Jason Segel in Shrinking

‘Shrinking’ for Apple TV+ exemplifies the long-term benefits of therapy and shines in its close-knit circle of characters

Shrinking, the new Apple TV+ comedy from Bill Lawrence, Brett Goldstein and Jason Segel, stars Segel as a widowed therapist and Harrison Ford as his boss and mentor in an emotionally grounded take on grief and therapy featuring career-best performances from its talented cast.

Shrinking, airing weekly on Apple TV+ after Friday’s premiere, introduces us to Segel’s Jimmy Laird, an affable, well-off therapist living in Pasadena whose life was completely derailed when his wife was killed in a car crash. We meet him a year or so after the accident, when, still stuck within his own breakdown and no longer able to hold on to his professionalism or patience, he begins to break ethical boundaries by telling his patients exactly what he thinks about their problems, and what he thinks they should do.

Now, this may be an insultingly simplistic assessment of the craft, but when a TV show — or any story, really — kicks off and you pick up with a character at a certain point in their journey, arguably the most important question about why the story exists at all is why now? Why are we turning the camera on now? Why is this moment in their life the first page of the book, or at least, the beginning of a new chapter?

Every single person who shares a story with the world should be on top of their answer to this question. For some stories, it’s more obvious than others. Shrinking is a slightly unusual one, because at first glance it could have the potential to feel like we’ve already missed quite a lot. Like we’re coming in at the middle, rather than the beginning. And in some ways, we have — Shrinking definitely dives straight in, without a lot of context or exposition, to a circumstance that’s clearly been going on for a while. But the pilot’s opening scene — a drug-fuelled 3am pool party with sex workers that Jimmy’s neighbors are forced to break up — gives us enough of a rough sketch that the details of the past twelve months actually don’t matter all that much. Much as they won’t, perhaps, to the person who has been living through them. It’s all gone down the drain as a period of lost time.

Instead, Jimmy’s next door neighbor answers the question that I posed above with a question of her own, as Jimmy lurks around in her bushes watching her care for his bereaved teenage daughter, whose needs he’s been neglecting while drowning in his own grief — “I have to ask. Is this you forever?”

No. It can’t be, and that’s the story. We are turning the camera on Jimmy at the point when everything is about to change — when he starts to tune back into the frequencies of the people around him and realize how much ground he has to make up. Shrinking is the start of Jimmy’s journey towards healing, and the first important point made by the show is that sometimes, that journey can take a hell of a long time to actually get started.

Shrinking comes from a meeting of minds between Ted Lasso co-creator Bill Lawrence and Lasso writer and breakout star Brett Goldstein, who had both independently planned to write a show that tackled therapy and grief in a comedic way. Lawrence’s initial version was lighter than the Shrinking end product, Goldstein’s was darker, and with the addition of Segel as both a new creative partner and star, the three creators landed somewhere in the middle to find the right balance of depth and levity for the subject matter.

I have been awaiting Shrinking with bated breath since it was first announced. Lawrence was the person who brought Goldstein to Ted Lasso as a writer (the pair have been friends since Goldstein starred in an unaired 2017 Lawrence pilot called Spaced Out, which Goldstein has called “the best pilot that I have ever read or worked on.”) One unsolicited Roy Kent self-tape and about a dozen Emmys later, we all know how that went. And through my familiarity with Goldstein’s prior work, his stand-up comedy, the often heavy conversations on his death-centric podcast Films To Be Buried With, and his general opinions on mental health and therapy while doing press for Lasso over the past few years, it’s easy to admit that there aren’t many writers out there whose perspectives I would currently be more interested in when it comes to topics like these.

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Lawrence, of course, is a veteran of the industry — as the creator of Scrubs, he basically has a doctorate in tackling emotionally visceral and often tragic moments with humor and grace. The engaging half-hour discussion of craft and process that preceded the actual movie chat when Lawrence guested on Goldstein’s podcast in 2019 was enough to make anyone excited for what these two could create together, and that’s before we even knew Ted Lasso was in the cards.

Due to Lawrence and Goldstein’s partnership, due to the fact it’s another Apple TV+ show, due to the fact it’s billed as another Lasso-like “kind comedy,” (British GQ — “Brett Goldstein’s Shrinking will fill the Ted Lasso-shaped hole in your heart til season 3”) it’s almost a guarantee that Lasso fans will be some of the first people to check out Shrinking. I’m sort of in two minds about doing this, but the comparisons are inevitably going to roll in anyway, so: if I were personally asked to compare Shrinking to Ted Lasso, aside from the obvious differences — the plot, setting, pacing, cinematography and tone — this is what I’d say.

