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Staring Out Into the Vantablack in 'Fleishman is in Trouble'

“One day he would not be recently divorced, but he would never forget those questions, the way people pretended to care for him while they were really asking after themselves.”

At its most basic level, Fleishman is in Trouble is a story about a man whose entire world is opened up after a long-expected divorce from his wife. Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a Jewish doctor, is a stranger to the sexually active underbelly of the NYC dating app scene. Faced with the overwhelming amount of challenges that can come with being a middle-aged professional and father to two young children, Toby is sent on an emotional rollercoaster that teaches him how to be more empathetic and to trust in the humanity of others.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the Fleishman is in Trouble book as well as the showrunner for the Hulu miniseries, has done something truly incredible in the adaptation process. The show looks at the setting and story of Toby from a new perspective that the medium of literature simply cannot capture. More than just a direct translation from one form to another, Brodesser-Akner has expanded the scope of her work. The performances by Adam Brody, Lizzy Caplan, and especially Claire Danes are the standouts; it’s amazing how eight episodes that are about an hour long each can contain such consistently great performances. The fact that it's a miniseries –and doesn’t have the additional baggage of setting up another possible season – makes it important to master the time that is allotted within those eight episodes.

With regard to Danes’ performance as Toby's ex-wife Rachel, we start the series agreeing with Toby and the opinion of his circle of friends which leads us to villainize her. In the first episode, Rachel drops off the kids in the middle of the night and vanishes from the city of New York for a yoga retreat. This leaves Toby aghast at her recklessness. But, as we learn more and more about Rachel, she becomes a very fragile and sensitive character that instead requires the viewer's empathy as she endures massive amounts of physical and emotional trauma.

If you like prestige TV like The Bear, you’ll love this, mainly due to the fact that the mode dictates that the level of attention afforded to tertiary characters is significant enough that the viewer is invested in each storyline rather than focusing solely on the protagonist. Every character in Fleishman is in Trouble has flaws and represents unique variations on one shared middle-aged humanity that younger viewers may find fascinating and worthy of their time just to explore a different set of conditions that usually don’t emerge for the average 20-30-year-old.

The commentary on class proves to be the show’s most distinguished thematic aspect; it gives a great sense of the overwhelming pressure that one can feel when they are within the upper echelons of society and experience pressure to be a perfect member of the 92nd street Y. Upon my second or third viewing, I began to translate a lot of the lessons from the show to my own life as a young adult where the pressures of the internet create another vector of class that doesn’t necessarily ring quite so true with those that don’t live within the digital landscape so natively.

The show highlights the ways in which social media can both facilitate and complicate romantic connections, as well as the impact it can have on personal and professional relationships. As Toby struggles to balance his online and offline personas, the show raises important questions about that duality's impact, including issues of privacy, authenticity, and the blurred lines between public and private self-presentation. By shedding light on these issues, Fleishman is in Trouble provides a timely and thought-provoking commentary on the role of social media in the modern world.

In the show, many of the influences and pressures that can fall on each character never come from anonymous sources, which can happen on the internet. The characters always know who is influencing them – their trauma always has a face. Regardless of the fact that digital natives may not have this “luxury,” viewing Fleishman is in Trouble may provide catharsis to those who share dramatic experiences with those of the characters in the show.

The insights taken away after wrapping up the eight episodes create a sense of compassion that may seem alien since the COVID-19 pandemic; many have lost out on those constant entropic human interactions. If you’re looking for a show that emphasizes that we all don’t really know what we’re doing and we’re all just trying our best, Fleishman is in Trouble on Hulu may be the thing for you.

- Alexander


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