We, as a species, often learn by watching. We watch others to study social cues and note the consequences of their mistakes. We watch movies and TV shows, absorbing all kinds of information about love, sex, beauty, parenting, wealth, security, happiness, and all manner of other things. It’s tough to say what you’ll absorb from “Mrs. Fletcher,” HBO’s new limited series from writer Tom Perrotta, who adapts his book of the same name. You’ll almost certainly absorb the knowledge that Kathryn Hahn is an excellent actor, assuming you hadn’t already (and you’ll be welcomed aboard the Kathryn Hahn Is Incredible Express with open arms; we have snacks). It’s possible you’ll absorb some new ideas about pornography, sex, or self-discovery, but that will depend on how much time you’ve spent considering those things. If the answer is ‘very little,’ congratulations: This show has much to teach you.
Even if that’s not your situation, “Mrs. Fletcher” has got some things to say, and is also possessed of a great performance at its center (plus a few more for good measure). But the ideas aren’t quite as fresh as the series seems to think, the journeys taken by the characters both too slow and too slight, and the filmmaking, while elegant and often alluring, not rich enough to wholly compensate for its other deficiencies. That’s not to say it’s not an engaging series. Each of its seven 30-minute episodes offers warmth, humor, and something bittersweet, and each manages to further endear the audience to at least a few of its characters (again, please consider boarding the Hahn Train; the snacks are almost as excellent as Kathryn Hahn.) I watched all seven in one sitting and have zero regrets. But gazing back from the other side of the show’s cliffhanger finale—and as a limited series, it’s highly likely that it’s intended as a series-ending cliffhanger—it’s hard to ignore the sense that nearly all of it is a little lightweight.
Eve Fletcher (Hahn) is sending her only son, Brendan (Jackson White) off to college. Her life has for years, it seems, been consumed by raising her son without much help from her ex-husband (Josh Hamilton of “Eighth Grade”) and running a local senior center, where she’s recently been confronted with the issue of a sweet-tempered, good-natured man (Bill Raymond) who’s begun to watch pornography and masturbate in public. Her friends have encouraged her to embrace the “skinny MILF goddess” empty nest life, but blind dates with real estate guys and candles embossed with calming phrases don’t seem to be doing the trick. Instead, she finds herself drawn to pornography, exploring her own interests and desires and fantasizing about acting on them at moments both appropriate and inappropriate. When she begins taking a personal essay-writing class at a local community college, those impulses get a lot more complicated—particularly when she’s talking to classmate Julian (Owen Teague), who went to high school (and was bullied by) Brendan. And all the while Brendan’s living his own awakening, though his is of the rude, not the sexual, variety; turns out, being hot, straight, and white isn’t enough for success or happiness after high school.
If it seems as though Brendan’s story gets short shrift in that brief overview, that’s because the same is true of its treatment by the show. It’s also because it’s just less interesting than Eve’s story, and it would seem that Perrotta, the rest of the show’s writers, and its directors (among them Nicole Holofcener, Carrie Brownstein, Gillian Robespierre, and Lisel Tommy) agree. No slight against White is intended. He makes Brendan a real dick of a kid who’s clearly following a script that’s always served him well, and who has failed to consider that he might need to write a new one, or better yet throw the pages away for good. A conversation about global warming is an opportunity for a punchline about surfing a tidal wave. An invitation from a dormmate to watch nature docs with friends is just a chance to subtly sneer. And a weekend with dad is really a chance to have all those ideas reinforced, to sneer at feminist art and accept that it’s unthinkable that Brendan would ever be anything but okay. The most familiar script, and his most disastrous, is the one he learned from porn.
The problem is that Brendan’s arc can be summed up as “increasingly confused and lonely,” without much changing for him, in him, or in his environment. And that’s maybe okay, but unfortunately, Eve’s arc suffers from a similar problem. It’s often about observation, or about the actions she doesn’t take. Because Hahn is the performer, that’s not a huge problem—I would watch her do things far more boring than fantasize about seducing a person giving out popsicle samples, or attempt to masturbate with couch cushions without letting a batch of cookies burn—but it does give the series an oddly static kind of energy. There’s tension, but it mostly stems from not knowing when the bottom will drop out for Brendan, or when Eve will give in to a particularly ill-advised temptation, rather than any choices they make or consequences they suffer. By the time their paths eventually cross again in the finale, they’ll both have spent seven episodes taking only baby steps forward, before either catapulting or collapsing into the next stage; the excellence of both performances keeps the show from meandering toward a kind of bland, bottomless, static introspection.
Luckily, those performances exist—Hahn, in particular, is magnetic, stitching together a vast quilt of melancholic smiles, awkward shakes of the head, car singalongs, and gaze after warm, penetrating gaze. White wisely chooses to make Brendan’s bro-status a kind of comfortable costume he wears, and the young actor lets his eyes and the occasional faltering smile paint the picture of a young man who suddenly finds himself a stranger in a strange land. Teague also does fine work, as does Katie Kershaw as Eve’s alluring coworker, but it’s Jen Richards and Ifádansi Rashad who make the biggest impression in the supporting cast. As Eve’s professor and one of her classmates respectively, the pair quietly craft an honestly affecting love story, rich with easy chemistry and surprisingly nuanced, given their relatively brief screen time. Richards, a font of understated charisma, is particularly good.
Great performances alone won’t make a show exceptional, and “Mrs. Fletcher” is proof of that. But they also make up for a whole lot. Nor are Hahn, White, Richards, and the rest the only draws to this engaging dramedy, which makes it so easy to follow its two protagonists on their respective journeys. If they weren’t so good, and the direction were less elegant, it might be easy to overlook the places where it’s all just too thin. Yet like much of the pornography Eve watches, the show is not particularly interested in story. It’s content to let Hahn fill each beat, no matter how empty, knowing that if all else fails, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had in watching someone who likes to watch.
Whole season screened for review.