By Alan Sepinwall
If “Physician, heal thyself” wasn’t a cliché at the time Jesus said it, it almost certainly was shortly afterward. (Even Jesus described the phrase as a proverb.) The notion of a doctor being unable to tend to his own maladies is such a fundamental form of dramatic irony, professional variations on it have existed throughout the history of storytelling.
In other words, the premise of Apple’s new dramedy Shrinking — in which Jason Segel plays Jimmy, a therapist whose life and psyche have been an utter mess since his wife died in a car accident — is not exactly new. Nor is almost any of the rest of it. Jimmy decides to become a “psychological vigilante” who oversteps ethical boundaries with patients to more quickly help them, which is the central tension of pretty much every fictional story about therapy. (Even if few characters take the idea as far as Jimmy does.) The mix of goofy yet gentle humor and unapologetic sentimentality is straight out of Ted Lasso — not a surprise when this series was created by Ted boss Bill Lawrence, Ted actor/writer Brett Goldstein and Segel. Segel’s own writing often strikes a similar tonal blend(*), and he’s once again playing a man who feels everything far too deeply, and expresses his emotions far too strongly.
(*) Segel has also been known to write excuses for himself to appear fully, frontally nude. But while there are several episodes that discuss Jimmy’s penis at length, we do not actually see it. Apparently, Apple has certain lines its shows can’t cross.
But ideas become clichés because they work well enough to stick around that long. The pieces of Shrinking are familiar — though one of them, Harrison Ford’s comic turn as Jimmy’s mentor Paul, is the kind we haven’t seen in a while — but they still work, particularly in the hands of this excellent creative team and cast. You may start out asking how many times you’ve seen all of this before — especially during a bumpy debut episode — but pretty soon you’ll be too busy smiling or reaching for the tissue box to care.
Jimmy is introduced more or less at rock bottom, about a year after the loss of his wife Tia, blasting Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Men” and doing lines with a pair of sex workers at 3 a.m. by his backyard pool. He’s polite and self-aware enough to apologize for the spectacle when his neighbor Liz (Christa Miller, Lawrence’s wife and frequent collaborator) calls him on it, but he’s otherwise a wreck. He’s left teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell) to endure the grieving process on his own, and unofficially ceded all parenting responsibilities of her to Liz. Paul and their colleague Gaby (Jessica Williams) are running out of patience with his erratic behavior at the office, and his best friend Brian (Michael Urie) doesn’t understand why Jimmy has completely ghosted him.
He finds the inspiration to climb out of this pit of despair when he decides to order his patient Grace (Heidi Gardner from SNL) to leave her emotionally abusive husband or else he’ll stop seeing her. He takes on a new patient, Sean (Luke Tennie), an Afghanistan vet whose PTSD triggers violent outbursts, and soon has invited Sean to live in his pool house and hang out with him far beyond the confines of their professional relationship. He stalks patients on dates to encourage them to be more truthful, or takes them out of the office to more directly confront their anxieties. “I think I can help people if I get my hands a little dirtier,” he tells a deeply skeptical Paul.
This new approach is a lot like Ted Lasso’s style of coaching. In the real world, both men would be absolutely horrible at it (Ted somehow still doesn’t understand the offsides rules?), and quickly lose their jobs. But Lawrence and company place each of them in a context where their almost pathological empathy feels endearing, and necessary for the people around them, even as this show, like Ted Lasso, is smart enough to frequently acknowledge that certain professional boundaries exist for a reason. Jimmy has made himself more present for his daughter, his friends and his patients, but is he just digging a new hole into which he can fall?
It is, again, a role tailor-made for Segel, who’s always been great at turning anger and melancholy into comic fodder. Both in his own projects and when he works for other people (like on How I Met Your Mother), he can occasionally take this approach too far and become a cartoon. But the collaboration with Lawrence and Goldstein is clearly a good one for him, dialing him back just enough so that Jimmy feels fully human even when he’s sobbing in his car to a sad song and screaming, “FUCK YOU, PHOEBE BRIDGERS!”
Good as Segel is — and as good as Williams, Miller, Maxwell, Tennie and everyone else are — the show’s greatest asset turns out to be Harrison Ford. Ford’s facility with delivering jokes shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who’s watched even five minutes of him as Han Solo or Indiana Jones. But he’s very rarely placed himself in a purely comedic project like this. You’d probably have to go back to 1988’s Working Girl to find him playing someone this normal, in this light-hearted a vehicle. But if it’s a muscle he rarely exercises, it is still in incredible shape. Some of the humor around Paul comes from the iconic status of the man playing him, as the writers understand that it’s inherently amusing to hear Harrison Ford say “raw-dogging” (a term he’s using incorrectly), or watch him eat Doritos while stoned. Most of it, though, comes from his delivery, and from his ability to commit to the reality of this character — Paul is in the early stages of Parkinson’s, and struggling to make amends with his estranged daughter Meg (Lily Rabe) — even as he fits in seamlessly alongside more natural comedians like Segel and Williams. He hasn’t done nearly enough of this in his career, given how utterly wonderful he is at it.
Like Jimmy and Paul, all the characters are carrying around their own pain. Gaby’s marriage has seen better days, and even the judgmental, intrusive Liz is clearly struggling with empty nest syndrome(*). As a result, Shrinking is a show where people tend to speak in monologues; after Liz unloads on Gaby in one scene, Gaby replies, “Look, that’s a lot.” But it’s also a show that knows exactly when the pathos needs to be balanced with humor; Gaby’s very next line is, “You wanna get fuckin’ drunk?”
(*) Liz’s husband Derek is played by sitcom vet Ted McGinley (Happy Days, Married… with Children), in his best role in forever. Not used a ton, but earns a laugh almost every time he’s on screen.
Liz and Gaby quickly go from rivals to BFFs, evoking another Lawrence show, Cougar Town. That series abandoned its gross initial premise after a few episodes, turning into a hangout comedy that simply let a group of likable characters enjoy being around one another(*). Shrinking doesn’t quite do that — Jimmy’s grief, and the problematic ways it’s influencing his work, are never far from the surface — but an awful lot of the season’s second half is operating on a similar “just let funny people be funny together” principle.
(*) Two other Cougar Town overlaps: 1)The first episode of Shrinking is, again, not great, but the show quickly, rapidly finds itself. 2)There’s also a variation on Miller’s old “Change approved!” running gag from Cougar Town, this time with Liz and Gaby trying to figure out the feminine version of “get it up.”
Like Jimmy listening to Phoebe Bridgers, you may find yourself periodically annoyed that Shrinking has made you get in your feelings. But if it’s manipulative, it’s very effectively manipulative, while understanding that it doesn’t want to just leave you a blubbery mess. A show whose widower main character can joke that he has “resting dead wife face” has the confidence and cleverness to do whatever it wants, cliché or no.
The first two episodes of Shrinking premiere on Apple TV+ on January 27, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first nine of the season’s 10 episodes.
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