Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd are comedy masters. Just not in ‘The Shrink Next Door’

A client sits across from his psychiatrist
Will Ferrell plays a client of psychiatrist Paul Rudd in the Apple TV+ series “The Shrink Next Door.”
(Beth Dubber)

“Based on a podcast” is just a thing now, and it does make sense. They come almost prepackaged as miniseries, with cliffhangers and late-arc reveals and often the unaccountable mojo of “based on a true story.” Seemingly everyone listens to them, and every celebrity wants one.

Premiering Friday, “The Shrink Next Door” is Apple TV+’s adaptation of the 2019 Wondery podcast of the same name. It tells the (true) story of Marty Markowitz (Will Ferrell), the wealthy owner of a New York theatrical fabrics business, and his manipulative psychiatrist, Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf (Paul Rudd, People’s new Sexiest Man Alive). In the podcast — which is to say, the version that more closely resembles what happened — the person to whom the shrink is next door, in a Hamptons summer house, is reporter and narrator Joe Nocera. In 2010, Nocera, then a New York Times columnist, sniffed a story when he learned that the house belonged not to Herschkopf — who had filled it with photographs of himself with random celebrities, and threw lavish summer parties to which guests arrived by chartered bus — but to Markowitz, who lived in the guest house and appeared to all intents and purposes to be the handyman. It’s a Cinderella story, minus everything but the drudge and the stepmother. Or a sort of buddy film in which the buddies turn out not to be buddies at all, though each in his way might at times believe it so.

As is the case with many podcasts, “Shrink” presents itself at once as a work of research and testimony; an unfolding mystery; and a journey of discovery for the participant-narrator. But Nocera is absent here as a character or voice, which puts a different spin on the narrative. Inevitably, the miniseries embellishes, invents and rearranges events for maximum dramatic effect, even as the show depends to a large degree on our knowing that this crazy thing really did happen, kinda sorta in this way. At the same time, with all such adaptations, it is cramped by that dependency and the need to color more or less within the lines of what did occur.

A woman with curly brown hair in a brown jacket and plaid shirt
Kathryn Hahn in “The Shrink Next Door.”
(Beth Dubber)

We meet Marty in the 1980s, in his late thirties, oppressed by responsibility and pathologically afraid of confrontation. (Ferrell hides, sweats and shakes in the scene meant to establish this.) A customer won’t pay for work; an ex-girlfriend is demanding he pay for a trip to Mexico he promised her, and he’s afraid to say no. His contrastingly brash sister, Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn), who works alongside him, makes an appointment with a psychiatrist — Ike — recommended by their rabbi. Though Ike seems a little unconventional, he does seem to help Marty toward independence from others, but increasingly makes Marty dependent on him, as good as directing him to cut ties with his family, as well as insinuating himself into Marty’s business and financial affairs. Classic cult stuff.


“I don’t want to take advantage,” Ike will say, as a way of excusing himself (to himself) from his taking advantage.

While there is the authority of the podcast and Markowitz’s memories on which to base Ferrell’s character — although liberties are taken — Ike is a more hypothetical creation. (Herschkopf is not on the record, but Markowitz preserved correspondence and some unpublished manuscripts, including a dozen mystery novels with a psychiatrist hero, left at the summer house.) There is some attempt to give him depth: that he’s sad at his core, was formed by forces beyond his control and his celebrity name-dropping and schmoozing are an expression of neediness. In one scene, getting Marty to chant “I deserve this” with him, we are clearly directed to see he’s talking about himself. We get some glimpses of his domestic life, in which he is also controlling — as his wife, here called Bonnie, Casey Wilson is allowed flickers of conscience and caring — but beneath his self-deluding bonhomie, Ike is a narcissist, a sociopath and a liar.

The show is set among prosperous Manhattan Jews, and at first the accents come at you like the Third Avenue El, smothered in lox and cream cheese. (Of the four principals, only Rudd is actually Jewish, but on the authority of my own Jewishness, I declare they all can pass.) A little basic Yiddish and easy-to-read references to Katz’s pastrami, whitefish and sitting shiva salt the dialogue; eastern European modes color the score. The Lincoln Square Synagogue and the Ramaz School, real-world institutions mentioned here, belong to the Modern Orthodox movement, which carves a middle path between ritual and secularism, and the set design and costuming reflects this in nicely subtle ways.

A woman in a blue sweater vest and button down stands in a kitchen
Casey Wilson in “The Shrink Next Door.”
(Apple TV+)

It’s always pleasant to spend time with Rudd and Ferrell, two masters of 21st century comedy, each with a minor in drama, and Hahn and Wilson are equally good. (Ferrell and Hahn are especially fine together, but as their characters are estranged for 27 years, there’s a bit of a hole in the middle of the series.) Nevertheless, they are stuck in the same alternating attitudes in a story that lasts nearly three decades. And while that can work well enough in the discursive anecdotal format of an audio podcast, it’s wearing over eight hours of television. Scenes and storylines tend to be predictable; if you cannot guess the fate and import of this cherry tree or that koi pond you need to be watching more television. (Though you don’t need to be watching more television.) For much of the time you are simply waiting for the moment that made “The Shrink Next Door” possible, when Marty comes to his senses, and an endgame that has been crafted to maximize face-to-face confrontations that never actually took place.

Notwithstanding that the actors and filmmakers (Georgia Pritchett, who developed the series, directors Michael Showalter and Jesse Peretz) are known for comedy, “Shrink” is not really funny, or apparently trying to be, apart from in the sense of “something’s not right.” It’s a comedy in that it’s not a tragedy, and that, in spite of the dark themes, it has been mounted with some buoyancy. There are, of course, odd moments when Ferrell gets to clown. But again the series is restricted by the facts of the case. A good comedy could be built on the foundation, but it would need to be rebuilt from the ground up and probably be over in a couple of hours.

‘The Shrink Next Door’

Where: Apple TV+

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)