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Fleishman Is in Trouble Does What the Book Couldn’t Do

Photo: Vulture; Photo: Linda Kallerus/FX

There’s a well-worn adage that says the book is always better than the movie (or TV show). That adage is incorrect. Okay, sure: There are many instances in which original source material proves richer and more thoughtful than the version that winds up on a screen. But a text-based story is not inherently greater than a narrative that unfolds onscreen. The two are just different. Once in a while, the movie or TV version of a piece of literature can even affect an audience on a deeper level than the book that inspired it.

That has been the case with Fleishman Is in Trouble, the FX series (streaming on Hulu) that was adapted by Taffy Brodesser-Akner from her best-selling 2019 novel about a divorced hepatologist forced to take care of his two children alone when his ex-wife suddenly disappears. As someone who read Fleishman Is in Trouble when it came out in the summer of 2019, I have been surprised by how much more emotionally I am responding to the TV version of this exercise in perspective shifting.

The book is very smart, carefully constructed and overflowing with the kind of vibrant prose that made Brodesser-Akner’s celebrity profiles such must-reads. It is moving at times too. But somehow the television series is even more of a gut punch, and nowhere is that more evident than in this week’s episode, “Me-Time,” which finally explains what Toby Fleishman’s former spouse, Rachel Fleishman, has been up to during her three-week absence. It’s an absolutely devastating episode that pulls off the same twist as the book: It finally allows Rachel (Claire Danes) to tell her side of the story with help from the ongoing narration provided by Toby’s college friend Libby (Lizzy Caplan), forcing us to realize Rachel is not the selfish, money-obsessed, irresponsible mother Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) has suggested for the previous six episodes. Several elements combine to make this episode so powerful, and they are all things the book can’t deliver in the same way.

The first can be summarized in two simple words: Claire Danes. As Rachel, a seemingly confident and ambitious woman who has a complete emotional breakdown in this episode, she is able to do what she has done so beautifully in other roles: reveal the raw vulnerability beneath the surface of an extremely capable, controlled human being. Every time she expresses Rachel’s justifiable anguish with jagged sobs or, in a scene at a yoga retreat, unleashes a primal scream meant to rid her body of every feeling of inadequacy and frustration, she enriches and deepens our understanding of Rachel’s emotional turmoil in a way that prose cannot.

In the book, when Rachel goes to group therapy after feeling victimized by the obstetrician who broke her water without consent during the birth of her first child, Brodesser-Akner writes, “She sat there with her baby, and every time it was her turn to talk, she began to cry. She didn’t cry quietly. She howled and they just let her. They let her do it for five whole minutes until the other women gathered around her and squatted down in front of her and patted her on her shoulders and her knees until she stopped.” It’s one thing to read that. It is another thing entirely to watch Danes as Rachel, her body seized with sorrow over the mother she lost as a child and the traumatic way she brought a child into this world, surrounded by women fully prepared to accept and comfort her.

Even more significant, Danes is able to project how disoriented Rachel feels during those lost three weeks when she is dumped by her lover, Sam Rothberg, plunges into a depressive abyss, and loses track of her entire life. In the novel, it’s Rachel who spots and approaches Libby, then acts as if she were completely fine when she’s clearly anything but. In the series, Brodesser-Akner wisely alters the dynamics of Rachel’s resurfacing, allowing Libby to approach her first and realize her friend’s former spouse has become pretty untethered. In every scene between Libby and Rachel, Danes is shaky and unmoored. Although it’s not nearly as showy as the primal scream, one of Danes’s most effective moments is when she offers to make coffee for Libby at her apartment. She knows this is what people do, so she tries. But she’s such a wreck that she can’t do it. “I want to be honest with you,” Danes says through tears. “I don’t think I can make you coffee right now.” When you’re deeply, deeply depressed, this is what happens. The simplest of tasks turns into an attempt to climb Kilimanjaro with an oxygen tank on your back. You can’t catch your breath or your strength. Danes conveys all of that in just a few seconds, less time than it takes to read a paragraph.

