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Who You Were Before, and Who You Are After




A Review of Apple TV’s Shrinking



In 2005, my father and I went on a trip to New Delhi to visit my uncle - my mother’s older brother. My mom and my uncle were very close in their youth - both academics, both activists heavily involved in the growing culture of intellectual thought and rejection of the relics of British imperialism in India in the 1970s (a period during which my father likes to say “Political India” was born). Mom moving to the States with my dad and her subsequent multi-year battle with cancer naturally caused a bit of distance to grow between the siblings, but my uncle always had a soft spot for her and was absolutely shattered when she passed away.


So ok, it’s 2005. I’m 20 years old. My mother has been gone for eight years, and I haven’t seen my uncle since I was a toddler. My uncle and aunt came to meet us at the hotel where my dad and I were staying, and when my uncle saw me for the first time in so many years, the shock on his face was impossible to hide.


“My goodness,” he said, and then was unable to speak for nearly a minute. In the silence, I wondered if I had done something wrong, offended him somehow. Or if I had smudged my mascara, or had something in my teeth.


“You look just like your prototype,” he finally said.


According to my dad, who was Suhash Uncle’s best friend back in the day, this was a quintessential Suhash thing to say - an eccentric turn of phrase, trying to inject some quirky humor into a heavy moment. But there was a sadness in his voice too. He was looking at me, and all he could see was how much I resembled my mother. His little sister died far too young. He didn’t speak much during lunch (which, according to my dad, was not normal behavior for my uncle). Over the next few days we spent together he got more and more chatty with me, but that first encounter had clearly rattled him a great deal.


*



There was a moment during the pilot episode of Apple TV’s newest comedy series Shrinking, starring Jason Segel, Jessica Williams, Christa Miller, and Harrison Ford (in his television debut) when the show really got its hooks into me. Segel plays Jimmy Laird, a psychotherapist who is dealing - poorly - with the death of his wife Tia in a car crash a year prior. When we first meet Jimmy, he’s so off the rails with grief that he’s partying all the time, phoning in his work at the therapy practice where he works with Gaby (Williams) and Paul (Ford), and completely unable to parent - or even communicate with - his teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), who is also obviously grieving her mother. During a tense conversation between father and daughter, where Jimmy is ineloquently trying to explain why he finds it hard to be around Alice these days, he stumbles over his words a bit and then finally says, “You just look so much like your mother.”


It reminded me of Suhash Uncle’s prototype comment. And that was when I realized that this show really understood the complexity of grief. How you can love someone profoundly, and struggle to be around them because they remind you of someone you lost.



Shrinking was created by Bill Lawrence, Brett Goldstein, and Segal. Lawrence has a sizable pedigree when it comes to television - he is the creator/co-creator of Scrubs, Spin City, Cougar Town, and Ted Lasso. Goldstein is famously part of the Ted Lasso team - in addition to playing fan-favorite character Roy Kent (“he’s here, he’s there, he’s every fucking where!”) Lawrence and Jason Sudeikis hired him as a part of the writing team. Segal - well. Everyone knows Segal from his role as Marshall on How I Met Your Mother (not to mention his many film roles), but in my heart, he will always be Nick Andopolis from the wonderful and tragically short-lived Freaks and Geeks.



Segal is known for playing kind-hearted, gentle-natured characters. His fundamental goodness is impossible to mask, which is how he keeps his portrayal of Jimmy Laird on Shrinking likable and somehow relatable, even when he is drunk or high to numb his grief, half-assing his work with his patients, and neglecting his daughter, or even as he begins to recover but still retains some fundamental selfishness that we learn pre-dated his wife’s death. This first season of Shrinking shows how Jimmy, in trying to overcome his grief, begins to breach ethical barriers with his patients by telling them bluntly what he really thinks they should do with their lives instead of gently guiding them over time. You know, like a normal therapist would. This form of “therapeutic vigilantism” ends up concerning his colleagues Gaby and Paul (Paul especially, who owns the practice and is Jimmy’s longtime mentor), but in a roundabout way, his unprofessional behavior ends up having positive effects on his patients and even helps him learn how to begin to process his grief in a healthier way.



