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‘Fleishman’ Is Lost in Translation

The FX series ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ is rigorously faithful to the novel it’s adapted from, but the written word doesn’t always lend itself to television

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The novel Fleishman Is in Trouble is a play on perspective. Author Taffy Brodesser-Akner is an acute observer of human behavior; as a celebrity profiler for GQ and The New York Times Magazine, she’s dissected the personae of everyone from Tom Hiddleston to Tom Hanks. (Between the two Toms lies an ocean that encompasses Don Lemon and Gwyneth Paltrow.) For her 2019 debut, Brodesser-Akner turned her gaze from real A-listers to a fictional couple: Toby Fleishman, an Upper East Side hepatologist, and his now-ex-wife Rachel, a talent agent whose class anxiety Toby blames for their union’s demise.

Into this split, Brodesser-Akner inserts an intermediary. The narrator of Fleishman Is in Trouble is not a Fleishman, but Toby’s college friend Libby, whose biography bears a more-than-passing resemblance to her creator’s. A married mother of two who lives in New Jersey, Libby used to work at a prominent men’s magazine, where she wrote the sort of profiles that were once Brodesser-Akner’s bread and butter. Libby frames her former job as an indirect kind of confessional. “Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you,” she argues. “This was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man.” And so Libby tells her story through Toby, who struggles to keep his life together when Rachel drops off their kids, leaves for a yoga retreat, and seems to fall off the face of the Earth.

Fleishman’s themes are largely internal, its plot often passive. The inciting incident of its story is an absence, a Rachel-sized hole Toby and Libby fill with probing questions: Who controls a relationship’s narrative after its end? What are the compromises and conflicts inherent in long-term partnership, and what flaws prove truly fatal? Why is Libby, and why are we, so quick to take Toby’s side? Which Fleishman, once we have all the facts, is truly in trouble?

Such lines of inquiry are as worthwhile as they are tricky to translate to the screen, a form less rooted in subjectivity and more driven by external action. Yet Brodesser-Akner has taken on this formidable effort herself as the creator and showrunner of Fleishman’s eight-episode adaptation on FX, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes as the two contenders for the title character. Lizzy Caplan plays Libby, completing the trifecta of actors best known for parts as wunderkinds and angsty teens now playing jaded, middle-aged adults. When a scene late in the series brings The Squid and the Whale’s Eisenberg back to the American Museum of Natural History, this time as the divorcée rather than the traumatized child, his casting goes from merely clever to downright meta.

Despite the degree of difficulty, there are some pleasures in simply dramatizing what’s on the page. Pilot directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton construct a delightful montage out of Toby’s adventures in online dating, where he discovers his new status as an unlikely sexual asset. (Women’s prospects diminish with age, the stereotype goes, but men’s only seem to increase.) Rachel’s obsession with money and status—she and Toby occupy the sort of social stratum in which a career in medicine is seen as insufficiently ambitious—is illustrated with Pilates classes and palatial homes. And a new medium gives Fleishman Is in Trouble more ways to invoke its influences. When Toby wakes up in his bland bachelor pad, there’s a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint on his bedside table.

Such flourishes are the main additions Fleishman Is in Trouble makes to its source material. Its underlying structure is rigorously faithful, a choice both evidenced and explained by Brodesser-Akner’s ubiquitous byline. (The author has sole credit on every script save for one.) The very first shot is a near exact re-creation of the novel’s cover, an inverted cityscape that speaks to the upending, disorienting nature of midlife divorce. And the very first line is the same as the book’s: “Toby Fleishman awoke one morning inside the city he’d lived in all his adult life, which was suddenly, somehow, now crawling with women who wanted him.” This level of fidelity is a preview of what’s to come.

Like many takes on first-person texts, Fleishman Is in Trouble preserves Libby’s presence by making Caplan its narrator. The show is still extreme in just how much it makes use of voice-over, often lifting entire paragraphs from the novel and leaving them intact. The effect is still altered. With the written word, someone has to tell us what’s going on, and for the purposes of what Fleishman wants to say about how men and women look back on their lives, it might as well be Libby. With a TV show, Libby’s constant interjections can be obtrusive, taking us out of Toby’s plight and telling us what to feel too explicitly or at distracting length.

When allowed to stand alone, Danes and Eisenberg give funny, sometimes ferocious performances, though they’re more convincing as sparring partners than young lovebirds. (Flashbacks require them to play Rachel and Toby over two decades of dating, marriage, and divorce. Even with the assistance of wigs, it’s a tough task.) They’re surrounded by a likable set of supporting players and surprising cameos. Adam Brody plays Toby and Libby’s token single friend, Seth, another masterstroke in meta casting; Josh Radnor portrays Libby’s long-suffering husband, holding down the fort as she obsesses over her friend’s new life; J. Smith-Cameron pops in as Toby’s lawyer, whose bedside manner is more abrupt than Gerri Kellman’s.

But the most impactful minor role belongs to Christian Slater as Archer Sylvan, a former colleague of Libby’s and the archetypal men’s magazine writer. (Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Wells Tower, Buzz Bissinger—if you can name them, Archer’s a composite of them.) Where Libby had to filter her point of view through various proxies, Archer was always free to center himself. He’s also the author of Decoupling, a book-within-a-book-that’s-now-a-show dissecting yet another divorce. At a reading, an audience member asks Archer what viewers of Fleishman may already be wondering: “What would you say to people who thought only showing one side of the divorce gave women short shrift?”

By the time this fracture in the fourth wall appears, we’re more than halfway through Fleishman Is in Trouble’s total run. The line is an unmissable hint of the show’s ultimate intentions, but it’s both too obvious and too late. Readers can speed through a novel at their own pace. With a show, we have to sit through Toby’s account in real time before Fleishman Is in Trouble starts to poke holes in it. (Viewers won’t be able to binge unless they wait, either; after the first two, each episode will be released week by week.) Both Eisenberg and Brodesser-Akner do an excellent job showing flaws Toby isn’t self-aware enough to own up to himself, from his self-righteous streak to his incuriosity about other people’s inner lives. Yet without a consistent counterweight—Rachel is gone, while Libby starts out a loyal scribe—he’s also exhausting. That Toby is supposed to grate on us is a fact better acknowledged than experienced.

Fleishman Is in Trouble exists within a long tradition of postmortems on fictional marriages. (Toby may be reading Portnoy’s Complaint, but My Life As a Man may be more on-theme.) One of that canon’s more recent additions is Marriage Story, the Noah Baumbach movie released a few months after Fleishman was published. Marriage Story makes some similar points about gender dynamics and the empathy obscured by blind rage, but to do so, the film divides itself more equally among its warring factions. Like the first incarnation of Fleishman, Marriage Story has the advantage of shaping itself to fit its chosen venue; its dual character study is as well-suited to a feature as Fleishman’s bait-and-switch is to a book. The FX version is an adaptation, but not one that makes any major, and maybe necessary, adjustments.