I’ve been a little mixed on Shrinking’s debut season. I’ve had fun watching, especially Harrison Ford, and I’ve been impressed with its nuanced depiction of grief. But on an episode-by-episode basis, I haven’t connected with Bill Lawrence’s new series the way I connected with the first season of Ted Lasso.
If “Imposter Syndrome” is any indication, though, that could be changing. This is easily my favorite installment so far, the type of episode that almost makes me wish I was harsher in my earlier recaps. It feels like the best version of what this show could be, on both a comedic level and a dramatic level. Maybe that’s because it’s a turning point in the season, structured around a party where several long-gestating stories come to a head. Maybe it’s just because we see Harrison Ford high on weed gummies.
It’s easy to take Harrison Ford for granted when you see him every episode, but let’s take a moment to talk about just how much he brings to this show. He’s not playing himself, but the fact that it’s Harrison Ford saying all these lines — and really committing — makes pretty much every Paul scene inherently funny. The idea of Harrison Ford getting high is funny. The idea of him misusing the phrase “raw dog” (or even using the phrase in the first place) is funny. Even the idea of him eating Doritos is funny.
So this whole storyline was catnip for me. And it has pathos, too: With Meg flying in tomorrow to make sure he gets good care for his Parkinson’s, Paul is anxious about being a burden. But Liz helps him realize it’s okay to accept help from your kids; there’s often an unspoken agreement that one day you will take care of the people who once took care of you. Considering the fact that Paul wasn’t around to take care of Meg, he should be grateful that she’s open to reconnecting and helping out.
Paul’s final piece of wisdom applies to multiple pairings in this episode: “Two vulnerable people will always find a way to connect.” He imparts that sentiment to Brian and Charlie, who finally get engaged after the total derailment of their would-be-surprise-engagement party. It may be predictable that Brian’s romantic proposal moment can only happen after all his perfect plans go to shit — I think of The Office’s “Niagara,” among other flawed-yet-perfect romantic moments — but it’s a sweet conclusion. And it’s appropriately ironic to challenge Brian’s “everything goes my way” motto.
Paul’s wisdom could just as easily apply to Sean and Alice, two people who have formed an unlikely friendship that has threatened to become something more uncomfortable in recent episodes. I think “Imposter Syndrome” handles the climax of this subplot as best as the show could, taking a big step back from suggesting Sean might be tempted to reciprocate Alice’s feelings.
First, Jimmy pulls Alice aside at the party when he sees her drinking, making it clear he knows about her crush. There’s something almost taunting about the way he specifically brings up Alice’s comment about Sean being beautiful. It’s really not a good look for him.
Sean joins Alice in her bedroom, knowing she’s upset even if he doesn’t know exactly why. He also doesn’t have much interest in socializing with the other partygoers; he’s been doing well lately, finally committing to doing the work in therapy, but it’s still hard to find much in common with these people. Alice has been one of the only people in his life to really make an effort to understand him. But that gratefulness and affection doesn’t extend to romantic feelings, and thankfully, Sean stops Alice’s attempt to kiss him early. You can see how much it hurts Alice when he says, “You’re just a kid,” but he’s right.
Alice was the one who suggested Jimmy have the party at their house, inspired by how much her mom loved throwing parties there. Those memories of Tia’s old parties crop up throughout the episode, sometimes in seconds-long flashbacks sparked by familiar guests and once as a longer look at a brutal argument between Jimmy and Tia. And it’s this story that provides the most successful emotional beats of the episode.
It takes some time to fully understand why Jimmy keeps getting yanked into the past, besides missing Tia like always. But it starts to fall into place during a delightful montage of Jimmy getting progressively drunker as various guests gush to him about how perfect he and Tia were as a couple. It’s clear these friends mean well, but they didn’t know what was happening behind closed doors. The truth is Jimmy and Tia had been fighting for months before she died; Jimmy even thinks she might’ve left him if she’d lived. Hearing about how perfect their marriage appeared from the outside, he feels like a fraud. What sticks in Jimmy’s mind is how Tia looked at him at their last party, like she’d fallen out of love.
It’s complicated emotional terrain, and I appreciate that the show avoids romanticizing the central tragedy. Tia doesn’t only appear to us in softly lit flashbacks of long, adoring stares. We see the reality of this marriage, and we get the reminder that Jimmy’s shitty parenting didn’t originate with Tia’s death. He fucked up often, and that’s what makes it so important for him to be there for Alice now.
But Jimmy is in no state to be there for anyone tonight, including his best friend. His piano accompaniment of “You Are So Beautiful” goes about as well as you’d expect, morphing quickly into a duet that Brian did not approve of. And then it ends, as these scenes must, in glorious projectile vomit.
After Jimmy is cleaned up and coherent, Gaby gives him something he asked for earlier: proof that Tia loved him. She shows him a photo taken two weeks before Tia died, where you can see the love in her eyes while she looks at Jimmy. Gaby also reminds Jimmy that Tia definitely would’ve told her if she was thinking of leaving him; she never held back the dirty details about the issues in their marriage.
It’s a generous gesture from Gaby, who has been dealing with her own shit, though she’s nowhere near as messy as Jimmy tonight (yet). Since her divorce from Nico, she has been having trouble “lady getting it up” in bed, perhaps because of how comfortable she’d become spending years with only one partner. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the episode ends with Gaby falling into bed with Jimmy, a guy she knows extremely well and trusts completely.
But I have to say: Maybe I was naïve not to have immediately suspected that this show’s male and female leads would couple up, but this really came out of nowhere for me. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. I’ll wait to see where the show goes with this pairing, but for now, it feels like the exact kind of self-destructive move both of these people would make. It might be surprising, but it makes sense that they’d bond after losing Tia and seek comfort in each other’s arms. It’s like Paul said: Two vulnerable people will always find a way to connect.
Is there a contradiction in Gaby going to all this effort to assure Jimmy how much her best friend loved him, only to sleep with him herself immediately after? Is Jimmy betraying his late wife by sleeping with her best friend, and is Gaby betraying her late best friend by sleeping with her husband? I don’t judge them, but it seems likely they’ll judge themselves a little. It’s another complicated emotional situation, a specific experience of grief that embraces the nuance within an otherwise simple (and often kind of corny) sitcom. That’s what Shrinking does best — and after “Imposter Syndrome,” I’m hopeful it can keep growing.
• Brian’s cover for the surprise engagement party is a celebration for Jimmy winning “Therapist of the Year.”
• Another very funny moment in a funny episode: Gaby breaks the news of her divorce to a friend who responds by just saying “no, no, no” over and over, a ridiculous number of times.
• There’s something weirdly endearing about Jimmy’s friendship with Kiara, the retired sex worker who appeared in the show’s first scene.
• When Alice bolts upstairs and Sean asks Jimmy what he said to her, Jimmy shoots back, “I said, ‘How fast can you run up the stairs?’” Brilliant.
• Bernadette Peters turned Brian’s invite down (or, rather, her assistant sent a form letter rejection).