In the book, Brodesser-Akner provides the reader with the tools to imagine how it must feel when Rachel becomes so overwhelmed that she loses her grasp of time and space. But this episode, directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, uses camera movement and quick edits to immerse us in that feeling in a way a book can’t. The series’ ongoing motif of flipping certain images — an homage to the book’s jacket and a nod to the POV shift that eventually happens — is deployed at full tilt in “Me-Time.” When Rachel hits bottom, after Sam ditches her at the yoga retreat, the camera spins around her as she lies defeated on the hotel bed, her arms splayed out as if life has crucified her. First we see her upside down, at the top of the frame, then our view of her rotates as we look at her from above. “She was alone again, when she’d taken such measures to make sure she’d never be alone again,” Caplan’s narration explains as the camera spins and spins and spins. The visual and the audio — both Brodesser-Akner’s words and the inflection in Caplan’s voice as she says them — combine to replicate the act of spiraling out. You see, hear, and endure what that’s like in a way prose can’t fully articulate.

Once Rachel has arrived back at her apartment, we see her in a series of repetitive moments that cut sharply from one to the next. She orders beef lo mein, retrieves it from the doorman delivering it, then spits it out after the first bite. She enters rooms and forgets why she’s there. She thrashes in bed, trying to find the sleep that eludes her. Then she orders more lo mein and spits it out again. This goes on until she eventually starts having hallucinatory conversations with her kids. The sequence is both slow in the time it takes to unfold and quick in the way its imagery and Caplan’s narration hurtle from one thought to the next. In form and execution, it’s a testament to what happens when time slips away: Everything is both rushed and takes forever. The whole sequence rings palpably true for anyone who’s ever had their own depressive episode or gotten so exhausted that they slept for days or, let’s be honest, started to lose it while living in isolation during a pandemic.

That brings me to the third thing Fleishman Is in Trouble the TV series has going for it: the timing of its release. As Brodesser-Akner wrote in a piece for this magazine, a decision was made to set this FX project in 2016, when the book was written, rather than the year in which it was published or present-day 2022. From where I sit, that makes Rachel’s breakdown resonate even more than it did in 2019, when readers first absorbed it on the novel’s pages.

That approach tugs at our nostalgia for an allegedly simpler time before Trump, COVID-19, or the million other things that have made the world seem dark more often than light. “Do you think she’s going to win?” Rachel asks Libby when she sees Hillary Clinton campaigners in the park. “People really hate her.” That question reflects exactly what Brodesser-Akner is doing with Fleishman Is in Trouble, both the book and the show — asking if a woman can be fully valued when people have already been fed ideas about her, often by men controlling the narrative.

More significantly, though, in the years since 2016 — and particularly in the pandemic era — more of us may have felt the way Rachel does in this episode. That primes us to empathize with her in a way that feels more profound than it could have before. In the past three years, many of us have been overwhelmed. Many of us are even more exhausted than we already were by all the texts and emails and sudden emergencies that pile up endlessly in our professional and personal lives. Many of us desperately need sleep but can’t get it. Many of us hole up in our homes, simultaneously afraid of and longing for human connection. Many of us ask ourselves existential questions with no answers and forget how to make coffee and order take-out meal after take-out meal until everything feels like one extended beef lo mein blur.

At least that’s how I felt watching this episode, which made me cry so hard that I briefly wondered if I should visit the nearest urgent-care center. This episode earns that sort of reaction because all of its pieces are serving one another so beautifully: the acting, the writing, the directorial and editing choices. But it also hits the way it hits because of something that can’t be planned: where you are in your life when you consume a particular piece of art.

Because of where I am, and maybe where we all are, Fleishman Is in Trouble in TV form goes a step further than the book could conceivably go. The novel made me appreciate Rachel’s perspective and reflect on how so many women are never fully understood because of all the preconceived notions that don’t fully take their experiences into account. The TV series, and this episode in particular, has made me see Rachel more fully. And it’s done something else: It’s made me see more of myself in Rachel. By capturing her breakdown so vividly, “Me-Time” doesn’t just announce that the Fleishman who’s in trouble is not the Fleishman you think it is. It makes you realize that person could just as easily be you.

Fleishman Is in Trouble Does What the Book Couldn’t Do