If Scrubs had taken place entirely within the psychiatric wing of the show’s fictional Sacred Heart Hospital, it might have looked something like Shrinking, a dramedy revolving around a small group of therapists weathering the slings and arrows of both their own lives and those of their patients. Like NBC’s early-aughts American sitcom, it melds a sweet comedic energy and indie-pop soundtrack with melancholic musings about life, love, and loss. Shrinking even features Scrubs alum Christa Miller doling out more deadpan putdowns.
Shrinking also stars another sitcom veteran, Jason Segel, as therapist Jimmy Johns, who we first meet in his backyard, air-pianoing his way through the wee hours of the night with a couple of friendly sex workers and a buffet of booze, pills, and weed. Right from the start of the series, Jimmy is a character who’s easy to pity but almost impossible to hate, as we learn, through a series of elegantly deployed flashbacks, that he recently lost his wife.
Jimmy has basically been underwater ever since his wife’s death, having lost touch with those around him, including his teenage daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell). It’s a well-engineered premise with an easy buy-in since we’re viewing Jimmy from the same vantage point as all of his friends and co-workers: achingly sympathetic for the pain he’s obviously still carrying but also a little maddened by the way he’s allowed himself to sink into his grief.
Essentially, Shrinking is about how we bridge the gap between knowing what we need to do to become happier, healthier versions of ourselves and actually doing it. Jimmy spends his working hours patiently listening to the problems of his clients, quietly hoping that with enough gentle nudges they’ll arrive at some obvious solutions. But deep down he knows they probably won’t.
The series makes room for all kinds of sitcom hijinks, like anger management via mixed martial arts and surprise mid-date counselling sessions, while gently prodding at the question of how we implement therapy into practice. There’s an inherent risk in trying to deal with mental health in a realistic way while also setting up plenty of punchlines. Working on one’s mental health is a messy, constant process, and as such seemingly antithetical to a format that likes to tidily wrap up issues within the span of 30 minutes. But while Shrinking does sail a bit close to the wind at times, it mostly does a good job of keeping its whimsical side sufficiently anchored in reality.
Jimmy regularly finds himself on the receiving end of a sardonic skewering from his neighbour, Liz (Miller), but much as it loves a good zinger, Shrinking’s greatest weapon is its essential kindness. Almost all of its harshest lines come not from two characters being mad at each other, but from one of them trying to keep the other from doing something self-destructive.
Elsewhere, as Jimmy’s colleague and mentor Dr. Phil Rhodes, Harrison Ford delivers punchlines with a gruff aplomb before dealing out bits of hard-earned, plainspoken wisdom like “Grief is a crafty little fucker.” Which basically sums up Shrinking’s thematic core: Whether they’re mourning lost loved ones or past versions of themselves, the show’s characters are battling that little fucker in their own clumsy, imperfect ways.
Cast: Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, Harrison Ford, Christa Miller, Lukita Maxwell, Michael Urie, Luke Tennie Network: Apple TV+