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Sex and the Suburbs

HBO’s new miniseries ‘Mrs. Fletcher’ tells the story of a newly empty-nested mother who goes on a (porn-aided) journey of self-discovery, a role that Kathryn Hahn was destined to play

HBO/Ringer illustration

Discussing her latest character, the namesake of HBO’s new miniseries Mrs. Fletcher, Kathryn Hahn has a telling verbal tic. “It’s my child,” she says, before correcting herself. “It’s her child.” She’s referencing the teenage son whose departure for college kicks off a period of self-discovery for single mother Eve, a senior center aide muddling through life in the suburbs. Still, the slipups continue: “It’s my boy”; “We never felt comfortable enough to talk about sex”; “I got blamed for [the divorce], somehow.” Kathryn Hahn is not Eve Fletcher, though the part suits her well enough even Hahn can elide the distinction.

It’s easy to forget Mrs. Fletcher wasn’t written with Hahn in mind. The seven-episode season is a natural companion to I Love Dick, the 2017 show in which Hahn played another woman experiencing a midlife upheaval in her sexual desires. Where I Love Dick used sex as a way into abstract concepts like artistic expression, Mrs. Fletcher is more quotidian, but both make use of what The New York Times has described as Hahn’s “earthy naturalism and an enthusiastic lack of vanity.” I Love Dick culminated a yearslong collaboration with filmmaker Jill Soloway, from indie feature Afternoon Delight to Transparent; last year, Hahn gamely explored the comic indignity and deep tragedy of infertility in Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life. Throughout, Hahn has developed a reputation for tonal dexterity, pivoting with ease from slapstick to deep sadness and believable messiness, both of which she draws on for Mrs. Fletcher. But while Mrs. Fletcher is a near-perfect vehicle for Hahn, it’s not a custom-made one.

Mrs. Fletcher is instead adapted from the 2017 Tom Perrotta novel, a satire in keeping with the writer behind Election and Little Children. The half-hour show is a comedy, evidenced by supporting players like Happy Endings’ Casey Wilson, albeit one whose register is as flexible and volatile as sexuality, its central subject. Hahn amplifies the low-stakes peccadilloes that have become Perrotta’s primary interest; Perrotta gives Hahn the chance to, among other things, have one hand down her pants while the other holds a freshly-baked Toll House cookie intended for a care package. The match works out well.

Perrotta wrote the book while in the writers’ room for The Leftovers, the postapocalyptic drama adapted from another of his works and showrun by Lost’s Damon Lindelof. Between manuscript and adaptation, “I had probably spent six or seven years in that grief-stricken world,” Perotta explains. Mrs. Fletcher became a palate cleanser: “I was just feeling this need to remind myself that I was a fiction writer, but also that I wrote stuff that was funny or sexy.” Coincidentally, Mrs. Fletcher happens to be airing at the same time, and on the same network, as Watchmen, Lindelof’s own Leftovers follow-up. “We met in the middle for The Leftovers, and then we went back to our separate corners,” Perrotta observes. “He’s adapting a graphic novel and has superheroes, and I went back and told a very small-scale story about a mother and a son at a particular moment in their lives.” With The Leftovers, his first TV project, Perrotta ceded ultimate control to Lindelof, a more experienced hand at steering the Titanic that is any large-scale production. With Mrs. Fletcher, he felt ready to take command.

That meant taking an active role in the casting process. While Perrotta didn’t have a specific actress in mind while writing the book, he did have a few qualities to look for in a potential Mrs. Fletcher: “We need an actress who’s in her mid-40s, who feels real within this world of senior centers and suburban small towns, who’s sexy but not too much of a bombshell.” Hahn’s name came up and the two arranged a meeting, though Perrotta happened to run into her the night before at a Galentine’s Day dinner with Amy Poehler and Aubrey Plaza, her former castmates on Parks and Recreation. “And then the next day we met at the Oceana Hotel in Santa Monica, and I just immediately felt like, ‘Oh, it’s got to be her.’”

The role of Eve is a taxing one, requiring both vulnerability and resilience. After her son, Brendan (Jackson White), moves out, they’re both launched into the emotional unknown: he into the well-trodden, though new-to-him, territory of collegiate flailing, and she into the considerably less explored world of the empty nest. Eve develops a fascination with online pornography, the conventions of which have long since shaped Brendan’s idea of sex and sexuality. The two embark on twin sexual odysseys—but where Brendan’s is social, Eve’s is more solitary. “Mrs. Fletcher is not necessarily a book you would look at and think, ‘This is really great fodder for a TV show,’ because so much of it is about a woman’s private experience,” Perrotta says. “We’re just seeing her alone looking at a screen, and that’s not an easy thing to make work.” It’s a show about sexuality where the heroine doesn’t have that much sex, at least with other people.

