Sarah Shatz/HBO
One of the most interesting—and welcome—byproducts of the content glut we wade through with our laptops and Rokus and Apple TVs is the way sex is being portrayed on-screen. While plenty of TV shows still play the act for laughs, titillation, or shock value, others (Euphoria, Big Mouth, and Girls among them) dare to portray sex as the messy, emotionally fraught affair it can sometimes be.

Add to that list Mrs. Fletcher, the new HBO series developed by Tom Perrotta and based on his 2017 novel of the same name. Much of the sex portrayed through the show’s seven episodes is awkward or uncomfortable or worse. With only one exception (which I can’t discuss at the risk of spoiling a major plot point), it’s not difficult to watch any of it, but the goal is to serve up shivers of recognition rather than arousal.

The key difference between Mrs. Fletcher and the aforementioned shows is that this one focuses on a woman in her 40s. As portrayed by the ineffable Kathryn Hahn, Eve Fletcher is a divorcée who, after delivering her son Brendan (played by Jackson White) to college, returns to an empty house. At first, she wanders down the usual pathways: indulging in white wine and cigarettes, getting high for the first time in ages, taking a writing class at community college. But with all this free time on her hands, Eve finds the floodgates of her sexual desire thrown open. And she dives straight in, starting with a lot of porn and a fair bit of fantasizing and winding up with her awkwardly spanking herself and engaging in an initially hot but quickly demoralizing one-night stand.

Hahn is, as ever, perfect throughout. It’s not a glamorous role, particularly when she’s asked to bend herself over the arm of a couch and talk dirty to herself as she slaps her ass red. But as she did in I Love Dick and her stunning turn in Transparent, Hahn uses subtle shifts in her facial and vocal expressions to reveal the ache at Eve’s core. This is a woman who has spent her adult life working in service of others, whether her son or the residents of the senior center where she works. Now that she can concentrate on her own needs, Eve barely knows where to begin. Through Hahn, Eve's wobbly uncertainty feels all too real and relatable.

If Mrs. Fletcher kept its focus entirely on the title character, this would have been another success for Perrotta, who has seen three of his other novels adapted, brilliantly, into films (Election and Little Children) and a previous HBO series (The Leftovers).

But, in keeping with the source material, Perrotta attempts to balance out Eve’s story with that of Brendan as he tries to find his way at college. It’s a fairly standard journey—high-school stud finds himself on his heels negotiating campus life—that isn’t given any kind of weight, mostly due to White’s unformed performance. He looks the part of the all-American boy, with angular jaw and six-pack abs, but can’t seem to tap into any emotion beyond brow-furrowed confusion. The series does him no favors, either, as it’s apparent where his story arc is headed early on. With no surprises in plot or performance, there’s little reason to care about where he lands in the final episode.

Other subplots do shore things up considerably, especially the timid but poignant romance blossoming between a transgender woman (Jen Richards) and one of Eve’s classmates (Ifádansi Rashad), and the strained relationship that Eve still has with her ex-husband (an underused Josh Hamilton). But those aren’t the elements that make the show worth returning to. It’s the journey of Eve and the way it is brought to rich, sticky life by Hahn.

Mrs. Fletcher premieres Sunday, October 27, on HBO.