In Anchorman, Paul Rudd’s Seventies TV newsman Brian Fantana says of his beloved Sex Panther cologne, “They’ve done studies, you know: 60 percent of the time, it works every time.” Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy considers this equation for a moment, then replies, “That doesn’t make sense.”
I have watched Anchorman often over the years, and thought a lot about that “60 percent” line in particular. Does it make more sense than Ron would argue? I’m not talking about Sex Panther itself, since other characters compare its aroma to “pure gasoline,” “a used diaper filled with Indian food,” and “a turd covered in burnt hair.” Rather, there is a glorious messiness to the Anchorman movies — and to many of the comedies inspired by it, often involving the same actors and/or producers — in which a sizable chunk doesn’t work. But the 60 percent that does can be so overwhelmingly funny that it feels like those films are working every time.
Rudd and Ferrell’s new Apple TV+ miniseries The Shrink Next Door is not really trying for that aesthetic, though it features ugly Eighties fashions, some broad regional accents, and occasional musical interludes. But those periodic stabs at their shared creative past help make a muddle of a story that works far less than 60 percent of the time.
Based on the hit nonfiction podcast by reporter Joe Nocera, it casts Rudd in the title role as Ike Herschkopf, a psychiatrist who spends nearly 30 years insinuating himself into the life of wealthy patient Marty Markowitz (Ferrell), becoming Marty’s best friend, surrogate brother, business partner, and even taking over the bulk of Marty’s inherited summer home in the Hamptons. Anyone who suggests “Dr. Ike” is in any way overstepping his professional boundaries or being a bad influence on Marty is to be cast aside and shunned, while each of Ike’s brainstorms gets first dibs at Marty’s seemingly limitless checkbook.
Adapted by Georgia Pritchett (Veep, Succession) and primarily directed by Michael Showalter (a longtime Rudd collaborator going back to Wet Hot American Summer), Shrink is billed as a dark comedy, but mostly it’s just dark, and sad, and fairly repetitive. After a 2010 prologue hinting at an ugly end to Ike and Marty’s many interwoven relationships, the story proper begins in 1982. Marty has recently inherited his rich parents’ fabric business in New York’s garment district. He’s still grieving their loss, is in a protracted legal battle with an uncle for control of the operation, and has such difficulty standing up for himself that he has taken to hiding behind the curtains at the company’s offices to avoid dealing with unhappy customers. His sister Phyllis (fellow Anchorman alum Kathryn Hahn) encourages him to see Ike on a friend’s recommendation, little suspecting that she is delivering her brother into the hands of an epic schnorrer (Yiddish for freeloader) who will soon convince Marty to cut Phyllis out of his life.
In their first session, Ike asks if Marty should be called “Easy Mark Markowitz” because of all the people who take advantage of him. He wins his new patient’s affection by helping Marty scare away an ex-girlfriend still demanding Marty pay for the vacation he promised before they broke up. Early scenes do an effective job of illustrating how Ike makes himself feel indispensable to Marty, even as he’s scamming him for far more than his ex or anyone else has. And in scenes where Ike is alone with his wife Bonnie (Casey Wilson), we see that he’s even deluding himself — believing not only that he’s helping Marty, but that he is entitled to treat Marty’s riches, house, and more as if they were Ike’s to begin with. Bonnie grows uneasy with the man her husband becomes around Marty — “The one who never knows when enough is enough” — but he doesn’t understand the complaint.
Both leads have worked in more serious or understated keys before (Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction, for instance, or Rudd as Moe Berg, the title character of The Catcher Was a Spy), and it’s not hard to see this working as a more straightforward psychological thriller about a doctor co-opting his patient’s life so gradually and thoroughly that his victim feels like he’s being done a favor. But Pratchett, Showalter, and company can’t resist hedging their bets and leaning into the Burgundy and Fantana of it all. Rudd, Ferrell, and Hahn all adopt thick (if inconsistently deployed) New York Jewish accents that at times feel better suited to an SNL sketch than a strange but mostly grounded true life story. The second episode has Ike convincing Marty to have another bar mitzvah — as an excuse, of course, for Ike to throw himself the lavish party his family couldn’t afford when he turned 13 — and when the two wind up singing Marty’s torah portion together at the synagogue, it feels like an attempt to recreate the “Afternoon Delight” singalong from Anchorman. In other episodes, Marty dances and horses around while repainting his office and home (the latter with Ike) to songs like Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” or Boy Meets Girl’s “Waiting For a Star to Fall.” And the finale features a fight sequence taking advantage of both actors’ gift for slapstick.
Sequences like those seem designed to satisfy viewers assuming they’re getting more of Rudd and Ferrell in full Adam McKay/Judd Apatow mode. But they’re too infrequent and not really funny enough to really turn this into Wake Up, Ron Burgundy 2. And they undercut the psychological realism of the rest of the show. Marty in particular becomes a caricature for much of the eight-episode season, which makes Ike’s manipulations of him monotonous — why wouldn’t this sad clown fall for the exact same line again and again and again? A later episode includes a lovely, melancholy flashback to the day Marty helped Phyllis and her daughters leave her cheating husband, and it’s startling how much more human and three-dimensional he seems compared to the rest of the time. That version of Marty feels like he could carry an eight-part story (most episodes run between 40 and 50 minutes), but that’s largely not what Ferrell has been asked to do.
Phyllis comes across as the most fully-human main character, but the nature of the story means Hahn’s not around a lot. At one point, Marty details one of the many horrifying aspects of life with Dr. Ike that he’s just grown used to. “Getting used to it is really your superpower, huh, Marty?” Phyllis observes. There are aspects of The Shrink Next Door that are much too easy to get used to, as the show feels content to repeatedly hit certain notes. But on the whole, the series’ inability to decide whether to play things straight or lean into the Ferrell and Rudd reunion makes it hard to get used to anything that’s happening.
The first three episodes of The Shrink Next Door premiere Nov. 12 on Apple TV+, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all eight.