Marty Markowitz has issues. His father has died, leaving him a textile business and a vast fortune. Alas, Marty (a miscast Will Ferrell, hiding his usual exaggerated swagger behind facial hair) lacks the intestinal fortitude to tell his ex-girlfriend he won’t bankroll her solo vacations, let alone lead a company. So his sister Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn, doing the SNL “Coffee Talk” accent) sends him to a psychiatrist, Dr. Ike Herschkopf (a yuppified Paul Rudd). The diagnosis: “You’re too nice,” the shrink tells Marty. “You let people take advantage of you.” Then Ike spends three decades doing just that—manipulating Marty into giving him a job, money and residence at a Hamptons house where Ike, posing as the owner, throws lavish parties.
It sounds far-fetched, but it really happened, as recounted in the 2019 Wondery podcast The Shrink Next Door. Now the story—which spans from the early 1980s through the present and has seen some new developments in the past couple of years—has been fictionalized in this eight-episode Apple TV+ dramedy of the same name, premiering Nov. 12. The combination of the podcast’s popularity and a star-packed cast that reunites Anchorman duo Ferrell and Rudd, in episodes directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother), has made it one of the young streaming service’s most-anticipated series to date. Sadly, the whole falls well short of the sum of its parts.
It’s rarely a good sign when characters based on real people strain believability, and despite the best efforts of capable actors, the Markowitz siblings come off as caricatures. Marty is somehow more of a neurotic, catastrophizing Woody Allen type than Ferrell was when he played a surrogate for the director in Allen’s own Melinda and Melinda. In the midst of a messy divorce, Phyllis is always grousing about her ex and her kids; if she tends to fight Marty’s battles for him, it’s partially because she doesn’t seem to know how not to be combative. To his credit, Rudd manages to give some emotional depth to a sort of ’80s Gatsby character—a man obsessed with accumulating money, celebrity and status to prove his own worth.
That both men are living in the shadows of their fathers should complicate their relationship in fascinating ways, yet—in a particularly odd choice for a show that hinges on human psychology—Shrink shies away from complexity. The tone it establishes is comedic without actually being funny. Ferrell and Rudd have chemistry, but even they can’t elevate a scene in which Marty and Dr. Ike have an impromptu dance party while painting the Hamptons house above canned silliness. And the story is so vague with respect to Ike’s background that we never really understand why his monstrous behavior comes as such a surprise to his supportive, seemingly intelligent wife, Bonnie (Casey Wilson, making the best of thin material).
Perhaps what’s most dispiriting is the way the show’s writers, consciously or not, attempt to counterbalance the broadness of the characters with the specificity of the New York Jewish community in which they’re immersed. Early in their relationship, Ike throws 40-year-old Marty a second bar mitzvah—populated, of course, by Ike’s own acquaintances—to celebrate his progress. One subplot involves a bris, and there’s pointed talk of how preppy icon Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx. But all of these details feel superficial. More integral to the story are the ugly Jewish stereotypes that each of the central characters embodies: Marty the nebbish, Ike the shyster, Phyllis the shrew.
I don’t think these cringe-worthy depictions are the result of malicious anti-semitism. (For one thing, plenty of Jewish people worked on the show.) More likely, they’re egregious examples of the thoughtlessness that plagues just about every aspect of Shrink. Even the pacing is inexplicably unbalanced, as a sluggish start gives way to episodes that skip over decades of Ike’s transgressions and Marty’s acquiescences, leaving too many blanks to fill in. Combine the rough execution with stakes that start low and rise so little over the course of a four-decade timeline, and it’s hard to care whether Marty ever sees justice served. Maybe a different creative team could’ve done a better job adapting The Shrink Next Door, or maybe Marty Markowitz’s story simply didn’t need to be retold. Sometimes, as the Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud never said, a podcast is just a podcast.