In the second episode of the thoughtful Hulu show, Fleishman is in Trouble, the protagonist, 41-year-old new divorcee Toby Fleishman, is driving his 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to the Hamptons in the BMW that belongs to his ex-wife, Rachel — the successful founder of a prominent New York City talent agency who has sacrificed family for career.
Despite his nearly $300,000-a-year salary, Rachel views Fleishman, a mere doctor, as an underachiever, a slacker who lacks ambition. Fleishman loves his work for what it is and not just for where it can get him; he loves helping his patients heal; he loves solving problems; he loves being useful and satisfying real human needs.
One scene flashes back to a moment earlier in their marriage and apparently before Rachel’s career really takes off. Fleishman tells Rachel he was allowed in the room where Dr. Loo, the head of the gastroenterology division at his hospital, lay dying. While Fleishman takes in the humanity of the moment, Rachel, thinking about her husband’s prospects for advancement, tells him, “That means you’re in.”
“Is that what they say in the mailroom when you get to watch a senior agent die?” Fleishman shoots back, offended by his wife’s Machiavellian comment, prompting an argument about her semantics. Rachel tells Toby he’s misinterpreting her. ‘Does she not mean what she just said?’ Toby wonders. Does she come off a bit sociopathic? Is she gaslighting him?
For his sensibility, Fleishman is rewarded with something bordering patronizing sympathy (“good for you” is a frequent response from those who learn about his occupation), the shame of his absentee wife and his eldest daughter’s contempt.
“Are you gonna get a car?” Fleishman’s daughter asks him on the drive to the Hamptons (Rachel, by the way, also owns the second home they’re driving to). “Can you even afford one?”
“What? … Yes. Yes, I can afford a car,” Fleishman says. “You do understand I’m a doctor and not, like … Not, like, a homeless person, right?”
“Dad. What? You can’t say ‘homeless person,’” his daughter responds in shock and disgust.
In the cloistered, rarified world of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Fleishman may as well be the help. Rachel’s glamorous career as an entertainment executive brings more money and status and prestige than her husband’s job, enough to essentially invert conventional gender roles (she “wears the pants” in the marriage, so to speak).
But throughout the first several episodes of the show, Toby’s work as a doctor is tangible — you see his patients, you see inside the hospital where he works, you see the residents who look up to him, you see the medical problems they solve. We can see Rachel’s status and the esteem (and cavernous apartment) her job brings her and the family (at least before the divorce), but we rarely see her working aside from leaving marriage arguments to answer work emails.
Throughout the series, we constantly see Toby juxtaposed against aggressive social strivers like his wife — the practicing doctor at Toby’s hospital who is promoted chief of medicine (or in the words of the narrator, makes his “dubious ascent to fundraiser”), or the medical researcher who names his second home after a hedonistic prescription drug he invents and who offers Toby a million-dollar job heading a department designed to produce misinformation about holistic medicine and alternative therapies.
Fleishman is a brilliant illustration of how, nowadays, so much money and power is concentrated on work that is pointless and/or pathological. The late economic anthropologist David Graeber calls this a “terrible psychic wound running across our society,” and which seems to engulf the Fleishman’s marriage.
“It is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way … to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work,” Graeber said. “For instance: in our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”
Doctors, he notes, are among the rare exceptions to that general rule — just not, as Fleishman demonstrates, on the Upper East Side, which is a microcosm of our winner-take-all, globalized economy.
In his new book Adrift: America in 100 Charts, New York University business professor Scott Galloway points out that in America at present, it’s never been harder to become a millionaire and it’s never been easier to become a billionaire.
To secure that millionaire status (which on a salary of a mere $1 million a year, likely still won’t get him there after taxes and other sunk costs) and the respect of his pathologically ambitious wife, Toby has to make that “dubious ascent,” which means abandoning the meaningful work to which he’s dedicated his life; it means giving up the work of being hands-on and caring for patients (work that is unsubtly feminized) and becoming a corporate bureaucrat who peddles bullshit.
Higher up the economic food chain, Wall Street and Silicon Valley are flush with examples of glorified, cult-like founders who have BS’d and backstabbed their way to overnight billionaire and gazillionaire status, mainly through initial public offerings (IPOs) — from Elizabeth Holmes and Elon Musk to Adam Neumann and Sam Bankman-Fried.
“Yogababble grew up in the brand era, when inanimate objects started to take on animate characteristics,” Galloway writes. “Objects and companies could be personified — likable, young, cool, patriotic. Corporate comms execs began to scale the charisma and vision of their business’ founder. Overpromise and overdeliver became a means to access cheap capital. (Elon Musk, April 2019: ‘A year from now, we’ll have over a million cars with full self-driving.’ Number of such cars on the road in early 2022: zero.) The lines between charm, vision, bullshit, and fraud have nearly evaporated. The smokescreen that enables this kind of bad party trick is yogababble.”
This “yogababble” ethos saturates the world of Fleishman, where wealth is hoarded among a 1 percent that constantly fails the test Graeber offers for determining the social value of a given class of workers:
“An objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: What would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, mechanics, it’s so obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers [and] musicians would clearly be a lesser place.”
Pharmaceutical executives? Talent agents? Private equity CEOs? Lobbyists? Corporate attorneys? The argument for the existence of their kind of work becomes much harder to justify (although, of course, there are exceptions).
“What does it say about our society,” Graeber contends, “that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: If 1 percent of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.)”
Ironically enough, for most of the early Fleishman episodes, Rachel is missing — from the lives of her two children and from her workplace — leaving Toby alone to solve the riddle of his failed marriage and his fractured life, and leaving the viewers to wonder whether the couple’s vaunted professional and social ambitions are even worth the trouble. Channeling Graeber, we’re also left to wonder what Rachel’s abrupt and rather lengthy disappearance says about the value of her work in the context of real human needs.
Perhaps this is the psychic pain that Fleishman channels. What are the social consequences for the winners in a winner-take-all world that lavishly rewards the most likely to succeed by its pathological, sociopathic, psychosomatically toxic and ultimately pointless rules while impoverishing the rest?
We, the viewing audience, are as invested in this world as the fictional characters. We are the rest. And so the question for us becomes, “Why have we allowed the world to stay this way?” What can we do about it?
The first step toward changing things is to realize that, like Toby Fleishman, we’re in deep trouble, and no superhuman experts are coming to get us out of it.