Ah, the golden age of television. It has its sweet, sweet benefits but boy does it have its drawbacks. Sure, we’re now treated to new, era-defining productions every few days, but one of the less publicised downsides of the streaming explosion is that, in order to meet our insatiable expectation for new content, it’s easier than ever to get away with broadcasting absolute guff. Shrinking, Apple TV+’s new show, is absolute guff, unfortunately.
Where to start? First up, the premise – a therapist (Jason Segel) picks up the pieces after the death of his wife and learns some important Lessons along the way – is as clichéd as they come. ‘Dead wife’ is a lazy plot device that writers hope will immediately make their characters more complex. That’s not to say that characters can’t grieve: in the case of a therapist widower like Sean (Robin Williams) in Good Will Hunting, sorrow does add nuance to the character, the woman who has passed away coming alive through well-observed, painfully realistic dialogue. In Shrinking, the writers appear never to have heard human beings talk to each other before.
When we meet Segel’s character, Jimmy, he has an awful relationship with his 17-year-old daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell) and is processing his wife’s death via pills and young women in their underwear. Because Shrinking is played as a warm-hearted comedy, these troubling coping mechanisms don’t read as believable, and neither does Jimmy. While an intriguing, dark version of this show could exist, in which Jimmy really does lose the plot in a manic and more realistic way, what we’re supposed to believe in this version is that every few sentences big goofy Jimmy would crack a joke dripping in sitcom self-awareness while the characters around him simply roll their eyes.
The selling point of the show (forgotten after about episode two) is that Jimmy’s breakdown prompts him to make radical interventions in his clients’ lives. “Just fucking leave him,” he tells Grace, a woman whose husband is emotionally abusing her. “It’s not that easy,” she says. “It is that easy,” he insists. And, lo and behold, it really is: Grace leaves her husband – who is also capable of extreme violence, by the way – and her life miraculously gets better! Jimmy makes a young ex-soldier with aggression issues (Luke Tennie) take up boxing, then invites him to live in his pool house. The culture of therapy is different in the US than in the UK but we shudder to think what any therapist watching Shrinking would think of the professionals in the show. Jimmy, along with colleagues Gabby (Jessica Williams) and Paul (Harrison Ford), are about as likely to be working therapists as a horse. Jimmy ought to have been fired long before the show begins.
One of the most extraordinary things in the series is that Liz (Christa Miller), a character whom the writers see as ‘woman who pokes her nose in and polishes rocks’, is treated like a criminal by Jimmy and Gaby because she has the audacity to care deeply for Alice, a girl who has not only lost her mother but has been severely neglected by her selfish father, who doesn’t know a single thing about what’s going on in her life. A recurring theme, for some reason, is that characters aggressively tell Liz to back off for essentially being a better human than any of them.
Everywhere, this problem rears its head: in order for a story point to be made, characters need to behave irrationally and out of character. Everyone immediately reconciles after an argument, of course, and things returns to normal. For a show that professes to want to explore grief and trauma, Shrinking is occasionally so saccharine it will give you a headache.
The parts with Harrison Ford’s character, grumpy old Paul, are some of the strongest in the show. Paul has the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease and, like Jimmy, struggles with his relationship with daughter. Ford can be funny, and the illness story is comparatively affecting, but the problem here is that it feels a little like two different shows stitched together. As a character, Paul doesn’t seem to belong in the world of Jimmy and Gaby, in part because his storyline – perhaps because of Ford’s strength as an actor – is handled relatively skilfully, without any of the grating injections of implausible gags.
In episode eight, the penultimate of the series, suddenly the jokes start landing and the drama starts working. It’s a welcome relief. But “stick with it for seven episodes then you get a few laughs” isn’t much of a recommendation, is it?
‘Shrinking’ is available on Apple TV+ from January 27