Open Book

A Comedy about Breaking the Rules of Therapy

'Shrinking' is Sweet and Unrealistic—and That's Okay

Magazine Issue
March/April 2024

What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

These words were famously spoken by Eleanor Roosevelt, but they could’ve also been a mantra for the fictional freewheeling therapist Jimmy Laird in the Emmy-nominated TV comedy Shrinking, whose second season is tentatively scheduled for release later this year on Apple TV+.

In the first season, we meet Jimmy in the throes of grief. His wife, Tia, has recently died in a car crash, and Jimmy, as one might expect, is hurting. He self-medicates with alcohol and painkillers, invites female escorts over for nighttime swims in his backyard pool, and neglects his teenage daughter, Alice, who’s grieving too. In an early scene, he’s so consumed by sorrow that he absent-mindedly rides his bike into a car door. He’s sad, burned-out, and adrift.

“I have to ask,” says Jimmy’s concerned neighbor. “Is this you forever?”

“I don’t know,” Jimmy replies flatly.

Jimmy is expertly played by Jason Segel, best known for his roles in the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother and a handful of early 2000s comedy movies, including Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Here, as in many of these precursors, Segel excels in playing the sad clown, a mopey, loveable goofball viewers can’t help but root for, even in his most self-destructive moments.

In Shrinking, Jimmy’s sadness begins to bleed into his job at the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center, where he works in a group private practice. Short on energy and empathy, he rolls his eyes, accidentally yawns, and mentally checks out whenever his clients articulate their stuckness or unwillingness to change, which occurs frequently. I suspect many therapists watching will relate to Jimmy’s frustrations with his clients’ inertia, and to trying—and sometimes failing—to keep personal struggles from interfering with your work.

Soon enough, however, Jimmy becomes so fed up with his clients’ stagnation that he decides to abandon all therapeutic protocol. He cuts to the chase, giving honest opinions and straightforward advice. When his longtime client Grace, played by Saturday Night Live’s Heidi Gardner, once again starts making excuses for her verbally abusive husband, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Jimmy loses it.

“Your husband is emotionally abusive,” he says, voice loud and quivering. “He’s not working on it, and he doesn’t intend to.” He clasps his hands together, pleading. “Just leave him.” Then comes an ultimatum: “Leave him or I’m done being your therapist.”

“Okay,” she replies.

Jimmy has just indulged every therapist’s secret fantasy: saying what you really think. It’s a religious experience of sorts, and Jimmy, a new convert of telling it like it is, is off to the races. “I’m a psychological vigilante!” he later declares.

His interventions become unconventional. Just two sessions into working with Sean, a young veteran with a history of angry, violent outbursts related to his wartime trauma, Jimmy decides the best outlet for that anger is taking Sean to a nearby mixed martial arts gym—a questionable, sophomoric stunt that most therapists would dismiss outright.

“Do you trust me, Sean?” Jimmy asks.

“No,” Sean replies.

“Doesn’t matter. Let’s go find you someone to beat up!”

Flash forward a few minutes, and Jimmy and Sean are sitting on a curb outside the gym while Sean ices his bruised face with a cold slushie. The “therapy session” continues, and before long, Jimmy’s telling Sean about his wife’s death and the regrets he carries. It’s self-disclosure on overdrive, and will make even the most vulnerable therapists cringe with ethical concerns.

“You supposed to tell me this shit?” Sean asks.

Jimmy smiles. “Probably not,” he replies.

Against the odds, Jimmy’s rule-breaking begins to pay off. Grace separates from her abusive husband and reports back that she’s discovered a newfound freedom. Sean slowly starts opening up about his wartime trauma and begins to repair his fractured relationship with his father. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s mood improves, as does his relationship back home with Alice.

But Jimmy’s boundary crossings continue to pile up. Spoiler alert: he soon allows Sean to move into his guesthouse after a run-in with the law, and Sean develops a close, flirtatious relationship with Alice. It’s not long before Jimmy strikes up a secret sexual relationship with his sassy coworker, Gabby (played by Daily Show alum Jessica Williams), adding another wrinkle to Jimmy’s already messy life.

