generational reflections on taffy brodesser-akner’s fleishman is in trouble.
Television shows are always part of a larger show called the televisual world. This world has many countries: UK Detectiveland, US Urban Policeville, Greater Suburbia, International Spynesia, Hunky Cowville. New York City itself is a very special kind of televisual Balkans, with many different -stans (and “stans”). You’ve got Downtown Bohemiastan, Upper West Sideistan, Brooklynistan, Bronxistan, Bridge-and-Tunnelstan, Archie Bunkerstan, and the Guy from High Maintenance biking around delivery weed to everyone.
When I watched the first few episodes of Taffy Brodesser-Akner‘s Fleishman Is in Trouble television adaptation of her 2019 novel, it appeared to be a variation on Sex in the City. You know, an anthropological examination of the exotic erotic lives of the Upper East Side, with antecedents found everywhere from Woody Allen films to Edith Wharton novels. Here was a world of elite competition and misery, with a bit of a Jewish tinge but still squarely WASPY in its core elite class and cultural essence.
As the season has unfolded, however, and we increasingly pivot from divorced husband Dr. Toby Fleishman’s perspective, portrayed with typical flummoxed quizicality by Jesse Eisenberg, to the female perspectives of his ex-wife Rachel (Claire Danes) and friend/show narrator Libby Epstein (Lizzy Caplan), the show strikes me as a fundamental kind of Gen X tale. This was not the world of Girls, with its droll millennial absurdities and expectations, but something older, something at once more skeptical yet hopeful, more jaded yet barely covering—like some tattered flannel shirt dangling from the waist—a kind of intense idealism. There is fierce belief in something more to life here undercut by a sour sense of “that’s it?”
The casting of Danes and especially Caplan is the Gen X tell. Caplan links Fleishman Is in Trouble directly back to the show Freaks and Geeks, as if we were witnessing the continued stories of those characters, who have now reached indie-rock-reunion-tour midlife crises filled with clove-cigarette-smoke nostalgia for a kind of youthful anti-nostalgia. Danes is a bit younger than the tail-end of Gen X, but My So-Called Life fits the bill too as part of this tele-generational world.
Fleishman Is in Trouble is, of course, its own brilliant creation. Nonetheless, it links to a larger screen-world whose tones are decidedly grungy, whose ambitions for adult achievement continually turn back to a longing for a slacker’s paradise, and whose portrayals of class entitlement reveal that happiness for anyone who is now in their 40s and 50s, even the filthy rich ones, should be swallowed with a jagged little pill.