The big question that comes from watching the new therapist comedy Shrinking, is: are there therapists who can help those who watched Shrinking?
Oh boy, this is… bad. Which is very disappointing, because it looked great on paper. Jason Segel – has there been a more likeable actor ever? Harrison Ford – has there ever been a more beloved film icon? And though they may try hard (well, Segel tries hard; Ford phones it in, but that’s to be expected, he practically invented phoning it in the moment an Ewok starting hugging his leg in Return of the Jedi), the show has a death wish with regards to sentimentality: every pithy or mildly bruising encounter is followed by a plunge off a cliff into yet another musical montage of people bonding.
Shrinking is about a therapist called Jimmy (Segel) whose wife has died, leading him into a breakdown in which he starts telling his clients what he really thinks about them and their problems. Much to the disdain of his curmudgeonly boss at the clinic, Paul (Ford), who has Parkinson’s and his own grief to deal with.
It’s not a bad set up, and you could imagine, say, Vince Gilligan bringing out all the darkly funny shades within that story. But here, Segel along with fellow co-creators Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso) and Bill Lawrence (Scrubs), can’t seem to help but keep things easy and breezy and outright nauseating.
So while our first sight of Jimmy is of him drinking and doing prescription drugs in his pool with two prostitutes while his teenage daughter is asleep inside the house, he’s really nice and shuts everything down when his neighbour complains, and... well, that’s the last we see of him doing anything self-destructive on the drink or drug related. That’s some addiction.
Jimmy’s already changed direction by the halfway point of the first episode and started dragging his patients into it: overstepping the line as a therapist by getting them to leave their spouses or taking them out for the day for some anger management in the boxing ring, which all basically turn out nice and lovely – yes there’s some stickiness but everyone’s heart is in the right place, so there are no real problems to navigate.
Not everything has to be dark and moody of course, and indeed there’s something grating about TV shows competing to be The Darkest Thing Ever which results in anti-fun dross like The House of The Dragon, where the darkness meant not only could you not see anything, but when you did come across any characters they were all hateable.
Yet in Shrinking – as with Ricky Gervais’ even worse After Life – the mushiness actively comes across as cynical. To paraphrase James Baldwin, sentimentality is dishonest, a manipulation. You don’t for a second get the sense of the show wanting to explore grief or depression; to really go there with its characters – it is just a means towards slightly amusing changes of fortune or touching moments of ‘breakthrough’.
In other words, you can’t care about these characters because they’re not going through hell – simply having a bad day, or rather, a bad hour or two. Even with some rather overdone Joe Pesci-level swearing, Segel is just too goddamn charming to play the level of f***-up (sorry, it’s catching, am I dark too?) required to make this truly interesting. And he’s never more than five minutes away from a humbling moment of connection with one of the other characters soundtracked by a bit of Hootie and the Blowfish.
Ford has some nice scenes with Jimmy’s daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), where his grizzled old-guy humour plays a little better. But his scenes with Segel never quite zing; they’re not funny or gritty, and given watching those two together will be the main reason people will give this a go, the flatness means you can’t imagine many will persist beyond a couple of episodes.
And that’s the thing, given the number of absolutely top level shows out there, the level of competition is simply too high – any even merely average show is given short shrift; expect your attention to shrink even faster with Shrinking.
Shrinking will air on AppleTV+ from January 27