A lot of comedy in sitcoms has a palpably antic and caustic edge to it. It’s rarer to see comedy derived from a sweeter, gentler sensibility, but there are a few characters of late that stand out: Zach Woods’ tragically guileless tech executive on “Silicon Valley” and Sam Richardson’s cheerful political lackey in the viper’s nest that is “Veep.”
Tim Baltz’s therapist-in-training on his new TV series “Shrink” shares a similar disposition. He’s not without anger or frustration, but there is a good-naturedness to the guy.
All eight episodes of the show premiered recently on Seeso, NBC’s comedy-focused subscription streaming platform. Filmed in Chicago last fall, it is stacked with performers from the city’s sketch and improv scene past and present – among them David Pasquesi, Claudia Wallace, Craig Cackowski, Mick Napier, Kevin Dorff and Brooke Breit. (With a cameo from Cubs announcer Len Kasper.) With the exception of “Veep,” there is no other series on television with this many Chicago players, including all the network shows currently filming in town.
Baltz, now based in Los Angeles, is a former Chicago improviser and Second City alum himself (as is his co-creator Ted Tremper.) It seemed fitting, while he was in town recently, that we meet up at the Old Town Ale House, long the favored late-night spot for Second City performers going back decades.
Over a Pernod and water – Baltz’s drink of choice, which has the alarming look of a cloudy glass of Mountain Dew – we talked about the show. Originally a locally shot web series, it won a couple of key awards at the 2012 New York TV Festival, where it got the attention of producer Patrick Daly (a co-producer on the film adaptation of “August: Osage County”), and eventually landed at Seeso.
In it, Baltz stars as a recent med school grad who fails to score a residency and instead decides to pursue a career as a therapist. In order to qualify, he must put in a certain number of hours seeing patients (for free, in his parents’ garage) and checking in with his supervisor (played by the wonderfully deadpan Sue Gillan).
Each episode is peppered with these garage sessions (shot in a detached residential garage in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood) as well as moments outside office hours, as he attempts to keep his spirits up while staring down half a million dollars in student loan debt. His overnight job at Happy Foods, working alongside his sleepily idiotic best friend (Hans Holsen, finding just the right weird rhythms of the character), isn’t making a dent.
He persists despite the odds and with every new patient he dutifully reads off an index card: “Pursuant to the requirement set out by Illinois statute 225 ILCS-107 I am required to inform you that I am not a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist or a registered therapist but that these therapy sessions are being tape-recorded to provide a record of the 1,920 supervised clinical hours to acquire such a license.” The patient whose story generates the most honest-seeming dramatic and comedic moments is a guy played by T.J. Jagodowski, who admits to an eating disorder as well as another therapist that he sees on the side.
It’s a comedy of awkwardness and (mostly) repressed frustration. Baltz’s character lives at home with his parents (Meagen Fay and Joel Murray) and the indignities just pile on from there. When the garage is tented and fumigated, he conducts sessions in his car – parked in the alley just outside the garage. His mom comes in at one point to talk through some things and she reclines the seat back as if she were on a psychiatrist’s couch.
“Shrink” may be slow-moving, but there are payoffs. It is at its best when the show’s ambitions stray beyond the garage and into the world itself, with its strange brew of pathos and comedy. It brings to mind other comedies that skew toward the quiet and the unusual, shows like Comedy Central’s “Review” or HBO’s “Enlightened.” It’s not strictly a comedy. You’re watching someone fall apart – with the occasional small victory – and yet the circumstance is inherently comical.
Baltz is playing someone who is average but decent. There’s a wholesomeness to his look, but also to his comedic ethos. Which isn’t to say the show is prudish (the very last moment of the finale has a stranger giving Baltz the verbal equivalent of the middle finger; that’s quite a button to end your show on), but it also isn’t a show that comes barreling at you. It has other things in mind and generally it comes at things from a more tender angle.
“The laughs that I remember as a kid,” Baltz told me, “always came from comedies like ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles,’ ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin,’ ‘Tommy Boy,’ ‘Bottle Rocket.’ Because the truth is, you can’t always be laughing. You have to stop and take a breath.”
All eight episodes of the show premiered recently on Seeso