"Fleishman is in Trouble" Asks Universal Questions
Jewish writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s television adaptation of her bestselling novel, Fleishman is in Trouble, ended last week on a triumphant note. There was a marriage proposal, a strange bat mitzvah, and a successfully performed dance class routine—some serious levity after an intense season of TV that artfully balanced characters’ lowest lows with excellent writing and acting that ensured the audience felt empathic, rather than exhausted.
We first meet exes Toby and Rachel Fleishman, a doctor specializing in treatment of the liver and a high-power theatrical agent, after their painful divorce is finalized. This is a very Jewish show; not only are Toby and Rachel Jewish, but so are nearly all the characters that populate the Fleishman galaxy. The series is also replete with Jewish problems (like where to hold a bat mitzvah and where to send the kids to summer camp), and Jewish neuroses (like did that old lady I met on my Birthright trip really put a Hebrew curse on me and my children?). It’s also an indictment of the New York City caste system, specifically of the very wealthy, white folks who command the Upper East Side, the Hamptons, and wherever they build their myriad vacation homes, paid for with mostly unethically sourced cash.
But the core of Fleishman is a universal anxiety about changing as we age. When are we most ourselves? Why do we resist becoming someone else?
As a 25-year-old who currently feels lost in an entirely different way, Fleishman put me in the strange position of looking ahead to a new kind of lostness, a middle-age ennui I can only dream (nightmare?) about at this point. Like the novel, Hulu’s Fleishman is in Trouble plunges me into those feelings, forcing me to wriggle around in what’s to come.
An early episode of the series explores the Block Universe theory, or the idea that all of time is happening at once, stacking up and collapsing in on itself. I felt that the whole time I watched these characters unravel and ravel themselves up again, picking up pieces, sometimes by accident, and sometimes deliberately, and sometimes by circumstance. It’s all happening, and every little thing matters.
Of all the beautifully sketched Jewish characters, I was most drawn to Lizzy Caplan’s Libby. Loosely based on Brodesser-Akner herself, Libby is a former men’s magazine writer and current suburban stay-at-home mom who doubles as our narrator. As depression and disengagement with her identity starts to make her life collapse in on itself, she fixates on Toby and Rachel Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes, each giving career-best performances) and their marital problems to avoid having to feel her own feelings.
Libby is fascinating. The writing is subtle enough that her hangups about feminism and capitalism are heartbreaking. She finds other women shallow and their goals vapid; she’s not shallow or vapid, though, because she does, or at least did, real work with her real brain (i.e., working in a male-dominated industry putting out lifestyle tips for men). We watch her succumb to the realization that, no matter how hard she works and how much she twists herself into the archetype she wants to fulfill, she will never get to do the deep and dirty work, the “real,” nitty-gritty, gonzo journalism she wants to do, within the system she’s trying to game. There is no gaming the patriarchy, Fleishman posits—so watching Libby realize she has to take her life into her own hands and write a book on her own terms is deeply satisfying.
Libby is only capable of such growth because of her incisive curiosity about others. We watch Toby and Rachel’s relationship break down, through a miserable parade of miscommunication and fundamental incompatibility, exclusively through Libby’s eyes and words. And in her eyes, at least by the end of the series, they are evenly matched. Initially, she has more love for Toby, who’s an old friend, but, as time goes on, she learns about and gains more compassion for Rachel’s experience. This allows for the incredible seventh episode of the series, where we finally encounter Rachel on her own terms, not clouded by Toby’s judgment or his friendship with Libby.
It’s easy to dismiss Fleishman is in Trouble as a riddle of first-world problems and rich people's struggles; I was tempted to at first. But it’s through Libby’s narration that we find the humans behind the stories and archetypes. She must have been a really good journalist; it’s a shame her industry never appreciated her the way we can.
How to cite this page
Leiber, Sarah Jae. ""Fleishman is in Trouble" Asks Universal Questions ." 10 January 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/fleishman-trouble-asks-universal-questions-about-how-we-change-we-age>.