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A therapist stumbles on a whole new way to treat patients in 'Shrinking'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A new comedy series streaming on Apple TV+ called "Shrinking" stars Jason Segel from "How I Met Your Mother" as a therapist trying to deal with people's problems and issues, including his own. The first two episodes premiered Friday with new episodes shown weekly. The co-stars of "Shrinking" include Harrison Ford, who recently began starring on his first series for television, the Western period drama "1923" on Paramount+. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The newest Apple TV+ comedy series, "Shrinking," has a lot in common with "Ted Lasso," another series from that same streaming service. Two creators of "Shrinking" came from there. Bill Lawrence, who also created "Scrubs," was a "Ted Lasso" writer and producer. So was Brett Goldstein, who also co-starred in "Ted Lasso" and stole the show playing aging, grumpy soccer player Roy Kent. The third creator of "Shrinking" and its central star is Jason Segel of "How I Met Your Mother." He plays Jimmy, a therapist who's been in a tailspin since his wife died. He's been neglecting his teen daughter Alice, played by Lukita Maxwell, and basically relying on his next-door neighbor Liz, played by Christa Miller, to raise her. Basically, he's just going through the motions and even yawns while listening to his therapy patients until one day, he snaps and decides to say what he really thinks and to give some very direct advice. The patient, Grace, is played by Heidi Gardner from "Saturday Night Live," and she's understandably confused.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRINKING")

HEIDI GARDNER: (As Grace) He loves me.

JASON SEGEL: (As Jimmy) Enough. Grace, we've been doing this for two years - two years of your life. I have never seen a guy tell a woman that she is dumb and lucky she has great t*** and thought to myself, wow, they must really be in love. And you keep telling me how great he is. Well, I saw him. He's not that great. His muscles are too big. His shirts are too tight. Nobody likes that. It's gross. And what's the word? What's that word? What's the word?

GARDNER: (As Grace) I don't know what word you're talking about.

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) Fugly. He's fugly. He's a fugly, fugly man. Fugly inside and out.

GARDNER: (As Grace) I am sorry. I don't know what's happening 'cause I was talking, and...

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) Grace, your husband is emotionally abusive. He's not working on it. He doesn't intend to. He's made you think it's all you deserve. It's not. Just leave him.

GARDNER: (As Grace) It's not that easy.

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) It is that easy. You don't have any kids. Just go to your sister's in Vancouver.

BIANCULLI: Instead of feeling that he's hit a new low, Jimmy suspects he might have stumbled on a whole new way to treat patients. He runs it by his two colleagues at the therapy center who have polar opposite reactions. Paul, his friend and mentor played by Harrison Ford, is all deadpan disapproval. But Gabby, played by the much younger Jessica Williams, sees some potential.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRINKING")

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) Hey.

HARRISON FORD: (As Paul) Hey, kid. How are you doing?

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) I'm normal. Yeah, no. It's a normal day - normal day. Doing it. Doing it normal style. Hey, you know what I was thinking, Paul?

JESSICA WILLIAMS: (As Gabby) Is it about how you're just doing it normal style?

FORD: (As Paul) What? What are you thinking?

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) You guys ever get so mad at your patients that all of a sudden you just want to, like, shake them?

FORD: (As Paul) Well, we don't shake them.

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) No, I know. I know, I - I'm rooting for them. I am. I'm like, come on, you f***** up person, you can change. And then they just never do.

FORD: (As Paul) Compassion fatigue. We all hit those walls.

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) Yeah.

FORD: (As Paul) You ask questions. You listen. You stay nonjudgmental. And you don't make that face.

SEGEL: (As Jimmy) Sorry. It's just - look; we know what they should do. You know why? Because it's pretty simple. I get sad when I do this thing. Maybe don't do that f****** thing. We know the answer. Don't you ever want to just make them do it?

FORD: (As Paul) Great idea. We just rob them of their autonomy, any chance they have to help themselves, right? And we become - what? - psychological vigilantes.

WILLIAMS: (As Gabby, laughter) Oh, my God. I'm, like, sensing the sarcasm, but that sounds kind of badass.

BIANCULLI: The setup seems to suggest a light look at an alternative therapy approach, with patients providing easy, reliable laughs the way they did on "The Bob Newhart Show". But "Shrinking" has more on its mind and wants to treat its characters and their interactions more seriously. Jason Segel's Jimmy has some significant father-daughter issues to confront, and so does Harrison Ford's Paul. His daughter, played by Lily Rabe, doesn't know her dad has been diagnosed with Parkinson's, and he doesn't want to tell her. One of Jimmy's patients, played by Luke Tennie, is an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. And the patients, like each of the therapists, goes through ups and downs in times when they're being less than honest, even with themselves.

There's a lot of savvy sitcom experience on display here, and all the actors are used well. Michael Urie from "Ugly Betty," Ted McGinley from "Happy Days" and "Married with Children," Christa Miller from "Scrubs," Wendie Malick from "Just Shoot Me!" - they all create characters who seem real enough that you begin not only rooting for them, but caring about them. And Harrison Ford, with his quiet weariness and his startling unpredictability, gives the best performance of all. In one later episode, his reaction to a preening peacock made me laugh louder and more unexpectedly than I have in years.

I've seen nine of the ten episodes of "Shrinking" from this season, and they kept surprising me. Characters didn't always act how I expected them to. And though most of the scenes were funny, some of them snuck up on me and made me suddenly sad or emotional. "Ted Lasso" did that to me, too. The characters in "Shrinking" will grow on you while they're growing themselves. Jimmy's approach to therapy may not be for everyone, but "Shrinking", as a piece of TV entertainment, I can prescribe without reservation.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new comedy series "Shrinking," starring Jason Segel and Harrison Ford. It's streaming on Apple TV+.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how cellphones and electric vehicles are powered by workers in slave-like conditions mining for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is an essential component of the rechargeable batteries used in devices and EVs. Our guest will be Siddharth Kara, who has researched modern-day slavery and human trafficking for over 20 years. His new book is called "Cobalt Red". I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.