Just two years ago, Kathryn Hahn starred in a wildly ambitious, whip-smart, and searingly sexy series about a middle-aged woman at an erotic and existential crossroads. Created by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins, Amazon’s I Love Dick cemented its lead actress as the face of fortysomething female sexual frustration while demanding from her a level of emotional complexity none of her other roles has come close to offering. Through Hahn’s flailing filmmaker character, Chris Kraus (also the name of the author of the epistolary novel on which the show was based), Soloway and Gubbins explored how sex and desire could reinvigorate as well as humiliate. The duo also examined how art about female lust, and especially women’s art about women’s bodies, has historically been dismissed as unserious. (“There are 500 times as many nudes in art history textbooks … as there are female artists,” notes one character.) In a sad bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, the dramedy was howlingly underseen and canceled after one season.
Hahn now stars in HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta’s seven-part adaptation of his latest novel. Tasteful and tame, the miniseries, true to its MILF-y title, is I Love Dick’s buttoned-up suburban sister. If I Love Dick fucked, eagerly if sometimes sloppily, the gently satirical and conscientiously compassionate Mrs. Fletcher mostly just thinks, albeit a lot, about sex. Hahn plays Eve Fletcher, a recent empty-nester and longtime divorcée who finds that the societal scripts for women past day-to-day mothering have little to suggest besides candles, baths, and moronic admonitions—always in cursive!—to “breathe.” The kind of mom who would cut the crusts off her adult son’s sandwiches if he asked her—we see her packing his stuff for his move into his dorm in their first scene together—she has little to turn to but her writing class and porn once Brendan (Jackson White) flies the coop.
As a study of sexual reconnection with one’s libido, Mrs. Fletcher offers frustratingly little payoff. Eve isn’t archetypal enough to be an everywoman, nor is she detailed enough to stand out as a specific character. Perrotta has touted the show’s all-female directing lineup—the pilot is helmed by Nicole Holofcener, who’s followed by Liesl Tommy, Carrie Brownstein, and Gillian Robespierre—but the problem lies in the scripts, which don’t seem all that interested in what Eve is actually into. On the morning of the day where Eve drops off Brendan at his college (“BSU,” a wan attempt at a joke), she overhears him calling a sexual partner a “dirty fucking slut”—language he probably learned from porn, and which she seems to disapprove of. But there’s little discrimination in Eve’s viewing habits, which denies us an important avenue through which to get to know the show’s protagonist. Her eventual partners feel circumstantial, too, so it’s never quite clear what, or who, the main character wants, or if she’s getting it. It doesn’t help that the comedy proceeds at the languorous pace of a flower’s petals unfurling at sunrise. In the time it takes Eve to venture a kiss, I Love You Dick’s Chris set her life ablaze out of manic horniness at least thrice.
Hahn is reliably fantastic—curious and warmly hesitant and sometimes repellently overhelpful—but she doesn’t get to do anything here that her fans haven’t seen her do in Soloway’s Transparent and Afternoon Delight, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, and, of course, that other show I clearly think you should watch instead of Mrs. Fletcher. But if you’re gonna stick to HBO, the real reason to watch this one might be the unexpected ways mother and son thrive, or not, in the quickly shifting sands of the culture wars.
Once Eve’s home life no longer becomes the most important thing in her life, she’s free to immerse herself in the tangles of others, especially individuals she has little in common with. She spends time with a queer co-worker (Katie Kershaw), develops a friendship with her trans writing teacher (Jen Richards in a quietly radiant performance), and contemplates a flirtation with a 19-year-old classmate (Owen Teague) who has his own difficult relationship with Brendan from their high school years. The story of an older woman rediscovering her sexual self should feel like the underrepresented narrative that we’ve been celebrating Peak TV for telling, but it’s actually Brendan’s realization that feels like Mrs. Fletcher’s freshest gambit: He’s judged as harshly in college for being a basic bro as he’s judged everyone else around him before. A proud lunkhead, Brendan got by in high school with a personality that amounted to “tall.” But in college, surrounded by so many people who view his previous assets—athleticism, shrugging chauvinism, and an unexamined sense of superiority and sexual entitlement—with suspicion, Brendan begins to wonder what he doesn’t get about college. It’s never clear how much Eve is to blame, if at all, for her son’s moral indifference and willfully empty head.(In Perrotta’s novel, many of Brendan’s chapters were devoted to a sexual assault allegation against him and its aftermath. That storyline is minimized and reduced to its plot purpose here, adding to the sense of the adaptation’s timidity.)
Coincidentally, Brendan and his largely neglectful father (Josh Hamilton) end up at a feminist art exhibition on campus during parents’ weekend, where the Fletcher men understandably, if insensitively, mock the bad sculptures and installations around them, one of which simply drones, “Patriarchy. Patriarchy. Patriarchy.” The parody isn’t particularly sharp—it seems improbable that so much of the art would be Victoria’s Secret pink, for instance—but it does illustrate how Brendan’s reliance on fleeting moments of smugness will ultimately sink him. Still, the show’s cheeky inversion of society’s winners and losers against the backdrop of the culture wars can’t make up for the fact that, for too long stretches, Eve and Brendan are united in a stuporous passivity. Call those wearisome hours foreplay if you want, but for my tastes, Mrs. Fletcher diddles the wrong way.