Watching Shrinking is like hosting an energetic guest who overstays their welcome. At first, it’s fun having them around: They make amusing comments over cups of coffee, their attitude is breezy, and their theme song features the soothing vocal stylings of Ben Gibbard. Plus, they brought Harrison Ford with them, and clearly that’s a huge bonus. But after a couple hours of listening to them chatter endlessly about their own problems and the problems of other people that are definitely none of their business, you kind of need a break.
That’s the vibe of this new Apple TV+ series about a widowed therapist whose own mental health needs a tune-up. Shrinking is a comedy about feelings — people grappling with their own and hurting those of others, and talking about it all incessantly. It’s tempting to compare that heart-on-sleeve spirit to a Cameron Crowe movie, but it’s more accurate to say that Shrinking has the attitude of a Bill Lawrence television series, because that’s exactly what it is. Lawrence, who has ushered Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Ted Lasso to the screen, co-created it with Lasso star Brett Goldstein and Shrinking star Jason Segel, whose role as Jimmy, the grieving, bumbling father of teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), fits very snugly into his wheelhouse. Shrinking’s thematic focus on valuing human connection and acting outside your comfort zone even has a Lasso-ian tenor; Jimmy, who is determined to be more present for his daughter and shake up his approach to helping his patients, doesn’t have a homemade sign with his personal motto taped above the front door of his office, but it’s easy to imagine him adding one.
Also like Ted Lasso, Shrinking is a series that blatantly wants to win over its audience. But its desire to be liked starts to feel aggressive after a few episodes. It’s possible that some of the show’s more grating tendencies — a preposterous depiction of how therapy works, romantic connections that develop out of the deepest corners of left field, dialogue that sounds very much like it was written for a TV show rather than reflective of how people actually talk — may feel less overwhelming when viewed on Apple TV+’s timetable. Like most offerings on the platform, Shrinking will roll out episodes weekly following Friday’s premiere of the first two. Ingesting them in more spaced-out doses may make those flaws easier to tolerate. Maybe.
It’s not like Shrinking is completely devoid of charm. Central to that charm is Ford, who recently has turned his attention to TV — he’s currently starring in the Paramount+ Yellowstone prequel 1923 — and is appearing in a straightforward live-action comedy for the first time since he popped up in Anchorman 2 a decade ago. As Paul, he’s exactly what you expect Ford to be: cranky and impatient, but appealingly so. (“Do you know what percentage of yourself is actually made of water?” asks Jessica Williams’s Gaby, a fellow therapist in the practice where Jimmy and Paul work. “I know what percentage of me doesn’t give a shit,” Paul responds.)
Paul’s more reserved demeanor serves as an amusing, much-needed foil to the oversharing instincts of the other characters, and Ford seems to relish every sarcastic line he gets to utter. There’s also some dramatic material for him to mine here; Paul is grappling with a Parkinson’s diagnosis and how to share that reality with his semi-estranged daughter Meg (Lily Rabe). The scenes where they navigate his condition and old wounds in their relationship break through Shrinking’s feel-good sheen and ring with authenticity. Ford uncovers unexpected humor in the situation, too: When, after consuming a high-dosage edible, he explains that Meg is coming to visit and “take charge of my care,” the appalled smirk on his face as he says those words deserves its own Emmy nomination.
While Ford is a standout, the whole cast is strong, so strong that the series seems increasingly determined to give equal time to everyone. That makes Shrinking a bit unwieldy as it tries to balance its A-story — Jimmy’s attempt to reconnect with Alice and be more effective with his patients, particularly Sean (Luke Tennie), an Army vet who has PTSD — with a bunch of other B- and C- stories, including Gaby’s relationship with her ex-husband, the dynamics between Jimmy’s best friend Brian (Michael Urie) and his partner, and the complicated connection between Jimmy and his next-door neighbor Liz (Christa Miller), who stepped in to parent Alice when Jimmy checked out following his wife’s death. It’s a lot to tackle and attempting to do it all, especially in episodes that only run for a half-hour, dilutes the emotional impact that any individual story line might have. Shrinking also insists on pushing the notion that all of these people are close friends, even when that makes no conceptual sense. But forcing literally everyone in Jimmy’s orbit to hang out with each other is exactly the kind of thing that a well-meaning, thirsty-for-affection friend might do.
In the first episode, when Jimmy hits a wall in his practice and becomes sick of listening to his patients complain about the same issues over and over, Paul diagnoses the problem: It’s compassion fatigue, he explains, and that’s precisely the danger of watching Shrinking. Its characters may be quick-witted, entertaining, and portrayed by skillful actors, but listening to them drone on about the same personal problems becomes enervating over the course of ten episodes. Jimmy tries to battle his compassion fatigue by calling his patients on their b.s., which we unfortunately can’t do with people who exist only within the confines of our screens. But we can take Paul’s lead and carefully assess exactly what percentage of ourselves gives a shit about continuing to watch Shrinking.
Shrinking’s first two episodes premiere on Apple TV+ on January 27, followed by one new episode a week on Fridays.