‘Shrinking’ and More Emmy-Nominated Comedies Focus on Loss

From a widowed therapist getting patients off the couch in “Shrinking” to a chef going all-in on his work after a family death in “The Bear,” to unlikely friendships helping people heal in “Dead to Me” and “Only Murders in the Building,” grief and loss loom over most of this season’s Emmy
comedy contenders.

Grieving’s painful process takes center stage in Apple TV+ series “Shrinking.” Jason Segel, known for comedic roles in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “How I Met Your Mother,” takes on a darker, yet still humorous role as Jimmy Laird, a psychiatrist mourning the death of his wife. In an unconventional move for himself and his patients, as well as an attempt to move forward, Jimmy breaks through the monotony of his work by experiencing life with those seeking his help.

“He’s building this literal and surrogate family around himself, who are all trying to pull themselves out of grief,” Segel previously told Variety. The first-time Emmy nominee, who also served as co-creator, executive producer and writer, adds that what Jimmy realizes in the series as he comes to terms with loss is a meaningful takeaway he’s discovered in his own life.

“In my life, it has been about is finding like-minded people who make you feel not so isolated and your unique struggles. None of it, none of us are that unique,” he said. “It’s like, counter to what we think is an inspirational message. I actually think that finding out that you’re not so unique that nobody has gone through what you’ve gone through, is a really heartening idea.”

Jason Segel, who starred alongside Harrison Ford in “Shrinking,” received his first Emmy nomination for his performance as grieving therapist Jimmy Laird.

Segel also noted how a post-pandemic landscape makes topics like grief more prevalent to explore, even in comedy: “We filmed right after the pandemic. We all had this sense that something was taken from us that we’ll never get back.”

He’s right. So much has changed or been taken in the past few years and accepting that hard truth is challenging. For “Shrinking,” a vital aspect of the series was about showing how people acknowledge trauma — or as he puts it “their backpack full of shit” — and how to move forward from it. And hopefully, laugh a little too.

“A lot of people think naming it is where you get to stop. They’re like, ‘I have this so I get to be an asshole,’” he said. “I have a lot of shit I could name, but I want to be happy. So, what do I do to actually make progress in my life?”

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto, Lionel Boyce as Marcus, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richard ‘Richie’ Jerimovich in FX’s “The Bear.”

Several characters from FX’s “The Bear” could benefit from doing just that, but most of all, its protagonist. The comedy-drama follows award-winning chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) as he takes over his family’s Chicago sandwich shop after his older brother’s suicide.

On the surface, comedic chaos is abundant in “The Bear” thanks to its unruly staff butting heads with Carmy’s elevated style of running a restaurant. Mix in unfortunate revelations doled out episode by episode showing how disorganized the restaurant is, a dash of Carmy being an extreme workaholic, and a dollop of his wrestling with sobriety and how to overcome his brother’s death, and voilà — you’ve got a recipe for disaster. 

“His life was so not full. It was so focused on industry and moving forward,” White shared in an interview before the SAG-AFTRA strike. “I remembered a time in my life where I was really wrapped up in, not only my work — I think that can be a good thing — but also in success and whatever that meant to me at the time. I think Carmy is, at times, battling with a similar thing. He’s in this very lonely place and any empowerment or confidence is coming from his craft and that leaves him in a very delicate and vulnerable position.”

Martin Short and Steve Martin’s characters in “Only Murders in the Building” help Selena Gomez’s Mabel cope with past trauma. 

Dysfunction is at the heart of two other Emmy-nominated comedy-dramas, too: Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” and Netflix’s “Dead to Me.” Both series feature unconventional friendships, a bit of murder and mystery, and by their season finales, the realization of how accepting loss can change someone for the better.

While comic veterans Steve Martin and Martin Short gift plenty of laughter in “Only Murders,” Selena Gomez’s Mabel steers the series as she consistently finds herself connected to death and tragedy. In its second season, Mabel becomes a key suspect in the murder of cranky co-op board president Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell); she even begins to believe she’s a killer who consistently blanks out and stabs people.

It isn’t until Mabel fully addresses her childhood trauma of losing her father to cancer that she begins to remember what truly happened the night of Bunny’s murder. “I didn’t know how to cope with him dying, so I didn’t,” Mabel admits in the series. “Instead, I flipped the pieces over in my mind until I couldn’t see the image anymore, just like he’d shown me.”

Thanks to this realization, and the unwavering support of her friends Charles (Martin) and Oliver (Short), Mabel finally accepts that her past trauma does not need to define who she is today. Series co-creator John Hoffman explained how this led to a “heartbreaking” moment in the series where Mabel covers up a mural she had been working on for
 two seasons.

“It was heartbreaking to watch. Selena was crying [while] painting over that mural,” he says. “But it makes sense for the character in that moment. It’s time for a clean slate.”

Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini weather grief and heartache as unlikely pals in “Dead to Me.” 
Saeed Adyani

As “Dead to Me” came to a close with its third season, with it came the final chapter of a beautiful friendship between Christina Applegate’s Jen and Linda Cardellini’s Judy. The two showcased vastly different manners of moving through loss, differences which craft a deep bond between them. Jen, whose husband is killed by Judy in a hit-and-run (they ultimately move past it, as friends do), turns to anger as an outlet for her grief. Judy, who endures an abusive relationship, a miscarriage and ultimately cancer, somehow remains positive — right to the end.

Series creator Liz Feldman previously told Variety it was important for her to truthfully show a female friendship that was “unconditional, supportive, loving and hilarious” and how such a friendship could ease the pain of grief.

“It’s been very healing for me,” Feldman says. “This show came from a very real place: I needed to tell a story about loss, something that helped me process all the people who have passed, and my own stuff with fertility.”

Applegate, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during production, also shared how joining the black comedy offered a balance of humor and reflection when she needed it most: “Through these characters — getting a chance to not have to be on all the fucking time, be funny or get to the fucking punch line; being able to play these characters that are so broken, that feel so deeply and so painfully — it really taught me: Christina, you’ve got to be able to honor that in yourself sometimes. 

Interviews above were conducted before SAG-AFTRA and WGA went on strike.

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