'The Shrink Next Door' amounts to less than the sum of its parts

Nov 12, 2021
Originally published on November 12, 2021 8:03 am

Every so often, a piece of television comes along that – despite a great pedigree and lots of stars – feels more like an acting exercise than a touching, emotional story.

Unfortunately, even with the best efforts from big names like Will Ferrell, Kathryn Hahn and recently crowned Sexiest Man Alive Paul Rudd, Apple TV+'s The Shrink Next Door falls in that category.

The premise is pretty simple: Based on a podcast by Wondery and Bloomberg Media, this limited series tells the story of Martin "Marty" Markowitz, a nerdy, underconfident heir to a middling fabric business who winds up consulting a therapist recommended by his sister's rabbi: psychiatrist Dr. Isaac Herschkopf.

What happens next is a little more complicated. Herschkopf, who insists on being called "Dr. Ike," eventually worms his way into Markowitz's life so deeply, he gets his patient to support him financially in a myriad of unethical ways. Dr. Ike overbills him, serves as a consultant at the fabric business and essentially takes over Marty's summer home in the Hamptons, throwing parties where the therapist poses as the homeowner.

The result is a dark dramedy that feels light years' removed from the cartoonishly fun satire of the Anchorman films Rudd and Ferrell have made together. But it's an effort that also amounts to less than the sum of its ambitious parts; intriguing moments of acting and casting that somehow fail to reveal a surprising or enlightening tale.

Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd in Apple TV 's The Shrink Next Door.
Apple TV

Great performances serve a predictable story

Ferrell plays Marty as a conflict-averse geek with a New York accent that often comes across as a toned-down Woody Allen impression. Conflicts at work or with a former girlfriend bring panic attacks, and his loneliness is so acute, it's palpable.

Rudd embodies the predatory therapist as a glad-handing status seeker eager for a shortcut to the trappings of a successful life. For him, the elements of Marty's fragile neediness are like gigantic welcome signs, highlighting someone with wealth who can be easily manipulated, isolated and exploited.

It all sounds like a scenario ripe for deeper exploration. Does Dr. Ike always intend to exploit his patient in the way he eventually does, driving a wedge between Marty and his sister, played by Hahn?

Why would a reasonably smart guy like Marty spend so long — nearly 30 years — in such an exploitive situation? What about Dr. Ike's other patients or his wife, played with studied exasperation by an underused Casey Wilson? Why didn't they sound an alarm?

With eight episodes, The Shrink Next Door has plenty of time to cover this ground. But instead, we get too much energy spent on things we can already predict – like a moment where Dr. Ike talks Marty into spending over $100,000 to create a charitable foundation, complete with a checkbook either one of them can use.

Easy to see where that setup is going. But we spend lots of time watching it unfold, anyway.

The show's treatment of Jewish characters

Nowhere is the superficiality of The Shrink Next Door more obvious than in its treatment of Jewish characters and Jewish culture. Jewishness is a huge part of the story – a pivotal moment for Marty comes when Dr. Ike convinces him to re-enact his bar mitzvah as an adult, completing the rituals he didn't have the confidence to finish when he was 13 years old.

But Dr. Ike turns Marty's ceremony into an event filled with his own acquaintances, invading a patient's private affairs in a way that was self-serving and highly unethical. It was a telling way of depicting how Dr. Ike distracted Marty from his own exploitation, but didn't say as much about how the therapist weaponized their shared culture to make the bond stick.

In describing this superficiality, some may reference a concept comic Sarah Silverman has called "jewface" – a term for TV shows and films casting people who aren't Jewish to play characters for whom Jewishness is an essential element of their lives.

In its modern form, this practice isn't quite like blackface, which has a long legacy of enabling white performers to portray Black people as stereotypically lazy, unintelligent or dangerous. Instead, there's a question of fairness and authenticity; is it fair to cast someone who isn't Jewish in such a role, particularly if they don't seem to authentically inhabit the character?

Kathryn Hahn plays Phyllis, Marty's sister, in 'The Shrink Next Door.'
Apple TV+

Neither Ferrell nor Hahn is Jewish, though Hahn has excelled at playing people who are, including a rabbi on Amazon Prime Video's hit dramedy Transparent.

But Ferrell, especially, stands out as an actor who looks nothing like the real man he is playing, offering a take on the character that doesn't feel particularly transformative. We've seen him play sad, damaged men before; this time, he does it with a bit of an accent.

It's the end result of a limited series which, despite its length, too often hints at ideas which deserve deeper scrutiny.

Much of The Shrink Next Door feels like a missed opportunity – a chance to tell us more about a bizarre, exploitive relationship that unfortunately became an excuse for two well-known stars to flex their acting chops in an unexpected venue.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What happens when People Magazine's new sexiest man alive teams up with the funniest man who's ever played a cowbell? Less magic than you might think. Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell are starring in a new dark comedy on Apple TV+ called "The Shrink Next Door." Here's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans with a review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: In "The Shrink Next Door," Will Ferrell plays Marty Markowitz, a confidence-challenged nerd so averse to conflict, his sister badgers him into seeing a therapist. But that therapist, Paul Rudd's Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, gives off more than a few red flags, including his response when Marty tells him he's having trouble getting customers to his business to pay up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SHRINK NEXT DOOR")

PAUL RUDD: (As Dr. Isaac Herschkopf) Look; you can't be a therapist one minute and then debt collector the next. So now when I have to be bad cop, I just send a letter from my lawyer, Marshall Feldhammer. Do you know he got his law degree when he was in prison for manslaughter?

WILL FERRELL: (As Marty Markowitz) Wow. Good - good for you for giving someone like that an opportunity.

RUDD: (As Dr. Isaac Herschkopf) Well, he's not real.

FERRELL: (As Marty Markowitz) He's not?

RUDD: (As Dr. Isaac Herschkopf) He's a fictional creation. But you can bet your babka they pay up when Marshall writes them.

DEGGANS: Probably no surprise that a therapist who reveals how he's conned other patients would eventually turn on Marty. Herschkopf, known as Dr. Ike, insinuates himself into Marty's life, overbilling him and talking him into essentially turning over his summer home in the Hamptons for parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SHRINK NEXT DOOR")

RUDD: (As Dr. Isaac Herschkopf) Your home is a reflection of your personality.

FERRELL: (As Marty Markowitz) My apartment?

RUDD: (As Dr. Isaac Herschkopf) No, you know, actually I was thinking more the house in the Hamptons - you know, make it a place you want to be, a place that other people want to be - a place that's open, inviting.

FERRELL: (As Marty Markowitz) I don't know.

RUDD: (As Dr. Isaac Herschkopf) ...The kind of place that people can arrive at from the city and just go, wow.

DEGGANS: Sounds more like Dr. Ike's dream than Marty's. Based on a podcast about a real story, "The Shrink Next Door" works best when it's focused on the chemistry of Rudd and Ferrell, big stars playing dark characters in a series significantly different than the silly comedies they often make together. Kathryn Hahn also shines as Marty's sister Phyllis, so protective she stands up to a crazy ex-girlfriend for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SHRINK NEXT DOOR")

KATHRYN HAHN: (As Phyllis Shapiro) Marty is a nice guy. But I don't suffer from that particular affliction, and I will not let you exploit him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What are you, his guard dog?

HAHN: (As Phyllis Shapiro) Worse - I'm his sister.

DEGGANS: Still, the series spends a lot of time telling us the same things about these characters over and over again. Much of what happens here is predictable, and it happens slowly. And though Jewishness stands at the center of this story - all the major characters are Jewish, for instance - the show doesn't always do a great job of delving into the nuances of how their shared culture may have affected Marty and Dr. Ike's bond. This disconnect highlights the oddity of casting Ferrell, who isn't Jewish and doesn't physically resemble the real Marty Markowitz. Ultimately, "The Shrink Next Door" too often feels like a glitzy acting exercise, an excuse for two comedy giants to flex their dramatic chops in service of a story that falls a bit short.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.