Religion & Liberty Online

Shrinking and the Rebirth of Manliness

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

A new Apple TV+ series starring Harrison Ford and Jason Segel surprises by avoiding most of the liberal clichés about self-help and actually has something rewarding to say about what it means to be an adult, especially a manly adult.

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Harrison Ford has suddenly returned to acting at the age of 80, after a decade of mostly forgettable cameos. He’s now making movies and even TV series that are bound to get quite a bit of critical attention and renewed popularity. He’s even going back to playing Indiana Jones—for the fifth time. He’s also playing a cowboy in 1923, which, like 1883 before it, is a prequel to the hit Paramount series Yellowstone, which has brought the Western back to TV after a generation.

Ford is also the moral core of a new Apple TV+ series, Shrinking, in which he plays an old psychologist trying to help his middle-aged colleagues through their troubles while preparing for his own death, beginning with suffering from Parkinson’s. Ford was a star when Hollywood still had the afterglow of the original stars to define its storytelling and help the audience figure out what they admired. Although in a supporting role in Shrinking, he still shows the qualities that made him interesting.

He’s not the typical action star. His demeanor suggests moral authority, which is why audiences were on his side; he looks distinguished rather than tough. In Shrinking, as an elder psychologist and a man of experience who has suffered much, he is as close to an authority as is imaginable among the wealthy people of Los Angeles. Compared with Californians, at least fictional ones, he is a serious man who knows life, love, and death.

Still, this is California in our times, so people are uncomfortable around him—they can feel he is judgmental, even when he is silent. This is a sign that they have a conscience, even though they don’t like it. It could be the beginning of moral seriousness and the one thing our entertainment gets right about Americans, that seriousness rarely counts for much these days.

In Shrinking, Ford has two younger colleagues whose lives are falling apart. The protagonist, played by Jason Segel, a grieving widower, and a midthirties lady whose marriage has fallen apart because her husband drinks like a fish; I believe the devotees of the therapeutic ethic call this an addiction, a sickness of the body, rather than a moral failure. Neither of the two, despite being trained professionals, can fix their own lives—instead they busybody pretend to fix other people’s lives. This implicit confession of failure endears them to the audience, at least if they’re liberals who swear by psychology.

Segel’s not just a widower but also the well-to-do father of a clever, pretty teenage girl. He is coming to the end of a miserable, self-destructive period after the death of his wife. Drugs, women of negotiable affection, late-night pool parties, and loud music are his recourse. In short, he reacts to his wife’s death and the intimation of his own mortality by acting like a reckless teenager, desperately clawing at his lost youth. Shrinking is quite insightful despite its melodrama—existential investigation rather than psychology is its true purpose—and this character point is no exception. Segel isn’t looking for the pleasures of youth but for its ignorance of mortality. The reason this doesn’t work is also the reason it leads him to maturity. College kids who indulge such dangerous excesses are themselves moved by a misunderstood fear of death. In returning to his youth, he’s really trying to grow up, which he hadn’t managed in the first half of his life.

The more surprising part of this grief ill-observed is Segel’s neglect of his daughter. Surely, children are Americans’ primary consolation for mortality. More Americans have kids than religion! But of course, children are also a reminder of parents’ working and worrying themselves to death—children replace us at our own expense, so to speak. The more self-obsessed people become, the less they care about family; Americans have never had as few kids as today. Shrinking is ultimately a story about finding a way around the self-obsession that leads to a paralyzing fear of death.

During Segel’s drama, other people, adults (as we used to call them when they were more common), take care of his daughter, especially Ford and Segel’s next-door neighbor, played by the charming Christa Miller. They are the most pleasant and the funniest characters, too, and through them Shrinking combines our nostalgia for old actors with a selective nostalgia for an older America from which we have much to learn. It restores in the structure of the drama what used to be the American reality, the family with a working father and a mother who took care of the children’s lives. Nor is it unheard of that kids would be raised, at least for a period, by their grandparents if the parents had difficulties. The unusual change is that now this can only be suggested by the story, not said outright.

But the show’s best idea is turning Segel from a psychologist to a friend to his patients. This is admittedly a fairy tale, but a very illustrative one. Segel gets a new patient, a veteran who cannot get used to life back in California, and keeps getting into fights over trivial insults. Luke Tennie plays him, and he conveys quite well the distance any normal person has from a therapist and the reluctance of a guy with too much manliness in him to trust the political-legal system trying to outlaw, medicate, and humiliate manliness. As the two become friends, Segel himself becomes a bit manlier and Tennie learns that he needs conversation, advice, and some help with his temper.

Part of the moral realism of Shrinking has to do with anger and violence. Segel doesn’t recommend therapy to the fighting veteran—he recommends Brazilian jiujitsu. Self-control comes through strength, not depressive boredom or medication. Tennie’s problem is not his anger but the reality that American life has almost no room for men. Honor is dishonored, in short. It’s very surprising to see such insight in what a very liberal show is about, of all people, California psychologists, but it is a pleasant surprise and a suggestion that Americans still have quite a bit in common. Tennie’s essentially a refugee and the only plot solution is that Segel takes him into his own house while he figures out what to make of himself; this of course brings them much closer, since it adds the fundamental part of justice, generosity, and gratitude to their friendship.

For therapy to work, it would have to be friendship—not an ideology turned into a job. For it to go beyond the very narrow limits of the tight friendships between men who have faced misery or death, it would have to be religion. The absence of faith is the most typically liberal flaw of the story, but Shrinking should be understood as revealing how ordinary Americans, though Progressive liberals, might come to the threshold of faith by great suffering and the discovery that they have a conscience. Indeed, the only thing that makes them interesting is their suffering, which might lead them to discover they are human and must face the human predicament.

I won’t spoil the plot—all I can say is that Shrinking has the rare distinction nowadays that its major characters are neither self-destructive nor paralyzed. It has the necessary narrative, the acting and writing talent, and the moral resources to turn into an intelligent story about men’s need for friendship, and what clever, artistic types and manly types have to offer each other. But it must resist the tendency of our entertainments to turn into therapeutic gossip, with recriminations and vicious behavior replacing self-knowledge.

If Shrinking needs anything, it’s more Harrison Ford, because he puts together wise guidance and a willingness to allow others their freedom. Whenever he’s on screen, you get a better perspective on the moral issues—he elevates the other characters, his dignity suggests what they might amount to, and his approval and disapproval give the drama its necessary tension and relief.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.