The Shrink Next Door tells a fascinating story, but the most interesting thing about it is how almost every decision made in its construction seems slightly wrong.
This review of The Shrink Next Door is spoiler-free.
I think it’s fair to say that right now is the most open and understanding the world has ever been about matters of mental health. So, it’s probably just the right time for a TV show about a predatory shrink who manipulates a vulnerable client for decades. The Shrink Next Door is based on the Wondery podcast and its reporting but filtered through a quirky made-for-TV filter that can’t keep a handle on the intended tone and leans too heavily into the screen personas of its stars, Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell. It’s a deeply terrifying story of manipulation and abuse that plays like a comedy, sometimes when it doesn’t mean to, but isn’t all that funny when it’s trying to be.
The overall effect is a strange one, as if the show was created as an experiment to see what happens to audiences when every creative decision is slightly wrong. You can’t deny the rapport between Rudd and Ferrell, but you can and will question how it’s utilized, and what we’re supposed to feel about the pair of them as they navigate 27 years of bizarre co-dependency that begins with overbilling and morphs into an all-encompassing long con that strains the limits of believability.
Marty Markowitz (Ferrell) is a frazzled fabric salesman utterly reliant on his sister Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn) following the deaths of his parents and his inheritance of their business. He’s an “easy Mark” for everyone, including Ike Herschkopf (Rudd), the therapist Phyllis recommends to him. Ike fancies himself a man about town and has various self-serving aspirations that he believes Marty can help him with, even if it’s inadvertently. Neither Phyllis nor Ike’s own wife Bonnie (Casey Wilson) are exactly keen on the relationship, but once Ike has his hooks in, he’s almost impossible to shake loose.
All the elements of this setup you’d expect to be unpacked are mostly ignored or at least only cursorily acknowledged. You’d expect more introspection in a story about therapy, but you won’t find it; the hook is less about how Marty was able to fall for all this, and more about the logistics of Ike pulling it off. There’s a cruel streak at the heart of a man’s need for help and belief he was receiving it being exploited, but The Shrink Next Door treats the grift, not Marty’s interiority, as the focus. There’s little either for or against therapy as a practice, nor is its relationship to faith treated as anything more than an excuse for arch, performative Jewishness to help tee up certain jokes or premises. Even the essential underlying concept of dependency isn’t made much of.
This is largely because we have two stars playing the lead roles. The story would have been better told without them. It’s hard not to look at Rudd and see, say, Ant-Man, or to look at Ferrell and see the bewildered man-child he basically always plays. The show’s creative team are obviously cognizant of this, since they play up to it all the time, often without realizing it’s detrimental to the story. You can’t imagine Marty as a real person because he’s treated as a Ferrell caricature, the kind of stunted moron who would be easily exploited by someone who talked even half as fast as Rudd’s silver-tongued salesman. The chemistry is there comedically, but the double-act patter isn’t suited to the material. There’s too much self-awareness and look-at-me goofiness here, so when the show strives for resonance or even seriousness it rarely achieves it.
There are lots of interesting performances and decisions being made in The Shrink Next Door, almost none of which work, but virtually all of which are fun to ponder, even if it’s only in the way one might ponder, say, a crime scene. The show isn’t that bad; it isn’t disastrous or laughable. But it’s curious in ways that mostly don’t work to its advantage, and it’s a show about a confidence man which is, fittingly, rarely ever convincing.