Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to Eve Fletcher, the fed-up single mother so enticingly, relatably portrayed by Kathryn Hahn in HBO’s scrumptious new dramedy “Mrs. Fletcher,” premiering Sunday. Eve’s popular but brutish 18-year-old son, Brendan (Jackson White), is a self-absorbed jerk on the day she drives him to his freshman dorm at a campus several hours away. He deprives her of even a hint of gratitude or fond farewell, choosing to spend the last minutes before they depart upstairs in his bedroom, receiving oral sex from his ex-girlfriend, while Eve packs the Grand Caravan.
Because Eve unfortunately overheard the crude, misogynistic names Brendan calls the girl while they’re being intimate, she tries to have a talk to her son about respect while driving to the university. “You have to be nice to women,” she stammers. “Especially now, you know, in this day and age — in life, really.” He tunes her out and turns up the radio.
With Brendan gone (and never answering her texts), Eve realizes that she spent too many years forgetting to have a life outside of raising him and working at her job as the director of a community center for senior citizens. That she comes home, pours a glass of wine and opens her laptop to explore the wide world of streaming hardcore porn is not as shocking at it might have once seemed. It’s 2019 — better late than never to the party of one.
“Mrs. Fletcher” is faithfully adapted from Tom Perrotta’s 2017 novel, as it ought to be. After decades of seeing and sometimes helping other people adapt his books to film and TV (including “Election,” “Little Children” and a greatly transmogrified, far more morose version of “The Leftovers”), Perrotta is finally in charge here as creator and producer of this seven-episode limited series. Because he’s a master of writing about a certain cynical strain of suburban ennui, Perrotta knows exactly what to do, which is mainly just get out of the way of a terrific cast and a skilled raft of episode directors, including Nicole Holofcener (“Friends With Money”), Gillian Robespierre (“Obvious Child”) and Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”).
In addition to exploring her dirtier thoughts, Eve enrolls in a personal essay-writing class at the local community college, taught by Margo (Jen Richards), a trans woman. There are only a few other students in the class — one of them is Julian (Owen Teague), a quiet, 18-year-old freshman who happens to have been on the receiving end of Brendan’s bullying in high school. Julian instantly develops a crush on Eve, who is not altogether opposed to his interest; it fuels the older-woman/younger-lover fantasies she’s been exploring online.
The running theme through “Mrs. Fletcher” is how quickly we tend to shut off the avenues that may lead us to our greater satisfactions — even the private ones. The show excels at weaving a diverse bundle of stories together into a story about personal awareness. The teacher wonders whether her attraction to a cisgendered, heterosexual male in the class (Rashad Edwards) is mutual; a free-spirited co-worker (Katie Kershaw) helps Eve loosen up; Eve’s neighbor (Casey Wilson) suffers the effects of a long-stewing marital crisis.
Although the show is obviously and correctly centered on Hahn as Eve, the real surprise is White’s memorable and terrifically nuanced performance as Brendan.
The best parts of the show follow Brendan into his disastrous first semester. He’s cocky and confident in a socially woke, liberal studies environment that no longer puts a primacy on conferring BMOC status on each and every dude-bro who swaggers across the quad. He’s shunned by young women, abandoned by his roommate and written off by his academic adviser — and, to a great degree, he deserves it. Beneath his toughness, he feels rejected by his father, Ted (Josh Hamilton), Eve’s ex-husband, who has remarried a younger woman and now has a young autistic son.
“The thing is, you’re good. I don’t have to worry about you,” Ted assures Brendan, before cutting short a parents’ weekend visit. “You’re so smart, you’re good at sports — people love you. You’re good, yeah?”
It couldn’t be further from the truth, and it has always been Perrotta’s great gift to give dimension and depth to characters who, on the surface, haven’t earned our sympathies. “Mrs. Fletcher” is filled with funny and awkward scenes in which the lead character has her world greatly opened, but it is perhaps more memorable (and more unique) as a show about a young man who finds the world is shutting him out.
Mrs. Fletcher (30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.