[This story contains spoilers from the FX limited series Fleishman Is in Trouble.]
In FX’s limited series Fleishman Is in Trouble, author and showrunner Taffy Brodesser-Akner wants you to rethink whose side you’ve been on.
Described by Brodesser-Akner as an “absurd comedy” mixed with marriage drama and based on her debut novel of the same name, the series follows doctor Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg) after he and his wife Rachel (Claire Danes) get a divorce and assume shared custody of their children. A free man (in his middle age), Fleishman attempts to re-enter the dating scene through dating apps while juggling his work and now single parent-esque duties.
“It’s a modern story about the way marriage is now. It’s not about marriage for the long haul,” Brodesser-Akner explained at the show’s New York premiere earlier this month. “It’s about the way things are weird now between men and women in heterosexual marriages with women out-earning men and the tension that those things cause.”
“There’s essentially three marriage narratives, all interesting and all representing somewhat different aspects of a potential marriage,” added star Adam Brody, who says his character Seth, Toby’s friend, represents “the hedonistic side of the male perspective.” “It takes a long look — a somber and contemplative, yet wistful and romantic in addition to bleak, view — at newfound middle age in the world at this time. And I think there’s a lot of universality within all the relationships, even though clearly it’s about a specific group of people in a specific income, in a specific zip code.”
Though lonely, Toby is seemingly doing fine until one day when Rachel drops the children off at his place — and then disappears, cutting off contact with her former husband. Spanning several decades, including the more recent year of 2016, part of the twist of the series, the showrunner and her cast told , is when and how Rachel comes back.
“[Fleishman Is in Trouble] shows this fraught marriage from both sides. You see the world from my eyes and my wife looks like the villain,” star Eisenberg added. “Then you flip the script and see it from her eyes and realize that I’ve also been the villain. My character seems like a put-upon, aggrieved, jilted husband, and I think Taffy very slightly upends that expectation by showing the same story from the woman’s point of view and seeing that actually, maybe, the male sympathy you had as a viewer was misplaced.”
That twist is something star Danes said was both the “great thrill of the novel” and also scary to take on as a performer, particularly in light of how the limited series — at least initially — frames her character.
“It takes you by such surprise because it does happen so late on the continuum, so you’re just a bit blindsided and then you’re horrified to discover that you’ve been sort of complicit in this very biased telling of the story, that somehow you’ve been duped into this or you’ve done so willfully,” she said. “It’s a little scary to play somebody who is not portrayed in the most flattering light, but I trusted the structure that Taffy had created, and the reward at the end should hopefully be thrilling and gratifying.”
“I’ve played many characters who are kind of despicable people and this is not the case with this show. This character is not a monster. He’s just a guy,” Eisenberg said of his own character. “But I have experienced trying to figure out how to rationalize and empathize with people who, to a reasonable viewer, are acting horribly. And I think this challenges viewers in a very subtle way to think about the way we expect to have sympathy for the man by default.”
As Brody noted there are other players (and marriages) in the narrative, which also explores the realities of modern heterosexual marriage. Those other players include Lizzy Caplan’s character, Libby Epstein, who is a writer — and the story’s narrator — who is trapped in suburban life while married to Adam Epstein, played by Josh Radnor.
The latter teases that their relationship is more of a “slow boil, and then it kind of heats up and heats up and heats up and there’s this great explosion between the two of them in the last episode.” And somewhat dissimilar to the show’s leading relationship between Eisenberg and Danes’ characters, Caplan’s character serves as the leading lens both for her and Radnor’s characters’ relationship and, eventually, the entire audience.
“My character Libby says that she feels like she can’t get anything that she’s written read unless it’s written about a man. That she can’t tell her own story. The only way she can get an audience is if she’s talking about a man, which is basically the entire show,” Caplan told THR. “You think the show is about Fleishman, but it’s Libby telling her story through her friend. She comes to that realization later and the audience goes along for the ride with her.”
Radnor said his character acts “in support of Lizzie’s story and her perspective and her narrative” — a pivot he’s happy to make in a culture dominated by male narratives and ones told in a specific way through a specific lens.
“I’ve certainly been the center and the story has asked women to congregate around my narrative as a protagonist, so I’m happy to return the favor,” the actor said, laughing. “There is such a strong perspective — even the men were beautifully written in this. That’s something I wish more male actors understood. Women have been writing great roles for you.”
Brodesser-Akner, who spent years between places like GQ magazine and The New York Times profiling men, said writing for men became a place she was more comfortable. “But also it’s a numbers game,” she added. “We live in a terrible culture where everyone will read a story about a man, but only women will read a story about women. A man will only be interested in male stories historically, and a woman will be interested in both.”
Fleishman Is in Trouble then serves as a chance to unpack that for TV, like the novel did for publishing and her profiles did for journalism. “I like the idea of subverting it and saying this is a story about a man and what if it was told by a woman? What if it was told by someone who grew to become frustrated with the story as she was listening to it because it stopped making sense to her? It stopped sounding exactly accurate?” she says. “That’s certainly what I hoped to do when I was telling stories about men at GQ and then at The New York Times.”
Fleishman Is in Trouble releases new episodes Thursdays on Hulu.