‘Shrinking’ Confronts Loss and Despair by Prescribing Breezy Laughs
Melancholy dominates much TV these days. Great actors keep being tasked with capturing the loneliness of the times through stories of sheer depression, anxiety and that feeling that we haven’t figured things out well past our 30s. In Apple TV’s “Shrinking,” we get two good actors who make melancholy rather warm and enjoyable. Jason Segel is the lead undergoing major crucibles this time around, looking appropriately tired and despairing. Providing balance with sage wisdom is Harrison Ford, who revels in finding new ways to combine being slightly grumpy with genuine affection. Together they achieve making this show work by never turning it into a depressive experience. They find a sense of joy in the need to persevere.
Segel’s Jimmy is a therapist finding it hard to dispense the usual advice to his clients. His wife recently died, leaving him as a single father to teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell). Jimmy is emotionally a wreck, meaning Alice feels virtually abandoned but has at least found friendship with neighbor Liz (Christa Miller). Then, Jimmy can’t take it anymore and he doesn’t necessarily have a meltdown but instead, begins dispensing the kind of blunt advice to patients that might seem unorthodox, but has surprisingly positive results. Paul’s mentor and superior at the Cognitive Behavioral Center, Dr. Paul Rhodes (Ford) is not too impressed with his method but he remains supportive, including by also being a friend to Alice. But Jimmy could also be stepping into new landmines with his new techniques.
“Shrinking” is the creation of Brett Goldstein, Bill Lawrence and Segel. Goldstein and Lawrence are also key figures behind Apple TV’s big comedy smash “Ted Lasso,” so expectations here are certainly high. To their credit, they are not seeking to repeat exact formulas here. Jimmy is not a new take on Jason Sudeikis’s popular American football turned soccer coach in Europe. He’s a lighter take on recent saddened characters like Jim Carrey in “Kidding” or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Mr. Corman.” The audience is given room to breathe because Jimmy is surrounded by other characters that also have issues but of varying kinds. There’s Sean (Luke Tennie), a veteran who feels compelled to attack whenever he feels the slightest annoyance, even an accidental shoulder bump. Grace (Heidi Gardner) needs to get out of a toxic relationship with a man who only values her large breasts and nothing else. Jimmy helps them with practical options. He takes Sean to a gym and gets him to channel his physical rage into boxing. By simply and bluntly telling Grace she’s delusional about her man ever changing, Jimmy inspires her to walk away and finally be free.
These micro stories connect to other themes closer to Jimmy, the most important being Alice. Jimmy may be finding ways to help his patients, but mending a bond with his daughter that is threatening to break is much more complicated. She resents feeling alone and understandably finds it difficult to deal with her feelings while being surrounded by either injured adults, or her own clueless classmates. Jessica Williams is the show’s great ray of happiness as Gabby, who also works at the office with Jimmy and Paul, but of course has her own transitions to deal with, such as a divorce. Ford, who has been incredibly active at 80, with this and the “Yellowstone” prequel “1923,” may seem like the one with all the experience, but he has a Parkinson’s diagnosis he refuses to fully face with all of its implications (including not being able to drive on his own).
With all of these personal challenges, “Shrinking” avoids being a downer. The soundtrack is breezy and the humor is never cruel. The show is almost designed as a small tonic or its own form of therapy, assuring viewers that we all go through pain, uncertainty and challenges with few easy answers. Jimmy is a conduit for any morning where you just don’t want to get out of bed or when tragedy strikes and it feels as if the days will be endless. Slowly, he gets through it, with mistakes along the way, including one that gets Sean kicked out of his house, resulting in the patient having to stay at Jimmy’s house in the sort of warmhearted plot development this series features. There are also a lot of corny “I am so white” jokes for Jimmy, which are not all necessarily terrible. “Shrinking” confronts sorrow with a smile and an excellent cast makes its sessions worth attending.
“Shrinking” season one begins streaming Jan. 26 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on Apple TV+.