Bill Lawrence’s new AppleTV+ show isn’t perfect, but none of us are.
Grief hits us all differently. For therapist Jimmy Laird (Jason Segel, also one of three Shrinking creators), the death of his wife led him to a year-long bender. The audience encounters him on his last night of drinking, drugs, and sex workers whom he pays not for sex but just to hang out with him. His neighbor Liz’s (Christa Miller) repeated pleas to stop waking her and her husband Derek (Ted McGinley) in the middle of the night with his “parties” finally break through.
After the year he’s had, though, he can’t return to how things used to be. On the family front, Jimmy has spent a year letting Liz raise his teen daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell) while he was blotto. Now she’s understandably largely disinterested in giving him a second shot. On the friend front, he’s avoided his closest friend Brian (Michael Urie) since his wife’s funeral. At work, his mentor and boss, Dr. Paul Rhodes (Harrison Ford), and co-worker/late wife’s best friend Gabby (Jessica Williams) have seemingly been looking the other way as he showed up half in the bag regularly.
In addition to making amends for these interpersonal failures, Jimmy decides he will become a new sort of mental health professional. The kind that doesn’t play by the rules. And by rules, of course, we mean ethical guidelines.
As a therapist myself, there is a relief in watching a show about therapists whose ethical lapses do not involve trying to sleep with their clients. Sure, Jimmy commits numerous ethical violations in the nine episodes provided to critics. But, hey, at least none involve using his position to get laid.
It isn’t what one would call good therapy. Dr. Rhodes disapproves of Jimmy’s new excesses but doesn’t suspend or fire him. Not even when our protagonist invites one of his clients, Sean (Luke Tennie), to live in his guest house. Gabby also disapproves but does little more than poke fun at him. As opposed to, say, reporting him to the state board: “My co-worker blackmailed his client into leaving her husband under threat that he’d stop working with her if he didn’t. Also, he spent the past year high as a paper kite while on the job.”
Shrinking feels a bit looser [than Ted Lasso], a bit still in search of itself.
Ted Lassoco-creator Bill Lawrence (who teams with that show’s writer and breakout talent Brett Goldstein as Shrinking’s third creator) has an affection for therapists, as Lasso and Scrubs made clear. However, he’s not going for anything near reality here. Instead, it’s just stage setting for diving into his favorite themes: found families and broken but decent people helping one another become less broken. On that front, Shrinking is another strong entry in the canon.
As he has proven in the past, Segel excels at playing a messy but generally good-hearted guy. He’s smart about using his body to make himself read as shabby and vulnerable despite being tall, handsome, and reasonably fit. The show works against him a bit, though, by never really giving us a good idea of how bad things got. Shrinking only gives us one scene of him at rock bottom, and it feels…quaint. In a later episode, he drinks too much and gets sick in front of his friends. That one seems worse than his supposed lowest moment.
The show’s ensemble is a double-edged sword. Because of it, there’s still a distance between Jimmy and the audience after nine episodes. However, the team is so enjoyable, it is difficult to be too upset about it. Lawrence mainstay Miller and sitcom vet McGinley are in the pocket from the word go. Williams, similarly, feels immediately in her element. Jimmy’s cast of clients includes the likes of Heidi Gardner and Mike C. Nelson, turning in entertaining performances with only small bits of on-screen real estate.
The most significant supporting player, however, is undeniably Ford. After a career staying off the small screen, Shrinking is his second series gig in as many months. He slides well into the ensemble, wielding the cool uncle/grumpy grandpa schtick he’s been doing on talk shows for years. For a man not especially well known for comedic roles, his grasp of Shrinking’s mix of absurd and dry comedy feels natural. Ford is also an excellent dramatic resource, given Lawrence’s love of hitting viewers with the serious just as things get their most silly and vice versa. His last scene in the ninth episode is a prime example of that.
For fans of Lawrence’s other works, Shrinking is more Cougar Town than Ted Lasso. The latter more or less found its tone by episode four and has been a strongly structured show ever since. Shrinking feels a bit looser, a bit still in search of itself. There’s more than enough to recommend watching the series, especially in the performances. However, it also feels like a show that hasn’t quite figured itself out. Perhaps that makes a certain thematic sense—a series that’s not entirely sorted about people trying to sort themselves out.
Shrinking is opening to new client beginning January 27 on AppleTV+.