Shrinking is a dramedy created by Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Ted Lasso), Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Brett Goldstein (SuperBob, Ted Lasso), who also co-wrote the first episode. It premiered on Apple TV+ today, on January 27, 2023. The first two episodes are now online; after, it will air one episode a week until March 24.
Disclaimer: This time frame, and its subject matter – a therapist who struggles with the death of his wife – are what made me decide to cover the show weekly. Because not only am I a huge fan of everyone involved in the show, I am also spending these nine weeks in a day clinic for depression. If you’re already thinking, oh my fucking God, get on with it, this is like reading one of those recipes where someone tells you how the death of their Aunt Margaret relates to their bolognese, then no hard feelings, just skip this paragraph. But my framing for this weekly (usually spoilery) recap/review pieces, is my own struggle with depression, and the reasons that brought me here. I will mention all of this only where it makes sense, nobody needs my own sob story, don’t worry – and also don’t worry about me, generally, the fact that I’m getting this treatment already means I’m doing better. But I figured you should know going in that this show resonated with me even before I heard those first notes of Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man”, and knew I was understood.
The first episode opens with Liz (Christa Miller) and her husband (Ted McGinley) being woken up by their neighbor having a 3 AM pool party on a weeknight. That this neighbor, our protagonist Jimmy (Segel), is struggling is abundantly clear – this is not the first time this has happened, and his friends are caring if annoyed, the parallel to being woken by a screaming baby is drawn immediately. As we learn later, Liz has also started to take care of Jimmy’s teenaged daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), who is upstairs (presumably not) asleep as this happens.
Jimmy has hit rock bottom. The next morning, still high, he goes into his practice for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – where he is however not a patient, but one of the therapists. As his mentor Paul (newcomer Harrison Ford) attests, he’s developed compassion fatigue, effectually showcased by a montage sequence of his sessions. It becomes clear, however, that his patients, as much as him, are stuck. And seeing that reflected back at him, he finally snaps, and changes tact – instead of trying to help them find their own way out, he resorts to more drastic measures. He tells a woman whose husband is emotionally abusive, and has been for years, that she has to leave him, or Jimmy will stop being her therapist. A new referral from his colleague Gabby (Jessica Williams), Sean (Luke Tennie), a soldier with PTSD who has been repeatedly arrested for aggravated assault, he takes to a Mixed Martial Arts studio to deal with his anger. To his own surprise, Paul sees immediate results, and their breakthroughs start to also help him, even though his colleagues remain skeptical.
“I’m sorry, I have to ask – is this you, forever?” – “I don’t know.”
Shrinking is a show about grief. Grief has been a regular subject of TV, of course, Lawrence’s own work has dealt with it beautifully before – (Academy! Award! Nominee!) Brendan Fraser’s turn on Scrubs is to this day, one of the most resonant story arcs of the show. Ted Lasso, too, has spent some time dealing with it, and not just in the form of the most epic rickroll ever committed to screen. But few comedies or dramedies have made it its central topic; the Matthew Perry-vehicle Go On (2012) that only about five people saw is perhaps the one that comes closest to what Shrinking is doing right now (which makes me think that maybe three out of those five people were Lawrence, Segel and Goldstein).
But grief isn’t just the central hook of Shrinking, it is part of its very fabric. The narrative beats of the first episode mirror the wild emotional rollercoaster its protagonist goes through: depression, anger, the elation that comes from a breakthrough – and over again. Anyone who has experienced grief knows that not only will you go through these in rapid succession, you will also eventually be set back just when you thought you had made it through one of these phases for good. Emotions, much like the outcome of some of the choices made as their result, can truly feel as random as a coin flip. It’s often those “dumb little memories that sneak up on you”, as Jimmy puts it, that trigger them. Christa Miller‘s music supervision deserves a mention here, as it is absolutely on point – the featured songs underscore every emotion so perfectly, that they function as their own little triggers for the audience (in a very positive sense).
The show is also good at reminding us that someone dealing with grief does not always look like Jimmy: Alice outwardly seems to have it much more together, even though she lost her mother, and we learn in passing that Paul has Parkinson’s – a storyline inspired by Goldstein’s own father and one that I expect will eventually be dealt with more head on. The first episode naturally does not have all the answers, its job is to ask questions, after all, but its ambivalent ending on a set back for Sean and Jimmy’s momentary breakthrough with his daughter, is also par for the course. Because that is what healing looks like.
My review of episode 2 will be up separately over the course of this weekend, then I will be back here every Friday. I have not had access to screeners, so I only know as much as you do, and I’m looking forward to the ride. Until then, I’ll be having some normal days. Doing it normal style.
If you struggle with grief, or depression for any other reasons, or are contemplating suicide, please reach out to someone. If you feel you need professional help, you can simply call 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the US; in the UK, SOS Silence of Suicide can be reached under 0300 1020 505, and in Germany, the Telefonseelsorge is available 24 hours under 0800 1110111.