Fleishman Is in Trouble: this talky upscale drama goes long on New York neuroses

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s series uses too much dialogue when the facial expressions of its gifted cast would suffice – but it’s a pointed saga about divorce, ambition and male privilege, and really finds its feet in its final third.

Jesse Eisenberg as Toby Fleishman in Fleishman Is in Trouble (2023)

In the crowded marketplace of Peak TV, nothing says ‘prestige package’ like the combination of a hugely popular novel and a high-end cast. But Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s decision to adapt her bestselling 2019 Manhattan marriage satire for TV almost entirely by herself feels at times like a lesson in why writers might benefit from letting other creatives in on their work. Following divorced doctor Toby Fleishman (a jittery Jesse Eisenberg) as he reels through the weeks following the disappearance of his high-flying ex-wife Rachel (Claire Danes), this compassionate but self-indulgent divorce drama can’t shake off its bookish trappings. Swathed in deadpan narration by Toby’s nosy friend Libby (Lizzy Caplan, nicely wry), its stream of observations is constantly underlining emotional states or ironies that Eisenberg or Caplan could expertly convey in a single anxious expression. Despite hinging around a vanishing, Fleishman is no jeopardy-laced thriller: it’s an eight-episode succession of fraught, sharply rendered emotional journeys. A close-up look at what divorce does to partners, children and friendships, it pitches itself somewhere between HBO’s darkly comic dramedy Divorce (2016-19) and the glossy marital misery of 2021’s Bergman adaptation Scenes from a Marriage.

While a raging Toby finds his hectic hospital work, his bewildered kids and his giddy plethora of Tinder hook-ups all colliding unhappily with one another, he scrabbles in his past for clues to Rachel’s disappearance. The story’s fat layers of flashbacks dunk him revealingly back into his seemingly idyllic college romance with Rachel, and on into the chilly, argumentative erosion of their marriage. Alongside this slides an envious Libby, chafing at her dull-but-pleasant suburban marriage and yearning for the lost freedoms of her pre-motherhood life. If you can get past the sheer wordiness of the writing, it’s engrossing stuff, the show exhibiting a facility for deft, witty portrayals of all the characters’ messy interior lives. Directing couples Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine, 2006) and Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, 2003) set handheld cameras prowling closely around the couples’ ugly fights; a whirling life-size carousel of screenshots of eager Tinder females expresses Toby’s horny bliss, before his topsy-turvy life is signalled by the upended New York skyscrapers that float across the screen. The camera also lingers slyly on Toby’s barely-contained contempt for the Succession-style excesses of the 0.1% tribe Rachel would pursue socially. “Good for you, Toby,” is a banker bro’s patronising response upon hearing about Toby’s career (only in Manhattan can a hepatologist on $300,000 a year be considered a failure).

Unsubtle though they may be, the dialogue-heavy scenes, full of bitter quips and recriminations, are a gift for the show’s excellent cast, most of whom the audience will have grown up watching on TV. There’s an added twinge of dark enjoyment here that comes from watching alumni of teen shows like My So-Called Life (Danes), Freaks and Geeks (Caplan) and The O.C. (an enjoyably slick Adam Brody) wrestle with the intractable problems of middle age. Endless marital rows also provide frequent opportunities for Danes’s work-obsessed talent agent Rachel to go big with that Homeland-honed ugly crying. She’s slightly short-changed in story terms though, appearing mostly as a Philip Roth-style bitch-wife in flashbacks for the first half of the series. The spotlight is firmly on Eisenberg, pinging between Toby’s big-eyed delight at his newfound sexual success with women and his mounting horror at the chaos that Rachel has left him. Finding the humour but also the hurt in the material, he gives a thoughtful, nervy performance, employing to fine effect that trademark impatient rat-a-tat dialogue delivery that suggests boundless frustration.

As a saga of marital strife and midlife disappointment, Fleishman tends to sag under the weight of the issues it repeatedly circles – male privilege, the corrosive effects of ambition, how divorce redefines a life. But anyone who can hold out until the last third of the series, and get past Libby’s midlife crisis (smoking weed in retro band t-shirts to show she’s too cool for a New Jersey mom’s life of BBQs and zumba), will be rewarded. A surprise swerve into a Rashomon-style retelling of the Fleishman’s marriage adroitly cracks the story wide open; Rachel’s trauma-packed version, when it spills out (in a twist that nods to Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979), has a dogged, gripping quality that kicks the show into another gear. Its painful insights into the unequal burdens of motherhood feel earned in a way that the show’s other big themes don’t. Because Toby isn’t the only Fleishman who’s in trouble.

Fleishman Is in Trouble is available to view on Disney+ now.