The week in TV: The Shrink Next Door; Inside the Care Crisis With Ed Balls; Beat the Devil; The Tower

A conniving shrink takes over his patient’s life as Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd reunite; Ed Balls gets to grips with elderly care; and Ralph Fiennes fumes in the David Hare play the BBC didn’t want

The Shrink Next Door Apple TV+
Inside the Care Crisis With Ed Balls (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Beat the Devil Sky Arts
The Tower (ITV) | ITV Hub

Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd starred together in Anchorman, but there’s no spritz of Sex Panther cologne from the aftershave cabinet to lighten the mood in their new eight-part Apple TV+ US dramedy The Shrink Next Door.

Based on Joe Nocera’s 2019 Wondery podcast, developed from a script by Georgia Pritchett (Succession), and directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) and Jesse Peretz (Girls), Shrink is so strange, so incredible (start at “batshit”, then keep cranking the handle), it could only be a true story. It relates how timid Martin “Marty” Markowitz (Ferrell) had his life taken over by manipulative psychiatrist Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf (Rudd). Ike, a turbo-powered narcissist who eventually had his licence revoked, dominated Marty’s life for decades, starting in the 1980s: extracting millions of dollars for dubious services and schemes and throwing parties at Marty’s house in the Hamptons as though it were his own. Ike also estranged Marty from loved ones, including Marty’s sister Phyllis, superbly played by Kathryn Hahn with increasingly fiery frustration.

Over the first three episodes, Ike’s influence over Marty mutates to sinister levels (think 1963 Dirk Bogarde film The Servant, but with added pool parties). Just as romance scammers exploit those yearning for love, Shrink unfolds like a bromance scam, with lonely, gullible Marty giving himself over to Ike with cult-like zeal. “I feel like I’m on drugs,” Marty cries. “I’ve never taken them before, but I assume this is what drugs feel like.”

Having watched all eight episodes, The Shrink Next Door drags on a mite: there are only so many times you can shudder at Ike treating Marty like he’s his personal Daddy Warbucks. Still, overall it’s an engrossing watch. Ferrell’s hapless naif is as heartbreaking as he is mystifying. Rudd, wolfish in a thick beard, adroitly unveils the cold conman grift (deception; exploitation) lurking behind the mask of larger than life charmer. Pathos hisses throughout like a gas leak.

To the list of indignities of old age we must now add: former shadow chancellor turned Strictly hoofer Ed Balls scrubbing at your shins with a lukewarm flannel. In the first of his two-part BBC Two docuseries Inside the Care Crisis, Balls worked at St Cecilia’s care home in Scarborough in order to better understand the demands of elderly care.

Early in the documentary, he expresses guilt for not doing more for the sector during his time in government – a wonderful gesture and, for Balls, a conveniently empty one. From there, he fully immerses himself: whether helping to feed and wash residents, sympathising with workers (paid an average of £9.50 an hour), airing grim statistics (the number of people with dementia is estimated to double by 2040), visiting his mother (who suffers from vascular dementia) in her care home, or outlining the complex problems facing the beleaguered industry, for which Covid was a hammer blow – although not the first.

Ed Balls with St Cecilia’s resident Phyllis in the ‘sincere, well-crafted’ Inside the Care Crisis.
Ed Balls with St Cecilia’s resident Phyllis in the ‘sincere, well-crafted’ Inside the Care Crisis. Photograph: Stuart Wood/BBC/Expectation Entertainment

Next week, Balls looks into home-based care. I do wonder if documentaries such as this are tantamount to social care tourism. On a par with Tories doing programmes to prove they can survive on benefits for a week (a whole week, fancy!)? However, the odd quibble aside – Balls’s perpetual quarter-smirk might have wowed in Westminster but it needs to go now – this is a sincere, well-crafted documentary. I particularly enjoyed the care worker who rightly bridled at being deemed “unskilled” and sent Boris Johnson a frank personal message: “You’ll need care one day, and I ain’t wiping your bum.”

