The controversial streaming series “Shrinking,” a sitcom about grief and therapy, seems to elicit strong reactions from viewers: the lay public, critics and real-life therapists alike. People love it or hate it – or love and hate it at the same time.
That’s mostly because the show’s main character Jimmy is a hot mess. He’s played by reigning gangly, goofy, melancholy good guy Jason Segel, who is up for an Emmy for the role as a recently widowed therapist in the show he co-created. Jimmy’s gone rogue in his personal and professional life. Consumed by despair after the sudden death of his wife, Jimmy doesn’t blur the ethical boundaries of therapy, he smashes them to smithereens.
Where to begin? Jimmy’s actively using illicit substances in an attempt to escape from his own anguish, he directly intervenes in his patients’ lives without prior consent (showing up at a client’s home unannounced, for instance) and he moves one client into his pool house. (Note to self: how many therapists have pool houses? Pretend ones in Los Angeles, apparently.)
He stalks a client on dates, drives another to therapy appointments and goes for coffee with a third. He also overshares with clients about his own problems. Under the auspices of exposure therapy, he takes a patient with PTSD who has anger management issues to a boxing gym. It does not end well. Outside therapy, he sleeps with a colleague, who happens to be his late wife’s best friend and godmother to his teenage daughter. And he’s doing a terrible job comforting his only child in her own time of misery and loss.
Mind you, his fellow practitioners are also shockers: Both know their co-worker is unraveling and don’t do anything – such as suggest he seek crisis counseling, recommend a leave of absence or report his unethical behavior to licensing boards – to remedy the situation. That may be because they’re too preoccupied by their own issues. The senior member of the psychotherapy practice and Jimmy’s mentor, Paul (the taciturn Harrison Ford), is dealing with a Parkinson’s diagnosis (and dating his doctor!), while trying to repair his estranged relationship with his adult daughter and holding secret therapy sessions via rendezvous on a park bench with Jimmy’s daughter. Meanwhile, Gaby (the wise-cracking Jessica Williams, who also received an Emmy nod), is consumed with her own sorrow around her recent divorce.
Did we mention this is a sitcom? Get through the over-the-top opening to the first episode (yes, a single dad doing drugs and cavorting with sex workers at crazy hours on a school night strains believability and likeability). Then perhaps stay for the Harrison Ford zingers and circle back for season two, when Jimmy’s unorthodox, psychological vigilante methods will surely come under scrutiny. (No spoilers here.)
Despite the dramatic and comedic license that permeates the performances, the 10 episodes in season one do drive home – albeit in farcical fashion – that therapists are humans too with their own flaws, set of mental health concerns and psychological struggles related to death, disease, divorce, PTSD, family dysfunction, loneliness and other life challenges. Just like the rest of us, therapists are complicated, have emotional problems, act out, and don’t always learn from their previous mistakes or unhealthy patterns. In other words, shrinks can be messy, too.
“Problematic and ridiculous”
For some, the show defies credibility and is an offense to the therapeutic community. “I find nothing amusing about it,” says clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg, who flags the lack of professional boundaries and inappropriate behavior with patients, as well as the fact that while Jimmy purportedly works at a cognitive behavioral therapy center, there is no cognitive therapy going on.
“The therapy serves his needs, not his patients. We are bound by a code of ethics and we take this extremely seriously. People who are new to therapy may not be aware of professional ethics, and this show may affect their expectations,” says Greenberg, who practices in Fairfield County, Connecticut and is an advisor to MindSite News. “In therapy, we guide our patients. We do not demand that they change their behavior. There are many people who are reluctant to enter therapy. Watching this show certainly does not make anyone more likely to go. I find this series problematic and ridiculous.”
She has company. “The ethical guidelines that undergird the practice of psychotherapy serve a crucial function: to protect the client, therapist and the therapy process from harm,” wrote Columbus, Ohio clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer in Psychology Today. “Violating these ethical guidelines – the provisions against dual relationships, boundary violations and using clients for the therapist’s own gratification – does not render Jimmy morally flawed, but rather morally corrupt.”
