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‘Shrinking’ Shoots for ‘Ted Lasso’ (and Misses)

The latest Apple TV+ series with a focus on therapy comes from some of the people behind ‘Ted Lasso,’ but without the same success

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

Shrinking is, by my count, the fourth new series in the last few years to center therapy and therapists. It is, in fact, the second such project to arrive on the streaming service Apple TV+, after 2021’s The Shrink Next Door. (The shared platform makes the near-identical names all the more baffling.) But while the trend pieces write themselves, Shrinking earns more interest for its connection to another, much more beloved Apple show: Ted Lasso, the soccer sitcom that’s won the tech titan back-to-back Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Two of Shrinking’s co-creators are intimately involved in the Ted Lasso phenomenon. The show is the latest product of an eye-popping overall deal between Warner Bros. Television, the studio that produces Ted Lasso, and Bill Lawrence, who co-ran the first two seasons with Jason Sudeikis before stepping back to focus on other efforts. (Lawrence also created an upcoming adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey headlined by Vince Vaughn.) Joining Lawrence is Brett Goldstein, the British comic best known for playing foulmouthed footballer Roy Kent. Here, he stays behind the camera, helping craft the story of a Pasadena therapist in existential crisis.

Jason Segel stars as said therapist, a character with a striking resemblance on the page to a certain coach from Kansas. Jimmy Laird is a man unmoored by the recent end of his marriage. (Ted moves to London to give his wife space after their separation; Jimmy’s wife died in a car accident a year before the events of the show.) To cope, he channels his energy into disrupting his profession and the lives of his colleagues. (Ted switches sports, a silly pun turned smash hit; Jimmy decides to drop the act and tell his clients what he really thinks of their problems.) More broadly, he’s an affable, middle-aged bro whose goofy charm belies his inability to connect with his loved ones, including his only child. (And more specifically, Ted Lasso’s own second season hinged on the title character seeking professional help with some panic attacks.)

More than an effort to mine the dramatic depths of clinical psychology, Shrinking reads like an attempt to run back the Ted Lasso playbook. Instead of a coaching staff, Jimmy has fellow therapists: Gaby (Jessica Williams), who was best friends with Jimmy’s deceased wife, and Paul (Harrison Ford), his boss and mentor. And in lieu of players, Jimmy has patients: the woman he straight up tells to leave her awful husband; the obsessive-compulsive who invites him into her shoes-off, dust-free home; the veteran with anger issues that Jimmy lets crash in his backyard. Most therapists preach the virtues of boundaries, but as Jimmy adjusts to life as a widower, he seems to think they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

But while Shrinking may resemble Ted Lasso from a distance, it’s not nearly as effective in practice—therapeutic or otherwise. To be clear, Shrinking doesn’t only fall short compared to one of TV’s great success stories; even in isolation, the show is a disjointed jumble with a deeply flawed premise. Still, there’s a reason Apple remains in business with Goldstein and Lawrence. The hope is that they’ll continue to tap into the zeitgeist. Instead, they’ve delivered a show whose family resemblance is largely superficial.

Ted Lasso is a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, mining its comedy from the contrast between Ted’s aggressively American optimism and his cynical British counterparts. In theory, Jimmy should create a similar gap by throwing out the basic ground rules of therapy. Except Jimmy’s colleagues barely seem to blink at antics that could jeopardize his livelihood and, presumably, theirs. When Jimmy turns up with a black eye from one patient’s pissed-off spouse, or collects rent from a client—a financial arrangement riven with conflicts of interest at best and legal risk at worst—they mostly react with mild bemusement, a blasé attitude Shrinking seems to share. To cite another recent therapy show, some of the same tactics The Shrink Next Door used as red flags are recast here as adorable quirks. When Paul Rudd’s Dr. Ike takes a session on the road, it’s the first of many times he’ll insert his advice where it doesn’t belong. When Jimmy crashes a patient’s date to give him some feedback, it’s a cutesy cold open.

Gaby and Paul may not object much to Jimmy’s rulebreaking because they’re not really wedded to the rules themselves. Gaby is largely a vehicle for Williams’s quippy charisma—always endearing, though put to better use in the past. (The comedian-turned-actress was excellent in Season 2 of Love Life; meanwhile, her late-season romance on Shrinking has much less chemistry and much more cringe.) Paul is more of a problem. Ford, a sentient “men would rather repeatedly run afoul of air traffic control than go to therapy” meme, is less than believable as a man paid to put others in touch with their feelings. That’s part of the joke, of course, and the basis of a “physician, heal thyself” subplot in which Paul struggles to be open about his Parkinson’s diagnosis with his estranged daughter Meg (Lily Rabe). But together, Paul and Gaby add to the impression that Jimmy is just one maverick therapist among many, not one whose methods are especially unsound.

Shrinking has no obligation to accurately portray the everyday realities of mental healthcare. (No one wants to watch hours of arguing with insurance, although Couples Therapy is about as gripping as it gets.) It does, however, have to craft a compelling story, and failing to cultivate a potential source of tension proves a major obstacle. So is the confused, and confusing, tone. Making light of Jimmy’s stunts might work if Shrinking were a straightforward sitcom. Instead, it’s a dramedy about grief. Ted Lasso waited until its second season, when it had well-established characters and relationships, to inject some heft. Shrinking takes on too much at once.

This scattered focus takes a toll on the ensemble. Jimmy’s next-door neighbor Liz (Christa Miller, who’s married to Lawrence in real life) has spent the past year acting as a surrogate parent to his teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), left to mourn on her own while her dad’s been trying to deal. Within a few episodes, though, this odd and interesting dynamic has been flattened into standard nosy-housewife tropes—like Kathryn Hahn in WandaVision, but played largely straight. Brian (Michael Urie) is meant to be Jimmy’s lifelong best friend, but we never fully buy that a suburban dad would spend so much time with a gay estate lawyer. Major story beats, like Gaby’s impending divorce, are casually dropped out of nowhere, at odds with the occasional stabs at emotional realism.

But the person who suffers the most from Shrinking’s contradictions is Jimmy himself. It’s a strange thing to say about a project on which Segel is credited as co-creator and co-writer, but Shrinking proves an imperfect vessel for his talents. (This isn’t Segel’s first self-styled star vehicle. The actor previously created Dispatches from Elsewhere, a whimsical mystery that had the misfortune of airing in March 2020.) Segel skews big and slapstick in his performance style: snorting cocaine mid-meltdown; crashing a bike while scream-sobbing to Phoebe Bridgers. But when the script calls for more subtle emotion, he can’t dial it down. One episode ends with Alice confessing an inappropriate crush, which Jimmy overhears. His exaggerated “I’m aghast” face overdoes it where a mere look of concern could do.

Over the nine episodes screened for critics, Shrinking tries on several guises and settles on none. It’s not quite a grounded tale of long-term loss, nor is it an ironic farce about a therapist gone mad. Sweet-but-not-saccharine is a hard balance for a comedy to strike; even Lawrence and Goldstein’s last project has struggled in that respect. Shrinking aims for our heartstrings and our funny bones and ends up hitting neither.