“Shrinking” starts slowly, feeling like it’s going to be just another dour comedy as much about grief as laughs. Stick with it, though, and this Apple TV+ series from the team behind “Ted Lasso” really grows on you, with some very funny writing, appealing characters, and as a nifty bonus, Harrison Ford as an unexpectedly effective sitcom version of a cranky old man.
Jason Segel stars as Jimmy, a therapist wracked with grief and guilt over the death of his wife, which has turned him into a personal train wreck – outsourcing the upbringing of his teenage daughter (Lukita Maxwell) to his neighbor (Christa Miller) – and risks spilling over into his professional life.
“It’s just awful here without her,” he mutters early on, giving a sense of how emotional wounded he is.
Specifically, Jimmy experiences “compassion fatigue,” and begins telling his patients exactly what he thinks, even if that means prodding them to change their lives in a very un-therapist like way – tiptoeing (and occasionally leaping) over ethical boundaries. He even takes in a young veteran with anger issues (Luke Tennie), violating all those rules about maintaining professional distance.
All of this is unsettling to Jimmy’s two colleagues, Gaby (Jessica Williams) and Paul (Ford, wearing a lot hats right now, with two streaming series, including “1923”), the former dealing with a failing marriage, the latter in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.
Everyone here, in other words, has issues, and Jimmy’s – which is crippling at first – isn’t particularly original, inasmuch as Ricky Gervais explored very similar themes as a widowed guy in the melancholy “After Life.”
What makes “Shrinking” tolerable at first, and quite good as it progresses, is that everyone here is also funny, milking laughs out of amusing situations and sharp dialogue, from an uncomfortable encounter at a soccer game to a planned wedding proposal that doesn’t exactly go as planned.
Created by Segel and the “Lasso” tandem of Bill Lawrence (who is married to Miller) and Brett Goldstein, “Shrinking” also keeps putting together different characters in sweetly unexpected ways, from Paul quietly counseling Jimmy’s daughter to Gaby and Liz starting at odds and gradually finding common ground.
The show thus keeps revealing layers and dimensions to the characters, who seem to be having a ball playing off each other. That’s perhaps especially true of Ford, who real vulnerability beneath the gruff exterior, acting as a de facto father to Jimmy while grappling with greater fragility thanks to his condition.
In a way, the series has a good deal in common with “Ted Lasso,” in the sense that it succeeds not because of its premise – which sounds completely ordinary and familiar – but in spite of it. “Shrinking” isn’t a big idea, but with a big heart and genuine laughs, it, too, achieves its goal.
“Shrinking” premieres January 27 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a unit of Apple.)