Bringing 'Fleishman Is in Trouble' to the screen
ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:
At the heart of the new FX on Hulu series, "Fleishman Is In Trouble," is the fallout of a failed marriage and the serious questions it brings up.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We fall in love, and we decide to marry in this one incredible moment. And what if everything that happens after that is about trying to remember that moment?
NADWORNY: The series follows Toby, played by Jesse Eisenberg, a recently divorced, 40-something doctor who tries to navigate the world of dating and casual sex after his ex-wife, played by Claire Danes, leaves without a trace. Throughout the series, Toby reconnects with two old friends played by Lizzy Caplan and Adam Brody, and they begin to question the idea of what it means to actually grow up and the good and bad that comes with it. Taffy Brodesser-Akner is the creator, executive producer and writer of the show that is based on her 2019 novel of the same name. I spoke with her about adapting the book for TV and why she decided to write a book about divorce.
TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER: I didn't think of it as a novel about divorce until it was done and everyone told me it was. I thought of it as a novel about marriage and the themes that seemed to me that went along with marriage, which are the co-morbidities of being married for any significant period of time, which is that you find yourself in middle age. You find yourself with a reduced amount of choices. You find yourself with anxiety back when you had your choices to make and how those decisions limited the remaining choices. And also about, you know, at middle age, are you young or are you old and how much is enough? And, you know, childhood trauma and abandonment. Like, I did not think anybody would read this novel that I was writing. And so I don't think I thought coherently about having a single theme, but rather a mind dump of everything that I had been thinking of in those weeks.
NADWORNY: So tell me, how much of you is on the page in thoughts, not so much characters?
BRODESSER-AKNER: It's all me on the page. It's every thought I've had. It's every unspeakable thought that I've had that I tried to turn into an article for the Times or I sat and told people about over coffee and realized that that the things I was asking about, the things that were occurring to me almost the minute I turned 40 were kind of unspeakable and not light. And when conversation starts to veer into impolite territory, I know it's probably time to write about it. The only forgivable thing to do is write about it.
NADWORNY: OK. So let's talk a little bit about Libby. So the TV show, much like the book, has Libby as this stand-in narrator. She's a character, but she's also bringing us through the narrative. Let's hear a clip of her speaking.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE")
LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Libby) I've been feeling so old. Here was Toby, exact same age, just realizing how young he was. I couldn't believe that it was possible for two people to be the same age and feel so different. Which one of us was right?
NADWORNY: What does Libby represent in this show? Is she the main character?
BRODESSER-AKNER: Well, she comes, as I did, from a long tradition. I was a men's magazine writer before I ended up full time at the Times. And before I was at GQ, I had written for a bunch of places. And it never didn't shock me how when you write about men, everyone reads it. And when you write about women, some people read it. And there's also a long tradition in men's magazine writing of a first-person narrator. And when done well, the first-person narrator is not really the person. It's not a personal essay about me and this person I'm writing about. It is an eye that shows up to help the reader understand that you and the reader are the same.
And Libby was a men's magazine writer. But in the book, we find out that she has since left the men's magazine because they wouldn't give her bigger stories. And she says she's going to write a novel. Her friend Toby comes to her, as many of my friends came to me after I turned 40, to tell her that he's getting a divorce. And this comes right at this moment where she realizes that her novel isn't getting written, that actually what has happened is that she became even less relevant when she quit her job to become more relevant. And her old habit of telling a man's story just came back to her. And what Libby does is she does this same thing with Toby. She tells his version of a story as she tries to process her own unhappiness.
NADWORNY: We start the story with Toby's story, right? Then towards the end, we switch the focus to Rachel...
NADWORNY: ...His ex ex-wife. Can we talk about this idea that you're telling a story about a woman by telling a story centered on a man?
BRODESSER-AKNER: This story was written by somebody who wrote about a lot of men. And a common theme of writing about anybody I have found - I've written a lot of profiles - and a common theme is that if you spend enough time with anybody and they tell you their story, they're not very young and they tell you their story and they tell you about their divorces and their heartaches, and they tell you about their new spouse and the person who has made them feel alive again, they are as unintentionally as possible - I'll give them that credit - impugning the people who came before them.
And I've watched this cycle happen to me over and over in every story, where I become entranced by someone's story, and then I spend enough time with them where this question starts tapping at my conscious, which is, what would the other people in this story say? Right? Like, in the end, everyone I know who's been divorced, for example, if you heard their story of divorce, it is never told with equanimity. Right? It is never, like, I don't know, it just didn't work out. It was - in order to do something as destructive as divorce, in order to dissolve a marriage, to throw a family sometimes into that kind of chaos, you have to be able to say that the thing that went wrong went extremely wrong, and that at least in some way, it wasn't your own fault. That's my observation of these things.
You can start to ask questions about what the other people in this story would say. And that's what Fleishman is. Fleishman is not - he is the hero. She is the villain. Wait. Is the hero? Fleishman is a reminder that stories are constructs and that we are all doing our best. Sometimes we're doing our worst. But we are never the villains of our own stories, which means someone else has to be. But the question that you're asking, which is about, you know, the perspective shift in this, is that we are all trying to figure out how to do this next part of life. If that was the question - I feel that I've gone on several tangents and no longer can trace these answers back.
NADWORNY: I feel like that landing is quite nice, though.
BRODESSER-AKNER: OK. Thank you. Thank you (laughter).
NADWORNY: I feel like that gets at the question.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Thank you.
NADWORNY: Taffy Brodesser-Akner is the creator and executive producer of FX on Hulu's "Fleishman Is In Trouble." You can stream it on Hulu. It's based on her 2019 novel of the same name. Thanks so much for joining us.
BRODESSER-AKNER: Elissa, it's been really a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.