It’s interesting to me to see descriptions of Shrinking in the media just focusing on Jimmy’s unethical practices as a therapist, because throughout the first season, much like Lawrence’s other television shows, Shrinking is a bit of a hang-out show - a story about a bunch of disparate characters who spend all their time together and effectively have formed a chosen family. Christa Miller does a wonderful job as Jimmy’s neighbor Liz, an empty nester who steps in to basically parent Alice during Jimmy’s Lost Weekend of grief and then slowly realizes that she has to relinquish control of Alice back to Jimmy as he begins to heal and be a good dad again and is then forced to reckon with how to define herself now that her own kids are grown and Alice doesn’t need her as much. (Special bonus: Ted McGinley, National Treasure, is hysterical as Derek, Liz's wife.) Jessica Williams is fantastic as Gaby (honestly, she is the MVP of this show), Jimmy’s colleague who is also grieving Tia (who was her best friend) while also grieving her recent divorce (her marriage fell apart in the wake of her husband Nico’s struggles with addiction). Harrison Ford seems to be having the time of his life playing the ornery Paul, who is worried about Jimmy, gives Alice informal grief therapy sessions, struggles with his difficult relationship with his grown daughter Meg (Lily Rabe), and contemplates his mortality after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Michael Urie gives a memorable turn as Brian, Jimmy’s best friend, who was deeply hurt when Jimmy essentially ghosted him for a year after Tia’s death, and Luke Tennie does some fine work as one of Jimmy’s patients Sean, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is struggling with anger management issues. (Jimmy ends up allowing Sean to live in his guest house after Sean is thrown out of his own home by his father - see above re: ethical breaches in therapy practice.)



You may be wondering, after all that I’ve written, how Shrinking can be billed in any way as a comedy given how much of the subject matter concerns grief and people’s complicated relationships with it. The answer to that is simple: much like Ted Lasso - a show ostensibly about a clueless American attempting to coach an English soccer team that’s actually about a bunch of misfits and underdogs who carry extensive baggage related to their misfit and underdog status and find community and family together in that shared experience - Shrinking is a lovely show about fundamentally nice but flawed people who care about each other, and a lot of the humor is found in the way these characters play off of each other in the mold of the Bill Lawrence “hang-out/chosen family” show. It is delightful to see the various permutations of characters interacting with each other, becoming close friends, helping each other, and generally having fun together.


But the real foundation of the show is grief, and man, does this show understand grief. Late in the season, as Jimmy and Alice’s relationship begins to improve and Jimmy finds ways to process his feelings about Tia’s death in a more constructive manner, Alice falls apart after a happy memory she has of Tia when she realizes that she cannot remember what her mother’s laugh sounds like.



I know that feeling well. At some point in the last 25 years, I’ve lost the sound of my mother’s voice. People tell me that I have her laugh, and at least that’s something. But while I have vivid memories of conversations I had with her, I can no longer hear her voice. And the moment I realized that, sometime in college, it felt like she had died all over again.


That’s the thing about grief - as time marches on, it doesn’t go away. You find a way to live with it. And every once in a while, just when you feel like you’ve gotten to a point where thinking about the one you lost doesn’t feel sad anymore, something small can sink you back into the sadness - a song on the radio, a realization you’ve forgotten what they sounded like, a television show about people grieving the death of a loved out. I think of it like a houseguest. It comes to visit periodically, and I have to deal with it, entertain it, not ignore it, co-exist with it, and just let it be there for a while. And then it will leave, but I know it will always return.



There is a quote by psychologist Ted Rynearson that I think about often: “There are really only two stages of grief… who you were before, and who you are after.” I was 12 when my mother died. Now I am 38. For the last ten years or so, I could no longer remember who I was before. But Shrinking does a wonderful job of showing who these characters were before Tia’s death by showing who they have become in the aftermath, and it’s been helpful to me personally in that regard, in seeing how to find the threads of that very old self of mine by looking at how I exist in the world now. By the end of Season 1, Jimmy is able to look at Alice and say “You look so much like your mother,” and instead of it making him want to avoid her, it makes him happy to be around her, because it means he can always find Tia in his daughter, and that makes the loss feel less raw. And for Alice, it helps her find a way to connect with her father so they can remember her together and find comfort in that.


Suhash Uncle passed away in 2008, due to complications from lymphoma. While I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with him during our trip to New Delhi three years prior, I am sad that I never got to develop a relationship with him that could have been more about how we remember my mother - my prototype - together instead of being constantly reminded of her loss.



*


The season finale of Shrinking does end on a very shocking note, with one of Jimmy’s patients acting on his ethically questionable advice with potentially devastating consequences. I won’t elaborate here because I don’t want to spoil the show for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but given that Shrinking evolved into more of a hang-out show than a show about Jimmy’s therapeutic vigilantism (despite how it was originally presented conceptually to critics and viewers by the folks at Apple TV), I look forward to seeing the intersection of Jimmy’s personal mental health improving and the consequences of his unprofessional actions while he was still in the thick of crisis.


I’m not saying that Shrinking needs a course correction - as a first season of television it was pretty damn near perfect in terms of getting me invested in all of the characters and their stories - but the chickens were gonna come home to roost for Jimmy at some point, just as Paul feared, and it remains to be seen whether this will end up adversely affect his healing process and the tenuous repairing of his relationship with Alice, not to mention his professional life and his relationships with Gaby and Paul. No matter what goes down, I’m here for it.





 

Reeya Banerjee

Staff Writer

Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.


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