In the first episode of Seeso’s Shrink, Dr. David Tracy (Tim Baltz) is hoping to make a fresh start as a licensed therapist after a series of setbacks derailed his planned-for medical career. Upon learning he can become a practicing therapist with 1,920 of patient contact hours, he sets out on a largely improvised journey to succeed in this second-choice career. Its creators, Baltz (Bajillion Dollar Propertie$) and Ted Tremper (The Daily Show), can sympathize with that journey. Five years after Shrink’s original pilot won the “Best Comedy Pilot” at 2012’s New York TV Festival, the finished product has finally landed.
Having done the math, after the many twists and turns en route to its release, Tremper has determined: “Our show is a first-grader.” And after watching the first season, I can assure you: it’s a whip-smart and truly entertaining first-grader, likely one that was read to every night and is a joy to have in class.
The long delay came from changes in personnel at networks, but Tremper and Baltz were lucky to have two steadfast champions as the project evolved: Evan Shapiro and Kelsey Balance, both formerly of Pivot (Shrink’s first home), and now at Shapiro’s Seeso. After getting the rights to the show back, they took it to the new network, where they marveled at and appreciated the freedom with which they were able to explore the feel of the show. Baltz shares, “We had time to incubate [the premise] and think about it, and came back to improvising in a way that uses the emotional capacity of these actors while also playing homage.”
As Tremper puts it, “[Seeso] was on board every step of the way, and it was refreshing to have their insight.” Baltz echoed the support, particularly for one crucial element of the show: “the original [pilot] was completely improvised, and knew we wanted to leave improv to be part of it.” In his words, “from day one, they said ‘we know what you’re trying to do, and we want you to do that.’”
The show is populated heavily with veterans from the Chicago improv scene, as well as actors from Los Angeles who were dedicated to preserving and upholding the at once loose and structured feel of the show; dedicated improv fans will smile to see Tami Sagher, John Lutz, T.J. Jagodowski, and Mary Holland pop up throughout the season. Shrink uses the often unpredictable venue of therapy sessions to create complicated, but funny characters that help David along his journey by challenging his instincts and teaching him important lessons about how he wants to practice.
A memorable early episode shows him assigning clients “letters” to write to people in their lives, without stipulating that they shouldn’t be sent or shared with their named recipients; the largely improvised results are both hilarious and essential to David’s growth as their caregiver. But just as these larger strategic moments of improv advance the budding therapist’s development, far smaller improvised moments – like David’s oddly, but lovingly contentious relationship with his supervising therapist (Sue Gillan)’s secretary Bernadette (Claudia Michelle Wallace), or a scene between David and his mother, Renetta (Meagen Fay), as she struggles to adjust her seat after a “session” in the car – make the predicaments seem all the more real. The final three episodes take a significant tonal shift, but one that feels authentic to its characters – and one that leaves you fulfilled, if hungry for more, by the season’s conclusion.
Although therapy arrives in David’s life as a second choice, it was a deliberate first choice for Baltz and Tremper as a premise for the show. Why? To Tremper, [T]herapy is one of the only places in Western society where we’re encouraged to be ourselves and be honest. [We loved the idea of] having him live inside a character that is always trying his best and facing people that have real problems, and in some cases are true of the cast members. People being vulnerable, and being honest. When you’re being honest, it’s a different quality of laughter that therapy certainly opens the door to.
Further, Baltz believes that the path David takes to practicing therapy is more common than many of us acknowledge:
“[Shrink is] focused on David as a character and how this is affecting this family. He was an altruistic person who wanted to be a doctor for that reason, step out of the blue collar situation he was in. It blows up in his face, with so much debt. You have to have a plan B, you have to be creative, you have to improvise. You have to commit to a backup plan – that we zeroed in on early.”
Shrink is a quietly hilarious debut from this first-time show creator pair, made fulfilling with laugh-out-loud moments and sweetly emotional scenes. It’s eight-episode first season landed on Seeso on Thursday, March 16th.