And don’t be swayed by Jimmy’s so-called bold ideas, he says: they are simply bad practice. Shpancer notes that people who come to therapy often do it in part because the methods that Jimmy employs – self-serving, judgmental truth-telling as well as boundary violations, enmeshed interactions, sticky codependence and patronizing, invasive advice-giving – have already been foisted upon them by people in their lives, to no benefit at all. “Thus, as Jimmy should have known, dropping angry truth bombs on his clients does not make him a vigilante or an innovator,” wrote Shpancer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Ohio. “Rather, it renders him just another judgmental ass of the kind his clients have had to encounter way too many times before.”
When truth-telling is self-serving
For some in the field, “Shrinking” does offer potentially plausible therapy-related plot lines and treatment approaches. But because this is a sitcom, they are mined for drama and laughs and often pushed to extreme ends. For instance, it seems feasible that therapists could get frustrated with clients who never appear to make any progress or change. A kind of compassion fatigue for fellow humans feels like it might be an industry hazard. But yelling at a vulnerable female patient to leave her abusive husband or you’ll dump her as a client? Well, that’s a bridge too far anywhere but in fantasyland.
That’s where the professional love-hate relationship with the show comes into play. There are elements of what Jimmy does that could have merit – including in-home therapy – but the character uses these strategies without the requisite planning, care and consent that would be necessary for success in real life, notes Minneapolis clinical psychologist Terri Bly on her podcast “When Therapists Watch TV”.
Bly, who stepped away from her own therapy practice for a year after the death of her former husband (and father of her children), appreciates the show’s focus on the grief process, even if she has concerns about the methods the therapist uses to address them. They are potentially good interventions, but they’re not being employed in a thoughtful, responsible way, she explains. Such methods are “depicted properly enough to be dangerous,” she offers on another podcast, “Therapist Thrival Guide,” where professionals analyzed the series. Bly also points out that when there is a relationship attachment rupture – whether through abandonment, divorce or death – people often do go off the rails as they try to find ways to cope and move forward following trauma.
If the Apple TV+ series gives off “Ted Lasso” vibes, it’s because the co-creators of “Shrinking” include Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein, of “Ted Lasso” fame. One similarity between both shows: The characters present as mostly decent, kind and compassionate people just trying to get through life’s ups and downs. But on “Shrinking,” it’s also true the therapists – especially Jimmy – are stuck and self-absorbed and make a bunch of bad choices and decisions along the way.
The series echoes the current box-ticking of casting, which includes the-Black-female-therapist -ministering-to-white protagonists, see MindSite’s “Ted Lasso” profile for more on that trope and this recent New Yorker discussion on the subject. There are forced white creator/writer put-downs in the name of wokeness. For example, pickleball as a punch line for “dumb things white people do” falls kind of flat. That said, the 30-minute episodes cover a lot of mental health ground: tragedy, transitions, relationships, aging, teen angst, retirement, end of life, abandonment, rejection, anxiety, depression and OCD.
And it gets some things right. The “Therapist Thrival Guide” discusses a scene in which a Black female client tells Gaby, who is also Black: “this is why you worth the 90-minute drive…. It’s worth it coming to see a Black therapist.” It speaks to the importance of representation in the therapeutic world, explained real-life therapists, so that both client and professional can show up in an authentic way and integrate cultural shorthand without the need to temper, translate, explain or educate.
The therapeutic benefits of “Shrinking” may only work for viewers if they suspend disbelief and warm to the imperfect, wounded souls on the screen. Healing professions do make for intriguing characters; there’s a reason why they are here, there and everywhere on the screen. Indeed, writer/co-creator Goldstein has pointed out that the uniqueness of the client-therapist relationship makes it inherently dramatic, “juicy,” and interesting – there’s trust, connection, vulnerability and the sharing of one’s darkest secrets, as well as shame, regrets, guilt and pain to play with for dramatic effect and comedic relief.
Love it or loathe it, “Shrinking”does honor the fact that everyone’s mourning process is unique. And if you listen closely, there are moments of real insight amid the absurd theatrics. “Are you going to let your grief drown you,” says therapist Paul to Alice, Jimmy’s daughter, “or are you going to face it and come through the other side? Nobody gets through this life unscathed.”
Still, the takeaways are standard sitcom fare: relationships are tricky. It takes a community to move through grief and loss. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine. That said, the show deserves a disclaimer: If a viewer encounters a therapist like Jimmy who boasts about being a “psychological vigilante,” end the session immediately and exit the building – fast.
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