‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ slides some mystery into its satire of an upscale marriage gone bad

Masterful stars Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes play to their strengths as the fractured Manhattan power couple.

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Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) abruptly becomes a full-time father to his children (Meara Mahoney Gross, left, and Maxim Swinton) after his ex-wife vanishes in “Fleishman Is in Trouble.”

FX

Many if not most circles of friends have that one couple in the group that always seems to be fighting about something or nothing or everything. They pick at each other’s habits at a dinner party. They mock each other’s comments at a backyard barbecue. They chastise each other a little bit too loudly in the restaurant or at the kids’ soccer game or on holidays or weddings. They’re EXHAUSTING to be around.

Meet Toby and Rachel Fleishman. The tension between them is so palpable, so thick, so toxic, you wonder why they’ve stayed together so long and why they won’t stop torturing themselves, their children and everyone around them. Yet when they do finally split up, it has a huge ripple effect and it’s terribly sad and it feels like a death in the family. After all, there really was a time when Toby and Rachel were young and in love and quite wonderful together, when they seemed like the perfect Manhattan power couple, when their future was so bright, their duplex needed extra-heavy shades.

Made by FX but streaming on Hulu, the limited series “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is a scathingly effective social satire, a slow-build mystery and a brilliantly acted deconstruction of a marriage that plays like a combination of “Kramer vs. Kramer” meets “The Undoing” with a sprinkling of “Gone Girl” in the mix.

‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

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An eight-episode series premiering with two episodes Thursday on Hulu.

Based on the novel of the same name by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (who wrote seven of the eight episodes) and featuring searing performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Claire Danes and Lizzy Caplan, this is an elegantly staged and thoroughly immersive dramatic deep-dive into the lives of some privileged older-range millennials who would appear to have it all but are suffocating under the weight of work and home pressures, unrealized dreams and a constant feeling of ennui. There are times when you’ll likely grow impatient and frustrated by the lot of ‘em — and even their kids — but even if you’ve never been to New York City and even if you’re in a different social and economic class than the principals here, you’ll be able to relate to so many of the situations, so many of the struggles, so many of the fights, so much of these lives.

“Fleishman Is in Trouble” is set circa 2016 (there are a number of references to the upcoming presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump), with a steady stream of flashbacks dating back as far as 20 years — all in the service of understanding Eisenberg’s Toby, a 41-year-old liver specialist who recently has been divorced after 15 years of marriage to his college sweetheart Rachel (Danes), a highly successful and high-strung talent agent. One night while Toby is sleeping in his apartment, Rachel drops off their children, 11-year-old Hannah (Meara Mahoney Gross) and 9-year-old Solly (Maxim Swinton) — and disappears. She might be at an exclusive yoga retreat; she might be having an affair with the father of one of her children’s classmates; she might be in peril.

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Claire Danes plays Fleishman’s ex, seemingly a villain until more emerges about her circumstances.

FX

What we know for sure is Toby has now become a full-time father, even as he tends to his patients and hopes for a promotion at the hospital and enjoys the surprising revelation that even though Rachel has ground away at his ego like someone in high heels putting out a cigarette, a 40-something, newly single doctor in Manhattan is like a rock star on the dating apps. All Toby has to do is swipe in the right direction, and within hours he’s having athletic sex with someone who was a stranger just hours ago!

Our narrator throughout the proceedings is Lizzy Caplan’s Libby, a magazine journalist in a career funk who lives in the suburbs with her wonderful and patient husband (Josh Radnor) and their children, and who observes Toby’s life like an anthropologist. Lizzy and Toby and Adam Brody’s wealthy bachelor Seth (“O.C.” callback name!) were best friends in college and have only recently reconnected after Toby’s divorce. As the series progresses, the focus sometimes shifts to the lives of Libby or Seth — and just when we’re convinced the absentee Rachel is the true villain of the story, we learn more about her circumstances and gain new sympathy for her.

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Fleishman’s college friend Libby (Lizzy Caplan), now back in his life, narrates the series.

FX

“Fleishman Is in Trouble” is a smart and quite literary project in more ways than one; Libby is a writer, and Christian Slater has a marvelous extended cameo as a macho alpha male writer who made a huge splash with a legendary and terribly sexist piece titled “Decoupling,” which detailed the death of a marriage from the man’s point of view. There’s also much discussion of The Block Universe Theory, which posits that the universe is a four-dimensional block of all the things that ever happen at any time and any place. This allows for some ingenious sequences in which we see the evolution of a relationship in one place, e.g., while driving his kids to the Hamptons, Toby remembers a dozen previous car trips, often with Rachel by his side, often when the family was actually happy.

This is an exceedingly well-cast show, with Eisenberg, Danes, Caplan and Brody all playing to their strengths and hitting notes we’ve seen them master in previous roles. Even though Toby, Rachel, Libby and Seth can all be insufferable narcissists at times, we believe them as three-dimensional, feeling human beings, and we find ourselves rooting for them.

Well, most of them. Well, maybe all of them.

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