TV & Film Therapists: The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous
Updated: Sep 21
Therapy can be an awkward process. The idea is that two people who do not know each other come together in an unfamiliar environment. Innermost feelings are tentatively explored. Trust is slowly built. The unspoken becomes known. It is not always a comfortable place to be but slowly something happens. This can be mysterious and extremely powerful, even life-changing experience.
For this reason it is perhaps not surprising that the relationship between therapist and client has long fascinated film-makers and TV writers, from Alfred Hitchcock and M Night Shyamalan to Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Back in the 1940s, the character of a psychiatrist was usually a white, middle-aged man, a typical example was the kindly Claude Rains in Now, Voyager, who walks in the garden with his troubled patient played by Bette Davis. He is insightful, if a little paternal but he has her best interests at heart.
Fast forward a few decades and that all changed with The Silence Of The Lambs. Now, they are not only baddies, they might eat you. Freud would have a lot to say about that.
Of course, this is melodrama, but the fact remains, there are some pretty strange representations of mental health professionals in film and TV - that do not always represent what goes on in the real world of therapy - I hope not anyway.
Take for example the psychotherapist in The Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life who gossips with her clients in the street in front of the neighbours and the bereavement counsellor in the Jennifer Aniston film Cake who asks Aniston’s character Claire to leave group because her anger is upsetting everyone, surely a reason to be part of the group and something that needs facilitating by the counsellor.
Perhaps my favorite TV therapist is Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos. Much has been written about the 'ethical practice' of this psychiatrist who has a mob boss as a client but as the 'herald' of the story, she announces the protagonists need for change, anchoring the plot lines. Dr Melfi has a 'containing' quality about her, her therapy room is like a womb with its curved wood panelling, she is calm and serene. Even when Tony Soprano is right up in her face, she maintains her sense of being 'bad object' for him without getting defensive or angry herself. And then it all slips. In one episode, she bumps into Tony in a restaurant; a bit tipsy she flirts with him, 'toodle-fucking-Oo'. On another occasion she needs a swig of booze before the session; she tells him 'you are not a truthful person, you are not respectful of women, you are not respectful of people.' We then see Dr Melfi in her own supervision sessions berating herself, questioning her true feelings for Tony Soprano. I am not sure if the set designer of the series did this intentionally, but there is a statue in Dr Melfi's therapy room which changes over the series. Sometimes it is a warrior, then a dancer, it seems to reflect her mood and attitude towards Tony.
Of course, the therapy room is an excellent plot device, it is an opportunity to get an insight into the protagonist's mind and what is revealed usually helps move the plot along. It was used to this end in the ITV series Broadchurch, though I am not sure doing counselling in a busy cafe was such a good idea. Jodie Whittaker’s character becomes visibly upset, and for good reason, there is a massive issue around confidentiality.
As we might all expect, psychotherapy is perfect material for Fleabag. Fleabag had only turned up to get a refund for the psychotherapy voucher she had bought her Dad - another one for Freud perhaps - but within minutes, the psychotherapist, played by Fiona Shaw is asking her 'do you want to fuck a priest or fuck God?' It goes down hill from then on but the session is weirdly insightful. Fleabag asks:
'Can you just tell me what to do?'
You've already decided what to do.'
'So what's the point in you?'
There is a dark humour to many representations of therapy in Film and TV.
In Enlightened. Amy Jellicoe, played by Laura Dern is a high-flying corporate buyer who has an epic meltdown at work. This leads her to take time off at a North California retreat. There are bonfires on the beach, group therapy sessions and everyone wears Indian beads - and all of this before the title sequence. Six weeks later, Amy comes back with an evangelical perspective about the merits of self-help and inner healing - she’s enlightened! - ‘all well and good,’ says her permanently bewildered Mother, played by Diane Ladd - ‘but how are you going to pay for it?' With no job and a $30,000 bill from the retreat, Amy has to move back in to her childhood bedroom - and so the series starts.
And finally, a cautionary tale from Inside No. 9. The episode ‘Cold Comfort’ sees Andy, played by Reece Shearsmith, as a volunteer at the Cold Comfort Support Line - a crisis hotline. He finds the first few calls challenging, especially as one of them is from a suicidal teenager. Out of his depth, he panics when the phone line goes dead. Immediately after this he takes a call from an elderly woman distraught that one of her cats has died. Having just dealt with a suicidal teen, Andy responds insensitively telling the elderly lady to get a grip ‘it’s only a cat’ - and here is the moral of the tale, there is no hierarchy to misery - as Andy later finds out later to his own deadly cost.
There is an epilogue to all of this; watching movies with therapists in them can be of ‘therapeutic benefit’. In a 2014 study, researchers asked patients who had been hospitalised for mental health issues to watch clinically relevant films. For example, people with schizophrenia were encouraged to watch the Russell Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind. The study came to the conclusion that:
‘Movies can be an important, positive and productive means of treatment ... the movies served as extended metaphors in the therapy sessions. They helped to created a better understanding and to promote different ways of expressing thoughts. It seems that movies represented a mirror, reflecting the inner world of the patients.'