Ever since I listened to Sarah Silverman and her semi-complaint about Hollywood employing “Jew face,” I’ve been kind of obsessed with it. Not obsessed, I guess, but certainly aware. She pointed out the fact that shiksa actresses like Kathryn Hahn and Rachel Brosnahan get cast as markedly Jewish characters. And that in some ways them doing stereotypical “Jewish,” shrugging and kvetching, is borderline offensive. Shit, Steven Spielberg cast thee least Jewish woman on earth, Michelle Williams, as his Jewish mother in The Fabelmans. So, even our own people get it way the hell wrong. Even on the male side, I’ll throw in goyim John Turturro and Oscar Isaac as prime examples of who casting directors turn to when they need super-Jews in their films. And, oh my Jewish god, does Turturro ramp it up in shows like The Plot Against America!
And, look, it’s one thing if the characters are just peripherally Jewish. If their Jewishness has nothing to do the with the plot, the psyche of the character or their mannerisms. If they just happen to name a doctor Dr. Goldman, and we just kind of roll with it. But in these previous cases, and in the case of Fleishman Is in Trouble, the characters are all very Jewish. They’re not religiously Jewish per se — though main character, Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), was seemingly raised in a somewhat religious household — but their relationships with one another revolves around a trip to Israel and there are constant reminders of their Jewishness. And it is here where the show gets my vote for actually casting Jews in Jewish roles: Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan, Adam Brody, Josh Radnor, Josh Stamberg. And, yes, they try to pass off Claire Danes as “half-Jewish,” but I’m not sure her wacky character didn’t, in fact, make up that fact in the moment. Plus, her character was not raised Jewish, and Danes is never asked to act “Jewish,” so she gets a pass on the Jew-face meter. My point is that there is an authenticity to the cast that makes them feel a little more real and a little less like the long line of skinny-ass blonde actresses they ask to dye their hair brown to “pass.”
Now that I’ve gotten that whole thing out of the way, let me talk a little about the show itself. First, Eisenberg. He has such a specific acting style that I almost imagine the casting directors immediately circling his name and never wavering on him playing Toby. His tight-jawed, uptight mannerisms. His incredibly ability to jam 1,000 words into a sentence without missing a single word. It’s no wonder that they cast him as the soulless Zuckerberg in The Social Network, as they stuffed the dense-as-hell Aaron Sorkin dialogue into his mouth. This role is not dissimilar from that one. He’s the smartest guy in the room. And sometimes he uses it for good. In fact, he mostly uses it for good, both as a doctor and as a doting parent. But he can also turn it into a sword against his friends, his wife, his enemies… And nobody delivers a cold-as-hell line better than Eisenberg. All while sporting what has to be the worst haircut in television history. Seriously. I had trouble looking at him and his “do” and his tiny, taught body language and weirdly generic, lame clothes as he propelled himself down NYC sidewalks. He is an incredibly uncomfortable hang. On purpose.
Toby is married to Rachel. He is a successful liver doctor at the hospital, and has a cadre of adoring interns he teaches. Everything we see about him, he is incredibly (almost to a fault) upstanding and rule-following and earnest. He is seemingly a very good father. Attentive and always looking to praise and teach his children. Around the edges, however, he is rigid. He doesn’t eat carbs, is generally unbending in his rules and is not overly understanding about his wife’s possible past trauma, her desire to advance socially and economically, etc. In his misery he is self-absorbed, inside his own head and not particularly empathetic in the larger sense. Meanwhile we are shown Rachel social-climbing, ignoring her family in order to further her career and generally being a mani asshole. Though a driven and succesful one. All of this leads to Toby being fed up and asking for a divorce. From a woman who has very obvious abandonment issues. In their divorce, Toby finds dating apps and reconnects with his old best friends, Libby (Caplan) and Seth (Brody), whom he’d abandoned during his marriage to Rachel. While Toby has made a clean break from his relationship with Rachel, things seemingly spiral with Rachel and she eventually disappears. She just fails to show up to pick up the kids for the weekend.
So, at its core we have a story about an adult learning how to be an adult. And his two friends, who are both on opposite ends of the adult spectrum, kind of working their way to the middle while Toby figures out which way he wants to move. Libby, a former magazine writer, now a disillusioned stay-at-home in NJ. And Seth, a swinging bachelor, who wants nothing more than to get away from his exciting life and settle down. The whole thing isn’t incredibly subtle, but the acting is terrific and the dialogue pretty darned good. There are some lines spit out by the Toby character that are literally laugh-out-loud. And this is certainly not a comedy, but a dramedy, leaning way more drama. But there is shit in life — especially when tensions are high — that is just hysterically funny. Because it’s unexpected or weird or just rude. And despite his seriously awkward style, Eisenberg is really funny. In a taught, cutting way. But just out-and-out hysterical. The secondary item here is the “mystery” around Rachel’s vanishing. But that’s really never a thing. It’s pretty clear, after a few clues, what’s happened. To us, at least. Just not so much to Toby. Which, again, somehow makes us smarter than the guy who clearly thinks he’s always the smartest guy in the room.
And while this thing could bog down if we just kind of go with Tobys’ POV, we get this incredible shift of perspective to see things through Rachel’s eyes. It’s not a Rashomon thing per se, but it really does a great job of making us understand there are two sides to every story. We think we understand who’s the hero and who’s the villain. But things just aren’t that straight-forward. And we learn that there are no heroes. And there are no villains. Only people. And this swing shows us, for instance, that perhaps Toby’s friend, Lizzy, might actually be more like his ex-wife than she is like him. The whole thing kind of tumbles toward an ending, and even adds in a bit of a meta twist, as well as a seemingly ambiguous ending. Just like all good shows should. It made me think a little bit about the finale of Atlanta. Which seems like a weird comparison, but there are elements of it here.
I imagine this show isn’t for everyone. There is a ton of talking. There is a lot of nebbish energy. Eisenberg looks like a child, which is also disturbing given how much semi-graphic sex there is in the up-front. And if you loved twitchy, huffing/screaming Claire Danes in Homeland, you will absolutely love her performance here. Caplan does a fantastic job as the fiending-for-a-smoke, bedraggled Jersey schlump, and Adam Brody is terrific as the dude who just gets handed stuff because he looks like Jewish Clark Kent. Mostly is feels like an adult show. One that hits hard, as those of settling into middle age start to see the scenarios in the show play out in real life. The little indie film flourishes, literary mechanisms and sharp observational humor gives me those feels I used to get reading Jonathan Safran Foer books. And maybe it’s because the actors felt at home with the material. Or perhaps it was just material that was made to be adapted. I know it’ll be a lot for some folks, but for me it filled some space in my TV watching that I couldn’t quite fill with the more generic stories of family drama.