The movies may have mixed feelings about middle age, as theaters continue to lean heavily on teen-oriented blockbusters and franchises. But TV has taken on that riper period of life in earnest, with a regular flow of series about people coming of age after 40. “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is the latest addition to the genre, which comprises a long list ranging from “The Patient,” “Only Murders in the Building,” and “Girls5eva” to the low-fi likes of “Somebody Somewhere,” “Better Things,” and “One Mississippi.”
Adapted by Taffy Brodesser-Akner from her 2019 novel, “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is a drama — infused with plenty of humor — that revolves around the fallout from a New York City divorce. The appealingly-wise limited series is about having to make big choices now that you’ve had a chance to look at life from “both sides now.” It’s set at a moment when all the main characters, now in their 40s, are living the lives many people dream about — and yet they find themselves broken and unsatisfied. They are reassessing where they’ve come from, where they are, and where they’re heading. Jesse Eisenberg’s Toby Fleishman is at the center of it, but his close contemporaries share his sense of re-evaluation.
The show, premiering Thursday, is also a study in the gray areas that can make easy judgments impossible when it comes to love and relationships; each character is flawed, and the viewer’s need to place blame is foiled at every turn. That’s one of my favorite things about “Fleishman Is in Trouble”: Just when you think you’ve got your bearings and start to take sides among the characters, “Fleishman Is in Trouble” reminds you to take a step back and watch, just watch. It’s about middle age and divorce, but it’s also about storytelling and subjectivity.
It’s a mystery, too. Toby is a liver doctor in Manhattan, and he’s beginning to take advantage of all the sexual hook-ups now available to him through phone apps. As a decent-looking divorced doctor, he’s in demand. He also reconnects with two college friends, Libby (Lizzy Caplan) and Seth (Adam Brody), which provides him with a sense of the potential of his youth, before he became a cynic and realist.
But one night, Toby’s ex-wife, a high-powered theater agent named Rachel (Claire Danes), drops off their two children at his single-guy apartment and vanishes. Is she really at a yoga retreat for weeks without any communication? Where did she go? Why did she go? Doesn’t she care about her preteen kids, both of whom are still reeling from their parents’ split? Does she have a maternal instinct?
Toby is frustrated by this development, which comes just as he was beginning to exorcise his demons through casual sex, and he doesn’t really seem to be particularly concerned about Rachel’s well-being. He assumes her disappearance is about him. Like everyone in this series, he is deeply flawed, neurotic in ways that can be as annoying as they are endearing. Eisenberg is just right in the role, easily making the swing between being a super dad who’s intensely aware of his kids’ sensitivities and being an intellectual whose snide comments can cast a pall over a room full of people.
Libby narrates the series in a warm, wry voice-over that holds everything together nicely. She’s the one telling the story for a number of reasons, not least of all that she feels her own marriage (to Josh Radnor’s Adam) is falling into disrepair. Toby’s situation is a cautionary tale, among other things. Once an ambitious journalist, Libby has let her career go, staying home and caring for her two children, the bitterness building inside her. With Toby now single, and with Seth, a stereotypical player, perpetually single, she’s feeling especially unsteady about the decisions she has made since college. Caplan is a pleasure to watch, as she becomes a stealth heroine of sorts.
Brody is also good, taking one of the show’s more stereotypical characters and giving him a few extra layers. He no longer gets the same joy from partying, even though his friends still want him to entertain them. Danes, whose arc gets more attention later in the eight-episode season, is excellent at walking the line between fierce independence and neediness, although some of her moves may be too familiar to her fans. Also, it takes some time to adapt to the fact that Toby and Rachel, who are so different when we meet them during and after their split, were, at one time, a good match. Time passed, and they let each other fall away slowly, finally feeling alone together.
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan, Claire Danes, Adam Brody, Josh Radnor, Christian Slater, Meara Mahoney Gross, Maxim Swinton, Josh Stamberg. On: Hulu, premieres Thursday