Apple TV+’s Shrinking, in which Jason Segel plays a therapist on the edge, continues to circle the drain this week. When James learns that his daughter Alice has feelings for a guy, it scares him — and he doesn’t know where to turn.
Gaby and Brian must meet in the middle on an issue of matrimony. Paul and Sean both need to overcome something pretty big in order to start healing. And at the center of everything is a wounded Alice, pulling everyone’s strings.
Shrinking recap: ‘Woof’
Season 1, episode 5: In the episode, entitled “Woof,” James Laird (Segel) has discovered that Alice (Lukita Maxwell) has a crush on his tenant/patient Sean (Luke Tennie), a guy who’s so angry he got sent to James for therapy in the first place. James doesn’t know what to do about it, so he asks his neighbor Liz (Christa Miller) and her new friend (and James’ co-worker) Gabrielle (Jessica Williams). Liz has basically taken over as Alice’s mother since her actual mother Tia (Lilan Bowden) died.
James would talk about it with his boss/father figure Paul (Harrison Ford), but Paul’s mad at him for all the stuff he’s been doing lately, like bringing a violent veteran into his house to live with him and his young, grieving daughter.
James tries to talk to Paul at work, but his efforts come to naught. So he tries some risky stuff again: He tells Sean to see his father. The old man has cooled off a little since he kicked Sean out of the house for not going to therapy, and gives him a gift: his framed medals. This triggers a panic attack and Sean leaves in a hurry and goes to hang out with Alice. He talks to her to get things off his chest instead of going to her dad, Sean’s actual therapist.
Who’s fixing who here?
James tries to correct some other mistakes, too. He goes to ambush Grace (Heidi Gardner), his patient who stopped seeing him after he demanded she leave her abusive jerk of a husband. Grace felt embarrassed about going back to him, so she didn’t tell James about it.
They apologize to each other and plan to see each other again as doctor and patient. But just then, Alice’s school calls and tells him she played hooky. When he confronts her, she gets upset that he’s mad. After all, she says, he was a mess not long ago. What right does he have to be upset with her?
Then Alice leaves and goes to yell at Paul instead. If James could talk to Paul about Sean, maybe James wouldn’t have made Sean so upset he’s threatening to leave the house just as her crush on him is developing.
A little help from a friend
So Paul, knowing the last thing he wants is to make Alice unhappy, heads over to the house and has a beer with Sean and James. He finally gets Sean to open up.
After Sean got out of the military, he was told he was a hero — but he didn’t feel like one. He’d been threatening kids with a gun, kicking in innocent people’s doors — it made him feel like a villain. Paul reminds him that it’s never gonna be easy to clear a hurdle as big as this, but that you gotta do the work. This calms Sean down, but it also convinces Paul he needs to finally tell his daughter he’s got Parkinson’s disease.
Later, James’ best friend and everyone’s lawyer Brian (Michael Urie) announces that he plans to propose to his boyfriend Charlie (Devin Kawaoka). They give him hell for it because he threatens to do this all the time. Brian and Gaby fight about this for a minute, but eventually they realize they have to come clean with each other about their feelings. Brian about his avoidant personality, and Gaby about her divorce.
My, what a tiny little world you inhabit
I’ve already hit upon why a show like Shrinking bothers me so much. Aside from the relentlessly optimistic tone, I don’t appreciate the constantly chirping indie music on the soundtrack, the too-clever punchlines that characters are always laughing at on-screen to edify the writers who came up with them, the performances that are all self-consciously tweeting and fidgeting, and the flat look and direction of every episode.
But more importantly, I don’t like the tiny little universe these characters occupy. James, Gaby and Paul are therapists. They’re meant to have dozens of patients and rich lives, and yet here we are on episode five and the only people they talk to are each other. There’s not a single issue any of them have that can’t be solved with a visit from Liz or Paul or James or Gaby or Brian or whoever’s not in the room at the minute the problem arises.
Did you get the joke?
As a result, all the jokes — and their dreadfully boring, circuitous double-talk — are of a piece with the show’s hermeticism, where you can chase a joke’s tail until you get tired of it and lope to the next one. When Paul realizes he’s lonely without James’ pep talks every now and again, he goes to Gaby’s office to use her as a substitute. She calls him out.
“You only come in here to criticize my laptop and ask why I have so many scrunchies on my light,” she says.
“Why do you have so many scrunchies on your light?” Paul asks.
That joke isn’t funny, and we hear it twice for good measure — and a third time as he’s leaving the room. If the writers were confident in the joke, they wouldn’t go a mile out of their way to gild it.
Another joke suffers from the same symptoms but a different temperature. When Alice tells a friend she’s skipping school to meet up with and flirt with Sean, her 17-year-old schoolmate responds with, “I love this for you,” which … as with everything on this show, is the kind of thing a room full of LA-based writers would say, not an actual child. It’s exactly how Gaby would react in that situation. Or Liz. Or Brian.
These nine people all think and talk and act the same way. And yet somehow, they all still have problems despite being open about everything. I don’t like it here.
Watch Shrinking on Apple TV+
New episodes of Shrinking arrive every Friday 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.