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Shrinking - Advance Review: "Jason Segel steals the show in magnificent series about loss"

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“Shrinking” premieres on Apple TV+ with two episodes on Friday 27 January, and one episode weekly thereafter.

Towards the end of the first episode of “Shrinking”, down-on-his-luck and depressed therapist Jimmy Laird (Jason Segel) excitedly and breathlessly jumps around asking his new patient, Sean (Luke Tennie), whether he’s hungry, and it prompts the following line:

“You are batshit fucking crazy.”

As taglines go, it couldn’t be more accurate. Jimmy begins the series in as dark a hole as you can imagine: hiring prostitutes, drinking and drugging until the late hours, losing focus and lacking direction in his life. You see, he’s stuck. Stuck wallowing in his own misery a year after the death of his wife, Tia (Lilan Bowden), with no sense of how to free himself.

Jimmy’s wallowing has an impact on his personal and professional life; his daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell), hates and won’t speak to him, such is his withdrawn state. They live under the same roof but they most certainly do not live in the same life. It is instead neighbour Liz (Christa Miller) who acts as a surrogate mother to Alice and the pair get on well – there’s little interest on Alice’s part in her father, even while Liz remains worried for her next-door neighbour.

How to get unstuck, then? The answer is simple: take a hands-on approach with your therapy patients, telling them directly and sometimes savagely how to improve their lives. As a representation of therapy, “Shrinking” is a pretty grim advert: a supercut early in the first episode of Jimmy’s patients complaining – about friendly baristas, their obsessive nail-chewing, their unloving husbands – does a fantastic job of highlighting the monotony of his life, but does seemingly reduce the practice to little more than venting in an office.

All that changes when one of his outbursts works and a patient improves her life. And then Jimmy meets Sean. Sean’s a 22-year-old veteran whose experiences in Afghanistan have, like so many, fundamentally changed him. He experiences regular, vivid, violent memories of his time serving and suffers from spells of brutal rage at the simplest of triggers – a shoulder bump in the street, for instance. Sean’s sceptical of therapy in general and of Jimmy in particular, but to the surprise of everyone – not least Jimmy himself – he’s very good at his job. The impact Jimmy has on Sean’s life is profound, putting him onto a path that doesn’t end with a prison sentence, but there’s a benefit for Jimmy too, who is inspired and encouraged by his new patient to be better for his friends, for his daughter, and most importantly for himself.

“Shrinking” is a delight. The lured-to-TV Harrison Ford is the star name – more on him shortly – but Segel steals the show. There are layers to his performance, and the quieter turns (particularly in the ninth episode) are incredibly powerful, but so much of the season and his characterisation is about the extravagance, the chaos, the “batshit fucking crazy,” and Segel goes all in. Throughout, jokes are made about Jimmy having “sad face” and he retorts that it’s just “face” – and yet there remains so much opportunity for Segel to have every other kind of face. Sarcastic hysterical laughing face, rage face, drunk face, overwhelmed-not-cool-dad face. So many are on display and they’re all a joy.

Segel conveys the sense of loss beautifully. That’s a credit to the writing team as much as to Segel – the scene-setting in the premiere, establishing the scale of Jimmy’s despair, is terrific, and the series importantly understands when to dip in and out of it. “Shrinking” is built around the idea of finding a way to get through the worst moments of your life, and isn’t afraid to make it look difficult – all the while remaining a comedy. So when Segel attempts an emotional coping mechanism only to cycle into a car door, both elements work.

There’s certainly subtlety to the performances. Keep an eye out for characters shaking their heads while verbally agreeing to something – it happens often, and across the board, and is a clever visual cue emphasising people’s true feelings. Opening up proves difficult at times for these characters but it feels natural and real; less secure vault than closed door. Alice, in particular, begins the series reserved as can be: with her mother dead and her father deadened, she’s a grieving orphan in all-but name. Maxwell, 21 playing 17, nails the mix of rebellious teen and high school student forced to grow up sooner than any other. Her chemistry with Segel, whether in her apathy or fleeting expressions of love, is terrific, while she and Ford light up the screen when together.

So: Ford. He plays Paul, a role-model therapist who mentors/relentlessly lambasts Jimmy. Co-creator Brett Goldstein said in an interview that Ford “really relates to the character,” and the line between Ford’s interview persona and Paul is blurred. He’s reserved, quick-witted, sarcastic, straight-faced, pretending so often not to care when all around him know he does. It seems he’s barely trying and yet is always hilarious, whether defending a regularly-worn straw hat or misunderstanding sexual innuendos.

Paul brings a warmth the series often needs and yet he has his own trauma. He suffers from Parkinson’s and there’s a fascinating contrast between his journey and that of the Lairds. They grieve for something already lost while holding onto the memories; Paul grapples with his grief over that which he is losing while holding onto everything he can for as long as possible, lest he lose it forever. He is an inspiration for many of the characters for his wisdom, and simultaneously a tragedy as he feels his life slowly slip from him one day at a time. Everyone’s situational reality is different but Paul’s journey is about achieving the same end goal: acceptance.

The supporting cast is great, not least Jessica Williams’ Gaby and Michael Urie’s Brian. Gaby, Paul and Jimmy are all therapists in the same office but she was also Tia’s best friend, so her connection to Jimmy is profound. She’s not immune to issues: her marriage is rocky, and her love for the struggling Lairds is clear to see. Brian is Jimmy’s estranged but reunited best friend, and is a ray of sunshine in his passion for life and for his boyfriend, Charlie. Urie and Williams have a bundle of energy at virtually every turn; it’s easy to imagine the characters becoming exhausted by them, but they’re a thrill.

Sean’s story is the central thread which connects so many of these people, and which puts Jimmy – and by extension those around him – on a clearer path but the season’s sole disappointment (*) is that his journey takes a backseat midway through. There are times when Tennie plays Sean with a tinge of shame, especially in relation to his time in the army. “Shrinking” breaks the surface layer when it comes to his PTSD but not much more.

(*) Apple shared nine of the 10 episodes in advance, so there’s every chance it picks back up in the finale.

Make no mistake, though: “Shrinking” is magnificent. The combination of dry and slapstick humour makes it a comedic joy, but the exploration of its heavier topics – grief, loss, pain, trauma, family divides, fear, regret – transform it into something spectacular. You’ll see many of its plot twists and cliffhangers coming but that doesn’t matter. The series reminds us that getting through life is less about experiencing events than it is finding a way with those events. As an exploration of coping with suffering, few shows will do it better than this.

“Shrinking” premieres on Apple TV+ with two episodes on Friday 27 January, and one episode weekly thereafter.

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