In the fall of 2018, I found myself newly divorced and living alone for the first time in my life. While the break-up was ultimately a positive decision, I signed over my half of the house and had to leave my precious dogs behind. My nights were quiet and my anxiety was high, so I spent evenings catching up on comedy shows. Along with improv comedy podcasts, they were what helped me laugh through the pain of failure and loneliness. They kept me sane during a time when my mental health was in flux.
Seeso, NBC’s comedy-focused streaming platform, had recently folded, yet many of its original shows found homes on other services like Hulu and VRV. I laughed until my sides hurt at Jonah Ray’s brilliant parody of travel shows, Hidden America, the television version of the podcast My Brother My Brother and Me, and Kulap Vilaysack’s send-up of real estate shows, Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, that starred the incomparable Paul F. Tompkins.
But there was a show that I connected with on a deeper level than all the rest. Shrink was co-created by and starred actor and improvisor Tim Baltz. Shrink takes an honest and comedic look at ethics in therapy from both sides. It shows the dangers of when a therapist might cross ethical lines to help out their patients, and the battles those patients have to fight for themselves.
Baltz currently stars on HBO’s hit show The Righteous Gemstones as BJ Barnes, Judy Gemstone’s hilariously awkward husband that wants nothing more than to be accepted into a family that constantly rejects him. He’s also a frequent guest on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast.
Baltz grew up in Joliet, Illinois, and brings an honest Midwestern sensibility to his characters that is not often seen in comedy. The prototypical Midwesterner has a sense of friendly optimism and integrity not found in other parts of the country. (Though outside of the bigger cities there can also be frightening amounts of conservatism, but that isn’t something that Baltz ever bases his characters on.) As a native to St. Louis, Missouri, I’ve always felt a kinship to the loveable, yet complex weirdos that spawn from Baltz’s mind.
In Shrink, Baltz plays David Tracey, a recent medical school graduate now half a million dollars in debt. After losing his medical residency due to nepotism, David finds himself back living with his mom (Meagen Fay, seen in Malcolm in the Middle, La La Land, and more), stepdad (Joel Murray of Mad Men and Bill Murray’s brother fame), and obnoxious stepbrother, Barry (Kyle S. More). In an attempt to defer his student loan payments, David learns that if he completes 1,920 hours of free therapy sessions under the watch of a clinical therapist, he can become a professional counselor. David is often awkward and repeatedly puts his foot in his mouth, but his heart is in the right place as he sits down to help patients in his parents’ garage.
Shrink handles overwhelming problems—including eating disorders, phobias, and anxiety—in a comedic way that is also respectful of the subject of mental health. Between the laughter and the heartbreak, Shrink features some truly brilliant montages of reflection for Baltz’s character that show his emotional progression throughout the show. It’s a rare comedy that is emotionally complex and masterfully layers absurdist humor within sensitive subjects.
In the climax of episode one, David breaks it to a patient that it will be their last session because he’s decided to throw in the towel, but she refuses to accept his resignation.
“You’re the only [therapist] I’ve ever met who seems to enjoy people,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, you definitely don’t know what you’re doing, but you care way more than any of those other assholes I’ve talked to.”
It can be difficult to find a therapist that checks all the boxes and fulfills all of your needs. This process can be exhausting and honestly soul-crushing for patients who already struggle with their mental health. In the past, I’ve found therapists that feel perfect, then run into issues with insurance and the limitations of the American healthcare system. I also learned it’s okay to “break up” with a therapist when things aren’t working. David’s patients’ struggles are real, and they’re part of what makes Shrink so relatable.
As the show progresses, David’s personal life becomes too entangled with his patients. He falls for Rachel, a client played by Mary Holland (Happiest Season), and kisses her even when he knows it’s morally wrong. His relationship with his family becomes strained because his mom co-signed on his student loans. He works a night job that leaves him completely drained and, consequently, in one episode David slips in and out of dream sequences featuring his dead father. The weight of the world takes its toll, causing David to question his abilities to provide his clients with the help they deserve while confronting his own trials and tribulations.
For example, a patient David sees for a session at the beginning of the series obviously has difficulty staying in touch with reality, yet David does nothing. Towards the end of the series, the patient briefly returns, only to commit a shocking act that weighs heavy on David as he tries to make sense of where his life is going. David makes many mistakes that have real-life consequences, unlike other shows that just reset themselves in the next episode.
Coming up to the five-year anniversary of its premiere, Shrink is not currently available on any of NBC’s affiliated streaming platforms or for purchase. It is a literal hidden gem in the history of comedy television. While it took a while for it to get made and only yielded one eight-episode season, Shrink was a brilliantly written show that was as complex as it was hysterical.
As I sat on the couch in my apartment living room in 2018, I burst into tears during an emotional speech David’s mother gives to him during episode five. She says, “Everybody feels like a failure sometimes. But if you thought you were nailing everything, you wouldn’t try. And it’s the trying that makes you better. I think it made me better, and I think it made you better.”
And I felt okay for the first time in a long time.
Jack Probst is a writer and record collector from St. Louis. He appreciates the works of James Murphy, Wes Anderson, and Super Mario. Send any and all complaints to @jackdprobst on Twitter. He enjoys writing paragraphs about himself in his spare time.