Bill Lawrence Puts Together A Brilliant Comic Cast To Deal With Another Very Grim Subject
For most of my adult life watching television, I have been in awe of the work of Bill Lawrence, until fairly recently one of the most underappreciated showrunners in the history of TV comedy.
I didn’t know until well after the fact that he was one of the critical forces behind Spin City, the 1990s comedy about New York City staffers trying to stop the Mayor from constantly making a fool of himself. For a series filled with one of the best casts of performers, not just Michael J. Fox, but such talent as Connie Britton, Alan Ruck and Barry Bostwick, it’s sad how rarely it realized its potential. It could be funny — sometimes very funny — but it was never a masterpiece. Lawrence was clearly finding his feet.
He found them in Scrubs, in my opinion the best network comedy of the 2000s, certainly the most undervalued by the Emmys. Despite the problems so many had with Zach Braff as JD at the time, and despite the way it has fallen under scrutiny today for reasons I will never follow, it was one of the most searingly dark comedies of the 2000s and perhaps as close to MASH as my generation will ever get. Led by some of the most brilliant talents of the decade, including an incredible performance by John C. McGinley as the troubled Dr. Cox, at its peak it was one of the funniest series of all time as well as one of the most tragic: you laughed so much as you did not cry.
Lawrence followed it up with Cougar Town, perhaps the most entertaining series with one of the worst possible names. (Lawrence himself spent much of the run mocking it.) This series was all about the woman, featuring Courtney Cox breaking the Friends curse and a star making performance by Busy Phipps. Somehow it also got no recognition from the Emmys for either of them.
There followed a series of interesting short-lived series: Ground Floor on TBS, an up-elevator down-elevator comedy series that played closer to traditional sitcom but was still hysterical. There was the intriguingly gone too soon CW show Life Sentence which featured the brilliant Lucy Hale as a victim of terminal cancer, who learns she’s actually going to live — and finds just how messy life is once you survive. And then of course, at exactly the right time, in 2020 we got Ted Lasso. I admit that while it was an overrated comedy series and received too many awards, it was nevertheless an incredible and delightful run for everybody involved and I loved every minute of it. I’m grateful for the run if only because Lawrence, like the title character, deserved the glory.
Now in the aftermath of Ted Lasso’s departure, Lawrence and Brett Goldstein, one of the more obvious breakout talents of Ted Lasso, have started work on their next collaboration with Apple TV. Unlike Ted Lasso, Shrinking has a cast of talented actors that have reputations big and small. It’s also closer in spirit to Scrubs than anything Lawrence has done in the past twenty years and certainly it’s the darkest thing he’s tries to do since then. And like Scrubs, Shrinking is hysterically, often desperately funny.
Shrinking is a show about Jimmy, a therapist who has spent the last year in mourning of the loss of his wife. By mourning, I mean he spends his nights getting drunk, barely engaging with his colleagues and basically abandoning the raising of his daughter to his next door neighbor, Liz. There is an old line: “physician, heal thyself”. Jimmy’s breakthrough seems to be not doing that and breaking every rule to try and help everybody but himself.
In the midst of a session Jimmy snaps at a traumatized patient (Heidi Gardener from SNL) and tells her to leave her husband because the relationship is emotionally abusive. In his next session with a court appointed patient Sean, who is dealing with trauma from Iraq and has been in multiple barfights, his reaction is to send him to training for MMA so maybe if he learns how to fight he channel his energy positively. For a moment in the pilot this seems to work — Sean avoids getting in a fight and the wife leaves her husband. Jimmy hopes that this can lead to making a connection with his daughter Alice by going to her soccer game. He makes the effort to get there and he has a brief moment where it all works — and then, his professional and personal lives collide disastrously for everybody.
Despite this Jimmy decides that he is not going to deviate from his plans. In the following episode he finally calls his best friend Brian (Michael Urie) who he has been ghosting for the past year. He only does so because Brian is an attorney and he needs his help. Then he ends up going to a therapy session for Alice where Liz is already there. Again it is clear that he is clueless and isolated, and again he takes his anger out on Liz, who really has been the only person there to fill in the gap. Of course, because he doesn’t like confrontations, he does so in front of his colleagues at his office Gaby and Paul, his mentor.
Gaby and Paul are, to say the least, alarmed at his approach to therapy. Both care immensely for Jimmy in different ways. Paul, in his seventies and suffering from Parkinson’s, is an old-school therapist but has been trying his hardest to help them both. He has, unaware to Jimmy, been having sessions with Alice in a way to try and help her, and its worth noting he’s doing a far better job than Jimmy’s clumsy efforts. Gaby is more caring to be sure, but she’s also got her own problems: she was closer to Jimmy’s wife and for reasons I don’t follow (I’ve only seen the first two episodes to this point) doesn’t like that she’s stepping up.
