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The Feel-Good Comedy of Shrinking Leaves Room for Little Else

The new series from Bill Lawrence, Brett Goldstein, and Jason Segel puts Ted Lasso's optimism on steroids.
  • Luke Tennie and Jason Segel star in Shrinking (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Luke Tennie and Jason Segel star in Shrinking (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Even for a comedy, Apple TV+’s Shrinking is an almost pathologically non-confrontational series — or, to borrow a bit more accurately from psychology parlance, one with serious conflict avoidance tendencies. Tensions dissipate so quickly, you wonder if they ever arose at all; friction seems to exist just to be steamrolled by relentless optimism. “You’re going to be okay. WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE OKAY,” the show practically screams in between rambunctious car singalongs and one too many scenes of people high-fiving each other after sex.  

    But Shrinking’s “optimism ethos” should come as no surprise: The dramedy was co-created by Bill Lawrence, whose entire oeuvre has an abiding hopefulness baked into its DNA. Just look at Scrubs (“Keep hope alive at work, even when surrounded by illness and death”), Cougar Town (“Keep hope alive at home, with the help of neighbors and lots of wine”), or the new standard bearer for comfort TV, Ted Lasso. Roy Kent himself, Brett Goldstein, developed the show along with Lawrence and Jason Segel, who also stars. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a series, particularly one that leans into comedy, focusing on the good in life and encouraging its audience to do the same. But Shrinking does so to the exclusion of everything else, including moments of real poignancy and character development. 

    Segel plays Jimmy Laird, a well-off therapist and recent widower who, in the opening scenes, is checked out of his professional and personal lives. He can’t bring himself to parent his teenage daughter Alice (Generation’s Lukita Maxwell, a bright spot), so he lets his busybody neighbor Liz (Christa Miller, who’s appeared in several of Lawrence’s shows) do it for him. A montage reveals Jimmy’s also incredibly frustrated with his work; he wonders to his boss and mentor Paul Rhodes (Harrison Ford) and colleague Gaby (Jessica Williams) why, if they “have the answers” to their patients’s quandaries, they can’t simply tell them what to do. 

    Paul — a more conventional and, it should be noted, successful therapist — cautions against becoming a “psychological vigilante,” while also acknowledging that “compassion fatigue” befalls even the most devoted analyst. Jimmy goes rogue anyway, taking clients out into the world for their sessions, and even demanding that one woman (Heidi Gardner) leave her husband in order to remain his patient. But there’s no season-long clash over their different perspectives, and certainly no official reprimand. Jimmy’s actions in the pilot cause him little trouble down the road. He encounters problems throughout the nine episodes available for review, but they’re all resolved in 30 minutes or less (now there’s a therapy pitch).

    Jimmy’s charmed life wouldn’t be out of place in a straightforward sitcom, but Shrinking purports to have more on its mind than the misadventures of a man juggling work, romance, and raising a teen. This single dad is capital-S Sad and, as a therapist, he’s torn between actually addressing his pain or numbing himself to it. That dilemma only lasts for the duration of the pilot, though, and it doesn’t take much longer for the show to answer the question of whether or not Jimmy’s community will back him up. Everyone in his life is so helpful, they spell his problems out to each other before figuring out how to solve them. Even Paul, the curmudgeonly self-described silver fox, mostly just watches ruefully as Jimmy erodes boundaries with his clients, moving one of them (Luke Tennie as Sean) into his pool house. Alice is the only person who doesn’t coddle Jimmy, and that’s because, as she reminds him, she’s also grieving a loss, and besides, she’s a teenager who shouldn’t have to look after her grown father that way. 

    The departure in tone between the first episodes and all that follow is stark — the pilot includes a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a 2000s Sad White Guy indie film like Garden State: water from a faucet falls over Jimmy’s head in slow motion as he stares blankly into, presumably, the abyss of a life without his beloved wife. From Episode 2 on, the show becomes more of a hangout comedy, with countless backyard gatherings, an art show, and a surprise engagement party. There are so many parties that it’s easy to forget everyone but Sean, a veteran with PTSD and dreams of being a chef, knew Tia. Her death was a communal loss, but Shrinking doesn’t sit with that, preferring to wonder what two pithy performers like Segel and Williams would say after hooking up with someone. (In case you’re wondering: “You’re safe d*ck” and “Your vagina is humid and hospitable, like Florida.”) 

    Losing someone, whether a spouse, friend, or parent, is incredibly painful, and most of us need other people to get through it. That’s the driving force behind the series, but while it’s an admirable sentiment, it’s not quite enough to power 10 episodes — not when the creative team rushes through the messiest parts of the process. Even Ted Lasso lets sadness cast a pall for an episode, maybe two; Shrinking, ostensibly a show about the grieving process, can hardly bear it for more than two scenes at a time. There is something substantive underneath the treacle, if only the minds behind the series would put in the work. 

    Shrinking premieres January 27 with two episodes on Apple TV+. New episodes stream every Friday. 

    Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.

    TOPICS: Shrinking, Apple TV+, Christa Miller, Harrison Ford, Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, Luke Tennie, Lukita Maxwell