'Shrinking' gets great work from a great cast
Perhaps it's apt that to watch the new Apple TV comedy Shrinking is to reckon inevitably with its extended family.
That family includes Ted Lasso, with which Shrinking shares two of its creators, TV comedy veteran Bill Lawrence (who created Ted with Jason Sudeikis, Brendan Hunt and Joe Kelly) and Brett Goldstein (who writes for Ted and plays Roy Kent). But there's also the past work of Jason Segel, the star and the other creator. Segel's roles as men who are often sad and awkward go at least as far back as Freaks and Geeks, but he's also an interesting, idiosyncratic screenwriter who's written or co-written projects for himself including The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the captivating, oddball AMC drama series Dispatches from Elsewhere.
Shrinking itself is, at heart, a family story. Jimmy (Segel) is a therapist who's also the recently widowed father of a 17-year-old daughter named Alice (Lukita Maxwell). He's working to reconfigure their relationship in a new way, shaped by his grief and hers. But Jimmy's real family is larger than that. It includes his neighbor, Liz (Christa Miller) and her husband Derek (Ted McGinley); his best friend Brian (Michael Urie), from whom he's estranged a bit when the story opens; a young patient named Sean (Luke Tennie) who needs some extra help with trauma related to his military service; and Jimmy's two colleagues at the office, Paul (Harrison Ford) and Gaby (Jessica Williams).
I ask you to pause for a moment and review the number of potential MVPs who are part of that cast. Just sit with it. And that's before Wendie Malick shows up.
The hook of Shrinking, as it's been described, is that because Jimmy is going through so much, he becomes radically honest with his patients and starts telling them what he really thinks about, for instance, their terrible spouses. And there is a little bit of that. A small part of Jimmy's larger sense of crisis and mess is that on top of his own struggles, he has to listen to everybody else's — one of the themes of the show is that even your therapist has stuff. But mostly, that's a shorthand that makes this sound a little more high-concept, and a little less rich, than it is.
For the most part, this is an ensemble comedy-drama (leaning more toward comedy) about a bunch of people with problems. It's joined to Segel's past work through his years-long exploration of the humor that underlies melancholy, and it's joined to Ted Lasso through the two things that show is most effectively about (neither of which is sports): pain and decency.
At its best, Ted Lasso is not about people who are "nice" as much as its reputation might suggest; it's about people who are hurting and decent. They are doing their best for each other. They are struggling, they make terrible errors, and they cause hurt. But, even when punched in the gut, they often redouble their efforts to be better than the sum of their wounds and losses. And one of the challenges of that show, at least for people who are suspicious of sentimentality, is that because it's about sports, it sometimes makes its themes literal. Community equals team equals AFC Richmond; support equals pep talks equals halftime coaching. For some people, having those strings plucked is satisfying and magical, even when you know it's happening. For others, it tips over into something that's almost distasteful, a bit aggressively on the nose.
To the degree Shrinking shares these themes with Ted, it asserts them less directly. Support and kindness take the form of a talk between friends, a drive to work, a place to stay, an invitation, an apology. Community is cobbled together from people who choose each other on a daily basis; their team jerseys are figurative. Without the big moments that big games and big plays can bring, the scale is smaller. The show is quieter, even though it's packed to the gills with good jokes delivered by this genuinely stupendous cast. And unlike Ted, Jimmy is not a central character who is expected to bear the weight of working miracles or near-miracles; it is a show less reliant on one guy to be its foundational emotional messenger.
Segel has been playing sad men — or at least men with a streak of gloom, men who seem to understand disappointment — for so long that one could miss how seriously he takes his work and how different these men really are. He's almost made a study of the Man With Big Feelings in both his acting and his writing, from the highly sensitive teenager he played in Freaks and Geeks to the literally naked depression of Forgetting Sarah Marshall to the squishy-hearted married man of How I Met Your Mother, the deeply feeling searcher of The Muppets, and even the frustrated criminal holding a rich couple hostage in the Netflix thriller Windfall. Now he's helped create Jimmy, a man who has devoted his life to the task of learning to manage emotion. Segel is very, very good here, too, even when Jimmy is frustrating, as he often is.
The biggest headline about Shrinking has probably been the involvement of Harrison Ford, who gives the funniest performance I've seen from him ... maybe ever? Maybe since Working Girl? Not the dry, sprinkled wit — however devastatingly dashing it is — of Indiana Jones or Han Solo, but what feels like a whole new comic gear. When you take very good comedy writing and you give it to someone as gifted with the control of his voice and his face as Ford, it comes back to you as exceptional comedy. He offers a reminder that he is a fabulous comic actor and an stupendous comic reactor, even if these skills have not been his bread and butter. To laugh out loud, not figuratively but literally, is relatively rare when I watch things at home; it was not rare while watching this performance.
But wait! Jessica Williams as Gaby is also so, so good, as a woman who has very particular relationships with Jimmy, with Paul, with Liz, with Alice — you can see how Gaby is a good therapist, because she intuitively gives each conversation what it needs. (She's also particularly funny in a few early scenes with Ford that jolted me into cackles using some unexpected music cues, and her surprising friendship with Liz deepens both characters.)
And Michael Urie! The divine Michael Urie, yet another person who is good in everything in which I have ever seen him — and another riotous reactor — has just-right best-friend chemistry with Segel, as the two of them explore the way a friendship can be challenged, and not just strengthened, by hard times. Christa Miller is terrific, Maxwell and Tennie (the two actors I knew the least well) are terrific, and can I just say: Bless Ted McGinley, who has been a reliable ingredient in comedies going back to Happy Days. Here, he may not have a ton of screen time, but every time he's called upon to give life to Derek's loving, good-hearted, but sometimes acerbic take on being a suburban husband and father, he nails it to the wall. It's a confident, knowing bit of work, and maybe the best-ever use of his talent.
All of these characters keep being mixed up in different combinations as the episodes roll out (I have seen nine out of what will be 10): Jimmy and Alice, Jimmy and Paul, Jimmy and Gaby, Jimmy and Paul and Gaby — but also Gaby and Liz, Alice and Paul, Liz and Sean, Paul and Sean, Brian and Paul, Brian and Gaby. No matter how they're combined, something good happens, like a very well-thought-out wardrobe where six or seven strong pieces make 30 great outfits. That's how the best ensemble shows work.
As if all that weren't enough, this is the first show I have ever seen that pulls off a good "Casimir Pulaski Day" joke, or would ever think to try one.
So yes, there are family relationships between Shrinking and Ted Lasso, Shrinking and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Shrinking and How I Met Your Mother. But as this very show would eagerly remind you, relationships are complicated. And on its own terms, the show is a bright spot in a very crowded landscape that isn't always this good at taking pain and decency — and comedy — and giving them all room to breathe.
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