Shrinking and Lasso are both shows primarily about the ways people respond to trauma and how it makes them behave, but where Lasso shoos festering old ghosts out into the light via a succession of radical life changes, Shrinking shoulders the difficult process of incorporating a new burden of grief into a life that was, before now, relatively stable, relatively comfortable, relatively happy. It’s dealing with trauma at a different point along its timeline, and it’s also trauma of a different flavor. Rather than unpacking the ugly impact of suicide and abuse, the pain in Shrinking springs from blameless and inevitable sources — a car accident, a degenerative disease. It doesn’t make it any easier — in fact, the senselessness makes it scary as hell — but it’s not the same timbre.

This is, by some measure, a softer show than Ted Lasso. That being said, I don’t particularly view Ted Lasso as a soft show to begin with. The Lasso creatives, including Goldstein, have shunned the “feel-good” label that got slapped on the show in the lead up to season 2, and I tend to agree. I think it’s pretty spiky and adversarial, actually. In many ways it derives its conflict from characters clashing with each other — Ted, Rebecca, Nate, and of course Goldstein’s character’s addictive dynamic with Phil Dunster’s Jamie Tartt — and while the eventual overcoming of that conflict to act as their best selves in the important moments is obviously extremely powerful, the low points, in terms of how Lasso characters treat each other, are crueler and more aggressive than anything you’ll find in Shrinking. That’s not to say there isn’t a little friction between certain parties, but it absolutely isn’t the main thrust of the conflict in the way it often is on Lasso. There’s somewhat of a misconception that Ted Lasso is a show about everyone being nice to each other all the time — but it’s possible Shrinking actually is that show.

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In part, this is because Lasso is mostly about new relationships, or newly changing ones. Shrinking is about old relationships, comfortable, lived-in ones. All the Shrinking characters, barring one, have a long history together. They all already love each other, way more deeply than I was anticipating, but the interwoven, almost insular nature of all the characters and just how close everyone is, how far back those relationships go, is definitely one of Shrinking’s biggest strengths.

The show, as mentioned, thankfully doesn’t lean on a lot of heavy exposition, it just lets things become clear as each character begins to interact with new scene partners. One of my favorite things to watch actors do is to authentically bring to life established relationships that pre-date the viewer’s window into the show, and make us believe in them by showing us things that we, the viewers, don’t see all the pieces of in the way the characters do. That’s another Lasso comparison, actually — Ted Lasso is the kind of show where we often know more about each character than the characters know about each other, so we can see truths that they can’t, creating one-step-ahead tension for the viewer, whereas Shrinking is the opposite — it’s a viewer-one-step-behind puzzle. There’s a lot that they know that we don’t, and the way that it’s done has me feeling both extremely at home within this family and also extremely curious about the as-yet-uncovered backstory behind their bonds.

Those bonds, there sure are a bunch of them. The Shrinking “relationship map” has a lot of lines on it. Jimmy works under his long-time mentor Paul Rhodes (Harrison Ford,) an esteemed psychologist recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, alongside fellow therapist Gaby, played by Jessica Williams, who was best friends with Jimmy’s late wife Tia (Lilan Bowden) and is godmother to Alice (Lukita Maxwell.) Michael Urie’s Brian, a lawyer and Jimmy’s best friend since college, serves as Paul’s estate planner and is also friends with Gaby. Liz, the nosy next-door-neighbor played by Christa Miller, knows all of these people from social events at the Laird house. The only person who’s new to the fold is Sean (Luke Tennie), the young war veteran assigned to Jimmy for anger management. I was maybe expecting for Shrinking to be more of a traditional workplace show, but the vibe at Paul’s practice feels closer to “family business” than “people who happen to work together,” and even taking that into consideration, it’s still far more domestic than it is office-based. Everything is centred around a close inner circle that blurs Jimmy’s home life and his work life pretty indistinguishably.

The theme of support in this show — support from all angles — is so considered, and the writing, how these characters treat each other, how they talk, feels in some way aspirational from the creators, but there’s actually fewer actual therapy sessions in Shrinking than you might expect. The trailer presents a kind of “case of the week” vibe, and while the progress of Jimmy’s recurring patients definitely is part of the ongoing plot, Jimmy’s whole maverick shrink thing is most prominently exemplified in what goes down with Sean, when Jimmy demolishes the doctor-patient boundaries and has him come to live in their pool house after an incident which I won’t spoil, but which Jimmy could quite safely be blamed for.

And on that note, for those out there who may feel sceptical about an irresponsible representation of therapy, Jimmy’s wildly out of pocket new tactics may help to shake him out of his rut, but they definitely backfire more than once and are set up to fail. The show is certainly not advocating for them — Jimmy’s malpractice aside, it takes the actual values and principles of therapy seriously, and there’s plenty of great perspectives on mental health management packed into Shrinking, stuff that I’m sure viewers will draw strength and meaning from.

