Shrinking Premieres with a “Coin Flip” (S1E1)

Jimmy and Sean sitting side by side outdoors
(Apple TV+/Screenshot)

The following contains spoilers for Shrinking S1E1, “Coin Flip” (written by Jason Segel & Brett Goldstein & Bill Lawrence and directed by James Ponsoldt)

Here’s the premise of Shrinking, as encapsulated in the promotional blurb you can find on IMDb and elsewhere:

A grieving therapist starts to tell his clients exactly what he thinks. Ignoring his training and ethics, he finds himself making huge changes to people’s lives—including his own.

That sounds awful, honestly, and I probably would have avoided the show if it weren’t for the involvement of Jason Segel. Dispatches from Elsewhere was wonderful and landed in a poignant place, stemming from Segel’s own life experiences. Brett Goldstein and Bill Lawrence, from Ted Lasso amongst other things, are also behind the helm here as co-creators with Segel, and Harrison Ford is in the series.

Paul looks down at his phone
(Apple TV+/Screenshot)

In short, the reason I decided to check out Shrinking has everything to do with the people involved in making it and nothing to do with the promotional blurb. If anything I fear that will keep people away, who worry that they’re going to get something like The Real World in a psychiatrist’s office, and are offended by the suggestion that everything would be better if we just threw pesky things like ethics and training out the window.

It’s really a horrible blurb, but I feel for whoever wrote it because I can’t say I know how to sum up what Shrinking is any better. It is factually correct that the show is about a grieving therapist who starts telling his clients what he really thinks and so on, but it’s to Shrinking’s credit that if this makes huge changes to people’s lives, they aren’t all positive (at least by the end of S1E1).

Grace sits on the couch in Jimmy's office
(Apple TV+/Screenshot)

Indeed, Episode 1 ends by showing just how the decision Jimmy (Jason Segel) made to eschew his training can have calamitous results, as his insistence to Grace (Heidi Gardner) that she leave her husband leads to Sean (Luke Tennie) beating said husband within an inch of his life after he confronts Jimmy about it. And of course Sean was only there because of how Jimmy had gone off-book in trying to help him.

Things are messy!

Jimmy looks downward, sitting by the pool at night
(Apple TV+/Screenshot)

And yet, the idea that Jimmy is finding the right path by the end of Episode 1 lands because of the emotional honesty that runs through the hour. It’s not about the consequences of what he’s doing, or whether he’s making people happy, but a question of living in the truth.

This is the heart of what Shrinking sets out to explore, and it is clear that ultimately it’s Jimmy’s journey at its center. This series doesn’t aim to level a critique of the state of contemporary mental health practices so much as it’s a story about a guy who happens to be a therapist, and the story uses that as an opening to think about what constitutes a good life.

While it’s not clear that the good life is one determined by a rigid code of conduct, professional ethics and training exist for a reason. There’s a real risk that a therapist could make someone’s condition worse. Thus, Paul (Harrison Ford) is not wrong when he chastises Jimmy, and that’s important.

Sean sits in Jimmy's office
(Apple TV+/Screenshot)

But at the same time, ethics in the context of psychology is particularly fraught, since in the broad sense ethics interrogates what it means to live a good life and the goal of therapy is arguably to help you live a good (or better) life. Values are always implicated, in other words, though at the same time any psychologist worth their salt has to be cautious about claiming to know what the good is in an objective way. There’s just no objective and indisputable answer to the question.

So it makes sense for the profession to err on the side of that caution, to offer a practice that might help people but with guardrails to avoid harming them. The question is whether “first, do no harm” is really viable when it comes to helping people figure their lives out, or if it is perhaps too constraining.

Shrinking suggests that perhaps to truly help people, you have to get your hands dirty, but that also opens the possibility that you’ll really mess things up, and the show does well to recognize this. We’re not getting a generalizable critique of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in other words, or anything along those lines, so much as Jimmy’s role as a therapist presents an opening to an interrogation of the human condition.

Alice in her soccer jersey
(Apple TV+/Screenshot)

Episode 1 introduces us to a number of relationships Shrinking seems sure to explore moving forward, but the most central in terms of plot stakes is likely that between Jimmy and his daughter, Alice (Lukita Maxwell). Jimmy checked out on her after his wife died, which is as understandable as it is not an excuse.

Alice is absolutely right that it happened to both of them. She lost her mother and he compounded it by making her sort of lose her father too. Of course, simply showing up at her soccer game doesn’t make everything better, but it’s a start. And the last line of the episode, when Jimmy tells Alice that he would have come sooner but she looks so much like her mom, sounds harsh in the abstract, but in context brings home how he has decided to embrace a kind of radical genuineness.

Whether that works isn’t really the point. Indeed, the ways in which it doesn’t work, if by “work” we mean something like have positive life consequences, is bound to be the source of the drama of this series. Jimmy’s gambit, and the guiding question of Shrinking, is precisely about the value of such authenticity beyond instrumental reason.

It’s almost a shame that Apple TV+ decided to premiere Shrinking with two episodes, because while we can enjoy being able to move right into Episode 2, S1E1 is really an exemplary pilot. It sets the stakes, brings us into the world of the series, makes us care about the characters, and invests us in what’s to come. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to sit with it for a week.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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