That isolation puts an even higher burden on Hahn’s performance, which she in turn rises to meet. “Of course it’s an amazing challenge to find oneself by oneself, but I think that’s also her journey,” Hahn says. “So much of her life, Eve has been defined by other people’s expectations of her. She had been a mother, a wife; she’d been defined by her job. Even her moniker, though the title is Mrs. Fletcher, is a name that’s long lost its use—she’s been divorced 10 years. All these identities that hadn’t really belonged to her, were not hers. The fact that I was finding her by myself was this beautiful metaphor for what she needed to go through.”

While “having an affair with herself,” as Hahn puts it, Eve experiments with spanking, lesbian scenarios, and real-life flirtation, including a night school classmate who went to high school with Brendan. Her son, on the other hand, undergoes his own form of reckoning in an environment where his blind entitlement is no longer rewarded, but scrutinized. A straight, white man who isn’t particularly self-aware, intelligent, or conscientious, Brendan is a loaded choice of protagonist at a time when such men are facing an overdue dose of accountability. Still, Mrs. Fletcher manages to explore Brendan’s biases and behaviors without excusing them. “There’s such a range of male misbehavior, and part of the debate around Me Too is to try and figure out what distinctions are useful in this,” Perrotta says, citing viral short story “Cat Person” and a chapter in Vanessa Grigoriadis’s Blurred Lines on the mothers of accused assailants as inspirations. “I mean, if he’s Brock Turner, then there’s no sense in trying to create [empathy].” Even though Brendan’s indiscretions as he starts to drink and date without adult supervision are relatively less severe than straightforward assault, Mrs. Fletcher’s interest in them is less exculpatory than anthropological: “It’s not ever that, ‘Oh, he’s not such an asshole.’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, I kind of understand why he’s this kind of asshole.’”

In a culture where tiresome debates around “likability” tend to center on female characters, some of them Hahn’s, there’s something novel about a show subjecting a male lead to questions about our willingness to spend time with or “root for” someone. Eve may have real flaws, but she’s also more purely sympathetic. Ultimately, Brendan serves as a foil to his mother, a contrasting example of how porn can affect one’s worldview. “On the one hand, it can open one up, and on the other hand, what is it doing to intimacy and dating, and what is it doing to sexuality, and also what is it doing to porn performers to have it so free and accessible?” Hahn asks. “There’s so many different ways of talking about it. And in this, there’s almost two. There’s the way it’s affected her son, and the way it has opened [Eve] up.” Mrs. Fletcher’s connection to Watchmen may be obvious, but it might have more in common with The Deuce, another contemporary HBO series about the opportunity and human toll of porn.

Hahn and Perrotta are Mrs. Fletcher’s primary voices, though they’re surrounded by an impressive array of collaborators, including pilot director Nicole Holofcener. “One of my favorite movies of the past few years is Enough Said, which is very much about the woman in the middle of her life trying to find love and romance and sexual pleasure. And what I love about Nicole is that she’s so aware of what’s funny about human vulnerability and need and desire,” Perrotta says. “That was definitely the world that we wanted to be in.” Per HBO’s newly instated policy, Mrs. Fletcher also hired an “intimacy coordinator,” Claire Warden, to supervise its sex scenes. Hahn had never worked with a coordinator before, but came to appreciate Warden’s role on set. “She became an invaluable part of the process, especially because there was so much work I had to do by myself that was intimate. What her job is is to make sure every actor, has had a chance to voice their comfort levels and their boundaries. … So when we walk onto the set, everyone is completely aware of what we’re about to do. We can just focus on the work and the theme.”

For all the associates involved, Mrs. Fletcher is nonetheless a Hahn-branded project, both for eventual awards consideration and longtime fans excited for such a fitting showcase. Eve is an average person on a low-stakes adventure; there is a climax, in both senses of the term, but its context is downright disorienting in a world of high-stakes blockbusters and omnipresent IP. It’s only through Hahn’s performance that Eve’s experience acquires weight. “In other words,” Perrotta sums up, the flesh-and-blood Mrs. Fletcher “has to be … real, vulnerable, relatable. And then, I think, able to represent an inner life in an exterior medium—which Kathryn is, like, the best at.” Whether an artist reclaiming her muse or a woman figuring out what turns her on, Hahn takes the obtuse and the intimate and makes it tangible.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.