When you consider TV's greatest dramatic actors, a few names come to mind. James Gandolfini. Bryan Cranston. James Garner.
Claire Danes belongs on that list. Her performance in "My So-Called Life" was short-lived, but she perfectly captures the emotional roller coaster every teenager is forced to ride. Her flair for melodrama continued in the 2010 TV movie "Temple Grandin" and the series "Homeland," both of which earned her Emmys.
So what the heck is she doing in "Fleishman Is in Trouble"?
The first five episodes of the new series, now streaming on Hulu, are largely about Toby Fleishman (Jesse Eisenberg), a doctor with the bedside manner of Marcus Welby. He's willing to put a promotion on the line to spend time with his children after his ex, Rachel, suddenly disappears. We're convinced that Rachel, a successful theatrical agent, has put her need for a Broadway hit over her desire to tuck the kids in.
Danes, who plays Rachel, is initially seen only in flashbacks — needling, bullying and screaming at her perfect partner. Poor, poor Toby.
But in the final three episodes, the series looks back at the relationship from her perspective. Is she really a shrill version of Lady Macbeth, or a fragile character whose husband wasn't there for her after a traumatic incident? Did he — and her so-called friends — ignore her when she was showing signs of a nervous breakdown? Which Fleishman is really in trouble?
It's at this point that viewers will realize why Danes, 43, took on the small but pivotal role.
"What's particularly fascinating and unusual about the story is how we are forced to confront the ways in which we immediately empathize with a male character, especially when they're under a specific kind of duress, like in a family environment, right?" Danes told TV critics during a virtual news conference. "It's not until the very end that we realize how skewed our understanding of the story is, because we've only heard a particular side of it."
The latter part of the series, based on the 2019 bestselling novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, revisits scenes from earlier episodes. This time, Rachel is a little less hysterical, Toby is a little colder. The changes are subtle, but they make all the difference.
"When Claire is viewed from my perspective, she appears ambitious to a fault, vindictive, negligent," said Eisenberg. "Then, when the show flips perspectives and you see me from her point of view, you have similar feelings toward me. One of the challenges that we faced was just kind of modulating how villainous and how heroic we are as actors."
There's a good chance you won't have much sympathy for either character. They're straight out of a Woody Allen film: Upper East Side people with Upper East Side problems, like finding time to escape to the Hamptons, applying to exclusive nursery schools and securing a table at Joe Allen, a restaurant featured in at least two of Woody Allen's movies.
But there's no denying the power of Danes' work. Other actors' temper tantrums may make you want to hide under the covers. She makes you want to hug her tighter.
It's yet another remarkable performance in a remarkable career.