The story of Dr. Isaac Herschkopf and Martin Markowitz is tragic and infuriating. The New York psychiatrist used his position of power over patient Markowitz to manipulate him to a startling, almost unprecedented degree. First, the doctor started by merely playing mind games with him but went so far as to eventually taking over his life, even moving into his home in the Hamptons and basically turning Martin into his servant. The story really broke when a neighbor assumed Martin was a maintenance worker at the home next door and learned his identity and how much he was being manipulated. Honestly, if that new neighbor hadn’t been an investigative journalist, Marty would probably still be doing handywork around his own home for the doctor who had taken over his life. It’s the kind of disturbing true story that makes for a popular podcast, which is what happened with “The Shrink Next Door” in 2019, and it’s the kind of story that could have made for a fantastic dark comedy feature film. However, stories like this don’t become feature films in the 2020s, they become streaming TV original series.
And so the cautionary tale of Isaac Herschkopf and Martin Markowitz premieres on Apple TV+ as an 8-episode miniseries of the same name as the podcast starring Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell, respectively. Created by Georgia Pritchett with episodes directed by Michael Showalter, “The Shrink Next Door” is always interesting but rarely entertaining. It’s the weird kind of show that could produce engaging conversations about what happened between Martin and Isaac, but it seems afraid to really dig its teeth in as a drama, while also not being particularly funny either. It ultimately exists in this strange in-between space that’s like an anecdote heard at a party that’s interesting while it unfolds and forgotten about by the time the party ends.
The smartest decision made by anyone involved is that Ferrell doesn’t lean into the potential to play Marty as a sad sack. Not only does it make him more than a caricature, but it adds to the cautionary nature in that it feels like this could have happened to anyone and could even be happening somewhere else right now. Marty is the kind of average, nice guy who lets people step on him a bit too much in professional and personal matters, but it feels like everyone was careful to treat the true victim of this story with respect, and it leads to a nuanced turn by Ferrell.
“The Shrink Next Door” opens in 1981 (and Showalter really pushes the time period in terms of fashion and pop culture references), shortly after the deaths of Marty’s parents and the end of a relationship that once looked like it could lead to marriage. Inheriting the family business, Associated Fabrics, puts even more pressure on Marty, and the dynamic portrayed between Marty and his sister Phyllis (Kathryn Hahn) was a complicated one. She almost acted more like a parent, overprotecting Marty and suggesting that he seek psychiatric help from Dr. Ike, but she also needed him badly in her life.
From the very beginning, there’s something unsettling about Ike’s approach with Marty. In their first meeting, they walk into a pick-up game of basketball, and he puts Marty on the other team. He then yells to Marty to pass him the ball, which the startled Marty does. Ike uses this as a lesson about not doing what he’s told, but Ike didn’t really have to trick him either, right? Ike is the kind of guy who always blames the victim, and he’s grooming Marty’s victimhood right from their very first meeting.
It gets much worse. The early days of Ike’s grooming are the most interesting. The doctor has a habit of pushing Marty into the spotlight, and then taking that spotlight for himself. He dismantles Marty’s relationships—first with his sister but then with any potential girlfriend who might supplant Ike as the most important person on Markowitz’s life. He’s the kind of guy who is constantly telling Marty to speak for himself and then does all the talking for him. It’s gross.
It gets even worse. After visiting Marty at his family home in the Hamptons, Ike basically moves into the fancy home with his wife Bonnie (Casey Wilson). Most of this unfolds in the second half of the season and the basics of what’s happening get so dark in a way that the show sometimes feels afraid to confront. Rudd isn’t afraid to play Ike as a monster, but he never quite seems to figure out his motivations, portraying him as a competitive narcissist in some moments but inconsistently drawn in others. Hahn is excellent early on, as usual, but she exits the show too quickly, and Wilson is given almost nothing to do but look concerned about what her husband is doing. In terms of performance, the show belongs to Ferrell, who avoids so many potential traps of this character to make him three-dimensional.
The biggest problem with “The Shrink Next Door” is one of the biggest problems of modern television—it’s a movie’s worth of story in miniseries form. A screenwriter could easily take these eight episodes and distill them to their key 12-15 minutes and craft a pretty impressive feature script. The truth is that those movies just aren’t getting made as the mid-budget adult drama disappears from the theatrical landscape. And so many stories like this one which could have made for a slow-burn character study about manipulation become so drawn out that they lose their potency.
Can a show be interesting without being entertaining? “The Shrink Next Door” conveys such a bizarre true story that it’s never boring (even though it’s surprisingly unfunny given the comedic talent involved), but it’s such a tragic, depressing tale that it’s a hard show to live with for eight episodes. Viewers may need therapy after watching. [C]
“The Shrink Next Door” premieres on Apple TV+ on November 12.