The First Hulu Series In A Long Time I Really Don’t Want to Keep Watching
When the world was in lockdown in 2020 I found myself doing something I hadn’t done since I started getting involved with streaming and started watching Hulu regularly. After I fell in love with Little Fires Everywhere, it slowly but surely has become a part of my viewing habits.
Now there have been some major exceptions: I’ve never watched its signature program The Handmaid’s Tale and probably never well, and I just can’t see myself ever looking at The Great. But if you have been reading my column for the last three years, you know that I have found this experience incredibly rewarding. I fell in love with Only Murders in the Building and The Bear, which will be among the major Emmy nominees this year and Reservation Dogs, which should. I found the hidden treasures that were Ramy and Pen15. And most of all I have found them the most consistent provider of entertaining and well-made limited series over the past three years. I still feel Nine Perfect Strangers should have gotten love from the Emmys, even if it shouldn’t haven’t been made into a regular series. Dopesick and The Dropout fully deserved all the awards they ended up getting last year. And I’ve spent many of the last few months watching Under the Banner of Heaven and am beginning to think it was another series that was denied true recognition because of the overkill last year for The White Lotus. I’ve already seen some great examples of TV from the service this year, especially The Patient which I hope will get recognition from the Emmys as a whole.
Which brings me to Fleishmann Is In Trouble. After it became clear The White Lotus was not going to be eligible in Best Limited Series category, I knew that I would have to widen my net for candidates for the Emmys this year. I’ve already been enraptured by Beef and I’ve finally started on Daisy Jones & The Six. When the odds on Gold Derby showed both the series and the cast rising in the likelihood for nominations, I figured I’d have to get on board just for the purposes of being up to date. It had come out last winter to reviews that were decidedly mixed and while Claire Danes was highly praised (she has received multiple nominations for Best Supporting Actress) the series itself has received far less. The Golden Globes did not nominate it for Best Limited Series and neither did the Critics Choice awards. It honestly seemed that Dahmer was likely to get more nominations, and I do not want to see this series under general principle. So I decided last week to get involved with Fleishman. Two episodes in, I’m beginning to wonder if I should have chosen the serial killer.
Fleishmann Is In Trouble, as many of you know by now for many reasons. At the start of the series Toby is in the midst of the ugly ramifications of a bitter divorce from an ugly marriage. He is now trying to live the life of a single forty year old in Manhattan, trying to be the top liver specialist at his Manhattan hospital, and adjust the world of dating apps. His two young children have been dumped on him at the start of the series without pretense by Rachel (Danes) and right now his daughter Hannah hates him and his younger son seems to be going through a kind of mix between loving the universe and obsession with sex. He is trying to revive a friendship that has been on hold since his marriage ended with two college friends: Libby (Lizzy Caplan) and Seth (Adam Brody) who are mainly their to commiserate. (Libby tells the story and I’ll get to that in a minute) Toby spends much of the first episode involved in so many ridiculous sexual encounters that it’s kind of embarrassing and so many bizarrely worded sexts involving emojis that I guess are supposed to be funny. He’s in the midst of dealing with all this when Rachel ends up being late to pick his kids up for a dinner and a show and then doesn’t show up at all.
In the next episode, he learns he is finally getting a much needed promotion for his job at the hospital, only at this point Rachel is still absent, his babysitter is so detached she doesn’t notice when his nine-year old is watching porn in front of him, and his daughter is still upset they’re not going to the Hamptons. They take a personal day to go to the Hamptons and Toby finds out Rachel has locked them out of the summer house. Eventually he ends up sending his children to camp, more to get them out of his hair then to suit their needs.
There is more going on in this series, of course, and I am told by online fans that like this series that there are twists ahead and it reaches great heights. I have to tell you that after two episodes, it is becoming increasingly hard to care — and I’ll be honest, it was evident after the first one.
I don’t blame the cast fundamentally: all of the actors are very good and Jesse Eisenberg, who plays the title role is actually cast against type playing someone who initially seems sympathetic to the viewer as he perpetually beleaguered by a world that seems basically determined to treat him as less than who he is. The directors are an interesting group as well: the episodes are co-directed by independent film directors I admire Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who brought us the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine and Sherri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, whose American Splendor is one of my favorite films. No, in the case, the full blame must go to the writer. And considering that this mini-series has been adapted by Taffy Brodesser-Akner of her own best-selling novel, there are two separate thoughts that come to mind: Either the book is incredibly overrated or Brodesser-Akner, who has no experience writing anything but magazines or books has no idea how to adapt a novel for a visual medium.
The latter is understandable but doesn’t make watch the episodes any less painful. There have been so many adaptations of books to limited series over the years — hell Little Fires Everywhere was a prime example of how you can make better TV show than the source material — that it’s painful watching an author basically decide the best way to tell the story she wrote is something so close to an audiobook that you almost wonder why she didn’t go that route. I understand the novel was narrated by Libby so I see why having it done the same way would be natural to Brodesser-Akner, but it seems so utterly unnecessary so much of the time. There are so many times the narration uses a thousand words when a picture would do. Then there are the voiceovers for sexual texts, which honestly could have been done as screenshots. I can’t tell you how sick I already am of hear emojis described already. And we don’t need to keep hearing Toby’s inner thoughts: there’s such a thing as subtlety.
If it were just the problem of the voiceover, it would be something we could excuse if not understand. But every character we meet in this story is awful. Now I get that in a sense Brodesser-Akner is clearly trying to satirize wealth and the class divide and Manhattan as well as deal with the toxicity of a marriage. But she does in such a horrible way. I understand that we are seeing Rachel only through Toby’s perspective, but she comes across as a harpy. And Toby doesn’t come across much better in the first two episodes: you can’t understand for the life of you why all these women want to sleep with him. His daughter has never once seemed anything but unpleasant; I can’t tolerate Adam Brody as Seth (and that’s saying a lot about the writing) and throughout the entire first two episodes, you can barely see any of these people talking about anything but wealth and status. Maybe this is satire and it comes across better on the page, but on screen it’s heavy handed. Right now, the only actor in this show who comes across decently is Caplan and that’s only when I see her onscreen. Every time the story breaks for what seems to be five minutes of narration, I just wish she’d shut up.
Now I’m told that as the series continues, it becomes a probe of how the marriage unraveled, of how flawed both Toby and Rachel were, and that there’s more to be seen. But I’ll be honest: right now, this is the first streaming series in a long time — probably since I forced myself to watch the first season of Ozark — that I honestly have no desire to finish. I feel that I will likely do so out of sense of obligation — it is likely to contend for Emmys and I do want to be fair-minded when I rank it later on this summer.
That said right now, I desperately hope the oddsmakers are wrong and that the Emmys will nominate The Patient or Love and Death or George and Tammy or White House Plumbers or practically any other of the already brilliant limited series I’ve seen this year then what right now seems to be an eight-episode version of something that Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach could tell much easier, better and funnier in two hours’ time. And on a personal note, Fleishman is the first show that I’ve reviewed under this series that I honestly would have preferred a different heading. Simply ‘Better Never’.
My score: 2 stars.