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'Fleishman Is in Trouble' looks at a failed marriage from multiple perspectives

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Hulu series "Fleishman Is In Trouble" is about a successful Upper East Side couple whose marriage ends and what happens after that. Like the bestselling novel it's based on, it starts off by telling us one side of the story and then fills in the rest. Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour is a fan, and he's here to tell us about it. Hey, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey. Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: OK, so this show is based on a 2019 novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who adapted the series herself. It's a big job. How'd she do?

WELDON: Well, here's where I confess I haven't actually read the novel, but I know for a fact - yet I know for a fact that this is a great adaptation of it. Ask me how I know that.

SHAPIRO: OK, Glen. How do you know that?

WELDON: A great question - because of how well it uses narration, Ari. You know, whenever writers adapt their own work into another medium, there's always this tendency for them to keep a white-knuckle grip on their precious, precious prose. You know, they don't want to lose a single sentence. And we've all seen it. We've all seen movies and shows that have this oppressive wall-to-wall narration that is just not doing anything. It's telling us what we're already watching. Here, every time that narration kicks in, it's welcome because Brodesser-Akner saves it for when it can do the most good narrative work - when it can add context or help us see the world as the characters see it.

SHAPIRO: This sounds like a good moment to listen to a clip of the show. Can you give us an example of what you're talking about?

WELDON: Sure. So the marriage that's over when the series starts is between Toby, who's played by Jesse Eisenberg, and Rachel, who's played by Claire Danes. The narrator is Libby, played by Lizzy Caplan. Now she's an old friend of Toby's. So at first, she takes his side completely. And as a result, because she's telling us the story, so do we. And the first episode opens, in fact, with Libby showing us the marriage in flashback, purely from Toby's perspective. He's remembering how cold and harsh Rachel was now that she's no longer around.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE")

LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Libby Epstein) She was no longer in the kitchen, griping about her day.

CLAIRE DANES: (As Rachel) Now I'm going to have to spend the whole day cleaning up that mess with a lunch I don't even have time for.

CAPLAN: (As Libby Epstein) She was no longer just coming home from the gym in a less black mood than usual.

DANES: (As Rachel) It was a disaster. It was a complete disaster.

SHAPIRO: So a strong point of view there as we hear Libby's description of Rachel through Toby's eyes. There are two sides to every story. Do we ever hear Rachel's perspective?

WELDON: Well, that's the smart thing about the show. We never hear from either Toby or Rachel directly. There is always this intermediary of Libby, the narrator. And, you know, she's got her own marriage she's dealing with or not dealing with, in this case, 'cause her character is a writer, and her fascination with the Fleishmans' marriage is an excuse not to think about her own. That will come to a head eventually.

But, no, to answer your question, yeah, eventually we do get Rachel's perspective. And that happens just exactly when we need it to because, as the show goes on, Libby starts to sense that she's not getting the whole story from Toby. And that's because Rachel has erased herself from the narrative, as we say. She goes missing, actually, for most of the show. But when Libby does finally get to hear from Rachel, she finally starts to tell us Rachel's side of the story and does it with a lot more generosity than she had before. And in the process, we get a more nuanced look at this insular world of privilege that Toby and Rachel live in - one that exists within a few blocks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That is a world that Rachel has always ached to be accepted in from a very early age.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE")

CAPLAN: (As Libby Epstein) She understood that it wasn't her lack of money and proximity that made her an outsider. It was that her lack of proximity and money created an outsider's desperation in her. But also, sophistication has a language. You're either born speaking it or you always speak with an accent.

WELDON: Or you always speak with an accent - that is such smart writing. And this is where the real genius of the show comes in, Ari - in the casting. Jesse Eisenberg is the perfect guy to play Toby. He can be schlubby and empathetic. But also, he has this anger just under the surface that you need. Claire Danes can play Rachel as very severe, even cruel, but she also, as an actor, has the vulnerability that you need to kick in later on in the story. And Lizzy Caplan's great as the narrator. She's got this intelligence and curiosity that works to bring us all along with her as the full story behind the Fleishmans' marriage gradually comes to light.

SHAPIRO: OK, so I haven't seen this show, but I'm going to surmise that the takeaway is, if the end of the "White Lotus" season two left you desperate for more stories about rich, white people in misery, "Fleishman Is In Trouble" is the one for you.

WELDON: There's plenty of rich white people. There's plenty of misery. Yep.

SHAPIRO: It's streaming now on Hulu. And that was Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks a lot.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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