Included on Best of 2019 lists by the likes of GQ and Uproxx, Mrs. Fletcher is a dual coming-of-age story chronicling the personal and sexual journeys of an empty-nest mother and her college freshman son, who both embrace their newfound freedom with mixed results. South African Liesl Tommy (Insecure, The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones) is part of the all-female directing team, which also includes Oscar nominee Nicole Holofcener (Orange Is The New Black), nine-time Emmy nominee Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia, Transparent) and Gillian Robespierre (Silicon Valley).
With Mrs. Fletcher having just been nominated for Best Limited Series at the GLAAD Media Awards, we caught up with Tom Perrotta, the creator, writer and executive producer, to find out more:
Where did Mrs. Fletcher start for you?
Every book that has worked for me has two ideas at the heart of it. The autobiographical aspect of this book was my kids going off to college and me feeling like that was the end of this period. It seemed all-consuming. Suddenly it was over and it did create space for something new. In a way, something new for me was working in television. But it was more that sense of ‘Hey, I’m not dead yet’ and there was some space for reinvention. For me, it wasn’t in terms of my personal life but more an artistic thing that I was pondering. I’d also been interested in women of my generation and how they’ve been dealing with this feminist revolution that’s been happening ever since I can remember. And the purest sense of it was ‘You’re a divorced woman, you have one child and he goes off to college and you’re alone now and you’re ready for something new.’ And then I was also aware at that point of all this turmoil around sex. This was before #MeToo broke open in the culture; there was all this stuff about sexual assaults on campus. I’d been interested in porn – Little Children had a porn sub-plot – and I’m still kind of wrapping my mind around what it means for our sexuality. This encyclopaedic library of human sexuality is now available to everyone and it’s kind of this unregulated, chaotic world that evolves. There are representations of pleasure that are very powerful and there’s also this scary, awful, cesspool of abuse. It’s this vast amount of material that is shaping our sexuality and we don’t like to talk about it. I know there are various people that do talk about it – and you can talk about it in an explicitly moral way – but to me I’m not interested in taking a polemical stand. Is porn good or bad? It’s here and it has clearly shaped the life of the son in my book but it also becomes the inspiration for Mrs. Fletcher to reclaim her sexuality and try on some new identities.
Even if we don’t talk about porn so much there’s a general assumption that men mostly use porn and women mostly don’t. So it’s interesting that you have a woman, Eve Fletcher, at the heart of your story. Why?
I don’t think anyone would be interested in a story about a middle-aged man who watches porn – nobody wants to see that. Sex is such a murky thing. Some part of our mind wants to control it and our culture wants to control it but it’s also this powerful destabilising source. The good part of the sexual revolution said ‘Everybody is entitled to pleasure’ and that has created, I think in many ways, space for LGBTQ rights to happen. It’s like, ‘Why can’t gay people have sexual pleasure?’ Once you saw that as a human right, that became a question suddenly that people had to answer. So I do think a lot of expanded freedoms came out of the sexual revolution. But feminists have rightly noted that porn objectifies and sometimes degrades women and Peggy Orenstein’s book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, talks about this. A lot of girls now are coming of age with boys who have learned from porn. I’m totally aware of that. I think what you have on campus now is this clash of two visions; in some ways there’s this somewhat puritanical attempt to control sex and say it’s got to be consent, it’s got to be mutual pleasure, you can’t objectify – and that’s all great. And then there is this unruly underworld that says ‘Just go out and get it and everybody wants it and this is how it’s done.’ And ‘She loves it and she’s begging for it.’ And it just creates, I think, a cognitive dissonance in our sexual life. The book is just working through that on all these different levels. We tried in the show to do that as well. One of the interesting things about it, I think, is Mrs. Fletcher’s two potential partners, one of which is Julian [Owen Teague]. If you were telling a story about a middle-aged man who got interested in a 19-year-old, people would be like ‘Whoa! You can’t tell that story.’ And the other is her employee [Amanda, played by Katie Kershaw] and if you tell a story about a boss having a flirtation with an employee that’s not right either. Yet somehow with Mrs. Fletcher, you see this woman and there doesn’t seem anything predatory in that and in a sense we suspend a lot of that moral judgement. And it’s kind of fascinating and I’m just trying to figure that out because I do think desire is unruly and that’s part of the beauty of it and yet unruly desire can lead us into chaotic mess.
