One day, someone in the marketing department for the big streamers like Netflix, Prime Video and Apple TV+ will explain why they consistently give audiences barely a week’s notice to get excited about a huge, costly, often quite good series that is about to hit the market. Is it that the companies are just busy making too many shows that they forget what they have already greenlit, and are then caught in a moment of oh-dang-we-better-advertise-this-thing panic? Or are they embarrassed by what they threw hundreds of millions of dollars at a few months ago and now are trying to hide the damage under the zeitgeist rug?
I can’t imagine that either case applies to Shrinking, the new dramedy series premiering on Apple TV+ on Friday, and whose promotional efforts only kick-started in earnest … checks calendar … last week. Maybe someone forgot to e-mail someone else down in Cupertino, Calif., but Shrinking is the kind of big-hearted, expertly cast and perfectly paced production that is the ideal balm for these dry, cold months. It deserves your evening-viewing attention, even if Apple TV+ seems intent on continuing a campaign that is more whispers than shouts.
I guess it can be hard to promote a show that lacks big stars or a trusted team of writers … oh wait, Shrinking has both those things in ample supply, never mind. Created by Bill Lawrence, Brett Goldstein and Jason Segel – the first two essential members of the Ted Lasso brain-trust, while Segel has been a beloved staple of the Judd Apatow empire for a decade and a half now – and co-starring a genuine movie star (Harrison Ford!), Shrinking represents the peak of peak-talent television. And that pedigree shows in every one of its nine half-hour installments provided to critics in advance (there are 10 in total).
After a prolonged absence from big onscreen roles – his last true starring role was in the 2019 indie drama Our Friend – Segel is back in his Forgetting Sarah Marshall-era sad-sack comfort zone, playing a therapist named Jimmy who is barely holding his life together one year after the death of his wife. Numbing his pain with booze, cocaine and giggly prostitutes, Jimmy is on the cusp of losing control of his practice and the respect of his teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell). But, as you might imagine coming from the feel-good minds behind Ted Lasso, Shrinking isn’t a gritty, rough-and-tumble dirge. Jimmy’s life might be mired in grief, but there sunny spots abound.
Such as the comfort that Jimmy finds in the two therapists with whom he shares an office – the kind of warm and witty characters who are as fast with quips as they are with quirks. There is Gaby (Jessica Williams), whose sassiness only slightly masks the turmoil she’s going through in her own marriage, and then there is Paul (Ford), the kind of curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold that the actor has by this point mastered.
Casting Ford is the series’ biggest coup – one that might have seemed much bigger a deal had the Yellowstone prequel 1923 not pulled off the trick first – and the showrunners clearly lean into it. Paul is gruff but generous, no-nonsense but also prone to, well, a good deal of nonsense. He can scold Jimmy with the utmost level of sternness and also hang out with Alice, watching basketball and marvelling at the spiciness of a Nashville Hot chicken sandwich.
“I’m always mad, and I’m always sitting,” Paul utters at one point, nicely encapsulating the character’s place in the series: he is the wry rock, here to enlighten and entertain with the elder-statesman wisdom that only an actor of Ford’s esteem can provide. (I could see another parallel universe in which this show aired on NBC and starred, say, Alan Alda or John Larroquette. But the movie-star upgrade that the streaming wars have provided here is a nice one.)
Everyone else in the cast gels so well with the material, too, that you can’t help but wonder how much of the series was reverse-engineered to fit the personas and strengths of its performers. Newcomer Maxwell is able to play teenage surliness with just the right balance of cynicism and confusion, an especially difficult thing to pull off given most of her scenes involve holding her own against older, more seasoned actors. Not only Ford and Segel, but also Christa Miller, who plays Jimmy’s well-meaning but somewhat intrusive neighbour Liz. (Miller might be best-known to some for her work on husband Lawrence’s other sitcoms, including Scrubs and Cougar Town, but she’ll always be Kate from The Drew Carey Show to me.) And then there is the scene-stealing work done in the margins by sitcom veteran Ted McGinley as Liz’s husband – work that might merit a column of its own if Shrinking gets renewed for a second season.
Before I go overboard, Shrinking is not the revolution that Apple TV+ might be looking for – it isn’t Ted Lasso 2.0. This is the kind of light-but-deft-touch television that hides its lessons in sharp one-liners, builds its characters through the prism of archetypes and makes sure its audience knows its bouncy sensibility by sound-tracking its episodes with the likes of Vampire Weekend. But it achieves every goal that it sets out for itself, all while caring deeply about its own modest ambitions.
The marketing folk at Apple TV+ could learn a thing or two from the series it is supposed to be promoting.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.