I’m interested mostly in how movies regard therapy and who are the best celluloid shrinks. It’s my personal pet peeve that movies and TV shows highlight the worst of therapy and mental illness in general. They seem to be stuck in a kind of “War of the Roses” mindset, where divorce and family problems are solved through screaming and escalating.
Let’s start with the good news. The therapist on the Sopranos, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, aka, Lorraine Bracco is, in my humble estimation, the best…hands down. Paraphrasing from just one of her many spot-on therapeutic moments:
Tony: (Yelling) I had another panic attack, although I thought I had it beat!
Dr. Melfi: What the heck happened?
Tony: I was golfing and thinking about my cousin
Dr. Melfi: Explores the background of why was he so upset about his cousin…
Tony: I thought you should have cured me by now (sarcastic).
Dr. Melfi: (Provokes), what is going on?
Tony: (Guilty, cursing) I was supposed to be where my cousin was, in his place, when he died.
Dr. Melfi: No wonder you’re having anxiety.
They nailed it. She focuses on his breath. She reassures him. She doesn’t look scared at all. Tony tells his story, Melfi (sighs) says, “That’s a lot to get off your chest, Tony.”
Now why can’t popular TV do more of that!
Moving along, we have the recent Netflix series, The Ted Bundy Tapes, which I just watched. Why didn’t he receive therapy in his formative years? Why in the recent movie Beautiful Boy did they not show one family therapy session? I suppose they remained true to real life events, although I find it hard to believe there was no therapy involved, given that he was so angry at his divorced parents. (Steve Carell actually seemed super chill).
I happen to be a big fan of family therapy and do it often in my practice. Instead of complaining, my therapeutic position is, let’s get this person in here and sort it out already! One time, a mother and teenaged daughter came to see me because the daughter was complaining that the mother was pushing her too hard. The daughter finally confronted the mother about her demands. In my office, the mother said, “you are a “D” person and you could be an “A” person. The daughter received immediate validation from my reaction. I explained to the mother that telling her daughter that was mean, unproductive and seriously off base. (Tip: always take your teen client’s side). All this to say that TV could show some real family therapy. Imagine if The Draper family on Mad Men had some talk therapy. Maybe Don could have stayed with Betty instead of acting out his insecurities…
Let’s discuss another favorite of mine, In Treatment, which starred Gabriel Byrne, a very impressive therapist. I don’t know what exactly those brilliant Israeli filmmakers did there, but somehow with fine acting and close-up cameras, they invited the viewer into the minds of the patients. Long shots drew you in and focused on inner turmoil while the therapist nodded attentively. I felt I was in the room with them. This intimacy, I thought, had never before been seen on TV. I found myself at times having to look away, that’s how intense it was to feel their feelings.
Silver Linings Playbook by David O. Russell, made my list. Pretty much anything he does is OK in my playbook (“American Hustle”, awesome!). Russell does a wonderful job at capturing the intensity of a bipolar manic episode (Bradley Cooper). The scenes that show him out of control, running around in a frenzy, and not being able to calm down are pure enjoyment. While Cooper’s character didn’t spend his time in therapy, he did improve through meetings, dancing, and really trying. That counts for a lot. (Check out Russell’s movie The Fighter for some full frontal family drama too).
Now back to the television depiction of Ted Bundy. Everyone keeps saying, “but he looked so normal.” Folks, I’m sorry to tell you he does not. I don’t mean to boast, but any armchair psychoanalyst could tell you that there was something “off” about the way he interacted with other humans. While Bundy is not about therapy it is about insanity – no time for therapy when you’re running around murdering young women. It’s clearly a national obsession to fixate on serial killers. A shame there’s no help available until it’s too late.
The second best TV therapist of all time was Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. I will forever miss the man’s insanely genius talent. His patience and wit genuinely shined through, and isn’t that what we all strive for, authenticity both in and out of the office?
Then there’s “Game of Thrones.” God knows Jamie needs a therapist. But the way they conceive his painful inner child rings true. I like Jamie because he’s a survivor in a family of narcissistic manipulators. He is soulfully aware of his deficits but is able to learn to use them to his advantage. Besides his Oedipal urges, he is a rich character of charm, a charmed life, and deep, long-suffering trauma. Through his vulnerabilities he gains strength – not physical but emotional. Maybe he will come back in the next realm as a family therapist.
Who would be your TV/movie therapist? I’d take Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls, Parenthood). She’s calm, smart and sweet. She might just tell me to write my own screenplay.
Photo by Genevieve719