When watching The Shrink Next Door, it’s almost impossible to not think about the previous roles of Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd. Ferrell is practically the life of the party in just about every comedy he’s in, while Rudd is almost synonymous with being likable, to the point that it’s hard to not like even his douchier characters in films like Wet Hot American Summer or Anchorman. While the heartbreaking true story at the center of The Shrink Next Door (adapted from the podcast of the same name) is captivating on its own, it’s also an opportunity for these two beloved actors to play the polar opposite of what we know they can do, giving Ferrell and Rudd some of the best performances of their careers.
The Shrink Next Door follows Marty Markowitz (Ferrell), an extremely nervous and shy man whose sister Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn) suggests he talk to a therapist to help with his various issues. Markowitz is now the head of the family business after the recent death of his father, he’s in a relationship that he can’t seem to shake, and his timid attitude gets in the way of his happiness. In his first session with Dr. Ike Herschkopf (Rudd), Marty starts to find relief from his problems, as Dr. Ike teaches Marty to stand up for himself and be a bit more daring. Even if the doctor is pushing the boundaries of professional behavior, the effect he has on Marty is clearly working almost from the beginning.
What begins as a doctor-patient relationship quickly blossoms into an incredibly close friendship that will last for decades. While Marty was born into wealth, Dr. Ike struggled to get to where he is, desperately trying to please everyone in his life. Once Ike discovers Marty’s riches, Ike realizes he can make his dreams come true through this bond. Even though Ike might not consider this relationship as leeching off Marty, it soon becomes clear that Ike is getting more out of this relationship than Marty is.
The Shrink Next Door knows exactly what we expect from both Ferrell and Rudd and flips this on its head. At one point, Marty says that he isn’t a fun guy, and even though he’s shown that he’s kind, giving, and far more trusting than he should be, we can’t argue that fun isn’t exactly his strong suit. Yet we’ve never seen Ferrell in this type of dramatic role — with a performance full of deep sadness and regret behind his eyes that only gets worse as the years pass. Even when moments in the show start to hover close to reminders of previous Ferrell films (one awkward date invitation feels close to Elf, and another instance near a pool seems ready to recreate one of Old School’s most famous events), there’s a tragedy to the scenes, even when the intention is comedy.
Dr. Ike has Rudd becoming one of the most unlikable — if not the most unlikeable — characters of his career, a stark shift from his usual amiable characters. Even though the audience can see the way Rudd is manipulating Marty for his own desires, we also can see exactly why Marty would fall under his spell. Dr. Ike is perceptive and knows how to suck people in his orbit, not only pushing patients into more confident people but also pushing them to do things they wouldn’t consider doing without his coaxing. There’s also a tragic nature to Rudd’s performance of Dr. Ike, as we learn about his failure to live up to expectations, his incapacity to have the life he’s always wanted, and his inability to have even the smallest amount of self-awareness about how his actions hurt those who love him most. Ike truly seems to believe himself a force of good in these people’s lives, even as he sucks them dry.
Also expectedly fantastic are Hahn and Casey Wilson, who plays Dr. Ike’s wife, Bonnie. As the series progresses, we see how much this toxic friendship affects those closest to Ike and Marty. Even though Hahn and Wilson are decidedly secondary characters in this story, the weight of this narrative can be felt in their every interaction with Ike and Marty. For an even more direct example of Dr. Ike’s cruelty, the show introduces characters played by Sarayu Blue and Christina Vidal Mitchell who demonstrate the long and short-term impact that he can have.
The first half of the season is directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), who finds the levity in the early days of this friendship and the dark humor that permeates the first few years. Halfway through, there is a tonal shift that shows the depths that this relationship could be heading towards, which leads to Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) directing the final half of the episodes and never shying away from the truly appalling directions this story heads in. Georgia Pritchett, who has written for such shows as Succession and Veep, knows how to mix cruelty with humor in a way that — at least here — doesn’t make the audience feel like they’re laughing at these characters, but rather, the inhumanity of the situation that keeps getting worse and worse. As Dr. Ike’s power grows, the writing places him almost as the lead of the series, as if not even in Marty’s show can he have the spotlight for too long, placing him behind Dr. Ike’s massive ego.
But maybe the most impressive aspect of The Shrink Next Door is how it doesn’t insult or criticize Marty for the situation he finds himself in, but instead reveals just how easily it could be to succumb to such a person that makes a person feel better about themselves, regardless of the financial and personal obstacles it might cause.
However, especially in the early episodes, The Shrink Next Door can feel a bit too much like they’re centered around a new obstacle that will cause Marty’s destruction and Ike to thrive. The show doesn’t revel in either, but it can get to be a bit much at times. There’s also the occasional plucking at ideas that are never fully pulled, such as the financial drain that Ike has put on Marty, or Marty’s general loneliness. These elements are brought up eventually, but the show forgets about these aspects for longer than it probably should.
This tragic true story finds just the right blend of comedy and drama, as it’s hard to not laugh at the absurdity of this situation while also finding the deep trauma occurring to be deeply disturbing. The Shrink Next Door is a consistently beguiling series that pushes Rudd and Ferrell as actors in ways we’ve never seen before.
The Shrink Next Door premieres its first three episodes on November 12 on Apple TV+, with new episodes premiering weekly every Friday.