New Apple TV+ series Shrinking centers on a man who loses everything and finally decides to start doing something about it. The comedy stars Jason Segel and Harrison Ford (in his first major TV role). And, with the creative team behind Ted Lasso and the star of How I Met Your Mother, Apple TV+ execs are clearly hoping for success on a par with the streamer’s biggest moneymakers.
They might have it. However, Shrinking will need to overcome its major flaws to become something truly worth watching.
Shrinking recap: First two episodes
Season 1, episodes 1 and 2: As the show starts, James Laird (played by Segel) has just lost his wife, Tia (Lilan Bowden). He’s not taking it well. He throws ragers with women he barely knows, keeping his neighbors up at all hours. He can’t drive after a DUI. And he doesn’t take care of himself or his daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell), who’s starting to view him as her child.
Worse yet: His behavior is affecting his job. And just what job does this mess of a man have? Why, he’s a therapist, of course. And how is it that a man with so many problems could be the one helping other people?!?!?! Well, then you’ve tapped into this show’s hiiiiiilarious high concept. Sounds like this guy needs a little therapy.
Take James’ patient Grace (Heidi Gardner), a woman who thinks her dumb jock husband loves her even though he’s an asshole all the time. James tells her to divorce him. That guy’s emotionally abusive, and James has been waiting two years to tell her so (for some reason)! Grace accepts his tardy advice, and off she goes to go leave her hubby. (She thanks James later when her life works out).
Or consider Sean (Luke Tennie), the veteran who can’t stop beating the hell out of people and needs court-ordered therapy. Maybe all he needs is to go spar with someone at a boxing gym. Why didn’t anybody think of this before? Maybe because it’s a bad idea.
Brace yourself for some ‘straight talk’
Somewhere in the late ’80s or ’90s, some genius executive got it into his head that what people really wanted from their movies was straight talk. Cuttin’ out all the pleasantries and bullshit and just really givin’ it to people straight. Dozens of movies dealt with the subject, from Talk Radio to Something to Talk About to Liar Liar or (cleverly enough) Straight Talk.
This to me was always a construct. A little honesty between strangers goes a long way, and there are reasons we have social contracts like pleasant white lies. Everyone doesn’t need to be constantly told they’re dumb or they look ugly. This kind of “I’m just sayin’ what everybody’s thinkin’!” shtick was mercifully abandoned for a while (although morning DJs and Howard Stern never went away). But it came roaring back last decade with the likes of Bad Teacher, Bad Moms, Dirty Grandpa and Deadpool. Now we appear to be stuck with it.
This isn’t as funny as you think it is
Here’s the thing about comedies where people finally say what’s on their minds. It’s never half as clever, funny or insightful as any writers’ room imagines it to be. So when Shrinking opened with the twin jokes of the revelation that what James does for a living is work as a therapist (you can practically hear the cartoon sound effects: “This guy?!?! Helping folks?!?! But he’s a mess!!!”), and then immediately he’s telling a stereotypically self-involved valley girl that she needs to leave her husband because he doesn’t love her, I started getting flashbacks to flipping channels in the ’90s as a bored child.
Maybe it’s possible that the average California therapy patient spends his or her sessions complaining about baristas and leaving their sunglasses on their head. But, well, no. I don’t buy this show’s premise that James is a person with bigger problems than all his patients, because literally everyone deals with loss. You might think everyone who isn’t going through it that second can’t relate to you, but they have or they will.
Shrinking boasts a great pedigree, but where’s the creativity?
The construction of Shrinking’s dynamic is even more shallow than James’ patients are drawn. It just blows my mind: Shrinking co-creators Brett Goldstein and Bill Lawrence are TV veterans with decades of experience under their collective belts, and Segel is one of the world’s most-booked movie stars. This is the best they’ve got? A therapist who tells it like it is?! The first guy ever to tell a woman to get a divorce? I don’t like Ted Lasso, but this is absurdly uncreative.
Still, Shrinking seems pleasant enough between all the “honesty.” Segel is always watchable, and Harrison Ford as his boss is his usual delightfully irascible self (god he’s great). Jessica Williams is basically good here playing James’ fellow therapist, though they didn’t write her much character development.
It’s the show’s Ted Lasso texture that makes me want to grab a cop’s gun. The twinkly “believe in yourself” posturing, the “every big violent guy is a softy underneath it all” messaging, the constant use of terrible indie pop on the soundtrack. (Happy songs for happy moments and sad songs for sad ones, in case you’re blind.)
And then there’s the over-enunciation of every single message point: “I have to ask … is this you forever?” asks nosy neighbor Liz (Christa Miller), helpfully outlining the show’s thesis, since letting it breathe was apparently not an option.
“This isn’t enough! You’ve been walking around like it happened to you but it happened to both of us!” screams James’ daughter Alice later.
Why make us do any work when Shrinking can just do it all for us? I’ll be grateful for the end of television meant to make me feel better. It never does.
Watch Shrinking on Apple TV+
The first two episodes of Shrinking premiered today on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.