The constantly unappreciated Kathryn Hahn has now been unappreciated in her own HBO series, Mrs. Fletcher. The perennial supporting actress’s talent at sugar-coated barbs, wounded smiles, astonished blinks, and other seemingly commonplace feats that are nearly impossible to replicate well in fiction, have made her well-loved and stumped-for by a loyal contingent. Now that she’s a lead who’s having a sexual awakening and midlife crisis all at once, she’s been let down once again—and it hurts twice as much.
Eve Fletcher (Hahn)’s terrible son Brendan (Jackson White) is off to college. She’s a single mom, sad that her gross son is growing up, and feeling as unfulfilled as one might expect. Created by the source material novelist Tom Perrotta, who also wrote the show’s pilot and finale, Mrs. Fletcher treats its horny middle-aged woman as a subject unique and incredible enough to carry a show simply on that premise alone: Local Mother Watches Porn, Has Sex.
I saw all seven episodes of the limited series, a rare half-hour dramedy, and it takes five for Eve’s sort-of-sad, sort-of-horny mom to do … anything. The show’s fore(shadow)play is obvious, sleepy, and definitely not having enough fun with its own premise of self-discovery. For example, we know from the first moment Brendan’s bullying victim (Owen Teague) shows his face that Eve will sleep with him.
There’s just not much development to its central leads, their view of sex as a commodity, or the plots that get them laid. While Eve’s multi-episode arc of “boy it sure is nice to rub one out while I’m home alone” threatens to teeter into full-blown porn addiction (without playing “Addicted to Love,” which is a major letdown), it totters back to normalcy. The changes that do happen are in hiccups and spurts, disjointed enough to sever any ties between audience and narrative while small enough to maintain its dullness. Mostly Eve looks around quietly.
Brendan—the other half of the show—is, simply, a dick. He’s a dick who lives up to his simplistic first impression, with a lot of extraneous issues thrown in ornamentally. An autistic half-brother who isn’t really part of his life turns up exactly once so that Brendan can have daddy issues with a twist…one of many people or experiences treated like props for far less interesting leads. The supporting characters aren’t props, but have the opposite problem: they’re so much more fun, more fascinating, and more novel to the medium that they leave you wondering why the show couldn’t figure out a better excuse to follow them around than Mrs. Fletcher.
Directors Gillian Robespierre, Carrie Brownstein, Nicole Holofcener, and Liesl Tommy do great work elevating and sexifying the material they’re given. Saturating the two sides of this suburban world with the alternating perspectives of Eve and Brendan—blending the aesthetic devices of porn with the mundane eroticism of daily horniness, for example—makes the rote characterization and blase storytelling at least pleasant to look at. But if Kathryn Hahn is on the kitchen floor trying to get herself off to very explicit laptop porn, all while trying not to burn cookies, and “pleasant” is what’s coming to mind … a job is not being done well. And Hahn’s giving it everything she’s got.
Hahn puts herself out there completely, as do her co-stars Teague, White, and Katie Kershaw (excellent as Eve’s co-worker). It’s no surprise the actors took to material that asks them to be extremely physically vulnerable, and they perform these scenes well (helped in part, surely, by the talented directorial roster): Teague is an awestruck worshipper of Hahn, Kershaw is a self-confident whirlwind, White is toned-down Brock Turner. But whenever the arcs, the dialogue, the actual writing of the show attempts to string these acting exercises together, it’s all flat.
Breezing through some botched porn messaging—good for ladies, bad for guys: that’s that!—and a hilariously myopic view of Facebook-addled wine moms, Perrotta’s material simply isn’t funny, sweet, or insightful. Some scenes ascribe the author’s worldview to a generation he seems only to have read about online. When the majority of a consent seminar’s teen audience is heckling and thinks it’s bullshit, you’re not writing teens correctly. Maybe I’m giving Gen Z too much credit but they’re certainly more earnestly woke than this barely-updated group of Animal House rejects.
Overly cute-’n-sexy dialogue bathes you in college smarm before throwing you the toaster of midlife crisis cliche. Embarrassing, goofy imagery (a slo-mo indie-scored nude dive Hahn takes in the senior center’s pool is more “Nirvana album cover” than anything else) supplements tenuous and trite connections across the Fletcher generations. Whenever it should lighten the mood, it goes for depth. Whenever it should develop its characters, it goes for a cheap laugh.
Well-directed sex scenes from a bevy of talented female directors can only boost bad writing so much. And when the writing is bad, the main characters suffer. Hahn and White’s characters seem to have been diminished for TV, trimming their interior lives from the novel to make room for a few more exterior side characters. The series leads up to a long-foreshadowed comeuppance gag that arrives too late to be an effective narrative device, instead cheapening whatever minimal messaging it put forth. That’s what Mrs. Fletcher is: another cheapening in a string of cheapenings in Hahn’s career as she rejoins Judy Greer and their posse of undervalued actresses to once again wander the TV wasteland looking for material worthy of their charms.
Mrs. Fletcher premieres Sunday, October 27th on HBO
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.