One final comparison: Ted Lasso paints in eye-catching primary glossy colors under a harsh fluorescent glow, with a side of moody grey English skies and urban city lights. Shrinking is much calmer, visually. It’s much more muted. A lot of the interiors are done to give the impression that no one in this show has ever turned on an overhead light — the therapy clinic is pretty much lit by just the daylight from massive windows and the interiors of Jimmy’s home always seem cast in the long shadows of the late afternoon or cozy circles of lamplight. It’s really nice on the eyes, this show, and by the way, the music is incredible. I mean, how could it not be? It’s a Bill Lawrence show. Star Christa Miller, Lawrence’s wife, has also been his long-term music supervisor since Scrubs and her soundtracks never miss, and composer Tom Howe, who also scores Ted Lasso collaborating with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie on the most tonally perfect, mood-setting theme to accompany a startlingly moving set of animated opening credits.

Related: ‘Ted Lasso’ composer Tom Howe on creating the white noise of Ted’s anxiety, the rawness of Jamie’s heart, and the warning of Nate’s descent

Shrinking is sentimental, in the true sense of the word. It’s tender and earnest by design. There are probably going to be people out there who say that’s something they can’t stomach. I’m not particularly interested in those people’s opinions or their wider taste, because it’s also funny as fuck. That probably goes without saying, but it’s funny in some really dark, really frank, really clever and naturalistic ways, without ever feeling overly quippy or, more importantly, cruel.  Jimmy Laird is in a bleak situation, and of course there’s a version of his story that could be so much darker than Shrinking ultimately is. But this is perhaps what I meant most when I said it feels aspirational — in Shrinking, we’re seeing the power of an incredible safety net. We’re seeing a grieving family receive the kind of long-term gentleness and support that gives them the best chance to heal. It’s a best case scenario, and while not everyone gets to have that in real life, there’s comfort to be taken from knowing what it looks like, and a lot to learn from it too.

Next, a bold claim, and also not a stretch whatsoever — this is probably the best role every person in the lead cast has ever done. Christa Miller’s Liz combines a deeply abrasive attitude with a deeply nurturing soul in a way that’s already cemented her as my favorite. Jessica Williams is blunt, lively and joyful, doing her best to support Jimmy while vulnerably navigating her own grief without his support in return. Michael Urie portrays the perfect, permanently upbeat gay best friend, which sounds cheesy and tropey until you realize that his radical positivity is the reason that Jimmy has been avoiding him for a year. Luke Tennie and Lukita Maxwell are relative newcomers who carry their leading roles with a natural ease, and Jason Segel may, in fact, in plain terms, be the most loveable man on the planet.

And I still can’t quite believe the Harrison Ford of it all. The Parkinson’s plotline, inspired by Goldstein’s own father, really taps into the fear of deterioration or of anticipated grief, both for the person it is happening to and for the people around him, and it is a paranoia I am sure many many, many people will relate to and have important conversations about after watching it. But this role feels so unusual for him just in terms of the inner life of the character. Sure, he’s stubborn and difficult in certain ways, but he’s self aware about it, and nine episodes in, I am still a little bit stunned by how endearing Paul is, how kind, gentle, generous and available he seems in his interactions with every character, particularly with Alice and his own daughter, but also with his patients and employees.

It would be kind of weird if Paul wasn’t extremely emotionally intelligent, as a brilliant therapist, but it’s still somewhat strange (in a good way) to see him deliver that classic biting Ford sarcasm but have it be couched in the wider makeup of an inherently loving and caring person who is — at least in principle, and mostly in practice, even if he has a little bit of trouble expressing it to the people closest to him — a staunch advocate for being open and vulnerable, rather than being used to represent a straight up defense mechanism of someone utterly unwilling to address their issues or to express themselves at all.

Sure, these people obviously do all have their own issues, and may even be in denial about some of them, but a it’s refreshing take on that universal truth of the human condition, watching these therapists struggle with the same problems as anyone else, things that that they do objectively know the answers for (when it applies to other people, at least) and help each other to get back on the right path.

Shrinking’s creators, as fans of therapy, wanted to make a show that advocates for it, and the result is a product that certainly shows off the long-term benefits. With three of the core characters highly experienced therapists who do know, at least in theory, how to handle things in a healthy way and how to productively guide conversations, Shrinking is able to offer countless moments of people having all kinds of interpersonal struggles without the writing relying on the kind of communication failure, dishonesty and repression that usually makes us say “Wow, that person needs therapy.” Now, I love me some fucked up fictional characters, but what Shrinking has pulled off here is some genuinely good example-setting, without feeling forced or preachy, and as a result I am left aching with love for all of these people — they really draw it out of you. Apple TV+ has another hit on its hands, and I strongly suspect that come awards season, when Goldstein is once again nominated for acting in Lasso, he’ll be sharing the category with the characters he’s created for Shrinking. Some people have all the problems.

‘Shrinking’ premieres Friday, January 27 on Apple TV+