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Why is Hulu’s Fleishman Is in Trouble so boring?

The TV adaptation, now on Hulu and FX, is too literary for its own good.
Two people in warm jackets on a sunny day in a city park.
Claire Danes as Rachel and Jesse Eisenberg as Toby in Fleishman Is in Trouble.
JoJo Wilden/FX
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

What went wrong with Hulu’s Fleishman Is in Trouble? It’s a show that had everything going for it. It should have been great. It never quite managed to get there.

Fleishman Is In Trouble has got great source material. The Hulu show is adapted from Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 novel of the same title, a whip-smart divorce novel deconstruction that was one of the runaway literary hits of that year.

It’s got an incredible cast. Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes, and Lizzy Caplan hold down the center with aplomb, and Adam Brody and Josh Radnor make the most of their smaller supporting roles. The clever casting makes them all feel like old friends; after all, we’ve known them since 2003, when Caplan was telling Lindsey Lohan she was a mean girl and Brody was swinging through Gilmore Girls on his way to The O.C. (Danes, of course, dates all the way back to her immortal turn on My So-Called Life in 1994.) It also means that the audience should be able to relax into the hands of the ensemble, knowing that this crew can be trusted to pull off whatever sort of emotional pyrotechnics are requested of them. This is not a show that lacks for charisma.

It’s even got a killer premise: A divorced couple tries to navigate the aftermath of their split, all while aching with melancholy regret of middle age within the rarified confines of New York’s Upper East Side. A million movies have started with that premise and made hay, so surely there’s a great TV show to be had there.

And yet, Fleishman Is in Trouble manages to be a maddeningly uneven watching experience. At its worst, it’s straight-up boring.

The story begins when Rachel Fleishman (Danes) drops her two kids off at her ex-husband Toby’s apartment a day early and promptly disappears. Toby (Eisenberg) is furious: while he thinks of himself as his kids’ primary caregiver, the unexpected responsibility cuts into his job as a doctor and his new hobby of plentiful no-strings-attached sex with the many available women of New York’s dating apps. As Toby tries unsuccessfully to reach Rachel to explain how selfish and awful she’s being, we’re shown flashbacks of the sweet beginnings and the bitter disintegration of their marriage: theater agent Rachel’s snobbery and ambition, and Toby’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy. All of this is narrated in a sardonic voiceover by Caplan’s Libby, one of Toby’s oldest friends. A writer-turned-housewife, Libby doesn’t feel particularly happy with her own marriage, and she sees herself in both Toby and Rachel.

Much of Libby’s voiceover is word for word from her narration in Brodesser-Akner’s book, and that may be where the trouble begins. (Brodesser-Akner, who serves as showrunner, wrote seven of Fleishman’s eight episodes.) Libby’s voiceovers aren’t narrations so much as they are fully fledged monologues, driving home the point of each episode with a crushing emphasis. In the novel, where Libby’s voice brought a helpful edge of irony to Toby’s self-pity, the thematic drive was appropriate; on a television show, where the camera has already brought in most of the irony we need, it’s overkill.

The voiceover seems to be trying to compete with the camera, determined to maintain its wordy dominance in a visual medium. Toward the end of the season, we see Libby wandering New York City for what feels like ten solid minutes, talking to us in a sad voiceover about aging and the loss of potential and freedom. Caplan, a skilled actress, could have conveyed the same ideas much more concisely and effectively given a couple of close-ups. The show won’t let her.

It’s a sort of an inverse of the traditional problem of a book-to-screen adaptation: Instead of being unfaithful to the novel, Fleishman is too faithful by half. It preserves every precious line of prose, keeps each scene in full and in the correct order. Yet ironically, this fidelity betrays the novel’s slippery, tricky essence. In the book, it’s shocking to realize that Libby is using Toby’s story to tell both Rachel’s and her own, that this book that is ostensibly about a man is in fact about two women. In the TV show, the reveal feels like a thuddingly obvious foregone conclusion by the end of episode one. This adaptation is somehow too faithful in all the ways that don’t matter and not nearly faithful enough in all the ways that do.

Throughout its run, Fleishman maintains a literary sensibility to a fault. There is not a single line of dialogue that is not freighted down with symbolic meaning, meaning that will later be unpacked, examined, and displayed for us in endless monologues. Libby’s cigarettes (we are helpfully told) represent her lost youth. Toby is a liver specialist because the liver heals itself, just as he hopes to heal himself from the pain of his divorce. His annoying son is doing a science fair project on the theory so that Toby can explain multiple times that there are always different ways of looking at the world, and all of them are true. (Just like his divorce!)

Speaking of Toby’s annoying son: Part of the stress of Rachel’s disappearance is that it means that Toby has to deal with his kids whining about how much they would rather be with her. While Brodesser-Akner gamely tries to give us enough of the kids’ points of view to see where they’re coming from, it’s asking a lot for a child to play whiny and sympathetic at the same time. Fleishman puts way, way too much storytelling weight on very young actors who are not equipped to handle it but are asked to do so for enormous sections of every episode. Meanwhile, the moment when Toby and his children finally reconcile for a rousing sing-along to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” (the show takes place in the summer of 2016) only plays as sentimental.

What’s especially frustrating is that there are still so many good elements to Fleishman. The ideas it’s playing with about what it means to enter middle age and what sort of feminine ambition women are allowed to have are nuanced and compelling — or they would be if the show weren’t so afraid we’d miss them. The adult cast is excellent, especially Danes, who serves as a bizarre, pulsing shot of energy, all frayed edges and anxious breaths. Her Rachel palpably doesn’t fit in the world of this show, which is the point. When she finally breaks down, she reminds viewers there’s a reason she’s Hollywood’s most celebrated crier.

Yet, again and again, Fleishman Is in Trouble squanders its greatest assets. Or as Libby would tell us, approximately 5,000 times: “It used to have such potential. Yet here it was, a failure in New Jersey. What had happened to it? Where had it all gone?”

Correction, December 12, 12 pm ET: A previous version of this story misstated who sings “Fight Song.” It’s Rachel Platten.

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