When an adaptation of a beloved novel is announced, fans often experience a potent blend of excitement and terror. So many questions arise: Will they change the story? What network is it going to be on? Who will play my favorite character!?
Admirers of Taffy Brodesser-Akner's debut novel Fleishman Is in Trouble need not worry. When FX greenlit the series, Brodesser-Akner was tapped to adapt the material herself as well as serve as showrunner on the project. The story focuses on a recently-divorced doctor named Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg). He's reconnecting with his youth and sexuality when his wife, Rachel (Claire Danes), suddenly goes missing, leaving him in the sole care of his two children.
While many recent prestige TV dramas have played with the concept of ennui and dissatisfaction in the ultra-wealthy set, Fleishman Is in Trouble takes a different angle. Sure, the narrative dabbles in these ideas, but it's more focused on being a wry and sharp examination of the harsh realities of settling into middle age. What happens when the total freedoms of youth become just a mirage, lingering in the rearview mirror? How do we shift into these new lives when we're still secretly the people we were in our twenties? How in the hell do we contend with the past?
If you've read the book, you know that all already. But you don't know the whole story.
Here, Brodesser-Akner talks to Metacritic about exactly how she and her team translated her words to the screen, how she might just be a sorceress of casting, and what's up with all those funky tees in the show.
As the creator of the Fleishman universe, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in bringing it from page to screen?
I am very reliant on speaking directly to an audience, and I know that voice-over is some sort of frowned-upon thing. There are all of these rules that you hear about that I understood existed and yet did not think applied, not out of arrogance, but out of a sense of, why wouldn't we? In addition to Libby, the person who is saying the voice-over, the voice-over itself is kind of its own character. It might feel like a crutch at first but, in the end, you come to understand why it was necessary and sort of why the whole project is about this particular voice-over. That, to me, was one of the biggest challenges.
Another challenge was that we had a couple of long scenes where people were sitting and talking, and I felt strongly that that was the essence of Fleishman in general — not just the book, but the idea of it — and I was worried that no one would let me do it. I was lucky to have producing partners, Sarah Timberman and Susannah Grant and a studio and a network that were really rooting for this to be what it should be. So those rules that I thought were real rules were just things that I had heard in my head were rules. Luckily, I was in the hands of so many experienced people, and I knew that they wouldn't let me flail.
FX has a logo at the top of each show that says, "Fearless" and I always thought it was just about subversive content, but now I have come to think of it as, "Wow, these people will let somebody who does not have any experience try it because they believe in a creator-friendly vision." I would never have believed that the show should really be my vision and my producing partners' vision. I didn't realize the extent to which they would allow that, and the extent was 100-percent.
Piggybacking off of the discussion of the voice-over for a moment — was there any discussion about doing the show without the voice-over?
There was a discussion of limiting it. I think in my first draft there was so much voice-over. To go back to your first question, one of the big challenges for me was letting go of lines I really liked. Any writer knows that when you have a hard-won line that you like it is a national tragedy to have to give it up, and I had to give up a lot of those. But there was never a sense that we shouldn't do it at all because so much of the project of it is understanding why this voice-over exists in the first place.
So many recent page-to-television adaptations play with the structure of a novel, to varying effect. Was there ever any talk of mixing up the timeline at all?
The novel is structured for good storytelling. Even when I was writing magazine stories, I was a big believer in storytelling structure. I went into school for dramatic writing, even though I am a journalist, and the first thing I did was learn those things. And I think my stories, inasmuch as anyone ever liked them, had structure and they had suspense and they weren't a list of things that happened; they were structured to make a point. So that's what I tried to do in the book.
All of the decisions were mostly made. Structure-wise, Fleishman was made out of things that are revealed slowly. The book was almost an outline document of my pitch for what the best way to disseminate that information was. There were times when we tried to put in new things, anything was on the table, but when it came down to it, what we were doing was adapting a book that existed. And enough people read it that we did not want them to come to this series and find themselves wondering why we made circumcisions. So, I had a lot of calm that all I had to do was adapt the book. The one thing I did know was that I was the Ph.D. of Fleishman, and that was something that I brought to the table.
There was something about this when I heard people talking about what they would do with my book, I couldn't take it. It was like someone sleeping with my husband or taking my kids to Disneyland — like, "No, that's my job!"
Fans of Fleishman certainly had their own dreams in terms of casting, but as the writer of the material, what was the casting process like for you? Casting for the character Libby in particular must have been interesting as the character has more than a bit in common with you.
I did not have any casting ideas while I was writing the book because, first of all, when you're writing your first book there is no universe in which you can picture it getting published, much less read, much less adapted. But when suddenly it did, and suddenly I was involved, the casting ideas I had were for five of them. It was Jesse [Eisenberg], Claire [Danes], Lizzy [Caplan], Adam [Brody], and Josh Radnor. Those were the people I wanted.
My icon in [executive producer] Susannah Grant's phone is a witch because in her almost 30 years of doing this, she had never seen anyone get their first choice for every character. I actually don't think that was sorcery. I have always been attracted to the intelligence of those people and I think that not everyone could have done these roles. It is a very talky show. It is a very internal show.
And Lizzy Caplan, I've been a fan of hers forever, and I had felt like she would be the perfect Libby in that she could sort of hide inside the role until it was time to come out, and she did. At first, she's like a passive character, and as it goes on, you can see her growing bigger and bigger. That, to me, was among the most important role to cast. And the thing I wanted was to see in all of them, characters that felt really close to real people.
One thing I am incredibly curious about that made it from page-to-screen are the graphic tees. The women of the Upper East Side wear these workout tees with bold sayings on them in both the book and the show, but in the show, it seems like Libby's retro and vintage tees are somewhat of a rebuttal to the screaming Upper East Side mantras. Were the dueling shirts brought to the screen as an intentional contrast?
Yes, but it was not my thinking. Leah Katznelson was our costume designer, and she had this tremendous task of making the show period — you don't think of it as a period show, but it was 2016 — and at that time I was in New York, and all I saw at the time were those kinds of t-shirts. Now, post-Trump, I only see shirts that say, like, "Be Kind" and the shirts have kind of shifted. Leah had to be a 2016 anthropologist as to what people were wearing. But Libby was a retro character in 2016, and I was constantly enthralled by the shirts Leah put her in. I never would have thought of that! I never would have thought of a counterpoint in the t-shirts where the shirts are screaming the plot at you. They are like, "Who was I? Who am I? Can I hold on to who I am?" When you write, there's so much negative space around every character, and it's up to props and set design and costumes, and all those departments to fill in the space and really complete the character and the show in a way that left me in awe.
Fleishman Is in Trouble streams episodes Thursdays