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What’s Wrong With the Show "Shrinking"?

A TV show about psychologists fails to make progress.

On the face of it, the new Apple+ show Shrinking seems promising: a stellar cast, a heavily credentialed production team, a timely, fascinating milieu—the world of psychotherapy—and a tasty concept: a therapist, frustrated by his dithering clients and overcome by grief after the loss of his wife, decides to cast off his professional shackles and tell it like it is. Yet, as Freud noted, things are not what they seem. The show, like its protagonist, is a middling, maddening mess.

The first problem is that the show, the protagonists of which are all clinicians, knows nothing about therapy and therapists. For one, you don’t see therapy happening in the show. In fact, the characters’ work as psychologists is incidental to anything that happens to them. They might as well be accountants, librarians, or plumbers. Or coaches, as the series’ chief creators have done with their previous project, the way better Ted Lasso. A comparison with Lasso is instructive here. Ted Lasso succeeds in part because Lasso does not abandon the rules, ethics, and skills of coaching. He applies them adaptively. Jimmy, Shrinking’s protagonist, abandons his clinical ethics and skills. Lasso rejects self-pity and refuses to dump his personal grief on his players and staff. Jimmy does the opposite, wallowing in his misery and unloading it on his surroundings.

Unlike movies, which are by nature heavily plot reliant, good TV tends to privilege procedure and character. Good shows, like The Bear, The Bureau, or The Wire, let you into the characters’ work world, give you a sense of the unique milieu within which they operate. Even Lasso, which skimps on procedure and focuses on character, includes meaty segments on process—you see games being played; you hear discussions of soccer strategy; you see locker room banter; players deal with injuries. Therapy is as fascinating a milieu as policing, or restaurants, or espionage, or soccer. Therapists have their own jargon, their own culture, their characteristic gripes, struggles, and preoccupations. Yet Shrinking shows nothing of the actual world of therapy and therapists.

The characters, too, are cardboard. Jimmy projects a squishy, entitled infantilism, thus embodying a kind of contemporary American masculinity that—in its self-centered self-pity, inertness, and cluelessness—puts one in the mind of those raging, socially awkward incels who populate the internet’s seedy fringes. Incels feel entitled to enjoy women’s affections but lack the skills to elicit them, and so they express their frustrations by raging against women. Likewise, Jimmy feels his clients should gratify him by changing already. Lacking the skills to make it happen, he opts to dump the blame, and his rage, on them.

Moreover, Jimmy’s professional decisions in the show appear to carry no professional consequences for him. His clients don’t sue; the insurance company doesn’t raise questions; his colleagues—who in the real world would be bound by the profession’s ethics code to intervene or report him to the state psychology board—are at best marginally alarmed and at worst amused by his reckless infractions.

Harrison Ford’s Paul—Jimmy’s elderly mentor and colleague—at least projects some spine, gravity, and charisma, but as an actor, he’s past trying to be anything other than Harrison Ford. His Paul recites dialogue and models feelings, but none of it is truly embodied or felt, and so his appearance is bereft of emotional heft and resonance. Gabby, Jimmy’s young colleague at the clinic, is a sloppily sketched variant on the sassy black female sidekick trope. As a group, the actors quip and jive smartly with each other, cracking self-aware witticisms. But the characters they play lack self-awareness, and they don’t behave like smart people in their lives. In real life, for example, someone like Jimmy would be quick to get into therapy himself. Someone like Paul would not hide his friendship with Jimmy’s daughter.

In fact, none of the characters seem genuinely interested in people and or psychology. You don’t believe for a moment that these people have the patience, stamina, and curiosity necessary for doing actual therapy work—sitting with clients in a room for long hours listening to their stories intently and trying to arrive at a deep understanding of their personalities, biographies, relationships, and inner processes.

A show about therapy is obligated to get the psychology right, or at least avoid promoting falsehoods. To wit: A contemporary show about football cannot claim that black athletes can’t succeed as quarterbacks. Shrinking fails here too. One example: Jimmy’s decision to help a client deal with his rage by taking him to MMA training betrays the implicit assumption that cathartic violence tends to produce reductions in rage. The data, however, as Jimmy should have learned in grad school, show this to be a dangerous myth. Or this: Jimmy’s neighbor, Liz, is supposedly experiencing empty nest syndrome, which leads her to informally adopt Jimmy’s forlorn daughter in her dad’s emotional absence. Yet the empty nest syndrome is itself a tired and largely debunked trope.

Moreover, the show implies that grief has turned Jimmy into this selfish, reckless jerk. Yet grief generally doesn’t turn people into selfish jerks. Alas, it may reveal them as such. This is why it is difficult for us to believe the story’s main conceit. We intuit that Jimmy's grief is not the cause of his jerkiness, but an alibi, an excuse to hoist it on the world while escaping blame.

The show appears to intend for Jimmy’s ethical violations to exemplify his flaws. Flawed heroes, after all, are satisfying to root for because they map onto our view of ourselves. But the ethical guidelines that undergird the practice of psychotherapy serve a crucial function: to protect the client, therapist, and the therapy process from harm. 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.

Finally, the show's hook is that Jimmy becomes a psychological vigilante, unloading on his clients the frank truths that ordinary therapists commonly withhold as they nod empathically and inquire: "How does that make you feel?" However, real therapists, particularly those who work in the cognitive-behavioral school (as those in the show are supposedly doing) do not generally nod in silence at their clients’ complaints. CBT therapists don't stop at “How does that make you feel?” They follow up: “What are you telling yourself that brings about those feeling?” Then, they collaborate actively with their clients to examine the client’s self-statements for, well, their truth value.

Of course, skilled clinicians will use sound clinical techniques, such as Socratic questioning or the ‘What If’ process to guide their clients toward self-knowledge and behavioral change. They do so because having the client discover the truth for themselves works better in affecting behavioral change than yelling truths at the client.

In fact, people who come to therapy often do it in part because the methods that Jimmy employs—self-serving, judgmental truth-telling; boundary violations; enmeshed interactions; sticky codependence; and patronizing, invasive advice-giving—have already been hoisted 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. Rather, it renders him just another judgmental ass of the kind his clients have had to encounter way too many times before.

In the final analysis, those of us who are tired of the way psychologists and psychology are commonly depicted in the entertainment media—and who believe that the world of clinical psychology is fertile ground for a compelling, authentic, and honest scripted TV series—will have to take a deep breath, bide our time, hope, and wait.

In truth, that makes me feel disappointed.

More from Noam Shpancer Ph.D.
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