hillary is the perfect metaphor for our antagonist Rachel Fleishman (Claire Danes): a woman who seems to have it in the bag. Isn’t liked. And doesn’t, as it turns out, have it in the bag.

Fleishman in Trouble’s protagonist is a Manhattan doctor (a top liver specialist) named Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) whose marriage to Rachel has just ended. The story is from his point of view. We are both sympathetic to his confusion: After 15 years of marriage Rachel has disappeared claiming she needs “me time”, leaving him with two preteen children who he needs to be look after and entertain all summer. His ex-wife’s friends, work colleagues and divorce lawyer treat him like a scorned woman. He only finds relief in the many dizzying hours he spends on the various dating and hook up apps that are now available to him, a newly single Doctor in his forties. Toby, who was never much of a ladies’ man before he married Rachel, finds it pleasantly surprising that he has his pick of horny available women via his smart phone.

The most shocking and funniest conceit of Toby Fleishman’s plight is that he is a world-class doctor and yet the one-percent world of the Upper East Side treats him like a noble loser. Whenever his profession comes up in conversation, the response is often “Good for you!” as if he’s a teacher or a social worker. His peers own pharmaceutical companies or hedge funds. He is the proverbial (albeit sensitive) white male whose loss of power and status is the stuff of New York Times Op-ed pieces.

In search of comfort, Fleishman turns to old friends of his from school. Seth Morris (Adam Brody) a finance bro and man about town and Libby Epstein (Lizzy Caplan) a writer for a men’s magazine who is also married and raising a family in New Jersey.  For reasons that seem confusing at first, Libby is the narrator and delivers many voiceovers.

Through flashbacks of the Fleishman’s courtship, we see Rachel as a sympathetic but prickly character. She becomes an orphan and a detached grandmother raises her.  Toby gives her the opportunity to experience having a family: both inlaws and children of her own. However, she grows obsessed with money and status. The kids–who she neglects –must go to the right school. They must live in the right apartment in the right neighborhood. Rachel’s career as one of the reigning theatrical agents in the city funds this upward mobility. Her ability to get tickets to hot shows gives her an in with a group of Upper East Side moms whose children befriend her children. She’s “in” but it costs her a marriage.

At first it seems like the voiceovers are lazy storytelling, like Carrie’s pun-filled narration in Sex in the City. It also seems cheesy and portentious at first that we see many establishing shots of the city upside down.  Someone took a film class and is showing us that our world is turning upside down. We get it. But by episode seven it becomes clear that Caplan’s narration has deceptively lulled us into thinking that Fleishman’s point of view (which is also Lizzie’s point of view because it’s what he told her) is the truth. Toby is the victim and hero of the story. Rachel is the villain.

Until Lizzie runs into Rachel in the park. And we hear her side of the story. We also learn why Lizzie is narrating the story and how the world fooled her into writing off Rachel Fleishman as a social climbing workaholic. The Fleishman “in trouble” isn’t Toby, it’s Rachel. And without heavy-handed preaching, the show vividly fleshes out Rachel’s burden as an unlikable woman. Akner said that her inspiration for the novel Fleishman is in Trouble was her own admiration of male writers like Philip Roth and Hunter S Thompson in whose books female characters seemed emasculating and “in the way.” She couldn’t help but adopt their point of view. Rachel Fleishman is that problem woman, with a chance to air her point of view. This is a wonderful series with a great cast, and since I don’t want to ruin the ending for anyone, I urge you all to see it!

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