‘The Shrink Next Door’: Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd Bring Disturbing True Story to Life

One of our most ironic behavioral tragedies as humans is the fault of being too nice. It’s better than being a jerk but you become an easy target. Apple TV’s “The Shrink Next Door” is an 8-part limited series that is uniquely creepy. It is based on one of those true stories almost too pitiful and sad for fiction. Dr. Isaac Herschkopf was the worst kind of leech. A trained psychiatrist, he knew how to find his patients’ emotional weak spots and use them to attach himself to their lives. One of his key victims is played by Will Ferrell, who pulls off the kind of memorable transformation only the best comedic actors can do. Farrell has been one of our comedy giants for decades, has flirted before with more serious fare, but here creates someone likeable and off-putting, empathetic and sadly moving.

Ferrell is Martin Markowitz, who we first meet in 1981 running his family’s New York City curtain and garments business. Martin suffers from deep anxieties, especially after the passing of his father. This is in stark contrast to Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn), his much more assertive sister. To help Martin, Phyllis sends him to the office of Dr. Isaac Herschkopf (Paul Rudd), who wastes little time in telling Martin he’s too nice, repressed and therefore a pushover. Once Martin starts becoming a little more assertive at the office thanks to Isaac’s advice, the doctor also begins to attach himself a bit too closely to his patient. The Markowitzes have money due to the family business, and so Isaac starts enjoying perks. Since they’re both Jewish, he even convinces Martin to do things that puzzle everyone else, like re-doing his Bat Mitzvah when turning 40, to make up for the embarrassing one he endured as a child. Isaac gradually begins weening Martin away from Phyllis and anyone else who raises suspicions about the doctor’s motives. It will be a toxic symbiosis that will last over three decades.

“The Shrink Next Door” works better than it should because of how keenly the cast capture the personalities of their characters. There’s something morbidly entertaining about the narcissism, weak wills and aloofness at play. As a story this could have easily been a tight, unnerving movie. In this era of Peak TV, the rule seems to be that any story can be stretched out to ten hours for binging. Yet there’s no denying this is a fascinating tale. Unlike other limited series or true crime dramas, all of the friction in the semi-plot comes from the very actions of the people. Isaac Herschkopf isn’t a stereotypical villain. He’s more like Hugh Jackman’s corrupt superintendent in last year’s great “Bad Education,” who one day swiped the company card by accident, got away with it and convinced himself it was ok to keep doing it. At first we do get the feeling that Isaac does care for Martin and gives him some genuinely helpful advice about being more assertive in life. When Martin fully opens up, Isaac can’t resist and blinds himself into ignoring how weird it is for a doctor to get this involved in his patient’s life. Even Isaac’s wife Bonnie (Casey Wilson) notices, but his narcissism is too strong. She’s also at fault for shrugging off Isaac’s weak explanations for taking advantage of Martin. When Martin tries to convince his workers to make the garments for a big production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Isaac not only charges him session time for going over to help convince the team, but also for any sessions with other patients that he put off as a result.

This series is more like a series of painful memories or vignettes, each one showing how corrosive Isaac’s influence becomes on Martin’s life. His impact seeps into matters that are none of his business, like Phyllis needing to tap into the family trust fund to settle some personal financial issues. Even the Bat Mitzvah scene, masterfully performed by Ferrell and Rudd, is eerie when the psychiatrist joins Martin before all the guests partake in the ceremony.  Later Isaac will get involved in remodeling Martin’s house or shamelessly asks him to take pictures of him with a celebrity they spot at some event he’s been given access to because of Martin. This is not a stalker situation, but a parasitic one where the doctor realizes his patient just doesn’t have the will or heart to listen to everyone warning him there is something strange going on here. Isaac is himself a psychologically complex personality. The dialogue hints slightly at part of what drives him, such as never having grown up with wealth, so now living off Martin feels irresistible.

Even when the scripts by Georgia Pritchett feel like they verge on running around in circles, following the same pattern of Isaac taking advantage and Martin ignoring Phyllis’s warnings, it’s the performances that keep the series engaging. This is not the Will Farrell of “Casa de mi Padre,” “Anchorman” or “Blades of Glory.” Like Robin Williams in “One Hour Photo,” Ferrell disappears behind a portrait of loneliness and misguided kindness. Martin is almost childlike in his naivety, which may seem endearing at first, but by the final episodes it’s just pitiful. It takes hard catastrophes like the loss of a business and family to finally wake Martin up. In the final episode Ferrell brings it home with an emotional eruption full of anguish. It feels like the truthful side of all those manic characters he played on Saturday Night Live and on film. Paul Rudd also morphs into someone subtle and devious. By the time the relationship with Martin continues into the 2010s, Isaac simply cannot process why he’s looked down upon. Rudd creates a fantastic portrait of a man lying to himself. Kathyrn Hahn is full of great fury, watching her brother’s predicament the way we look hopelessly at a natural disaster.

It was only this year that Isaac Herschkopf was ordered to surrender his license to practice psychiatry in New York. Even then, it took ten years for Herschkopf to suffer any consequences after Martin filed a complaint. One wonders if he’s aware of the consequences of his actions on a human scale. He wasn’t just paid over $3.2 million by Martin over the years. He also ruined friendships and for a while separated Martin from his only family. But why tell this story in dramatic fashion? Aside from giving these actors a platform of great performances, there are unique, tragically intimate themes here. We become victims of our own insecurities and others will prey on them. Being too nice can also be a fatal error, which is not worth taking even if you risk being disliked for having rough edges. Martin Markowitz learned much of this the hard way. Maybe it doesn’t need ten episodes to get across, but when it does it is quite a memorable, melancholic journey.

The Shrink Next Door” begins streaming Nov. 12 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.