How FX’s ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ differs from the novel

“Even our crises had to be small and civil,” laments Libby, narrator and wrestler for author Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the 2019 novel Fleishman Is in Trouble. Brodesser-Akner split the book into eight roughly hour-long episodes for FX/ABC converts, he smoothes out some rough edges but misses a prime opportunity to address an unfortunate paradox: that text about how society favors men’s stories over women’s stories itself privileges a man’s story over that of his female counterpart.

The popular novel entertained with its parade of supporting characters and sly motifs—yet rarely did this work of purported social commentary make convincing, meaningful commentary. “Fleishman,” the limited series, could have brought an outsider’s perspective on their deeper issues. But as screenwriter and executive producer, Brodesser-Akner stays closely connected to her own text, with results that are more style than substance.

The story begins shortly after Toby Fleishman’s youngest ex-wife, Rachel, dropped her children off on the wrong day; then she disappears entirely. We learn about Toby’s work as a hepatologist (a nod to Philip Roth’s Portnoy, whose priapine spirit plays a large part) and follow the unfolding story of a comatose liver patient. We witness Toby’s app-based dating experiences and his disdain for the Upper East Side, where his family lives.

We also meet his new college buddies: Wall Street brother Seth (Adam Brody on the show) and Libby (Lizzy Caplan), a magazine writer-turned-suburban mom. To provide emergency care for her children, Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) relies mostly on her nanny, a summer camp and a trip to the Hamptons (the Horror), taking time off work to socialize more and bond with Libby and Seth meeting. His clinical colleagues represent him at the hospital, where he is awaiting promotion. We tour his memoirs with the villainous Rachel (Claire Danes). and finally, take a brief look at Rachel’s experience and discover what became of her. After all, Libby concludes, when writing about a divorce, you need to tell both sides.

"Fleishman is in trouble" by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

A Showrunner with some distance to the source material Rachel’s crises might have given more than a small and polite 30 minutes within the series’ ample eight hours – an even smaller proportion than the 50 of more than 300 pages she receives late in the novel. Rachel’s lack of screen time is even more perplexing as she is the most dynamic character with the most compelling story.

In the show’s late climax, Danes breathes life into Rachel with a bravura performance. She spends much of her segment in extremes: absorbing medical trauma, howling to save her life, frantically munching arugula in some sort of raging fugue state. Her scenes make the best use of the medium, but only hint at the low point of her ordeal. I’d like to think that somewhere in the book’s oft-mentioned “block universe” where everything happens at once, the truth of Rachel – a Scapegoat for most of the story – would mean more than one episode 7 plot twist.

As it is, the sudden revelation fits tonally awkwardly with a work presentation himself as a satire on life among New York’s rich and rich. Notable in Bonfire of the Vanities style are a high-end yoga retreat, a Sackler-like dynasty, a Hamilton-esque musical, and the Machista Gonzo author of a book in the vein of “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” (an attractive but repulsive Christian Slater).

The series adds some gadgets that work well on screen: a night out with Seth’s brothers, a backyard barbecue on Libby’s block, the 2016 presidential campaign. Other additions fall flat: a third visit to the same museum exhibit, an unlikely speech from Toby’s tween daughter and notably a split-screen scene of him at two different parties, the purpose of which is unclear. Is it supposed to remind us of his antagonism and insecurity when he’s not the top dog? Or to emphasize once again how much more authentic his old friends are than his neighbors? It seems to me that the technique could have been used elsewhere, perhaps to show “both sides” of the marriage.

While the author is far from subtle, those patches of ambiguity also permeate the book. Both the novel and the series repeatedly pick up on the fertile topic of internet-mediated sexuality, but drop it without saying much. Brodesser-Akner depicts a fantasy world where a nervous, middle-aged, bantam-sized father attracts a barrage of hypersexual female attention every time he logs into the apps. While the book in particular revels in this fiction (why, I’m not sure), neither the novel nor the show let on the obvious fact that women receive such advances from men. How it is for them is never discussed here. While Toby’s recurring app date Nahid isn’t such a cartoon and does have a follow-up story, she is briefly covered in the series.

Yet the show still finds ample time for Libby’s nagging uneasiness as it provides an accurate account of Toby’s past and present, interspersed with her reflections. This method works better on screen, through voice-over and flashbacks. Caplan makes Libby more palatable than she is in the book, moderates her throwback battle of the sexes mentality, and shifts the focus to her struggle with aging. Her diatribes can feel aimless in the text, but the series captures them and improves the cohesion of the story. This step helps eliminate the further distraction of the author’s and narrator’s uncomfortably merging voices.

Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Eisenberg talk to each other in "Fleishman is in trouble."

Lizzy Caplan (left) as Libby Epstein and Jesse Eisenberg as Toby Fleishman in FX’s Fleishman Is in Trouble.

(Linda Kallerus / FX)

Like Libby, Brodesser-Akner grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn and went to NYU, wrote about pop culture for a men’s magazine, moved to New Jersey with her husband and children, and set out to work on a novel. As a journalist, Libby preferred to interview men (via “the soul,” as she tells the reader) because she was bored by the more concrete challenges of women. Brodesser-Akner has often covered women society doesn’t take seriously — reality stars, self-help gurus, sugar babies, Gwyneth Paltrow — but rarely searched for their deeper truths. Rather, she showed an appetite for low-hanging fruit.

Libby was convinced that the only way to get people to listen to a woman’s inner story is to tell it through a man – the subtext being that’s why the author wrote about Toby. Perhaps this strategy was once subversive, but its premise is less true today than ever. In the year of Fleishman, the bestseller lists for non-fiction and fiction, literature and advertising were full of personal stories of women, and not just those dealing with oppression. If Libby (and her creator) wanted readers to explore the inner workings of women, why didn’t they make them a priority?

As it is, Libby makes a poor sounding board for Fleishman vs. Fleishman, as she alternates between her own tangential concerns and a sort of half-knowledge that’s heavily aimed at Toby. Rachel’s summer of despair almost plays a caper in Libby’s hasty account.

The show could have rebalanced things by taking some of their unexamined perspectives and shifting its focus to a more neutral marital ground. Instead, it follows the book by long hovering over Toby’s chest pounding and Libby’s midlife boredom.

That Brodesser-Akner managed to craft at least one humane sketch of Rachel feels like a step forward from her nonfiction book, which was prone to eel slickness. Fiction seems to fit the author’s interests and storytelling style, and I hope she continues with that. I also hope that her next work, in whatever medium, looks at the stories and lives of other women as a subject rather than an object.

Johnson’s work has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles.

“Fleishman’s in Trouble”

Where: Hi
When: Episode 4 will air Thursday, December 1st
Valuation: TV MA How FX’s ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ differs from the novel

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