TV & Film Therapists: The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous
Updated: May 19, 2022
The worlds of psychotherapy and film have always been mutually reciprocal. Like film, therapy is essentially about storytelling, and a good story delves deep into the shadowy parts of the human condition. With the rise of Nazism in 1930s Europe, a significant number of Jewish psychoanalysts were forced to emigrate from Germany and Austria. Many ended up in America, settling in Hollywood, which became known as ‘Couch Canyon', as in the Freudian idea of lying on the couch.
Therapy took off in tinseltown big time. The studio head, David O.Selznick, who produced Gone With The Wind and Hitchcock's Rebecca, was in psychoanalysis, as was all his family, and the popular noir genre of the 1940s made use of psychoanalytic themes such as unconscious desires and complex relational dynamics.
Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts began to appear in movies as characters too. To start off with they were the good guys. A typical example was the kindly, if a little paternal Dr Jaquith, played by Claude Rains in Now, Voyager who steers his troubled patient, played by Bette Davis, as she recovers from a breakdown.
But of course, in the hands of directors like Hitchcock things began to turn a little darker. In Spellbound, Dr Anthony Edwardes may be an imposter and possibly a murderer. Fast forward to the 1990s and in The Silence Of The Lambs, the psychiatrist is not only a baddie, he might eat you. Freud would have a lot to say about that one.
One familiar on-screen trope is that therapists always have enormous practice rooms with expensive-looking mid-century furniture. The more contemporary the art work or modular the furniture, the greater the likelihood that the therapist has nefarious intentions.
My favourite TV therapist has to be Jennifer Melfi fromThe Sopranos. Her therapy room, with its curved wood panelling, has a womb-like quality, making it feel safe and contained. Into this comes mob boss and deeply wounded narcissist Tony Soprano. In the therapy room scenes, I have noticed a small statue on the bookcase behind where Dr Melfi sits. As the series’ progresses it changes from a warrior to a dancer and back again. Was this intentional? It seems to reflect Dr Melfi's feelings and her attitude towards Tony.
Much has been written about Dr Melfi’s 'ethical practice', and whether a therapist of her calibre would really behave like she does. All I can say is that there is something very human about her. On one occasion we see her swigging booze before the session, she then calls a spade a spade tellling Tony 'you are not a truthful person, you are not respectful of women, you are not respectful of people.' In another episode, she bumps into him in a restaurant; a bit tipsy she flirts with him, 'toodle-fucking-Oo'. Not to be recommended, but her complexity makes her a compelling character who we care deeply for.
It is no surprise that psychotherapy has ended up as material in the BBC series 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?'
In Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe played by Laura Dern is a high-flying corporate buyer who has an epic meltdown at work. This leads to her taking some time off at a holistic retreat, which is based on Esalen in Big Sur. There are bonfires on the beach and group therapy sessions, 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 bewildered Mother, ‘but how are you going to pay for it?' With no job and a $30,000 bill from the retreat center, Amy has to move back in to her childhood bedroom and so the series begins.
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 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. People with schizophrenia were encouraged to watch the Russell Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind, and 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 create 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.'
Frank Tallis - Hidden Minds: A History of the Unconscious