If you watch “The Shrink Next Door” as a showcase for two extraordinary actors, you will likely have a great viewing experience. I certainly did. Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell star as an exploitive therapist and his dupe of a client, respectively, and together they create a fascinatingly intricate psychological system of adulation and abuse. Rudd’s Dr. Isaac Herschkopf is the narcissistic heel, and Ferrell’s extremely shy Marty Markowitz is his doormat, as well as his bank and his servant. The eight-episode miniseries, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, is based on the podcast of the same name, which is based on a true story.
Rudd, in particular, is outstanding, in a role that enables him to toy with his own likability. Just dubbed “the sexiest man alive” by People magazine, he seems to go viral every month or so, as social media marvels at how adorable, funny, and ageless he is. Initially, he uses that charm to persuade Marty, and us, that “Dr. Ike” is a good man whose goal is to help. We all get swept up in his promise not to let people use Marty — “not today, not tomorrow, not ever,” he says in his New Yawk accent during their first session. An active member of the synagogue, Dr. Ike wants everyone to think he’s performing a mitzvah, bringing the introverted Marty out of his shell.
But we slowly see just how much he likes being a puppeteer, especially after he learns Marty has millions of dollars. Rudd’s charisma quickly takes on cruel and self-serving overtones, with Dr. Ike ignoring the ethical boundaries that should exist between a therapist and his client. Rudd expertly lines Dr. Ike’s warmth with aggression and narcissism, which flare any time Marty questions Dr. Ike’s motivations.
So Dr. Ike is a wolf in mensch’s clothing, inserting himself into the fabric business Marty inherited from his father, throwing parties at Marty’s Hamptons home, and encouraging Marty to cut off his loving sister, Phyllis (an excellent Kathryn Hahn). But, hard as it is to watch him manipulate, Marty’s submissiveness is also irritating and frustrating. Marty buys into the cult of Ike, no matter how many people, particularly the disgusted Phyllis, urge him to beware. You want Marty to snap out of it, to see that his beloved leader doesn’t truly have his interests at heart. But Marty has been mesmerized, something Ferrell captures beautifully, as he struts around the office with an almost romantic glow when he and Dr. Ike are first bonding. Ferrell, like Rudd, uses our awareness of his body of work to serve his character: Marty is another one of Ferrell’s big little boys, but his childlike behavior doesn’t resolve to comedy as expected. It becomes pathos, instead, which makes it feel doubly unsettling.
Watching Rudd and Ferrell, “Anchorman” costars, is endlessly enjoyable. Watching “The Shrink Next Door,” however, can be difficult, unless you relish watching a predator in action, while his victim happily signs away his freedom. You want to yell at the screen, at each of these men, as the years pass by — 27 in all — and their pattern becomes more and more entrenched and imbalanced. At times, watching Dr. Ike plant yet another idea in Marty’s brain can seem redundant. Whether we’re watching Dr. Ike pushing Marty to give up his Hamptons bedroom to Dr. Ike and his wife, Bonnie (Casey Wilson), or simply getting Marty to pay session fees for having lunch together, it’s like watching the same abuse over and over again. It’s toxic, then it’s Toxic, then it’s TOXIC.
But that redundancy is also part of the show’s strength, in a way. “The Shrink Next Door” is a study in how this kind of abuse works, from its subtle beginnings to its later, more overt form. It made me think of “Teacher,” the powerful Hulu miniseries that gave us the same kind of close-up look at how a predatory teacher-student sexual relationship can develop, step by painful step. “The Shrink Next Door” isn’t a mystery story or a thriller; it’s a dissection of a brainwashing. And it works well as such, as Dr. Ike gradually isolates Marty from anyone who might try to help him.
We get a sense that Dr. Ike, who had a sad youth as the son of a Holocaust survivor, feels entitled to Marty’s life, since Marty’s childhood was somewhat charmed. But the reasons Dr. Ike and Marty fall into their twisted relationship aren’t the central point of “The Shrink Next Door.” The miniseries is an in-depth, visceral portrait of long-con indoctrination, of how what feels like love may actually be contempt.
THE SHRINK NEXT DOOR
Starring: Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell, Kathryn Hahn, Casey Wilson, Sarayu Blue. On Apple TV+, Friday