“Ted Lasso,” Apple TV+’s zeitgeist smash, undergirds its story of an optimistic soccer coach with a sense of curiosity about his mental health: What therapeutic resources does it take, the show asks, to be that upbeat?
With the new comedy “Shrinking,” “Ted Lasso” co-creator Bill Lawrence moves such concerns into the foreground — so far forward that much other potential insight is blotted out. Lawrence, who co-created “Shrinking” with “Ted Lasso” actor Brett Goldstein, centers pain, grief, and the process of working through them in this new series, so much so that its worthiness as a serious contemplation of emotional anguish can be overshadowed by how tough a sit it becomes.
Here, Jason Segel plays Jimmy Laird, a psychiatrist who can’t heal himself. His disoriented personal life, in the wake of the death of his wife, has led his neighbor (Christa Miller) to grow concerned and to involve herself in the raising of Jimmy’s child (Lukita Maxwell); at work, Jimmy’s supervisor Paul Rhoades (Harrison Ford) has grown increasingly frustrated, while colleague Gaby Evans (Jessica Williams) roots Jimmy on. As the series begins, Jimmy has decided to break out of his personal anguish by taking his patients into the field and experiencing life with them, off the couch; anyone even vaguely familiar with the Ford onscreen persona will likely be able to guess how the application of unusual techniques goes over with the boss.
Ford seems poorly used and out-of-place in this comic milieu; that he’s stiff and uncomfortable is a joke with diminishing returns. Better are his dramatic scenes, in which Paul speaks about his health struggles and his difficulty in opening up to his daughter about them. The dialogue is plain and unadorned — Paul tells an intimate, “I’m afraid she won’t see me the way she used to. I won’t be her father, I’ll just be this sad old man that needs to be taken care of.” Ford’s congenital tightness as an actor, the degree to which he tends to withhold emotion, makes this moment truly land and feel like a breakthrough.
Whereas Segel is more at sea. An open-hearted performer whose emotional palette is big, bold and easy to read, Segel cannot make Jimmy’s confessions feel special or earned. Indeed, a moment deep in the series in which Jimmy confronts the idea of his dead wife and attacks her for her selfishness for dying is the sort of misfire that entirely disorients the viewer: One senses how badly the show wants for us to be closely tracking Jimmy’s emotional journey, and yet he’s so available that he’s unreachable. Put another way: Endlessly talkative, he so rarely seems to be privately processing his emotions that it comes as a surprise when they crop up.
This is where the plainness of the Lawrence approach to dialogue hurts the show: When everyone is saying what they think all of the time, there lacks the texture to keep us on the hook even when “what they think” is not on its face interesting or totally credible. The mysteries of why we are the way we are fall out; “Shrinking’s” character beats come pre-chewed, so as to avoid the complication that accompanies the best of art.
There is strong stuff here: Moments when Segel’s character makes destructive or impulsive decisions feel far realer than ones where he’s talking, and talking, and talking. With that in mind, I enjoyed Jimmy’s relationship with Gaby, as the pair of therapists’ chemistry seems to exist beyond words. And his relationship with his daughter Alice, too, felt pleasingly underexplored — not in the sense that the show’s neglecting it, but in the sense that it contains enigmas and hurt feelings that aren’t easily unpacked, that lie beyond the realm of being solved simply by being explained. It’s this that gives me hope that a future season of “Shrinking” might find its way toward exploring the themes at its heart in less thuddingly direct a manner — to embrace the side of therapy that’s about questions, not just their answers.