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22 February 2023

Fleishman Is in Trouble is a slick but exhausting portrait of New York wealth

This series belongs to a new big-budget genre of TV that attempts to intellectually flatter viewers who can actually afford another streaming service.

By Rachel Cooke

In spite of the hype, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s 2019 novel Fleishman Is in Trouble didn’t land here quite as it did in the US, where it caused a major splash (of vintage Krug) – and my strong guess is that the same will be true of the TV adaptation, most of which she also wrote. Sure, the British are just as prone to status anxiety as their American counterparts, and some have the therapists to prove it. But the semaphore they use to signal this condition tends to comprise knowing jokes about Ocado vans and Ottolenghi recipes, not loudly voiced agonies over Hamptons beach houses, Cartier watches and whether the eight-year-old is enrolled for golf camp.

If the upper echelons of New York are, as I’ve read, still recovering from the way Fleishman held up a mirror to the torture involved in their immense good luck (it screened there last year), I predict most of us in the UK will give its neuroticism short shrift. I lasted for four episodes, and then I went off to do my Tesco order.

This isn’t to say that it’s not brilliantly done – because it is. Jesse Eisenberg puts in a good (if typically Eisenberg-ish) performance as Toby Fleishman, a hospital doctor whose ex-wife has disappeared, possibly to a yoga retreat, leaving him to care for their children alone; and Claire Danes is suitably annoying as Rachel, the ex-wife in question. (Rachel is an aggressively ambitious theatrical agent, which would, in my eyes, be a wholly admirable thing were it not for her also being deranged with acquisitive lust for property and chi-chi private schools.)

Brodesser-Akner has kept the novel’s narrator, Libby, a New Jersey housewife and former magazine writer who’s one of Toby’s oldest friends, and Lizzy Caplan is pitch-perfect in the part. Her voiceover could be ghastly and arch, but she sounds knowing to just the right degree. Oh, and if you’re in the market for interiors porn, knock yourself out: all kinks are catered for here, from Bertazzoni-style ovens (unused, obviously) to coffee tables the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[See also: The women classical music forgot]

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But fascination – wow, these people! Let us watch them, like insects beneath a microscope – quickly gives way to existential weariness, and while I know this is half of Brodesser-Akner’s point, it was a bit much for me in the end. Granted, she’s as interested in ageing and faded dreams as she is in the anthropology of the Upper East Side. Somehow, though, this gets lost in all the salary talk, the yoga talk, the marital apocalypse talk, and, above all, the dating app talk.

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Yes, Toby has logged on – “Fill out your profile, lover!” – and every few moments, a carousel of half-clad women spins across both his screen and ours. Naturally, he’s thrilled. The last time he was in the market, no one wanted him. So he’s knocking himself out, too. (It’s like seeing a shrink, he says, except “at the end of the session you get to put your penis in the therapist’s mouth”.) The casual British viewer, however, may be wondering why so many beautiful and seemingly perfectly intelligent women wish to go to bed with this over-anxious dweeb, or even just to shove their hands obligingly down his pants while standing on the stoop of a stranger’s brownstone. The iniquities of the patriarchy and the comfort-rating of G-strings aside, no one I know who has internet-dated would recognise a single second of this.

Fleishman belongs to a new genre of television. Slick, expensively done, and led by movie stars, this kind of show sets out to flatter – intellectually, and in other ways – those viewers actually able to afford another subscription service, who also happen to be the kind of people who’ve read the novel on which it’s likely based (or, failing that, an article about the novel on which it’s based). In a way, it’s beyond rebuke: the production, the commitment, the niche-filling. All faultless.

But on the sofa, glass of wine in hand, it just kind of glides over you until – eventually – a horrible ennui sets in. “Has it really come to this?” you think, watching a rich man with a replete life masturbate furiously in the green-blue light of his iPhone.

Fleishman Is in Trouble
Disney+, available to stream now

[See also: On the “war kitsch” of All Quiet on the Western Front]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon