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Therapy Makes for Great TV. Why Doesn’t ‘The Shrink Next Door’ Work?

Therapy-centered stories are having a moment in pop culture, but the star power in the new Apple TV+ series can’t overcome a muddled script

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

Therapy on television is a natural fit. The long, intense conversations are the stuff adult drama is made of, and its structure—one hour a week, often extended for years—echoes that of the small-screen serial. HBO’s In Treatment applied this insight most famously with its patient-per-episode format, both in its original run and the recent revival. And thanks to The Sopranos Dr. Melfi, therapy is associated with the storytelling in prestige TV. But as mental health has surged to the forefront of the national conversation, in no small part due to the ongoing pandemic, it’s also become a mainstream theme in popular culture. The motif is so widespread it’s acquired its own recurring tropes, which in turn earned subtle subversions.

2021, then, is a boom on top of a boom. The return of In Treatment signaled its start and updated the image of both who conducts therapy and who seeks it out. Then came a series of high-profile announcements clustered around a similar setup: The Patient, a limited series from the cocreators of The Americans, will star Steve Carell as a therapist held hostage by a serial killer; Shrinking, the next project from the Ted Lasso crew, will center Jason Segel as a therapist who decides to throw the clinical rule book out the window.

The latter is also an apt description of The Shrink Next Door, the limited series that airs on Apple TV+. (The first three episodes premiered on Friday, while the remaining five will roll out once a week.) Adapted from the nonfiction podcast of the same name, the premise comes with the standard advantage that makes therapy a rich vein to mine: a built-in device to flesh out characters and bounce them off each other. It’s as confounding as it is disappointing, then, to watch The Shrink Next Door squander that head start. Much of therapy TV works. Why doesn’t this?

Like any limited series worth its salt, The Shrink Next Door puts some big names in its biggest roles. Will Ferrell stars as Marty Markowitz, a Manhattan businessman with trouble setting boundaries, opposite Paul Rudd as Dr. Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf, the man who offers to help Marty and proceeds to ruthlessly manipulate him for almost 30 years. It’s an Anchorman reunion, presided over in large part by director Michael Showalter of The Big Sick and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Kathryn Hahn and Casey Wilson round out the ensemble as Marty’s sister Phyllis and Ike’s wife Bonnie, two women worried for the men in their lives but also unable to check or protect them.

From the moment Marty lands in Ike’s care in the early 1980s, everything is off script. For their first session, Ike takes Marty for a walk, taking what ought to stay in a therapist’s office and bringing it to places it doesn’t belong. In case the metaphor weren’t obvious enough, every episode opens with a riff on the same image: kudzu vines invading a domestic tableau, encircling a typewriter or a plate of food until it’s choked with decay. Dr. Ike starts nice enough, taking Marty to lunch or throwing him an adult bar mitzvah. But these benign transgressions start to escalate. Ike convinces Marty to cut off his closest relationships, to hire him as a consultant on the family business, and even to lend him his vacation home. (The original podcast got its name from journalist Joe Nocera’s neighbor in the Hamptons, who threw extravagant parties with well-known guests. It turned out the house didn’t even belong to him.) A doctor is supposed to help a patient; Ike uses his to help himself.

Over and over, The Shrink Next Door lets Ike explain its point. “You let people use you. I’m not gonna let anyone use you,” he tells Marty, who has a hard time telling anyone no. “People take advantage of you and you let them,” Ike observes later on. “I’m going to take care of everything.” Later still, he persuades Marty to cut down a beloved tree in his yard: “I love you properly. I won’t hurt you. I will make sure you blossom, like this tree.” The show is so busy triple-underlining its irony—Ike says he’s empowering Marty, but he’s really exploiting him!—it can’t get into the story’s how or why. It’s still stuck at the what.

The Shrink Next Door takes place in a specific time, place, and subculture: New York Jews in the late 20th century, after the first generation of immigrants but before full assimilation. (As the owner of a textile factory founded by his father, Marty is basically an ’80s version of Joel from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) Yet Rudd is the only main cast member who grew up in the faith, a choice that lands The Shrink Next Door in the middle of a growing debate over who gets to play explicitly Jewish characters. Hahn’s previous roles include a rabbi on Transparent, but the recent announcement she would headline a since-scrapped Joan Rivers series led some observers to ask whether a Jewish actor ought to play a woman whose ethnic identity was so key to her celebrity.

The incident was hardly isolated: Rachel Brosnahan, the namesake Mrs. Maisel, is not Jewish; nor is Felicity Jones, who played Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the biopic On the Basis of Sex. By blending into a larger trend illuminated by, among others, comedian Sarah Silverman, The Shrink Next Door is not uniquely culpable. It’s also not exempt from some skepticism about its ability to capture its chosen subject—especially since no performance stands out enough to justify the casting on its merits, even apart from such complicated questions.

Neither Ferrell nor Rudd feel especially at home, which is awkward, since both serve as executive producers. Ferrell’s biggest roles are marked by a kind of oblivious bluster; he’s an imperfect vessel for Marty’s neurotic anxiety, the gap between Ron Burgundy and a bundle of nerves too great to close. As for Rudd, the Sexiest Man with a Project to Promote is compulsively likable, which speaks to Dr. Ike’s schmoozer side—the life of the party who collects famous friends like Real Housewife Lisa Rinna (an early cameo). Less convincing is the cruelty it takes to systematically isolate your patients and draw on their resources. Rudd can’t make his character the villain he needs to be, though to be fair, neither can the scripts.

The Shrink Next Door has the CV of a comedy. Showalter is best known for his work on Wet Hot American Summer; Rudd’s I Love You, Man, about an all-consuming bromance, is not unlike this latest effort on paper. But where the true story has the makings of a pitch-black farce, The Shrink Next Door aims for something softer and more somber. Ike gets an origin story, an emotionally withholding father who survived the Holocaust. Episodes stretch up to an hour, space that the writers decline to fill with psychological detail despite ostensibly exploring psychology. There are glimpses of slapstick or satire, but they’re lost in an overlong muddle. It took Ted Lasso two full seasons to transition from tightly plotted sitcom to hour-long dramedy. The Shrink Next Door attempts it in eight episodes, with less compelling results.

Like many prestige miniseries of late, The Shrink Next Door can feel like a feature film stretched far too thin. The pacing is stop-and-start, either treading water or racing ahead; at one point, the show skips half a decade, pauses for a single scene set in 1997, and then fast-forwards another 10 years. For as much as The Shrink Next Door feels overlong, there’s just as much it leaves out. Hahn ends up underused, while Wilson’s character is underdeveloped; she seems to disapprove of Ike’s actions, but not enough to leave him or decline to benefit from Marty’s largesse. And though we’re told Ike’s treatment of Marty is part of a pattern, we meet only a couple of other patients. The Shrink Next Door is so focused on its central pair it ignores the people and plot points that could shed light on their bond.

Therapy can make for great TV, and for good reason. But it’s also no guarantee of success. The format is a convenient shortcut to a character’s inner life, revealing their feelings while cutting back on contrivance. On the other hand, it can backfire. There’s nowhere to hide when there’s not much to reveal. Despite spending so much time with Ike and Marty, The Shrink Next Door never moves past the most superficial, can-you-believe-this-happened read on its central events. It doesn’t shed much light on how they happened or why we should care. Maybe a better therapist could tease the answers out.