When Ted Lasso first took off in 2020, it wasn’t hard to see the appeal. It had all the ingredients of a successful sitcom: an endearing cast, solid jokes, romantic subplots, and plenty of heartfelt moments of connection. Critics and viewers described it as a warm hug of a show, a source of much-needed escapism at a time of national mourning (a time that never really ended). But what makes Ted Lasso special — what prevents its wholesomeness from turning into empty sentimentality — is its willingness to go dark. It’s a show that frequently deals with mental illness, heartbreak, betrayal, and all the other agonies of life that cannot be fixed with a can-do attitude alone.
The pilot of the new Apple TV+ dramedy Shrinking often feels a lot like that other Apple TV+ dramedy, for obvious reasons: Of its three co-creators, one is the showrunner of Ted Lasso, and another writes and acts on that show. (The third is star Jason Segel.) Bill Lawrence’s influence is particularly apparent in the way Shrinking weaves a strain of darkness through its affable, inoffensive humor; the high-concept premise may sound like goofy fun, but the script from Lawrence, Segel, and Brett Goldstein makes sure to acknowledge the ethical murkiness baked in.
Jimmy Laird (Segel) is a therapist who is tired of advocating for the tedium of incremental self-improvement. As he figures it, traditional therapy methods take too long; sometimes it’s not worth waiting for your patients to come to their own conclusions when you could easily just tell them. During a session with Grace (Heidi Gardner) one day, he decides to cut to the chase: Her husband is emotionally abusive, he has no intention of changing, and she needs to be done with him for good. “Leave him, or I’m done being your therapist,” he blurts.
Grace listens to Jimmy and moves back in with her sister, even calling to thank him. It confirms for him that there could actually be value in going full “psychological vigilante” and changing his methods entirely. Of course, besides the natural frustration that sometimes arises when you’re a therapist suffering from “compassion fatigue,” there’s a deeper reason Jimmy is looking for a new path. Around a year ago, he lost his wife in a car accident, and he’s been relying on booze, drugs, and sex to make it through ever since. That unhealthy form of self-care comes at the expense of his teenage daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell), who has mostly been left on her own to grieve and take care of herself when she isn’t taking care of Jimmy. They barely have a relationship anymore; she spends more time with their empty-nester neighbor, Liz (Christa Miller), than her dad.
Jimmy desperately wants to reconnect with his daughter and shake himself loose from his yearlong malaise. Maybe in his mind, this new exciting idea is a way to accomplish that; maybe by speeding up everyone else’s mental-health journey he can accelerate his own grieving process and become “normal” again. But it’s clearly a bad idea for a million reasons. People often need to arrive at realizations at their own pace, and rushing it can hurt them. Besides, it’s also just plain unethical to involve yourself directly in your patients’ lives. As Jimmy’s friend and coworker Gaby (the always delightful Jessica Williams) says, “It’s nice to see you have your spark back, but ruh-roh. Ruh-roh, Jimmy.”
Jimmy first deals with the serious consequences of his new plan after a few sessions with Sean, a young soldier referred to him by Gaby. In the six months since Sean was discharged, he has repeatedly gotten arrested for assault, a result of his PTSD. Jimmy’s brilliant idea is to take him to a boxing gym to find a safe outlet for his violent impulses. At first, it seems successful: Sean keeps going, and he softens toward Jimmy, especially after learning about his late wife. (That moment is also the first time we get confirmation of what happened to her, though it was easy to guess.) When someone bumps into Sean one day in the street, he manages to resist the temptation to pummel him.
In Jimmy’s mind, that’s the second real sign that his new experiment with “getting his hands dirty” could actually be working. Ecstatic, he and Sean spontaneously take off on a joyful drive (and then run) through Pasadena to get to Alice’s soccer game. They make it there to impress Liz and see Alice score a goal, and everything seems perfect — until Grace’s husband shows up and headbutts Jimmy, furious about what he told Grace to do. That, in turn, sets off Sean, who leaps in to defend Jimmy and gets carried away, ending up arrested for yet another assault.
It’s a serious moment, a brutal reminder that Jimmy’s new tactic would never work without adverse consequences. But at least it leads to a moment of empathy from Alice, who thanks Jimmy for coming. “I would’ve come sooner, you know,” he says. Then, after a long pause: “You look so much like your mom.” It’s a simple moment and maybe a little obvious, but it makes for a nice ending. In fact, more effective than the line itself might be Jason Segel’s wistful smile and “what are you gonna do?” shrug, which communicates so much.
Segel is an innately watchable and likable actor, and his performance here grounds an intriguing but slightly underwhelming opening to the series. There’s definitely a reason to keep watching, especially some nice cast chemistry; it’s kind of amazing to see Harrison Ford in sitcom mode as Dr. Paul Rhoades, his deadpan playing well off Segel’s exuberant sincerity. But the jokes themselves feel like they could be a little snappier, and I have some concerns about the longevity of this premise. “Coin Flip” alone proved to both Jimmy and us that his new idea ultimately won’t work. Are we due for nine more episodes of Jimmy learning that same lesson over and over?
Based on the pilot alone, it’s hard to tell if Shrinking could match the heights of Ted Lasso, either comedically or dramatically. But so far, it’s an entertaining watch that’s hard to dislike. There’s a lot of promise here, especially with this cast and crew.
• Carrying this section name over from Erin Qualey’s excellent recaps of The Patient.
• Jimmy immediately flees at the sight of his best friend, so there’s clearly a story there.
• Shrinking is flexing its big music budget like other Apple shows have, this time with a very indie pop–heavy soundtrack that feels like it’s … maybe trying a little too hard? But hey, I can never argue with “Oxford Comma.”
• Besides the “ruh-roh” moment, I think my biggest laugh of the episode was Jimmy following through on his plan to watch Home Alone for the first time from the bath. “Oh, now I get it!”