Fleishman Is In Trouble Review: Jesse Eisenberg Searches For Claire Danes In This Emotionally Complex Mystery

Getting divorced is tough. It brings with it a massive set of baggage in nearly all possible directions. Grief, pain, regret. What went wrong? Could it have been avoided? Should we have been together? Even tougher, of course, is dealing with the inevitable complexity of one's children's emotions. Tougher still, at least for Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), is the fact that Toby's wife Rachel (Claire Danes) suddenly disappears without warning, setting in motion a cavalcade of implications for the Fleishman family.

Based on the novel "Fleishman Is in Trouble" by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (also this series' showrunner, EP, and writer), the narrative uses the story's investigation pretext to explore very personal adult themes. Depression, loneliness, regret, guilt, and imposter syndrome all get a lens in a story where a man goes looking for his lost wife, but what he's really in search of is himself. It does this, of course, in a highly literary way. The adaptation is loaded with voiceover, illuminating the characters' feelings and hidden feelings and motives as a long-running thread running through a story that's more emotionally complex than your usual mystery.

As a result, while an investigation does happen in "Fleishman Is in Trouble," the series is far more interested in the characters' internal psychological journeys than the investigation itself, with characters that are more merry-chasin' than Perry Mason. There are some structural and narrative issues that slightly weigh down the series as a whole, but an undoubtedly talented cast of actors, writing that lands overall, and the novelty of a series with something to say keep the material elevated enough to be easily worth an audience's time. Fleishman may be in trouble, but it makes for some thoughtful streaming.

Complex character work drives a series of character studies

The recently divorced doctor Toby Fleishman is on "the apps." He's taken his lumps in a relationship that started fiery but soured, and now the newly single dad is cleaning up on the local dating scene. At least he was, until his ex-wife Rachel simply disappeared one day. Didn't pick up the kids. Vanished without a trace. Toby seeks to figure out what happened to Rachel, coming to believe that she's actually just making selfish choices. As he reconnects with old friends Libby (Lizzy Caplan) and Seth (Adam Brody), Toby comes to find that the answer to the mystery "what happened to Rachel" is much different than he thought. 

The novelty behind "Fleishman is in Trouble," however, is that Rachel's disappearance may be the inciting incident, but it largely isn't the point. Every character here has a consortium of losses to reckon with. Toby has to finally traverse first the stages of grief over his marriage, his former isolation from his friends, and a gradual sense of malaise over his workaday life. Libby had big dreams at a men's magazine before finding her profession's limits and becoming corralled into the duties of motherhood. Rachel's professional successes as an agent gradually triggered relationship mistakes and a rising nervousness that became a full-fledged disorder. Each episode fleshes out different corners of Fleishman's world, giving deeper insight into the various players that are augmented by a consistent running narration. Delivered by Lizzy Caplan's Libby, there's a straightforward warmth to the voiceover that makes the well-written but occasionally overcooked narration work.

The performances are, broadly speaking, quite good for their respective roles. Jesse Eisenberg's Toby isn't wholly different from what's been seen before. It's a well-portrayed, nervous role with a slight edge, like if Bobby in "Café Society" replaced about 20% of his neuroses with pent-up angst. It's good, but only a stone's throw from an already well-worn trajectory. Danes is good, but woefully underused excepting one particular episode. It makes sense in a series that uses her absence as pretext, but even in flashbacks, the character's given one-note elements to work into a more complex performance. That said, she excels in what she is given, especially in the series' Rachel-centric entry. Lizzy Caplan is the real MVP, with a grounded charm that always lands. Her nuanced narration makes the sometimes-excessive voiceover succeed better than it ought to, while Adam Brody's Seth may be a bit of an unsung hero who adds real charisma to every scene he's in. It's a series that really rests on its character work, and despite some uneven character usage (and uneven performances from the younger actors) the performances are by and large rich, complex, and strong.

A well written, imperfect, but insightful narrative

The structural choice to bounce away from the central storyline to give other characters a chance to shine is both blessing and curse. As a whole, it works well to flesh out the narrative and round out the players, but it's not entirely successful. On the one hand, the pivot to other players and characters gives nuance and underscores the real points of "Fleishman Is in Trouble." It highlights the notion that we all undergo a host of losses and traumas that contribute to our non-ideal choices, and we're all just trying our best – someone may be the antagonist in your story but they're often not the villain. On the other hand, it creates a number of momentum shifts, pauses in Toby's storyline, and an overall narrative unevenness in the storytelling. 

The storytelling is also too literary at parts, with its regular, full prose voiceover largely landing but which often enough feels both too dense and too extensive. As noted, the intelligent warmth of Lizzy Caplan's performance is a definite boon, but on occasion, it feels like one's trying to swim upstream against a claustrophobic torrent of words. Part of this may be the unfortunate side effect of the book's author adapting it to a different medium with distinct narrative requirements, and while "Fleishman Is in Trouble" is largely an adeptly written adaptation there are some structural and narrative choices that hamper its ultimate potential.

With all this in mind, "Fleishman Is in Trouble" is a wonderfully shot and well-edited affair that's quite well written overall. It explores complex themes and relatable self-exploration via a set of characters that are clearly elevated by talented performers. It surely has its share of missed opportunities and unfortunate extravagances, under-or-stereotypically-used talent, occasionally overwrought structure and narrative, and the like, but by and large, there's depth and beauty in "Fleishman Is in Trouble." It's a thoughtful exploration of the universality of struggle and the perils of both getting to the core of one's issues and of ignoring the pursuit of that core. Fleishman may be in trouble, but the resultant series is a rich exploration of the subjectivity of modern suffering. One man's troubles are an audience's treasure.

"Fleishman Is in Trouble" premieres November 17, exclusively on Hulu.