With “Fleishman is in Trouble,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner has sparked a wave of nostalgia for viewers who, like the FX limited series’ three main characters, Toby, Libby and Seth, met during a study abroad program in Israel. Whether it was Hebrew U. in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv U.—or Bar Ilan U., where Brodesser-Akner spent her junior year of college— the TV adaption of the best-selling novel is not only an excavation of divorce and parenthood in the modern age, but a vessel through which fans of the show can relive one of the most impressionable periods of their early twenties, that period during which they left America, nurtured their Jewish identity in a foreign country and forged relationships that stretched into their adulthoods.
“Fleishman” is one of four nominations in the WGA awards limited series category. “The Dropout,” “Pam & Tommy,” and “The Staircase” are also in contention at the event, taking place March 5 at the Fairmont Century City Plaza in Los Angeles.
“Fleishman” is a personal story, notes Brodesser-Akner, but that’s really the only way to write in such a way that captivates a broader audience.
“I only know how to write what’s in my heart–what’s been in my heart,” says the journalist-author. “And I know someone who gave me [this] great advice a long time ago: your writing will be bad unless it’s for one person. And if you look at anything I ever wrote for GQ, it’s different from the things I write for the New York Times. And it’s not because GQ and the Times are different—it’s because my editors there are different.”
“And so, this thing [“Fleishman”] was the story,” she continues. “I was very lucky I had a network that’s at a studio and producing partners who were like, this is weird–but we get it. And I think in an era of too much content, the winner, I hope, will be specificity. Because when I see something specific, even if it has nothing to do with me, I admire it.”
In “Fleishman,” Toby (Jesse Eisenberg), Libby (Lizzy Caplan) and Seth (Adam Brody) meet in 1994, an era pre-social media blitzkrieg. That, too, informs the series’ pulsating sense of sentimentalism, says Brodesser-Akner. It was a time when you could be whatever you wanted, without fear that a video of you running around knocking back vodka shots or dancing on tables in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound–famous for its robust bar scene–would go viral. You could dash naked around the community dining hall of Kibbutz Gezer during Sukkot study break and no one back home would be the wiser. You could make out with the hot, high-ranking paratrooper you met that long, lazy weekend in Dahab and tell you boyfriend at the small liberal arts college you attended you were on an educational tour of the Cave of the Machpelah.
“I have a friend who’s a mystery writer, and she says that 1996, two years after we were there—that was the last year you could disappear,” says Brodesser-Akner. “It was the last year you could disappear without a cell phone. In Israel, we were gone for a year. And there are no pictures of me being ridiculous. And it was a special moment.”
“I think the whole Fleischmann aesthetic is a Jewish aesthetic,” she adds. But Brodesser-Akner contends even if “Fleishman” hadn’t taken place in Israel, if the characters had met in, say, Italy or France, that so many viewers are entranced by it indicates that wherever one travels in one’s late teens or early twenties, it’s a time to experiment with self-identity, to try out different versions of oneself whilst straddling that fragile cusp between adolescence and adulthood.
“At that age, you’re at the beginning of something,” says Brodesser-Akner. “And what I think is so interesting is that we finished high school, and we were somehow allowed to be grown-ups. In this new country. We were new. It was like, no one is going to know about high school Taffy.”