But all of this occurs largely without consequence. Jimmy’s gruff but caring supervisor, Paul, masterfully played by Harrison Ford—a well-known and loveable grump offscreen—gives him little more than a slap on the wrist, leaving Jimmy to his disinhibitions. Any conflict that befalls him—whether in his personal or work life (and Jimmy is an expert at blending the two)—is usually quickly and soundly resolved.

As a viewer, I found these micro-conflicts frustrating. Granted, Shrinking is first and foremost a comedy, not a drama, but it does contain dramatic elements, and for me, the hallmark of good dramatic writing is trusting that your audience can sit with anxiety and discomfort for longer than a few minutes. The show’s writers never really give viewers that chance, probably because this tack is a tried-and-true formula for sitcom success. Producer Bill Lawrence happens to be the creator of the series Scrubs and co-creator of the hit Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso. The blend of conflict-lite, goofy humor, hard subjects, and a cast of colorful characters that made both shows such big hits is on display here, too. Does it work? Yes. Is it saccharine and a little tiring? Also yes.

This isn’t to say Shrinking doesn’t have depth or explore its characters’ thinking and behaviors. It shines a light on grief and the vital role of a strong support system in navigating it. It’s also a decent, albeit fictional, case study of the wounded healer, and showcases well the power of a good mentor.

“Who knows how you grieve?” Paul says to Jimmy during something resembling supervision. “You haven’t even begun.”

“What are you talking about?” Jimmy responds. “I’ve been grieving for a fucking year.”

“No, you’ve been numbing: drugs, booze, women.”

“I told you that I stopped all that.”

“Yeah, but you’ve replaced it by being overly involved in your patients’ lives.”

I imagine therapists watching Shrinking will be split. It’s hard to believe any clinician in their right mind would ever attempt to rewrite the therapy playbook the way Jimmy has—at least not without suffering some kind of fallout. Last January, a review in Time magazine described Jimmy as “a casual perpetrator of gross therapeutic malpractice.”

But enjoying Shrinking demands that you suspend disbelief. Everything in the show feels polished and perfect, all the way down to Sean’s fast-healing black eye. Supervisor Paul is the perfect blend of fatherly wisdom and hard-ass tough love. (Who wouldn’t want Harrison Ford as a mentor?) Setting aside her sexual relationship with Jimmy, coworker Gabby is funny, supportive, and just the right amount of pushy. They’re great colleagues and reliable copilots as Jimmy haphazardly navigates the grief journey.

Jimmy may have suffered a tragedy, but he’s built like Teflon. At one point, he parks his shiny, baby blue Ford convertible truck on a downtown sidewalk.

“You’re just gonna leave your car here?” Sean asks.

“I’m a white guy in Pasadena,” Jimmy replies. “The cops will probably just take it back to the house for me.”

Jimmy, I think to myself, you’re insufferable. I hope you get a reality check in Season Two.

But maybe I’m too much of a critic. My wife, who happens to be a clinical psychologist at a VA hospital, absolutely loves the show. She’s watched it several times now, and ranks it in her Top 10 Favorite Shows of All Time. She’s also shared it with a handful of therapist friends. They love it too.

My wife tells me she enjoys Shrinking for the same reason she enjoys junky reality TV: it’s a low-impact watch. There’s nothing wrong with that. The show is funny, fluffy, and sweet. It’s always 72 degrees and sunny in Jimmy’s world. The friends are quality, and always there. It’s comforting, like a fairy tale for grown-ups.

Whether you’re a therapist or not, Shrinking is a respite from the grind. And for therapists, it’s both an echo of their work and an escape from the parts that are wrenching and complicated. Therapists watching can live vicariously through Jimmy as he brings his big, wacky ideas to life. It allows them to dream a little, too, to imagine what their work might look like if they threw caution to the wind—to wonder, What would I do if I knew I could not fail?

Chris Lyford

Chris Lyford is the Senior Editor at Psychotherapy Networker. Previously, he was Assistant Director and Editor of the The Atlantic Post, where he wrote and edited news pieces on the Middle East and Africa. He also formerly worked at The Washington Post, where he wrote local feature pieces for the Metro, Sports, and Style sections. Contact: