In the episode title cards for AppleTV+’s newest miniseries The Shrink Next Door, animated vines slither like snakes, choking and burying a variety of props and scenery pulled from within the episode. The metaphor is fairly obvious, but it’s the kind of introduction that might make you sit up and point at the screen. The plant represents Dr. Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf (a sometimes devious, mostly presentational Paul Rudd) and his insidious grip on the unassuming, panic attack-prone Martin “Marty” Moskowitz (Will Ferrell). The sinister but curious score hammers it home: things are about to get very, very ugly.
If you’ve read even a one-line synopsis of this true crime podcast-cum-television hook, it’s not hard to connect the ivy—which might be pretty at first, but will literally collapse a building’s foundation—to the narrative trajectory of its true Brian Wilson/Eugene Landy-esque story of therapeutic malpractice. The Shrink Next Door, developed by Succession writers-room veteran Georgia Pritchett, wants its premise to be obvious, and relies on a clear appetite for schadenfreude and an appreciation of comedic-actors-turned-Emmy-bait. It’s not so important that we already know Ike takes over Marty’s entire life under the guise of psychological philanthropy, blowing his family, finances, and free will out from under him. What’s more intriguing is the how and the why, and whether the potential brightness of such a star-studded cast is able to successfully inhabit very real characters at their lowest points.
The first episode, “The Consultation,” attempts to lay the groundwork for these questions simply, by first establishing a somewhat murky, curiosity-piquing “night-of” incident involving both Ike and Marty in 2010, and then rewinding back to 1982 when their relationship began. Inheriting his family’s fabric business after the death of his mother and father, Marty is a soft-spoken, thick-lensed man with the tenaciousness of a cardboard cutout. He’s unable to get through a single assertion without stammering, can’t stand up to his aggressive ex-girlfriend or a grumpy long-time customer, and would rather hide behind a curtain and let his iron-willed sister Phyllis (a permed, cartoonish Kathryn Hahn) take the reins in any confrontation. After one such collapse behind the curtains, Phyllis convinces Marty to take just one session with a rabbi-recommended therapist.
Reluctant and dithering, Marty shows up to the session with an obvious inability to admit to any of his issues, and a deep discomfort with the concept that he could be anything other than fine. As evidenced by how quickly and securely Dr. Ike is able to sniff out his insecurities and clamp on to Marty’s worn jacket, Marty is in fact less than stable. Using unconventional and 100% unethical methods that give him far too much familiarity, and allow him to rack up charges at his discretion, Ike gains Marty’s total confidence. He scripts Marty’s most tremulous interactions, and promises that he’s going to take care of him, that he’s going to protect him—even as we see the glint in Ike’s eyes as he realizes the uneven ratio of Marty’s diminished self-assurance to his overwhelming business and familial wealth.
The rate at which Ike snugly shuffles Marty under his wing and hurries him away from almost any of his outside connections is baffling, and the series can’t deliver a satisfactory answer as to why a man with a successful business, close family ties, and no previous history of anything other than general anxiety would fall under the spell of an emotionally and financially manipulative authority figure. That’s the question at the center of The Shrink Next Door’s original podcast, too, but because it’s centered around a journalistic investigation headed by New York Times reporter-turned-Bloomberg-columnist Joe Nocera, listeners are presented with a multitude of points of view, speculations, and contestations directly from the mouth of Marty Markowitz and those around him, as they attempt to piece together the objective story—and a litany of incendiary emails from Isaac Herschkopf to boot. These, unfortunately, prove far more interesting than the television series’ attempts to flesh out its characters’ psychological co-dependencies with time-hopping fictional backstories and suggested daddy issues. That the show ultimately spends more time investigating Herschkopf’s subconscious motives than Markowitz’s leaves our hapless protagonist even emptier than when we first meet him.
Of course, abusive relationships can take hold for any number of reasons, and are often impossible to escape because of that entrenchment, but that’s not the only unsatisfactory piece of the series. As thrilling as the concept of a reunion between Rudd, Ferrell, and Hahn promised to be (the trio first worked together to blinding success on Anchorman, and Hahn credits Ferrell’s Stepbrothers with being the first project that allowed her to fully unhinge her comedic instincts), their potential dynamism is lacking. When it does appear, alongside flashes and snatches of more inspired combinations of camerawork and montage, it’s thrilling, and Episode 3’s closer is one of the most memorable moments of the series for that reason alone. But the three rarely mesh until their final episode. While Ferrell does a respectable job of humanizing Marty, he’s often too pulled back, with his more enjoyable, subtle comedic moments getting lost in a sea of soft-spoken, static uncertainty.
Another contributing aspect to this underwhelm may be the weight of real and profoundly Jewish characters whose voices are heard throughout the run of the podcast, but who are clunkily interpreted throughout the TV series. Rudd is the most consistent, if obviously put-on, in his persona and accent; Ferrell’s is barely there when it comes and imperceptible when it goes; and Hahn’s is the thickest and most accurate to the real Phyllis Markowitz when she’s harried, but disappears when she drops into a centered gravitas. The inconsistency is a disappointing, distracting choice when the source material is so grounded in New York’s Modern Orthodox circles, and once again raises the question of why certain gentile actors are so consistently cast in Jewish roles.
Rudd is the only Jewish actor in the principal cast, and Hahn has already faced this criticism in her turns as a rabbi on Transparent as well as her starring role in the recently-announced Joan Rivers bio-series. Hahn, Ferrell, and an admirably, cuttingly grounded Casey Wilson as Rudd’s beleaguered wife Bonnie, all live within a world where Judaism is not a peripheral piece of their characters, but is central to their lives, narrative, and communal identities. In reality, Judaism is a religion, not a monolith or ethnicity, and those who practice Judaism don’t look or sound like any one thing, so the ideal would be that anyone is able to play a Jewish role. However, this is rarely the case, and the continuation of casting people who “look like” stereotyped, white Ashkenazim as the Jewish identity only continues to constrict Jewish identity onscreen—an especially frustrating phenomenon when accents and hair are used to pathetic affect, and common Yiddish phrases sound forced.
Ultimately, The Shrink Next Door takes a little too long to pick up, and while some of its more micro plot twists do deliver appreciably gutting surprises, its most exciting action may be in pointing audiences to the podcast. It’s a shanda that a story with so much potential intrigue and talent behind it winds up as the one thing its protagonist always untruthfully claims and wishes he is: forgettably, plainly fine.
The Shrink Next Door premieres Friday, November 12th on Apple TV+.
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.
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