- Series name:The Shrink Next Door
- Creator:Georgia Pritchett
- Genre:Drama, comedy
- Network:Apple TV+
- Broad casting:Fridays
- Rating: 3.5 StarsClick here to rate 1Click here to rate 2Click here to rate 3Click here to rate 4Click here to rate 5
Marty Markowitz has a unique reason for wanting to live to 90. It’s because if in 11 years he reaches that ripe old age – or as Ashkenazi Jews presumably call it, middle age – he’ll be able to say that only a third of his life was ruined by Dr. Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf.
Wealthy New Yorker Markowitz’s remarkable tale was first told in the hit podcast “The Shrink Next Door” in 2019, and it’s likely to reach an even wider audience now it’s been adapted into an eight-part series by Apple TV+.
It’s probably fair to call this the most high-profile small-screen adaptation of a podcast to date – after all, the likes of “Dirty John,” “Homecoming,” “Sleazy Simon,” “Dr. Death,” “Lure” and “Limetown” left such a limited impression on the televisual landscape, some people may not even know that one of those titles is actually fake.
This one also boasts Hollywood casting in the form of comedy stars Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd as the patient and therapist, respectively, who enjoyed the most unconventional of relationships. Unless, that is, you think it normal to give your doctor unfettered access to your Swiss bank account and the run of your Hamptons summerhouse. (I don’t know about you, but I’m very careful who I share mine with.)
Clearly, Apple TV believes “The Shrink Next Door” is a strong, recognizable brand – because it’s retained it despite the name no longer being as relevant on the small screen.
In the original Wondery podcast, which debuted in May 2019 with six jaw-dropping episodes and added a further four as new developments broke, the story was told from the perspective of journalist Joe Nocera, who just happened to be a Hamptons neighbor of Markowitz. Except he, for good reason, believed the home belonged to Herschkopf – or, to be more accurate, to one of the latter’s alter egos, Dr. Isaac Stevens, since that was the name featured on the mailbox outside the grandiose residence.
Nocera is written out of the story entirely here, though, and instead we follow events almost exclusively from Markowitz’s perspective. As played by Ferrell, Markowitz is something of a schlub, a 39-year-old, single, Jewish Manhattanite who is overwhelmed following the death of his beloved parents and struggling with the responsibility of suddenly running the family business – a textiles company that is struggling to make ends meet.
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At the behest of his co-worker and sister, Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn, playing a Jewish New Yorker with such relish, it’s suddenly easy to see why she was cast to play Joan Rivers in a since-scrapped TV series), and following a recommendation by their rabbi, Marty reluctantly has a session with psychiatrist Ike Herschkopf.
How affable is this shrink, who’s a few years younger than Marty and seemingly got his share of the charisma as well when it was being handed out? Well, he’s played by Rudd, which should tell you all you need to know.
Darkly comic instead of just dark
Along with the erasure of Nocera from the story, the casting of Ferrell and Rudd is the other key choice here, turning “Shrink” from a dark, disturbing podcast into a darkly comic, only occasionally disturbing series. Indeed, there were probably a few too many moments when I was reminded more of Ferrell’s emotionally stilted Buddy character from “Elf,” or one of the actor’s many other man-child characters over the years, than the Marty Markowitz story I was familiar with from the podcast. I think it’s safe to say that in this version, Markowitz “goes Ferrell” more than anything else.
One thing the TV series definitely shares with the original is its Jewishness (though, at the risk of rehashing that old “Jewface” conversation from a few weeks ago, Rudd is the only Jewish actor among the main cast).
In fact, this could be the most Jewish mainstream show you’ll see until someone turns Mel Brooks’ upcoming memoir into a film or series: Bar mitzvahs, Passover seders, Holocaust survivors – all play prominent parts in the storyline, though the two tellings of a bar mitzvah story illustrate the series’ differing approach to that of the source material.
While in real life Herschkopf encouraged Markowitz to have a second bar mitzvah on his 40th birthday to serve as a recommitment to Judaism, getting him to invite his friends to shul, in the show it’s strictly played for laughs as Ike suggests it as an opportunity to compensate for Marty’s miserable first one back in 1956 (“I have digestive issues; sometimes my insides get tangled up in themselves like a phone cord. I even missed the hora – it was a terrible day,” Marty recounts).
