Premiering Jan. 27, the series is about a grieving therapist who shakes up his life, and practice, by letting patients know precisely how he feels, and then getting intensely involved in their issues. Boasting grating turns from its overdoing-it cast, scripts that are like nails on a chalkboard, and the participation of Harrison Ford in a role, and project, that’s beneath him, it’s the nadir of “high concept” comedy.
When we first meet Jimmy (Segel), he’s partying it up in his pool at 3 am with drugs, booze, and a couple of prostitutes. This wakes up his neighbor Liz (Christa Miller), who’s not only Jimmy’s nosy friend but also a surrogate mom for his teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), who’s become estranged from her dad in the wake of her biological mother’s recent car-accident death.
Jimmy and Alice are both a mess, and at work one day, Jimmy’s misery, rage, and frustration finally boils over. Incapable of listening to his clients moan and whine about dilemmas that he believes they could solve if they just took his advice, the therapist decides to tell it like it is to abused wife Grace (Heidi Gardner), thereby crossing an invisible professional and ethical line that’s championed as sacred by Jimmy’s mentor Paul (Ford).
Jimmy is doing precisely what he shouldn’t be doing, but he’s encouraged to keep doing it when Grace listens to him and ditches her violent husband for a supposedly happier life. Consequently, when his close colleague Gabby (Jessica Williams) gives him a new patient named Sean (Luke Tennie), who’s an Afghanistan war vet with severe anger-management problems, Jimmy responds by having the guy work out his fury at an MMA gym. Then—in one of countless unbelievable plot twists meant to amplify the proceedings’ wackiness—Jimmy invites Sean to move into his house.
Alice agrees to this because she can barely be bothered with her dad and, also, because she thinks Sean is attractive. Sean, meanwhile, goes along with it because, as embodied by Tennie and written by Goldstein, Lawrence, and Segel, he’s a personality-free narrative device decorated with clichéd hang-ups.
Jimmy and Alice are the maudlin main focus of Shrinking, yet they’re not the only ones dealing with loss and loneliness. Liz is wracked by empty-nest discontent and copes by clinging to Alice and putting up with her cheerily compliant husband Derek (Ted McGinley). Gabby is going through a divorce and grappling with a strangely muted libido. Paul is learning how to handle his Parkinson’s disease and reconnecting with his adult daughter Meg (Lily Rabe), whom he barely raised and whose son he hardly knows. And Jimmy’s estate-lawyer best friend Brian (Michael Urie), despite running around constantly proclaiming “Everything goes my way!”, is unable to propose to his long-time partner due to deep-seated fears of risk-taking and commitment.
There isn’t a stable or happy person in the bunch, nor an original one: Brian is the flamboyant gay BFF, Gabby is the sassy friend who makes lots of jibes about race and who’s destined to become Jimmy’s love interest, and Paul is the grouchy elder statesman who grouses about Jimmy’s behavior but, deep down, can’t stop caring about him and Alice.
Paul also gets high on gummies in a mid-season episode, which is about as inventive as Shrinking gets as it barrels toward a seemingly inevitable conclusion in which everyone has epiphanies about the benefits and pitfalls of escaping self-imposed exiles and engaging with loved ones. The show’s writing is so blunt and obvious that its life lessons are head-smackingly obvious even before they’ve been dispensed.
At the center of this mirthless maelstrom is Jimmy, a frantic and mopey disaster whom Segel transforms into the most insufferable protagonist on TV. Though pretending to be interested in others, Jimmy’s every action is about himself, and the fact that Shrinking will undoubtedly have him realize this by season’s end only makes him more irritating.
Segel never stops manically quipping as his protagonist spins further and further out of control, his performance as strained as the series’ stabs at hilarity. Whether throwing tantrums at Liz, inappropriately talking to Alice about her sex life, or giving Sean bad counsel and then lying about it to Paul, he’s a jerk, an idiot, and a lousy doctor all at once, and the show’s attempt to make that cute and okay—because, you see, it’s a byproduct of the inner pain he can’t face—is its prime, if far from only, failing.
Shrinking’s players are all cut from the same phony cloth, so snarky and sarcastic, and yet also wounded and earnestly sensitive, that it’s impossible to take them or their stock difficulties seriously. Peddling dramedy of the shrillest sort, it meanders from one crazy incident to another, most of which are caused by Jimmy’s reckless desire to help others by embroiling himself in their business—a tack that will no doubt lead to his patients healing him.
Heck, everyone is going to heal everyone else through love, understanding and some good-natured ribbing by this affair’s conclusion. Consequently, putting up with Jimmy and company as they clash and reconcile, snipe and console each other, is a steep price to pay for predictable feel-good revelations and resolutions.
Putting a figurative punctuation mark on every line and scene, Segel, Williams and Miller never fail to elicit groans. Ford, on the other hand, merely makes one sad—not because his turn is particularly moving (he does the best he can with a broad, two-dimensional character), but because it’s depressing to see him stuck with subpar material that requires him to literally growl with displeasure and enthusiastically sing along to Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning.”
Even when brought low by scenarios that are stale or clunky (or both!), the legendary actor refuses to unduly mug, thereby proving to be the only actor to emerge relatively unscathed. Still, Ford is better than Shrinking, and so too are most other comedies currently on the air.