Maybe your first thought when People Magazine named Paul Rudd its “Sexiest Man Alive,” was “Say what?” OK. Maybe it was your second thought, after “People’s still around? And doing the ‘sexiest man’ thing?”
The reason, thanks to “recency bias,” is almost certainly the darkly humorous Apple series “The Shrink Next Door,” which premieres this week.
Over eight episodes, this series — based on the 2019 podcast of the same name — makes Rudd one of the great villainous charmers ever, a smiling, glib and glad-handing psychotherapist who takes on a pushover of a patient (Will Ferrell) and makes him over. OK, helps him — possibly — as he steadily milks the sap for all that he’s worth.
It’s light and infuriating, a show that episode-by-episode shows the manipulation, predatory billing and “normalizing” of a most “unconventional” doctor-patient relationship, one where the boundaries so vital to such arrangements are wiped away — and not by the patient, but by the shrink.
Rudd — funny, smiling, quick with a quip and “teachable moment” aphorism — is so adorable that it’s easy to lose track of the red flags we see and alarm bells we hear with every new entanglement of that doctor-patient dynamic.
We’ve heard of such things in the news and in the culture — Beach Boy Brian Wilson might be the most famous example. The true story podcast this is based on — which could easily be labeled “true crime” — could join it. I remember hearing it sampled on NPR and shouting at the car radio over the manipulations and predations mixed up with the “help” Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, ask “Dr. Ike” (Rudd) was dispensing to sad, lonely and anxious Marty Markowitz (Ferrell).
“Shrink,” created and adapted by Georgia Pritchett (“Veep”) is deadpan funny and sometimes quite sad as we see first the “help,” then the cunning destruction, the wedges the healer/hustler employs over the course of the decades — from the ’80s, when much of it is set — to the 2010s, when it call came to a boil.
It’s also very Jewish, and not in that grating “Goldbergs” way. The series depicts an insular world of interconnections — rabbis, show folk, Dr. Ike’s “connections” and Marty’s long-established family fabric business. Rudd’s Dr. Ike is both observant, and practically a “pushy” stereotype. Marty, who has run from confrontation and let people walk all over him his entire privileged life, is putty in this knows-everybody/has-all-the-answers blowhard’s hands.
The dynamic is laid out in the premiere, “The Consulation.” Marty is reduced to near tears by a long-time customer who figures the son of the previous owner can play the insulting, threatening brinkmanship game that is haggling.
His “guard dog” is the only one who can save him, something sister Phyllis (the wondrous Kathryn Hahn) has been doing all her life, we realize. She’s the one who talks her unhappy, single and pushing-40 sibling to “see somebody.” She even picks the “somebody” out. We just know she’s going to regret it.
But his questions, suggestions and promises to Marty, drawing him out, getting him to say what’s underneath the surface, bucking him up as he tries to complete a break-up with a woman who wants a Mexican vacation for her trouble, is kind of thrilling and a little bit chilling.
The “time is almost up” and “let’s continue this on a walk” turns into a pick-up basketball game and a breezy stop at one of the many neighborhood businesses where they know “Dr. Ike” — the framing shop where his framed New York Times letter to the editor and photo of we gather a former client, Sly Stallone’s mom, can be shown off.
The advice is humane and rock solid. “The goal of life is to LIVE…You just lost your Dad, Marty. It’s fully within your rights to NOT feel ‘fine’…I think I could help you…I’m not going to let anyone USE you.”
But from the first hint we get that Dr. Ike isn’t off the clock on “let’s take a walk,” with every “F-word (fine) fine jar” violation (Marty has to fork over cash), with each offbeat suggestion — “Why don’t you have a second bar mitzvah?” — we see the hooks sinking in.
Rudd and Ferrell have a lot of experience in “buddy” pictures, and settle into this dynamic with ease — Ferrell playing the naif relieved to find someone who “really SEES me,” Rudd playing a guy whose sessions, and home life with his wife (Casey Wilson) drops hint after hint of his professional transgressions and the good doctor’s own “issues.”
Ferrell’s timid, clipped, kvetching voice and tentative body language is some of his most subtle work.
Hahn, just seen in “WandaVision,” brings the heart here playing the protective sister with a temper, somebody used to bowling over Marty but his Prime Protector up until now. We can’t see which status she misses most when the wedge is driven in and both are lost.
As the series opens with a 2010 weekend house in the Hamptons party where Dr. Ike’s excesses have him where gotten him where he most wants to be, we know this won’t end well. But even knowing that, “The Shrink Next Door” keeps us coming to see just how badly “won’t end well” turns out to be.
And if it’s not as cruel and cynical as the podcast it is based on, “The Shrink Next Door” can blame its intensely likeable cad cast in the title role. Even at his worst, Rudd could charm whiskers off Will Ferrell, or any co-star anyone cares to pair him with.
Rating: TV-MA, some violence, profanity
Cast: Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell and Kathryn Hahn
Credits: Created by Georgia Pritchett, directed by Michael Showalter and Jesse Peretz, based on the podcast of the same name. An Apple TV+ series.
Running time: 8 episodes @ :35-50 minutes each