For me, the show is actually at its strongest in the earliest episodes as it portrays Marty and Ike’s initial encounters, and the fallout from those when Ike slowly gets his hooks into his patient’s affairs. There are genuinely moving, dramatic (and some funny) scenes here as characters such as Phyllis and a potential love interest get considerable screen time.
Things start to become more fragmented, though, from episode 5 onward, after the action largely relocates to the Hamptons. And when I say fragmented, I really do mean fragmented, with the show speeding through the years from 1990 to the present day, to the detriment of character development and emotional impact.
This was the rare show when I actually wanted to spend more time with each of the characters, and I wanted more characters. I think it misses a trick by not widening things up to show us with more of Ike’s patients, to see what his modus operandi is. We hear the horribly harrowing story of another patient, Judith, in the podcast, and although that features briefly in the screen adaptation in the Miriam character, I think it merited a deeper, separate storyline of its own. Instead, what he get is a slightly jokey, surreal “In Treatment” from one patient’s perspective.
Also, because it opts to tell the story in chronological order, it suffers somewhat from the disappearance of a key character for a long stretch of time, in a way that’s far more unbalancing than when it happens in the podcast.
The series is not always sure, either, how much to show us of Ike away from Marty, which isn’t helped by not giving Ike’s wife, Bonnie (Casey Wilson), enough screen time. How aware is she of her husband’s unethical methods and what does she really think about their bizarre life living in the Hamptons at weekends as if they own Marty’s property? It’s hard to tell given the sketchiness with which her character is written. (I’m also curious to know why the wife is the only major character whose name has been changed for this adaptation: from Becky to Bonnie.)
Enough with the kvetching
Despite my kvetching, I did actually enjoy “The Shrink Next Door” rather a lot, thanks mainly to the performances of Ferrell, Rudd and Hahn.
The two men have to age almost 40 years throughout the cycle of the show, but I had no problem believing their various stages of life. And let’s face it, we all know Paul Rudd is still going to look 50 when he’s 75 anyway, no matter how much gray hair he gets.
The show is definitely strongest when it’s portraying the bromance elements rather than the darker ones. That it’s funny should come as no surprise given the central casting and the fact that the person behind the adaptation is British writer Georgia Pritchett. She has penned some of the funniest, darkest episodes of “Succession” – most recently the painfully funny-just painful episode in which Kendall Roy plans to go on a late-night TV show that’s been roasting him – and there are many more excruciating scenes here about more emotionally stilted men with daddy issues.
Funnily enough, with “The Shrink Next Door,” Pritchett is completing an unlikely trilogy. In her recent, very funny book “My Mess is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety,” she recounts how her English adaptation of a play, “The Snow Queen,” was staged in the English towns of Southampton and Northampton. “All the hamptons,” she observed, and with “Shrink” she’s got the grandaddy of them all.
Her book was borne out of a brief therapy session she had in which she was advised to write down some of the things that worried her – and her attitude toward therapy seems to echo Marty’s initial reaction. Ike “wants me to talk about my feelings, but my main feeling is that I don’t want to,” he confides to Phyllis early on, and it’s those early sessions that are some of the most rewarding scenes – such as when Marty admires a Ralph Lauren shirt Ike is wearing, and gets a brief Jewish history lesson in how the designer’s real name is Ralph Lifschitz. Of course, it’s not long before Marty himself is decked out in Lauren, aping his Svengali.
It’s always interesting to see what makes the cut and what doesn’t when something is brought to the screen, and I’m amazed at two particular excisions from the new TV version: the letter Marty sends to his niece Lainey at her school on her 13th birthday, when he informs her that he is cutting her and her family out of his life and will, and won’t ever see them again; and another in which he finally vents about what Ike did to him, in an emotional phone call with Becky.
Dramatic decisions like that and the choice not to focus on other patients (who in real life reportedly included some very high-profile names, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Courtney Love) mean that the thing that’s surprisingly lacking here is any real sense of jeopardy – unless you’re a koi carp, anyway. There are brief scenes when an employee at Marty’s workplace speaks ominously about “the accounts,” but otherwise the dramatic moments feel a little underpowered.
Again, despite these reservations, I have no problem recommending the series to anyone who is coming to this story fresh. “The Shrink Next Door” has fine performances, darkly comic moments and one of the funniest bar-mitzvah scenes you’ll ever see. But just make sure to listen to Joe Nocera’s podcast to get even more juicy details afterward.
The first three episodes of “The Shrink Next Door” air on Apple TV+ on November 12, with the remaining five episodes dropping on subsequent Fridays.