Television Review: “Shrinking” — When a Therapist Goes Off the Rails
By Sarah Osman
The bottom line: if you don’t find Jason Segel charming, Shrinking is skippable.
Making a bingeable comedy about mental health is no easy feat. Making a bingeable entertainment about a psychologist who is struggling to deal with not only his patients’ problems but his own mental health issues is nearly impossible. But somehow, Apple TV+’s Shrinking pulls it off: watching an episode of this series about processing grief is like eating a bag of chips — once you’ve had one salty treat you’ll want to chomp on another.
The show was created by Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein, both of whom worked on Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s biggest claim to fame. Star Jason Segel was also part of the effort. Shrinking plows the same vein as Ted Lasso: it’s therapy TV. Still, there are some key differences, not only in characters and plot but in the tone of the comedy. Shrinking has yet to hit its stride in the way the other series has. However, it could be argued that Ted Lasso didn’t find itself until season two, which, hopefully, Shrinking will get.
Segel plays Jimmy Laird, a therapist whose wife died a year ago. Jimmy hasn’t been grieving well. He’s inviting sex workers over to his hot tub at five in the morning and letting his next-door neighbor, Liz (Christa Miller), take on his parenting duties. He shows up to work, which is good, but he’s pretty much mentally absent — a victim of having to hear, repeatedly, his patients’ seemingly endless problems. Fed up seeing his patients repeat the same bad behaviors over and over again, he becomes a “psychological vigilante” — much to the chagrin of his mentor, Paul (Harrison Ford). Jimmy decides to push the ethical boundaries and give his patients advice. He tells one to leave her husband, forces another one to have a conversation with his barista, and enrolls another in a UFC class. At the same time, Jimmy is trying to make his own psychological breakthrough and come to terms with the death of his wife.
In the wrong hands, Jimmy could come off as a creepy jerk. And the guy does come across that way at times. But the character’s joy at any signs of healing is infectious. Segel is ecstatically happy when his daughter spends time with him or when one of his patients shows the slightest bit of growth. Jimmy’s faults are the kind that make him as sympathetic as he is irritating: he’s no therapy wizard, just a therapist trying to do his best. One of Segel’s best moments comes when he tries to follow some therapeutic advice from Paul. He is supposed to listen to a sad song and cry it out for 15 minutes. Jimmy goes for a bike ride and ends up sobbing to a Phoebe Bridgers ballad. I burst out laughing at the scene because, like Jimmy, I too have sobbed to Phoebe Bridgers (at this point, who hasn’t?)
At the same time, Jimmy has to reckon with the consequences of his thoughtless actions. Some of his guidance is well-meaning, but his good intentions come back to bite him. The series never suggests that Jimmy is a therapist anyone would want. He’s self-centered, has little interest in ethics, and has no respect for the rules of the profession: at one point, he invites a patient to stay in his pool house. Some critics insist that the series presents Jimmy as an attractive figure, a lovable rebel, but I think we’re meant to enjoy him from a disapproving distance. Jimmy is a much more complex character than Ted Lasso and, frankly, much more of a hot mess.
The bottom line: if you don’t find Segel charming, Shrinking is skippable. Segel infuses Jimmy with some of the actor’s quirky trademarks, such as quoting Dracula and not wearing pants. In a scene where Jimmy learns his daughter has lost her virginity, Segel goes full Segel via an over-the-top sitcomish meltdown. I found the scene hysterical — but I am a Segel fan.
Like Ted Lasso, where Ted is not the sole focus, Jimmy is not wholly center stage in Shrinking. Liz initially comes across as a shrill mom whose only hobby is rock tumbling. However, as the series goes on, Liz’s frustration as a mother becomes apparent. She’s dealing with empty nest syndrome; she latches onto Jimmy’s daughter as her last baby bird. Jimmy’s perpetually chipper coworker, Gaby (Jessica Williams), was his late wife’s best friend. When she is faced with a serious life changing event of her own, she mourns her loss, but does her best to appear cheery, powering through the sadness. The suggestion is that we all handle mourning in different ways. Jimmy ghosts his best friend, Brian (Michael Urie, thankfully not playing a gay stereotype this time), because he’s too damned happy and won’t let Jimmy be miserable as he would like. Brian is the most undeveloped character in the series, which is a shame because Urie is so brilliant.
Harrison Ford is arguably the best part of Shrinking. He plays Paul with a deadpan glumness. This is the type of “helpful” guy who asks his coworkers why they are drinking so much water during the day. He gets mad at Jimmy, but still gives him his affectionate attention. Paul does his best to tamp down Jimmy’s more unhinged tendencies, but he is also beset with problems of his own, many of which are not usually explored on TV. (Paul has Parkinson’s and is struggling to tell his daughter about his condition.) Harrison turns Paul into everyone’s grumpy grandpa, a man who loves his family but can only show it by reeling off advice and chuckling at their jokes.
Shrinking isn’t as strong as Ted Lasso (yet). However, the potential is there. I for one would like to see season two: will Jimmy continue to grow, or will he fall back into escape mode, drinking in his hot tub at five in the morning?
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman