At first it seems like Shrinking will hang on a gimmick. A new comedy created by Bill Lawrence, Brett Goldstein (a cast member of the Lawrence co-creation Ted Lasso), and series star Jason Segel, its opening episode sets up a high-concept comedy about a grieving therapist named Jimmy (Segel) who, after unexpectedly losing his wife in a car accident and spending the following year numbing himself with drugs and the company of sex workers, cracks mid-session and begins offering his patients the blunt, no-holds-barred advice he'd previously kept to himself. Uninterested in (or maybe incapable of) self-censoring, Jimmy begins to act as, in his words, a "psychological vigilante." He may have found rock bottom, but he'll be damned if he'll let his patients end up in the same place.
Maybe that show, a kind of sitcom Bulworth with a therapist instead of a politician, could have worked, though the premise already seems pretty thoroughly explored by the end of Shrinking's first episode. But Shrinking isn't really interested in being that show, at least not for long. By the second episode it's gelled into an easygoing hangout comedy filled with charming characters who are, by almost any measure, way too involved in each others' lives but also seem incapable of living without one another. It's almost as if Shrinking fast-forwarded past the scene-setting first season to get directly to the pleasant-but-soulful groove familiar from Ted Lasso, Cougar Town, and other series with Lawrence's name in the opening credits after they found their feet. It may open like an edgier variation on its predecessors, but that ultimately proves to be a fake-out. And, really, that's fine.
Still, it's pretty daring to ask viewers to care about a protagonist introduced mid-drug-binge as a pair of bikini-clad women at least a decade younger than him frolic in the water and, we'll soon learn, his teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell) sleeps upstairs. That Segel is innately likable helps, but his performance doesn't coast on his familiar charm, either. Jimmy really has reached rock bottom, much to the frustration of those around him. Alice has spent the year parenting him and cleaning up his messes, literal and otherwise, rather than properly grieving the loss of her mother. His partners in his practice — mentor Paul (Harrison Ford) and Gaby (Jessica Williams), who was also Jimmy's wife's best friend — have grown tired of him showing up unkempt and sleep-deprived. It's not a sustainable arrangement, so Jimmy's "psychological vigilante" shift is concerning but also kind of welcome. At least he's doing something to change his life.
Jimmy is the show's central character, and his crawling out of the dark place where we first meet him gives this first season its shape. But this is very much an ensemble series that gives the rest of the cast plenty of welcome room in the spotlight, with Williams and Ford effectively playing co-leads. Williams winningly plays Gaby as a professional doing her best to stay upbeat while dealing with problems of her own. It's not easy to dispense dialogue filled with zingers without making characters feel mean spirited or two-dimensional, but Williams makes it look easy. And, after not getting much of a chance to loosen up on screen in a while, Ford is a revelation as Paul. He beautifully underplays the part, delivering his lines wryly, creating a lovely rapport with his co-stars (his scenes with Maxwell are especially winning), and seeming to realize that it's innately funny to see Harrison Ford, say, eating Fun Dip or scaring off an aggressive peacock.
That Paul is in the early stages of Parkinson's gives the character a bittersweet edge, but Shrinking is comfortable with bittersweetness and difficult emotions. Luke Tennie, for instance, co-stars as Sean, a veteran working through some PTSD and episodes of uncontrollable rage who becomes first Jimmy's patient then his lodger. And then, inevitably, a friend to Alice, Jimmy's next door neighbors Liz (an especially fun Christa Miller) and Derek (Ted McGinley), and Jimmy's best friend Brian (Michael Urie), who may (or may not) be on the verge of proposing to his longtime boyfriend.
It's the sort of show where, however tart and strained their relationships might be at first, everyone ends up being friends with everyone else. A moment when Paul admonishes Jimmy, "Do not let your professional life bleed into your personal," isn't played as a punchline, but it might as well be. Its sunny, upscale Pasadena filled with characters who work on their own relaxed schedules, when they work at all, may be a sitcom fantasy land but, as in Ted Lasso, a fantasy given counterweight by some heavy themes. When Jimmy jokes about having "resting dead wife face," it's kind of shocking the line is as funny as it is.
It takes a deft touch to achieve that kind of balance, but the cast and the behind-the-scenes talent — which includes James Ponsoldt, who previously worked with Segel on The End of the Tour and serves as the series' director — maintain it well. The show slips away from its initial premise almost as soon as it's set up, but that's not really a problem. Its characters might be a little lost, but Shrinking figures out what it needs to be pretty quickly.
Premieres: Two episodes premiere on Apple TV+ on Friday, Jan. 27, with new episodes rolling out weekly after that.
Who's in it: Jason Segel, Harrison Ford, Jessica Williams, Christa Miller
Who's behind it: Segel, Bill Lawrence, and Brett Goldstein
For fans of: Smart, heartfelt sitcoms, especially Ted Lasso (with which it shares a lot of DNA)
How many episodes we watched: 9 of 10