In 'Shrinking,' Jason Segel does the work

The Apple TV+ series is a comedy about a therapist crushed by grief and trying to put himself back together

By Alexis Soloski

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

 

Photos: Daniel Dorsa/The New York Times
Photos: Daniel Dorsa/The New York Times

Published: Mon 30 Jan 2023, 11:31 AM

Last updated: Mon 30 Jan 2023, 11:57 AM

Jason Segel knows that you like him.

It’s the sad eyes. The pained smile. The shambling 6-foot-4-inch frame that he diminishes by caving in his chest. It’s his single season on the critics’ darling Freaks and Geeks, playing a puppyish high schooler; his nine seasons on the audience favourite How I Met Your Mother, as a loving, excitable husband and dad; his slate of rom-coms. If you saw the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he also wrote, you spent 73 frames opposite his exposed body during a mortifying breakup scene. And, most likely, you came out still liking him.


“I’ve built up some currency, some good will,” Segel said. “Like, ‘Oh, he’s a good guy; he wouldn’t do anything intentionally mean.’” This was on a January video call, and Segel was recounting an early conversation he’d had with Bill Lawrence and Brett Goldstein about their Apple TV+ sitcom Shrinking. The first two episodes premiered on January 27; eight more follow weekly.

Segel, 43, who joined the series as a writer, executive producer and star, opposite Harrison Ford and Jessica Williams, plays Jimmy, a cognitive behavioral therapist crushed by personal grief. A year after the sudden death of his wife, Jimmy self-medicates with pills, booze and some very polite sex workers. He is a neglectful father and a bad neighbour. His approach to patient care would make an ethics panel weep. Another comic actor might have tried to protect his likability. Segel, in this role, wanted to squander it.


“We have to use that for evil,” he recalled telling Lawrence and Goldstein. “We should spend that currency.”

From basketball player to actor

Segel, who grew up in a comfortable, beach-adjacent neighborhood of Los Angeles, became a professional actor by inclination and deceit. He was an anxious kid, burdened from an early age, he said, by “a sense of impending doom.” Acting classes were a rare space in which he felt comfortable. By high school, though, his basketball schedule (he was, as his height suggests, a star) kept him from auditioning for most school plays. His theater teacher persuaded him to star in a three-night run of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Without telling Segel, that teacher invited a leading casting director from Paramount, who liked what she saw.

“I’m baffled by people who take the bus to LA and say, ‘I’m gonna make it,’” Segel said, moving his thickly stubbled face closer to the camera. He wore a grey plaid shirt, his brown hair cresting high above his forehead, a wave that never broke. “That’s bravery. Me, I got really lucky.”

He landed a role on Freaks and Geeks not long after. Precocious, he had a quarter-life crisis at 20, when that series ended after 18 episodes. He was too old and too tall to play more high schoolers and too young for anything else. Judd Apatow, the executive producer of Freaks and Geeks, encouraged him to write. A few years later, just after he was cast in How I Met Your Mother, he had begun Sarah Marshall.

Nicholas Stoller, who directed that movie, admired the script’s sweetness and Segel’s sweetness, too. The character Segel played, like many he had played and would play, verged on creepy and pathetic without tumbling over. “He’s willing to have his characters do bad stuff because it’s human, it’s relatable,” Stoller said. “But he just grounds it in kindness.”

That movie set the template for the next six years: Film the sitcom for eight months and then make a movie during the hiatus, often one that he had written or co-written. But when How I Met Your Mother ended in 2014, Segel, then 34 and still precocious, had his midlife crisis. This one felt more existential. He’d been acting for half of his life and figured he was good at it. And he’d written films he was proud of, like Sarah Marshall and the 2011 Muppets movie. But was this his purpose? Writing and delivering joke after joke after joke?

Inspired to write again

Segel explored the alternatives. Newly sober, he left Los Angeles, moving several hours north, to a property with orange groves. He chose projects more sparingly. To begin, he signed on to star in The End of the Tour, a movie about writer David Foster Wallace. He hadn’t really done a drama since The Zoo Story. But he recognized parallels between himself and the film’s version of Wallace, who has just published his masterwork, Infinite Jest.

“It’s this moment where everyone is saying, ‘You’ve won life,’” Segel said. “And you are feeling so scared. Like, Oh, no. What’s next?”

He didn’t know. He wasn’t writing, and he didn’t find anything funny. But maybe he just didn’t want to write comedy, he realized, which led him to create Dispatches from Elsewhere, a 2020 limited series about four adrift souls ensnared by an alternative reality game.

“While it wasn’t the most commercial thing I’ve ever written, it was maybe the most meaningful,” Segel said. “I proved I could make something again.” He began to theorize that maybe he needed to make work that let him use more of himself — the comedy stuff and the not-so-comic stuff. He sought projects that encouraged him to be what a therapist might describe as “integrated.”

“Like, let’s make this one weird guy,” he said. “That’s maybe what the point of all of this has been about.”

That revelation led him first to Winning Time, the flashy drama about the Los Angeles Lakers (Segel plays an unflashy, melancholic coach), and then to Shrinking. Lawrence and Goldstein, who met on Ted Lasso, had each been roughing out separate shows about grief and therapy before deciding that they should make a show together. Segel was their first choice to lead it. “Because he has that thing: He’s funny, he’s a great actor, inherently likable,” Goldstein said, adding a few expletives. “An audience will follow Jason Segel very far before they turn on him, and that’s a gift.”

They pitched him the show. Segel was quiet on the call, so quiet that Goldstein worried that he didn’t like the idea. After a day or two, Segel accepted. He explained this delay as the upside of that midlife crisis: Now he takes his time choosing his jobs. But he knew he would take the part as soon as he heard the pitch. Shrinking, he realized, would require both nanosecond comic timing and deep sensitivity. He would have to make an audience believe that this was a man overwhelmed by grief, and then make that grief funny without ever cheapening Jimmy’s pain.

Exploring pain

Pain interests him. It’s often the first question he asks himself about a character: How is this person suffering? And he figured that years into a pandemic, the audience for Shrinking might also be in pain. He has always seen himself as the kind of actor who functions as an audience surrogate — he mentioned Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart, Kermit the Frog. If a viewer could see Jimmy working through his pain, maybe that viewer could do some work, too.

“What a crazy, sad couple of years,” he said. “To find a way to laugh about this together is really hard and potentially really special.”

An actor is not necessarily the characters he plays, but Segel understands nearly all of his roles, Jimmy included, as versions of himself. He views his life (and this is arguably a little less healthy) as a series of minor and major embarrassments that he can funnel into art. The other day, he said, on vacation, he’d gone for a run on the beach and fallen on his face in front of several onlookers. Another man might have felt shame; Segel figured he could probably use it.

Probably he will. The stage and the set are the places where he has always felt best able to transmute dread or low-key humiliation into something that might make someone else feel a little better. It makes him feel better, too.

Williams recalled their first day of shooting. It was a tense scene and she felt nervous, awkward. But Segel reassured her. Soon they were riffing.

When “cut” was called, she turned to him and said, “Acting is really fun.”

He looked at her, she recalled, and thought about it for a while. And then he said, “Yeah, it really is. It’s like the funnest thing on earth.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.



More news from Entertainment