Had you seen Kathryn Hahn in a specific role before that made you think she would be perfect for Mrs. Fletcher?
Did you see Afternoon Delight? Watch that because that was a Jill Soloway movie that really made me think of her. She plays an LA suburban mom and she ends up inviting this teenage stripper, who is clearly a troubled young woman, into her home and that sets off all these events. Kathryn plays the mom and it’s a bold performance. That movie has been in my mind because it’s definitely in that realm that I was exploring. But the thing that really strikes me with Kathryn – and I knew it was going to be an issue for the show – is that a lot of it, when you think about it, it’s ‘OK, this is a story about a woman who gets into porn.’ You’re alone when you do that, you know, and it has to be someone that you want to see alone, someone that can tell a story without feeling like they are opaque. And her inner life is so visible – or rather the inner life of her characters is so visible.
You said once that all good stories have a moral question at the heart of them. What would you say is at the heart of this one?
That’s a good question. I think when I talked about the unruliness of desire before, that’s really what the show is exploring. It’s a moment when the culture has become wary of the unruliness of desire. There’s this amazing book called Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and it’s fascinating because they remind me of the story we’re telling in Mrs. Fletcher. It’s about these women who are so consumed by their desires that it becomes a kind of monomania and a destructive force in their lives, but it’s also the only thing that makes them feel alive.
There’s a scene after Mrs. Fletcher hears her son talking dirty through the door and she gives him a lecture in the car about the way he should treat women. And then we go forward in the story and she is watching porn herself. That’s an interesting juxtaposition at the heart of your story.
Yes. I think when I was a kid there were these arbiters of morality who were themselves somehow ‘pure.’ And I think one of the stories that our culture has been grappling with – whether it’s priests who are abusing children or whatever it is – is that anybody who claims the moral high ground is setting themselves up for a fall. And it wasn’t so much that Eve was claiming a moral high ground but I do think that part of the battle for her is that she finds herself drawn to this porn world that, in some ways she knows because she has seen it in her son, can damage people or cause them to behave in ways that are hurtful or self-destructive or whatever. And yet it’s filling some void in her life. It’s that kind of space where people are doing things that conflict with their own moral sense, that to me is when a character becomes really interesting.
Authors are often unhappy with the way that their work has been adapted for the screen. You might tell me differently, but it would seem that your work has been handled well by both film and television. Is that how you feel?
Oh absolutely. Maybe that was an accident, maybe that was luck or maybe there is something about the work that lends itself to adaptation. Alexander Payne did Election and he is one of the great filmmakers of our generation. Todd Field did Little Children and he hasn’t done anything since but I think his two movies are fantastic. And then I was lucky enough to work with Damon Lindelof on The Leftovers and he’s a true auteur.
You said once – and forgive me for paraphrasing – that you aren’t interested in creating heroic characters and that you are interested in ordinary people and their lives. Is that a hallmark of your work?
Yes. And I think I’ve been able to look at very ordinary institutions – like schools, senior centres, the family, sports teams – and find characters who I think are in the midst of really important moral explorations and personal journeys – people who might get written off as boring. And that’s my sense as a writer. In real life I do it all the time; I think certain people are boring but the writer in me knows they are not if I could just figure out where the story was.
It’s interesting that you are writing about ordinary people at a time when cinema, and a lot of TV, is dominated by comic book ‘superheroes.’ Do you believe that long form television gives you the best creative outlet for that kind of storytelling?
I do. I was thinking about this the other day. I got interested in film when that indie revolution of the 1990s happened and the kind of stories I wanted to tell I was suddenly seeing in movies by Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee. It was like, ‘Oh, there is a place in Hollywood for the kind of work that I do.’ And luckily I was able to get a movie made by Alexander Payne. And then even that moment started to shut down and then I’m watching The Sopranos and I’m watching Mad Men and I’m thinking ‘Oh, now you can tell these stories over here. Let me go do that.’ I felt very lucky to have my career coincide with those two moments where I think this unlikely phenomena happened, where mass media was producing very difficult stories that I wanted to tell. And of course I came out of the 1970s and that was another moment where Hollywood was making really dark, morally complex movies. I felt very betrayed by that moment in the 1980s when Top Gun and Rambo came along and suddenly we were back to a simple morality. And unfortunately I feel that way about the superhero stuff. I always leave those movies feeling quite hollow.