The dysfunctional relationship in The Shrink Next Door is a cynical anti-bromance that becomes a grind to watch, leaving us more exhausted than enthralled by the end of the show.
Analyse this: In The Shrink Next Door, the always amiable Paul Rudd plays the most abominable psychiatrist on TV since Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter. While Rudd’s Dr. Isaac Herschkopf doesn’t eat people, he attaches himself to his patients like parasites, leeching off them till they’re nothing but an empty shell and an empty bank account. One of these patients is the naive Martin Markowitz, whose man childless is channeled by Will Ferrell, an actor who’s built his whole career stuck in arrested development. But despite the Anchorman reunion and Apple TV+’s big bucks, this supposed dark comedy — about how the power held by those meant to help is open to abuse — proves to be a near-humourless party of miserabilism.
Dr. Ike is the antithesis of prestige TV’s original shrink, Dr. Melfi. If Tony Soprano’s shrink sets clear boundaries, Ike treats ethics like optional guidelines, crossing boundaries more and more to the point where he assumes control of Marty’s personal and professional lives for three decades. He starts off by getting rid of Marty’s support system, engineering the estrangement with his sister. Soon, he’s breaking things off with potential girlfriends, worming his way into a top position at Marty’s fabric company, and hosting summer parties in his gullible patient’s home in the Hamptons. What makes the story so unsettling is that it actually happened. Georgia Pritchett, who has previously written for HBO shows like Veep and Succession, bases The Shrink Next Door on the non-fiction podcast of the same name by journalist Joe Nocera.
Neither Rudd nor Ferrell is really playing against type here, but simply leaning into the comitragic, instead of the madcap, bent to their on-screen personas. The ageless Rudd uses his innate charms to the slippery effect. Ike’s likability is what made him a liability to others. But over the course of eight episodes, it becomes a liability to Rudd himself, as he starts to sound less like a person, more like a self-help audiobook repeating affirmative bullshit. Ferrell plays a mild-mannered man in a decades-long trance where he can’t see past his manipulator’s guilt trips and mind games. The weight of it all manifests in the limbering, defeated physicality to his performance.
The pilot begins how a lot of pilots begin nowadays, defaulted to in media res. Before setting the context, director Michael Showalter dives straight in with a prologue set in 2010, by when the relationship between Marty and Ike had soured to a point beyond repair. Ike is throwing another one of his parties in the Hamptons. Mike has been reduced to a nonentity in his own home, so much so that the camera only frames him from behind, not showing his face.
Cut to 1982 to where it all began. Marty is a man overwhelmed by responsibilities he isn’t ready to take on. With his father having passed recently, he has little choice in the matter. Taking over the family business hasn’t been easy for him. When a client badgers him for getting an order wrong, he cowers behind the curtains in a panic attack. Thankfully, he’s got his sister Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn) to support him. Though she’s struggling herself as a single mother with an adulterous husband, she takes care of Marty like another one of her children. To help him deal with his anxiety, she suggests he see a shrink.
Which is where Ike comes in. And he makes an instant impression, helping Marty stand his ground when an ex-girlfriend insists he pay for the Mexican vacation he had promised her when they were together. Seeing how passive and suggestible Marty is, Ike senses an opportunity to climb the social ladder — and takes it. Dangling the promise of a breakthrough, he plays the long con. Believing Ike to be his closest friend, Marty allows his doctor access to every aspect of his life. Over time, the treatment for his anxiety turns into a Stockholm syndrome situation. At one point, Ike’s cruelty is on full display when he makes Marty chop down the family’s tree, a symbol of a cherished memory from Marty’s childhood because Ike himself had none. Watching Marty endure such misery in a prolonged cycle of manipulative schemes becomes a chore when the cycle repeats episode after episode. Every time this sad and lonely clown feels like he’s being taken advantage of, a simple “I am doing it for you” from Ike is enough to convince him otherwise. There’s an impenetrable interiority to both outside of their co-dependency, and the show doesn’t really try to probe deeper. In opting for a chronological structure, Phyllis is cut out of Marty’s life before the first half and doesn’t return till the finale. So, we lose any dramatic conflict in the one person who can see through Ike’s bullshit and stand up to him — and with it, we lose the singular talents of Hahn too. Another one of Ike’s long-term patients in Miriam (Sarayu Blue) too testifies to Ike’s maliciousness, but the show uses her mostly as an episode-long test of Marty’s faith in his best friend/shrink.
The pathology of Ike’s parasitic ways isn’t probed beyond what we learn from the occasional interactions with his wife Bonnie (Casey Wilson). His need to be accepted and liked by everyone is toxic and takes a toll on her too. These interactions also give us a sense of how deluded Ike is when he repeatedly insists he is only trying to help Marty. And because he firmly believes so, he also believes he is entirely justified to treat his patient’s wealth and property as his own. Why Ike is obsessed with fitting in with the upper crust and why Marty allows his mistreatment is oversimplified with stock daddy issues.
The earlier episodes, more rooted in Jewish humour, hint at a character study in a tone closer to the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece A Serious Man. But the show never quite delivers on that promise. Nor does it tickle any good laughs that come from such a bad bromance. Rudd and Ferrell defined the once-popular Hollywood staple, that celebration of love between straight men. Their dysfunctional relationship in The Shrink Next Door though is a cynical anti-bromance that becomes a grind to watch, leaving us more exhausted than enthralled by the end of the show.
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