TV shows love putting their characters into therapy. This is relevant to my interests as both an unemployed therapist and someone who has spent over half her life in and out of therapy. I like to see how therapists are being portrayed in pop culture and to be honest, it’s not always that great. The most common feature of TV therapists is terrible, horrible boundaries. It makes for good drama, but in real life it’s terrible practice. So let’s check out some of these therapists.
Jason Seaver – Growing Pains: Jason Seaver was probably my first introduction to TV therapists. I don’t think we saw much of him in session, although I have a vague recollection of a suicidal patient that Dr. Seaver helps. The problem with Dr. Seaver’s practice is that it is in his own home. While many of us fantasize about walking right out of our bedroom into our office, this is bad practice for therapists because it creates a weird personal/professional boundary. But as far as actual therapy, he was probably a pretty decent therapist.
Dr. Katz – Dr. Katz Professional Therapist: This show premiered on Comedy Central when I was 12 and had just decided that I wanted to be a therapist when I grew up, so of course I was obsessed with it. Dr. Katz is one of those therapists that could actually be good for some people in real life. He’s not particularly engaging in session, but some people just need someone who will sit and listen to them whine and Dr. Katz fits the bill. He has this contradictory laid-back neuroticism about him that kind of appeals to me. And, as with all therapists – televised and real – he is struggling with his own issues in his personal life too.
Dr. Huang – Law and Order SVU: Dr. Huang is probably the best in my little list of TV therapists. He is insightful, gentle, and sympathetic. His boundaries are appropriate. Sometimes he feels stressed out, burnt out or overcome with vicarious trauma from a particularly difficult case. When he does he deals with it professionally and in a way that should be a model to all therapists. He is also able to be a therapeutic presence for the detectives without overstepping his bounds.
Dr. Melfi – The Sopranos: Dr. Melfi is a plot device to help us gain insight into Tony Soprano and make him seem more human. At that, she succeeds. At therapy? She blows. Dr. Melfi’s safety is put at risk by working with Tony, but she is willing to sacrifice her safety out of her own morbid curiosity about the inner-workings of a mobster. At its heart, Dr. Melfi’s therapy is just mental voyeurism. It drove me nuts that people always loved her character. Sure she was flawed and interesting. But the boundaries! No! So much of her mental energy was taken up with thinking about Tony Soprano that she should have dumped him by the end of the first season.
Dr Weston – In Treatment: Sure Gabriel Byrne’s accent is appealing. I wouldn’t mind sitting through therapy with him for an hour just to hear him talk. But then, one could get the same benefit from listening to him read the phone book and without the potential psychological damage. This show premiered when I was in graduate school and I was interested in it for the first few weeks. But with an episode airing every night, plus school and an internship that were all about therapy, plus my own therapy. Well, it was mental health overload, and something had to go. Sorry, Dr. Weston. Here’s another one with terrible boundaries, and his practice is also in his house. He was either overly-invested in his clients or too disengaged. He had all this weird sexual tension with one of his clients, which is obviously a Don’t. Although, I did like to discuss the show with my supervisor and it provided the framework for talking about what not to do in therapy. So there’s that. But otherwise I was unimpressed.
Dr. Sweets – Bones. Oh Baby Sweets. Yes he’s a genius. Yes his insights are good and very helpful for both case-solving and for Booth and Bones to realize they are in love but not actually act on it. But again with the boundaries! Out to drinks with your clients? Asking clients for advice on your own relationships? Those are some more don’ts. It’s really the FBI’s fault, because they set him up to consult on cases but also to act as a therapist for FBI agents, and you really shouldn’t be a therapist for people you have a professional relationship with. I guess at least his office isn’t also in his house?
Reality TV therapists – There are oh-so many reality TV therapists that I could write a whole post just about them. It seems like Dr. Phil paved the way for on-screen real “therapy”. And while I don’t have the same negative feelings that a lot of people have about Dr. Phil, I also don’t think you can do effective therapy in a 5 minute segment interrupted by commercial breaks. Then you have Intervention, Hoarders, Obsessed and the like – all which employ real therapists to work with people with real problems. As a whole I struggle with televised therapy. I can’t imagine, as an ethical professional, ever agreeing to let someone film me doing a session. But, individually I love some of the therapists. Intervention’s Jeff Van Vonderen, for instance. I love that he has stock lines he uses with every patient, because in reality your therapist probably does too.
And for your WTF Therapist:
Tracey Clark – Ally McBeal: I didn’t watch Ally McBeal when it was on, but knew about her therapist from random pop culture snippets. I looked it up on YouTube and here is her first session. My favorite part is where Dr. Tracey full-on cackles at Ally. I’d be lying if I said I’d never thought of doing that.