There’s a smart symmetry to “Mrs. Fletcher,” the superb new HBO limited series from writer-producer Tom Perrotta. The contemporary story, based on Perrotta’s 2017 novel, takes on the empty nest phenomenon, as divorced 45-year-old mother Eve Fletcher (Kathryn Hahn) watches her only child, Brendan (Jackson White), fly off to college. It’s tree-lined suburbia, it’s New England, and, you know, turn, turn, turn.
But “Mrs. Fletcher,” which premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m., doesn’t only portray Eve’s life-changing reckoning with a newly quiet home and an identity crisis after two decades of aggressive single mothering. It’s more of a dual character study in contrasts. The seven-episode series also follows Brendan to B.S.U. (yes, there’s comedy), where he discovers that his smug high school bro persona, and his sexist attitudes toward women, do not work. He’s like a captured Tarzan in his B.S.U. dorm room, a heathen caught in a civilized world, barely able to clean up after himself without his mother behind him with a broom. He is, as we learn, something like his father, Dave (Josh Hamilton), when it comes to male-brand self-absorption.
So “Mrs. Fletcher” gives us mother and son on parallel – and yet in many ways opposite – journeys of change, emotionally and sexually. Both are heading into new understandings of themselves, selves that have been obscured by the status quo of their bedroom-community existence. The structure of the series (whose all-women directing roster features Nicole Holofcener, Liesl Tommy, Carrie Brownstein, and Gillian Robespierre) has been mapped out beautifully, so that the same trigger – exposure to Internet pornography – turns into a liberating factor for her and a sexist trap for him. They’re both renegotiating their roles. When Eve and Brendan finally come back together late in the series, whose episodes are perfectly gauged at a half-hour each, it’s a precise and satisfying collision.
One of the strengths of “Mrs. Fletcher” is its direct approach to the sexuality of both lead characters, particularly Eve’s, as she explores explicit fantasies and spontaneous self-pleasuring. Eve’s burgeoning and unexpectedly fluid fantasy life overwhelms her in public, sometimes comically, so that she is nearly swooning amid a full-on sex fantasy about the lady serving her a free sample at the supermarket. At one point, after fleeing a doomed blind date, she takes a naked swim in a pool, washing off the conventional life that has been holding her back. In a nice literary touch, Eve, who works at a senior center, has to deal with a patient with dementia who keeps masturbating in public. He is a hyperbolic extension of her sexual awakening, her spirit animal in some way, as his id strains against our agreed-upon manners.
“Mrs. Fletcher” shares some DNA with Pamela Adlon’s similarly candid “Better Things,” in the unadulterated intimacy of its perspective on a woman’s inner life – although Hahn’s Eve is far more interior and less articulate than Adlon’s heroine. As Eve drives Brendan to college, she stumbles inarticulately for a minute or two as she tries to give him advice, finally blurting out, “You have to be nice to women.” She is drifting, not driving, toward self-realization, joining a writing group (whose members play an important role in her process) even though she doesn’t much care about writing. “Mrs. Fletcher” and “Better Things” also share a deeply humane perspective. Perrotta the novelist knows how to show the messy relationship between the raw needs of his characters and the rules and mores of the moment, without forgetting to make it all into something that inspires compassion.
Hahn is remarkable as Eve, once again confirming her status as one of TV’s best actresses. She has been lovably funny and high-strung over the years, playing extroverts on many different series; here she brings us inside Eve’s timid, almost unconscious life, dropping in humor – some of it winningly physical – in just the right amounts. Eve is rediscovering herself and discovering herself at the same time. White is Hahn’s match as a kid who seemingly has no self-awareness, whose resting face is a kind of sneer. “Mrs. Fletcher” and White let us see Brendan’s ugliness clearly, which is critical to both his character’s arc and to the show’s broader theme of sexuality and gender politics. He is a sleepwalking young man, lost among his woke contemporaries.
Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Jackson White, Josh Hamilton, Casey Wilson, Owen Teague, Jen Richards, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Katie Kershaw
On: HBO, Sunday at 10:30 p.m.