Paul Rudd (left) and Will Ferrell in "The Shrink Next Door."
Paul Rudd (left) and Will Ferrell in "The Shrink Next Door."

Overanalyzing ‘The Shrink Next Door,’ Apple TV’s extremely Jewish new series

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Built for bingeing and designed to be discussed, “The Shrink Next Door” drops audiences into 1980s New York City and into the life of Marty Markowitz, who forms an increasingly complicated and problematic relationship with his therapist, Dr. Ike Herschkopf.

The therapy appears to work at first, but does so by nudging at  and then taking a battering ram to the boundaries that therapists are supposed to have with their patients; the doctor misleads him, steals money from him, uses him and abuses him.

Boasting likable leads — comedy all-stars Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell engaging their dramatic talents, with Kathryn Hahn supporting — this eight-episode series made its three-episode debut on Apple TV+ on Nov. 12, with new episodes released weekly.

Based on true events and chronicled in journalist Joe Nocera’s popular podcast of the same name, the story itself would be meaty enough to provoke robust conversation; If you know New York Jews, you probably know someone whose orbit intersected with those of the real-life protagonists or who even went to the lavish parties that Dr. Ike threw with Marty’s money.

But the series also arrives during a moment of increased scrutiny for non-Jewish actors playing intensely Jewish roles. And as much as anyone loves Hahn or Ferrell, neither is Jewish.

While likely not the intention of the series’ producers, this may promote a form of prejudice similar to a pattern that Sarah Silverman spoke about in her podcast in September. “If the character is courageous or deserves love, [they are] never played by a Jew,” Silverman said. In “The Shrink Next Door,” this holds up: The only Jewish actor is playing the series’ only villain.

There’s also a very strong case for accent-based outrage. For example, Hahn is always excellent at the emotional swings and physical presence of her roles, but that accent? Oy. “Pyaah-nick attyak” or “broy-yull some laaamb chowps” sounds more like if Boston met Detroit in a crowded bar.

Kathryn Hahn in "The Shrink Next Door"
Kathryn Hahn in “The Shrink Next Door”

As played by Ferrell, Marty is introverted and prone to panic in moments of conflict. His performance is quieter than most Ferrell fans expect; there is no trace of Mogatu from “Zoolander” shouting into a tiny phone, or “Anchorman” Ron Burgundy rumbling with local newscasters in a park. The understated performance builds empathy and tension.

Embodied by the newly crowned Sexiest Man Alive playing down the sexy in favor of schmoozy and nebbishy charm, Rudd’s Dr. Ike says things you’d find embroidered on a pillow but nonetheless would be happy to hear, like “It’s OK for things to not be OK,” and “I provide the opportunity, not the outcome.”

From a technical perspective, the apparent sociopath was also a very skilled therapist. He charges Marty to think beyond using the word “fine,” and encourages him to stick up for himself. If the bar mitzvah experience of his youth was traumatic, why not reclaim that rite of passage with a second bar mitzvah? As Dr. Ike says, “Rocky got back in the ring, you get back on the bimah.”

But then the therapeutic boundaries blur. Our session time is up? Let’s have lunch and play basketball as we continue the conversation. Confronting your ex-girlfriend? Let’s do it together. Don’t have a lawyer? Invent one. The ethical violations start small and casual and snowball, and even after three episodes, it’s clear that the culture of grooming has begun.

Dr. Ike’s methods are their own kind of madness, a Trojan horse toting manipulation in its belly, to burst forth in service of the doctor’s insatiable pursuit of celebrity and status. Dr. Ike targets Marty’s support system, especially his sister, deeming her untrustworthy (as today’s cult-themed documentaries might call it, a “suppressive person”) and urging Marty to cut her out of his life. Marty is hooked on the dopamine of how Dr. Ike makes him feel, and no matter what the financial or familial cost, he is all in.

Will Ferrell (left) and Paul Rudd in "The Shrink Next Door."
Will Ferrell (left) and Paul Rudd in “The Shrink Next Door.”

If “The Shrink Next Door” were a Bond Girl, she would have to be called Yarmulkes Galore — that’s how Jewy it is. (Has Modern Orthodox high school Ramaz been name-checked in any other TV series lately?)

But the show reaches its peak Jewyness at Marty’s bar mitzvah, which operates at nearly 80 percent authenticity. Dr. Ike is called to the Torah for an aliyah with a “ya’amod rishon” (“let the person with the first aliyah stand up”). Rudd aces the pre-aliyah blessings with glee and gusto and nearly nails the Hebrew (one word — “natan” is inflated by an extra syllable to “na-atan,” but we’ll allow it). Ferrell creaks out the verses to complete his redemptive rite of passage, but needs an assist from Dr. Ike, which illustrates just how much he is insinuating himself into Marty’s life.

After identifying some of the words in the verses chanted, I found them in Sefaria, an online library of traditional Jewish texts. It’s Exodus 30: all of verse 8, all but the last three words of verse 9, and the last four words of verse 10. The Torah portion is Tetzaveh, which includes detailed instructions around creating sacred vestments, anointing sacrifices with oils and building altars — guidelines for constructing visible holiness. Verse 10 ends with the words “kodesh kodeshim,” Holy of Holies, the space in which the most private and holy work happens between God and the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

Without hitting the analogy too hard or problematically positioning a therapist as an omniscient entity, most of us expect that a therapist’s office will be that kind of space apart from the rest of the world, for only patient and client. But throughout the story, Dr. Ike exploits the intimacy of a therapy relationship and violates the sanctity of his profession, a desecration of the holy space.

Journalists covering the story asked the real-life rabbis and community members for comment and received no responses of substance. This is both understandable and unacceptable. And it stirs the pot of modern conundrums, prompting questions about our responsibility to each other in community, about what we expect from our sacred spaces, our spiritual leaders and ourselves.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.