I have withheld the names of the actors even though they are likely known to you to explain why I find this show so rewarding. Jimmy is played by Jason Segel, that gangly, awkward comedic talent who has been striding (awkwardly) through comedy since Freaks and Geeks and spend nearly a decade as Marshall on How I Met Your Mother. Segel has never been afraid to humiliate himself for a laugh but in this case the humiliation is borne out of pain and grief more than anything else. Jimmy seems broken in a way I’ve never seen any of Segel’s characters before: he seems to be sleepwalking through life a year after his death, and its telling he thinks that by solving other people’s problems he can somehow fix his own. It’s sad that this man who has no problem telling completely strangers how messed up they are can’t be anywhere near as forthright or honest with the people he’s closest to. Segel clearly deserved the Emmy nomination he got this year, and while I doubt he’ll win this year, it’s going to happen eventually.
The rest of the cast also features some of the greatest comic talents of the last decade. Jessica Williams, who I’ve been in love with since she debuted on The Daily Show nearly a decade ago has been performing but rarely acting. Now as Gaby, the colleague who is the caregiver in this practice and probably the one holding together, she gets a role that is emotionally worthy of her as will brilliantly funny. Lawrence has always written well for female characters and Williams is yet another in a long line of exceptionally well developed characters — she’s an indirect descendant of Carla from Scrubs or Sarah Niles’ therapist from Ted Lasso. I was glad to see Williams get an Emmy nomination as well this year, though given the level of talent in this category now and for the foreseeable future, it will take a while for her to break through.
The show also features two of my favorite comic performers. Christa Miller, Mrs. Bill Lawrence, has been a force in his work ever she started stealing scenes on Scrubs as Jordan in her very first episode. Miller was a regular in Cougar Town and she plays Liz in this show. But unlike the previous two series where her characters were strong women to the point of bitchiness, there’s far more of a world-weariness in her work here. She clearly loves Alice but she’s exhausted by the fact that she has to keep picking up the slack. In an early confrontation with Gaby, where Gaby prods her to step back Liz calls her on her bullshit right away as well as the fact that she doesn’t like her. “We all have things to do!” she shouts exasperated at the end of this confrontation. But Liz is overcompensating too much and its clear despite the love of her husband (Ted McGinley steals every scene he’s in) that there’s a gulf here.
Michael Urie, who I remember from four incredible seasons of Ugly Betty, is Jimmy’s best friend who he spent the last year ghosting. Brian clearly wants to help Jimmy but he’s also annoyed with him, understandably given the reason for their dispute.
But of course the reason that so many will want to watch this series is to see Harrison Ford in what is his first recurring television role. Watching him as Paul I realized why the actor associated with two of the most successful franchises in the history of movies has never been appreciated as an actor. It’s simple. He makes it look effortless. It is easy — maybe too easy — to worship the actors who emote and struggle every second they’re on screen. Ford just makes it look uncomplicated. And we don’t appreciate those kind of actors: it’s why it took us so long to recognize the talent of Jeff Bridges and Ed Harris; why we can’t seem to fully appreciate Amy Adams or Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s certainly why we’ve never truly appreciated Ford.
Ford doesn’t steal the show because Harrison Ford has never chewed on scenery in half a century and he has no intention of starting now. He’s probably having the time of his life being a grumpy old man but we can’t tell that because he seems utterly miserable. So he just does what he always does: effortlessly entertain us by being gruff and unwilling to share with his colleagues and being exactly that kind of person in his private sessions with Liz.
So when he delivers a line, you laugh hysterically not because its Harrison Ford saying it but because its Paul saying it. When he tears down Jimmy by saying you’re neglecting the most important person in your life, and Jimmy says: “You.” “Your daughter,” he shouts.” And after Jimmy nods, he says in that same deadpan tone. “I come second.” He’s clearly a brilliant therapist because while he shares the same frustration with his patients (Liz is one; Jimmy clearly is though he doesn’t know) he will never think of telling them what to do. He’s eternally patient in a way his younger colleagues just aren’t and always frustrated in a way we can see. He is suffering from Parkinson’s, but its clear both Jimmy and Gaby are making a bigger deal of it then he is. It’s also clear that there has been some trauma with his family that he has no intention of sharing, no matter how much they press. (There’s a line he delivers when they ask him about his daughter that is so brilliantly done by Ford, I wouldn’t dream of giving it away.) Many expected Ford to get an Emmy nomination for his work in Season 1, but he did not. That said, it was a crowded category and the odds were unlikely. Next time, when so many of this year’s nominees are ineligible (including Brett Goldstein himself) he will likely be in the ranks and almost certainly get the competitive award he’s deserved all his life.
Despite my love of Lawrence and despite the early nominations for Shrinking (it got a fair amount of recognition from the HCA as well) it has taken me far too long to get around to watching it. Perhaps I was waiting for the end of year awards to start recognizing it; perhaps it was out of frustration for the protracting labor stoppage in Hollywood. Whatever the reason I didn’t not start looking at it until last week. Now that I have I am instantly enthralled and entertained by the glorious combination of writing and acting that makes the core of every great Bill Lawrence show, and how often he and his collaborators will find comedy in the darkest of places. Shrinking may not be the phenomena that Ted Lasso was when it debuted, but it has the potential to be a funnier and perhaps deeper series.
My score: 4.5 stars.