Inspired by a true crime podcast and penned by a veteran of Veep, Succession and The Thick of It; this Will Ferrell-Paul Rudd double-header should be flawless. Big on character building, subtle in plot points and trading off the reputation of both, The Shrink Next Door should be a home run on paper.
Will Ferrell plays Martin “Marty” Markowitz, an anxiety-ridden owner of a fabric company based in New York. His sister Phyllis, portrayed by Kathryn Hahn on scene-stealing form, encourages, chastises and mollycoddles him in equal measure. This brother-sister combo trade barbs, with a dynamic which comes across like early Woody Allen, alongside a bevy of eccentric ensemble players. However, these preliminaries only go so far in shaping audience expectations, before Paul Rudd’s Dr. Isaac “Ike” Herschkoph is introduced.
What follows is an expansive two-hander, featuring a dialed-back Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd in unfamiliar territory. To begin with their relationship is defined by simple psychiatric sessions, which soon turn into an awakening of sorts for both men. However, there is such ambiguity to Herschkoph as a character, that his malicious manipulations and intimidating supplications rarely feel dark enough. For two such gifted comedians, The Shrink Next Door also struggles to balance characterization and comedy throughout. Ferrell is clearly doing drama, ensconced beneath an impenetrable beard and glasses, while his opposite number is poised in comparison but looks oddly uncertain.
Ike’s infiltration into Marty’s life is neither melodramatic enough nor laugh-out-loud funny, but rather occupies a space in between. The Shrink Next Door also suffers from a tonal inconsistency, as writer Georgia Pritchett and showrunner Michael Showalter struggle to keep things dynamic. However, that doesn’t mean the production lacks polish but rather cohesion across all its component parts.
Ferrell, Rudd and Hahn give great performances, while Casey Wilson also shines as Ike’s wife Bonnie. The chief problem here is that audiences are given few reasons to emotionally invest. Herschkoph is inherently unlikable, decidedly shifty and lacking in moral fiber, while Markowitz simply misses a backbone. Epiphanies, gumption or redeemable characteristics are in short supply, meaning there is little to get behind as a viewer.
On paper, these two roles should work perfectly, as the underhanded subtlety of one is counterbalanced by a simpering naïveté in the other. Unfortunately, that darkness which so defines Herschkoph rarely comes through. For audience members, the character never goes far enough until it is too late to care. Only after five episodes is the malicious intent of this man made apparent, which for most people will be too late.
Emotional beats which revolve around parental disconnection, social status and psychological manipulation never gain enough dramatic screen time. From being cajoled into refurbishments to detrimental joint ventures, it never feels like Markowitz deserves sympathy. As he perpetually plays along, seeking personal approval and individual validation under the guise of emotional progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to care. Even as the series segues between 1956 and 2010 trying to establish formative traits, The Shrink Next Door struggles to strike a balance.
As executive producers on this project, both Ferrell and Rudd would have had some creative control in terms of character — a fact which makes this outcome even more of an anomaly. Both actors are extremely gifted improvisors, which on this occasion may have worked against them. It is almost as if they felt constricted by their respective roles, which has resulted in two creations that never quite work despite the best efforts of both.
This should have played like a low-rent Hitchcock thriller, rather than reaching for comedy that never really suited the situation. The fact is great comedy actors don’t always need humor to make something work. If The Shrink Next Door had leaned into that idea, rather than trying to occupy a middle ground without success, then these could have been career best performances, rather than characterizations defined by tonal inconsistency.
For better dramatic examples of what Rudd can do, audiences are better off checking out Mute by Duncan Jones, or even Living with Yourself in terms of performance. For Ferrell, check out Stranger Than Fiction opposite Emma Thompson — a movie in which he exploits his comedic persona whilst leaning into more serious territory alongside a co-star who offers strong support. Not only are these films a better showcase for both men, but underline what is inherently missing from this Apple TV+ original.
This true crime original series from Apple, featuring Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd never really sets the world alight.