Over to Sky Arts for Beat the Devil, playwright David Hare’s acclaimed pandemic play at London’s Bridge theatre turned one-off television drama. It sparked a recent furore when Hare (also directing here) railed at the BBC for turning it down on the grounds that “people are not interested” in Covid dramas. Oh dear, maybe not handbags, but definitely voice-memos at dawn. Was Hare right or the BBC?

Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s Beat the Devil.
‘A fantastic, unflagging hour’: Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s Beat the Devil. Photograph: Annapurna Theatre Company

It’s complicated. Starring Ralph Fiennes as Hare, Beat the Devil is an autobiographical monologue about the septuagenarian playwright’s early bout of Covid, set in his real-life studio (lots of wood; a photo of wife, designer turned sculptor Nicole Farhi, on prominent display). While he wasn’t hospitalised, Hare suffered a “pageant of random symptoms”, from vomiting to tasting everything as sewage to “air hunger”. Along the way, there’s wry humour and social commentary, primarily focused on government incompetence and needless deaths, with Fiennes/Hare seething: “I don’t have survivor’s guilt. I have survivor’s rage.”

In some ways I understand why the BBC baulked. Beat the Devil is very “first lockdown”: unnerving as the thought is, is this already dated? It’s also a stage-monologue: the most “action “you get is Fiennes/Hare waving around photocopied pictures of despised politicians. Still, the public is uninterested? Give over! Look at Help, the hugely successful Channel 4 drama starring Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer. Here, Fiennes single-handedly delivers a fantastic, unflagging hour, seamlessly swooping through all the different topics and moods. As a highly personal pandemic-era dramatic curio, Beat the Devil has its own cultural value.

Jimmy Akingbola and Gemma Whelan in The Tower.
Jimmy Akingbola and Gemma Whelan in The Tower. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

ITV’s three-part crime drama The Tower, based on Kate London’s novel Post Mortem, shown over consecutive nights last week, is dramatised by Patrick Harbinson and directed by Jim Loach. It has a strong, hardworking cast, headed by the ever classy Gemma Whelan, and including Tahirah Sharif, Jimmy Akingbola and Emmett J Scanlan. There’s also an intriguing premise: a policeman (Nick Holder) and a teenage Libyan refugee (Lola Elsokari) fall to their deaths from the roof of a tower block, witnessed only by a young police constable (Sharif) and a small child.

Sadly, things soon degenerate into a blizzard of themes: police racism, organised crime, bent coppers, cover-ups and more, including casual homophobia (Whelan’s character, DS Sarah Collins, is a heartbroken lesbian). To make things even more untidy, there were so many flashbacks I felt like I should have my stomach contents tested for hallucinogens. I loved the performances though, particularly the increasingly fraught back and forth between Whelan and Akingbola. Bring back the characters, please, but with a less chaotic story.

What else I’m watching

Gabrielle Creevy (Bethan) in In My Skin.
Gabrielle Creevy (Bethan) in In My Skin. Photograph: Clementine Schneidermann

In My Skin
(BBC Two)
Second series of the award-winning Welsh comedy-drama, starring Gabrielle Creevy as a lesbian schoolgirl with an abusive father and mentally ill mother. A semi-autobiographical passion project from writer Kayleigh Llewellyn (Killing Eve), it’s dark, witty and heart-rending. Kudos to all involved.

Close to Me
(Channel 4)
Eminently watchable psychological thriller based on the book by Amanda Reynoldsabout a woman struggling with amnesia after a sinister fall. It stars Connie Nielsen and Christopher Eccleston; viewers will just have to be brave about Ecclestone’s alarming blond hair.

MasterChef: The Professionals
(BBC One)
It’s back, with Marcus Wareing, Monica Galetti and Gregg Wallace. I sometimes feel conflicted watching this. It’s fine for amateurs, but couldn’t being reprimanded on a TV show for burning sausages, as happened in the opener, destroy professional reputations?


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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