The Pitch: Marty Markowitz (Will Ferrell) is a middle-aged man who lives in a perpetual state of people-pleasing. In fact, he’s deferential to the point of passivity, which makes his new job as the head of his late father’s Manhattan fabrics business (and all its attendant pressures) particularly stressful. In fact, it’s the stuff that panic attacks are made of, which makes his headstrong sister Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn) suggest he see a psychiatrist.
Enter Dr. Isaac Herschkopf (Paul Rudd), the charming, self-effacing shrink who enters Marty’s life and immediately sets upon getting him out of his shell. But along the way, he gets wise to the bottomless nature of Marty’s emotional passivity and doormat-itude, and smells opportunity.
Before long, we’re witness to the slow unraveling of Marty’s life right out from under his nose, thanks to Dr. Ike’s ceaseless, expert manipulation of his obliging nature over the next three decades. He cuts Marty off from his friends, family, and any potential romantic partners; he moves them all into the man’s spacious vacation home in the Hamptons. Ike even convinces Marty to bring him into the business as a full-time “industrial psychiatrist,” eventually controlling Marty’s entire financial and social life.
He’s a remora pretending to be the shark, with the great white nary the wiser. Who knows what else Ike will take from him before Marty sees his new best friend for what he truly is?
Doctor-Patient Confidence Man: The Shrink Next Door is but the latest in the podcast-to-TV pipeline, after Amazon’s Homecoming, Netflix’s Dirty John, and Peacock’s Dr. Death. It’s clear that studios are more than happy to mine true crime and scripted audio fiction for inspiration.
But while Shrink is more Dirty John than Homecoming in that it’s based on a harrowing true story, the series (developed by Succession writer Georgia Pritchett) never lingers on the grisly details, nor does it use its central cast of A-list comedians to turn Marty Markowitz’s misfortunes into a cheap gag. Astonishingly enough over its eight episodes, Pritchett and her team of writers deftly weave the tragedy and absurdity of the story into something much more darkly funny than you would expect.
At the heart of its appeal, of course, are its two leads, both comedy veterans who’ve also mined their innate sad-clown sensibilities for pathos in the past. For Ferrell’s part, his Marty feels like a natural evolution of his character from Stranger Than Fiction, his natural hang-dog expressiveness lending itself nicely to the kinds of tragicomic characters for whom terrible things befall them, their only crime being so out of control of their circumstances they can’t possibly turn back.
Marty feels like a punching bag, but never the butt of a joke: episode after episode, Marty gets roped into one scheme and manipulation after another, a puppet limply following the movements of the strings Dr. Ike is holding. He’s the kind of guy who will bend over backward to make people like him. “You’re a nice guy, Marty, and that’s why people take advantage of you,” Dr. Ike adroitly observes, hanging a lantern on his own manipulations. It’s a testament to the writing and Ferrell’s dead-eyed commitment to the role that we buy why he’d fall for Ike’s schemes so readily. After all, at least being a doormat gives him purpose.
No Rudd-nik: Ferrell can do this sad-clown bid in his sleep, but it’s Rudd who’s especially surprising and devious as Dr. Ike. The key to Rudd’s comic appeal has always been his exuberant, slimy charm, which he uses to great effect to chart every beat of Ike’s methodical plan to bilk Marty for all the financial and social cachet he’s worth. He’s slippery and wily, phrasing things in ways that get him what he wants while also professing plausible deniability: When a skeptical, incensed Marty confronts him about why he didn’t visit him in the hospital after surgery, Ike convinces Marty it’s his fault for never having called.
Most revealing are his scenes with wife Bonnie (Casey Wilson), where Rudd reveals through small gestures, tiny catches in his voice, that he’s even convinced himself he’s doing Marty a favor. (The only uncanny element of Rudd’s ever-shifting performance is the grey they haphazardly spray into his hair and beard to make him look older in the latter legs of the series; Rudd’s baby-faced punim, no doubt culled from the souls of the damned in ever-arcane rituals, just refuses to age, even on television.)
I Love You (And Will Take You For All You’re Worth), Man: It’s to Pritchett’s credit that The Shrink Next Door keeps its comedic cards so close to the vest, especially in its early goings. The first couple of episodes give us only scant indicators that Dr. Ike isn’t on the level. At first, we’re thrilled for Marty after his bromantic first session with the man: He’s elated, confident, episode one director Michael Showalter planting us firmly in Marty’s newfound confidence and elation. Then, as the temperature rises one degree at a time, their dynamic shifts, until Marty hardly realizes that he’s being slowly boiled alive.
All of this, naturally, dovetails into the specific brand of New York Jewishness the real-life tale traffics in. Both Ferrell and Rudd lean hard into the lilting prosody of their characters’ Manhattan accents, and passive-aggression becomes a weapon of mass destruction in Dr. Ike’s hands. Ike’s trust comes at the recommendation of Marty’s sister’s rabbi, and one early manipulation involves convincing Marty to turn his 40th birthday into a second bar mitzvah to bring closure to his disastrous first (which conveniently allows Ike to schmooze and glad-hand, and collect gifts).
At every turn, the crushing expectations and deeply-ingrained desire to please gets Marty in a heap of trouble — he and Rachel Sennott’s character from Shiva Baby would have a lot to kibitz over. It’s a tale about New York Jewishness as much as it is about the universal capacity to be conned, and that specificity lends unique layers to the story that wouldn’t crop up anywhere else.