“The Shrink Next Door” gets its title from the 2019 Wondery/Bloomberg podcast hosted by Joe Nocera, but whether you listened to the business reporter’s investigation into Dr. Isaac Herschkopf and his fraudulent manipulations of patient Marty Markowitz, what’s peculiar about the Apple TV+ adaptation is that there is no next-door neighbor. In the podcast, Nocera discovers this doomed pairing because they’re living on the other side of his fence, and the idea that such a twisted tale could be taking place one house over is part of what gives the strange-but-true story such an eerie wallop. Shattering the normalcy of a relatable neighborly relationship is a provocative entry-point for this bonkers, private debacle.
The show, developed by Georgia Pritchett (a writer on “Succession” and “Veep”), jettisons that perspective in favor of fully investing in its two main characters, as well as the two movie stars playing them. While Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd’s performances help imbue “The Shrink Next Door” with a complex intimacy that works hand-in-hand with the scripts’ tightened focus on Marty and Ike’s toxic relationship, the eight-episode TV series loses the thrilling sense of discovery that comes from a third-party slowly uncovering secrets. The result is a dark comedy too polite in its approach to its nasty little story, mixed with a tender drama that’s stretched a few hours beyond its means.
Spanning 32 years (plus an epilogue, of sorts), “The Shrink Next Door” opens in media res (the staple of modern television) before flashing back to start at the beginning. It’s 1981. Big glasses and bigger hair are all the rage. Marty (Ferrell) is the head of a Manhattan-based fabric company, which he recently inherited from his late father. What he didn’t inherit, however, is his dad’s natural confidence. Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn), his sister, helps Marty end his most recent relationship, just as she helps him handle unruly customers — common problems that send Marty into a tailspin.
Seeing her brother in pain, Phyllis does what any well-intentioned sister would: She sets him up with a therapist. Though Marty insists his panic attacks are no big deal and that everything in his life is “fine,” he agrees to visit “Dr. Ike” (Rudd) to calm his sister’s nerves. (Just one of many subtle yet clear indicators of their loving bond.) Ike, at first, appears unconventional yet largely innocent and overly helpful. Sensing his new patient’s hesitancy to share, Ike moves their relationship outside the office. They go for a walk, where Marty talks about how his uncle is trying to sue him for control of the company; they hop into a pick-up game of basketball, where Ike illustrates how Marty’s need to please others can get him in trouble; they call and then visit Marty’s ex-girlfriend, to keep him from paying for a vacation he promised her when they were still dating.
Anyone familiar with the ethical rules enforced by professional therapists will spot issues in Ike’s overstepping, but everyone can identify his emotional maneuvering. By the end of their day-long first session, Ike is proudly telling Marty, “You did it! You stood up for yourself!” — when in fact, Ike does everything on Marty’s behalf. Ike only empowers Marty by becoming his source of power, which creates an unhealthy reliance on his new shrink to be the solution for all his woes. In a savvy bit of writing, Pritchett’s premiere sets up parallels that illustrate how Marty could believably get conned into thinking this new dynamic really works. Before Ike’s arrival, Phyllis would step in and help Marty, just like she does at the start of the episode with his ex-girlfriend and obnoxious client. But she does the first because she loves Marty and the other because it’s best for her business (and, yes, to protect her brother). She’s already a part of Marty’s life, whereas Ike forces himself into it. He claims to have Marty’s best interests at heart, but any assistance he provides is irrevocably tied to Ike’s involvement (which keeps Marty clinging to his new proxy) and the nature of their relationship is monetary; Ike is paid to be there (one rule he’s always careful to enforce), and he’s soon sticking around in order to make even more money off this easy mark.
Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd in “The Shrink Next Door”
Beth Dubber / Apple TV+
Ferrell handles Marty with timidity and good-natured humor, without shutting down the star’s inherent spark. Early on, director Michael Showalter frames the famously tall comedian as a giant walking on eggshells; when he first sits in Ike’s greenhouse of a waiting room, decorative plants fall across his face no matter which chair he tries out, and Marty merely accepts his uncomfortable, leafed-over fate. He’d rather suffer in silence than complain or speak up, and Ferrell channels that fear of conflict into just about every movement Marty makes. Whether he’s forcing a smile while “happily” working Ike’s party or running down the street in excitement after landing a first date, Ferrell’s Marty is as small and innocuous as he’s ever been. (And while it’s tempting to compare his performance to quieter, more serious fare like “Everything Must Go” or “Stranger Than Fiction,” Marty might be most reminiscent of Frank “the Tank” from “Old School” — channeling the unspoken desperation of a man searching for fulfillment and hampered by reality, only Marty never went to college, never got married, and never had any friends.)
Ike serves that role for him, and “The Shrink Next Door” dutifully honors the duo’s natural affinity for one another, even when the core of their relationship is rotten. Rudd can play the encouraging buddy with the best of them, but Ike proves most compelling in darker moments when he oh-so-briefly confronts his own issues. The show could use far more of these scenes (as could Rudd), especially as it stretches Ike’s control of Marty over decades. A few too many episodes are built around the question, “Marty wouldn’t go that far, would he?” and by the time therapist and patient start to see each other clearly, their well-earned conflict resolution is too little, too late. The series, like the podcast, also avoids any sort of commentary on therapy itself, thus running the risk of coming across as a cautionary tale. (You can practically hear skeptics muttering, “This is the kinda thing that can happen if you see a therapist…” every time Marty falls prey to Ike’s schemes.)
Thanks to its stirring cast (Casey Wilson also crafts a fine arc for Ike’s gradually disillusioned wife, Bonnie) and the innate sympathy repeatedly evoked for Marty (and, notably, Phyllis), “The Shrink Next Door” strikes a few chords over eight episodes and holds your interest throughout; it’s easy to invest in Marty’s path to a healthy, happy life, and the series avoids making Ike into a one-note villain. But for a true story built around a master-manipulator, this straight-forward retelling could’ve benefited from a bit more chicanery.
“The Shrink Next Door” premieres its first three episodes Friday, November 12 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly every Friday.
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