Shrinking: another indulgent mid-life crisis sitcom

Dragged down by its two key flaws – its none-too-compelling protagonist and its intriguing but underdeveloped supporting characters – this Jason Segel vehicle is short on gas in the tank.

Jason Segel and Harrison Ford as Jimmy and Paul in Shrinking (2023)

Jason Segel’s bewildered hangdog expression may have won hearts long ago in the likes of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), The Muppets (2011) and long-running TV series How I Met Your Mother (2005-14), but in his latest show, Shrinking, it feels disingenuous. Fronting another heteronormative white man’s mid-life crisis sitcom, Segel is listed as a co-creator alongside producer Bill Lawrence and British actor Brett Goldstein, whose recent screen credits include the delightful, warm-hearted Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso (2020-). Shrinking, however, is a far weaker project, for two key reasons: it centres a character whose predicaments are less interesting than those of the people around him; and those side characters, despite crying out to be fully fleshed out, end up underdeveloped.

Segel plays Jimmy, who is introduced to us as a lovable (if drug-addled) boy-next-door. Sure, he’s shown disrupting his neighbour with loud music at three a.m., but the music is by Billy Joel, to which Jimmy is playing air piano – the series’ way of telling us that he’s a mess but not a monster. The next day, we see his teenage daughter Alice (played with simmering restraint by the show’s standout talent Lukita Maxwell) cleaning up after him; visibly disappointed, she hands him water, painkillers and a jar of overnight oats. She picks up a turned-down family photo that reveals the two of them, smiling, with wife and mother Tia, who died suddenly the previous year – the catalyst for Jimmy’s wayward behaviour.

The tension, pace and tone of this opening sequence seem to be setting up a series with genuine father-daughter dramatic heft at its heart. The clowning sequence that follows, however, proves too rapid a gear change: his car out of fuel, Jimmy is forced to set off, legs akimbo, on his daughter’s bike, donning a pink helmet and flailing amidst a herd of lycra-clad cyclists as he rides to therapy.

The somewhat predictable reveal, when Jimmy finally arrives at his destination, is that he is not a patient late for an appointment, but one of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Center’s three resident shrinks. This whole journey-to-work montage is one of far too many similar sequences that pepper Shrinking, unsubtly signalling the show’s dialectic between a chaotic world and a search for fortitude. The show’s two significant locations – Jimmy’s house (a broken home) and his place of work (where healing happens) – are bridged initially by an Arcade Fire song, the first of many melancholy pop ballads.

Music features as a cognitive coping mechanism throughout the series: Jimmy’s boss Paul, a curmudgeon with a heart of gold (played with grumbling grace by Harrison Ford), recommends listening to sad songs for 15 minutes a day to manage grief. The show calls back to this sentiment later when Jimmy’s repressed emotions finally cut loose: once again riding a bicycle in slapstick mode, he glides straight into an open car door, and is soon ugly-crying to the sombre strains of singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.

But wherever such music presides, overacting overshadows the scene. While broad stereotyping worked beautifully for Brett Goldstein as the uber-angry footballer Roy Kent in Ted Lasso, Segel’s over-egging here comes across as insincere. Worse is the show’s reliance on underwritten Black characters to pick up the slack. Luke Tennie puts in a committed performance as Sean, the young Afghanistan War vet with PTSD and anger management issues who moves into Jimmy’s pool house, but regrettably his character simply ends up fulfilling the age-old ‘magical negro’ trope: his presence (and his trauma) ultimately helps the rich white man at the centre of the narrative solve his own issues.

Jessica Williams shines as the sassy, sex-positive Gaby, one of few characters with any pathos. Lamentably, Gaby is eventually reduced to Jimmy’s love interest, her own character arc left hanging. Meanwhile, Michael Urie does his best with the 1990s stereotype he’s given, the fast-talking gay best friend, rounding out the show’s diverse, underserved supporting cast.

Employing unorthodox methods in his practice – such as ordering a victim of emotional abuse to leave her partner or find another therapist, or confronting an OCD-suffering patient in her home – Jimmy heals himself by harming others. And while this may well be the narrative for many a straight white boy-next-door in affluent America, the show tantalisingly hints at narrative arcs that, explored in any depth, might have been far more compelling.

Shrinking is available to stream on Apple TV+ now.