from our Optimisticles blog series
By Wes Kilgore, Well Beings
Just like much of America fantasized about having a Jeb Bartlett in the actual White House during the height of the popularity of “The West Wing” on NBC (go ahead, ask your parents. I’ll wait…), there are a handful of television psychotherapists that would undoubtedly have folks queuing up to take a seat on their couches IRL. Writing dialogue strong enough to convey genuinely useful and impactful advice can be tricky while fitting within the confines of a sitcom’s laugh lines or a drama’s, well… drama. Still, these shows took the time to get it right.
Dr. Melfi, “The Sopranos”
Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) was in the unenviable position of helping to maintain the mental well-being of reputed mob boss Tony Soprano on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” Tony began seeing Dr. Melfi after having a panic attack in the very first episode of the series. Through her firm but nonjudgmental style of psychoanalysis, Dr. Melfi was able to penetrate the wall of defenses that Tony originally approached their sessions with, and the mobster began to confide in her things that he had never shared with his closest confidants, or his family.
Dr. Akopian, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
Despite its decidedly un-PC show title, the CW’s musical dramedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” featured some of the most nuanced and realistic portrayals of mental health disease ever depicted on TV. Dr. Noelle Akopian (Michael Hyatt) begins counseling Rebecca Bunch (the titular “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) under dubious circumstances – Rebecca is just trying to get a quick refill of her prescription psychoactive drugs. But by the end of the series, Dr. Akopian has convinced Rebecca to genuinely open up to her, diagnosed her borderline personality disorder, and helped her unpack her suicidal ideations. And if offering sound, potentially life-altering, professional mental health analysis wasn’t challenging enough, imagine doing so while belting out a show tune – in heels, no less.
Justina Jordan, “You’re The Worst”
According to a 2015 L.A. Times headline, FXX’s “You’re the Worst” once aired “The best depiction of clinical depression. Ever.” The article refers to an episode in which one of the show’s leads, Gretchen (Aya Cash), reveals her clinical depression diagnosis to the audience for the first time. When Gretchen finally seeks therapy for her depression in the following season, the show continued to garner awards and praise for it’s handling of mental illness, including an equally compelling portrayal of another character’s PTSD. Psychotherapynotes.com says, “Unlike how comedies usually handle therapy, here the therapist (Samira Wiley) holds boundaries, genuinely helps and still shows that she is a human being. It’s mostly Gretchen’s anxieties about therapy that are played for laughs, rather than the therapy itself.”
Maggie Bloom, “A Million Little Things”
Maggie Bloom (Allison Miller) is losing a fortune in unbillable hours as the de facto confidante and counselor to her extended group of friends in ABC’s “A Million Little Things.” When not giving away free, pitch-perfect advice, the diminutive Maggie is a licensed therapist who hosts a podcast and a call-in radio show. This scene shows how she is unafraid to wield her formidable diagnostic skills against anyone unfortunate enough to threaten the emotional well-being of her friends.
Dr. Frasier Crane, “Frasier”
Among all shows on this list, NBC’s “Frasier” is the closest to the classic sitcom format, complete with a laugh track. Despite its old-school approach, the wisdom and thoughtfulness at the heart of the show endures — enough so that a series reboot is in the works for 2022. Episodes usually focused more on the private life of Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), but the psychotherapist’s brilliance was often on full display as he dispensed advice on the radio call-in show he hosted for Seattle’s KACL. Although it was a less-than-ideal platform for thorough psychological analysis, there was no shortage of breakthroughs with his callers, as seen in this clip with his producer, Roz (Peri Gilpin).
Dr. Katharine Wyatt, “Grey’s Anatomy”
On ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” Meredith Grey’s (Ellen Pompeo) counseling sessions with Dr. Katharine Wyatt (Amy Madigan) started as a battle of wills. Meredith remained speechless during her first two sessions, believing that she would still reap benefits from just being there. During the third session, Dr. Wyatt finally got Meredith to open up about her insomnia — ostensibly the reason she sought counseling — and begin to unpack the issues contributing to it. Although the duo logged plenty of screen time in therapy, the fortune cookie-sized bit of advice in this scene demonstrates Dr. Wyatt at her best.
Dr. Kroger, “Monk”
One of the more enduring tropes for on-screen psychoanalysis is the patient who has boundary issues with his analyst. On USA’s “Monk,” former homicide detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) pushes those boundaries as far as possible. After suffering a mental breakdown triggered by the tragic murder of his wife, Trudy, Monk starts therapy with Dr. Charles Kroger (Stanley Kamel). Monk is possibly the most neurotic character to ever grace a TV screen, and his god-level OCD renders him practically incapable of accommodating unforeseen events such as changes to his scheduled therapy sessions. Here is a supercut of some of Dr. Kroger’s most-challenging sessions with Monk.
Dr. Amanda Reisman, “Big Little Lies”
There’s no shortage of trauma in HBO’s exceptional limited-run dramatic series “Big Little Lies.” One of the more disturbing plot lines revolves around the abuse that Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) endures at the hand of her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). In this scene, when Celeste’s therapist, Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert), discovers the extent of Celeste’s abuse, she tests the boundaries of her therapeutic limits to ensure her patient’s safety.
Dr. Jack Habib, “The Newsroom”
On HBO’s “The Newsroom,” psychiatrist Dr. Jack Habib (David Krumholtz) inherits high-profile cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) as a patient after taking over his recently-deceased father’s practice. Psychology Today gave the show kudos for its depiction of these characters’ therapy sessions, saying, “Will is highly intelligent, demanding, arrogant and, as we’ve learned, sensitive to rejection. And yet Dr. Jack has created an environment in which Will is not only appreciative and responsive to Dr. Jack but uncharacteristically open and receptive.”
Linda Martin, “Lucifer”
On “Lucifer,” therapist Linda Martin (Rachael Harris) has a patient who, by all reasonable measures, is clearly detached from reality and psychotic — Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis), aka the ruler of Hell. Although Lucifer initially uses biblical metaphors in therapy to discuss his role in the underworld and his fall from Heaven, the line between allegory and Lucifer’s self-identity eventually fades away. Throughout the series, Martin uses techniques that the National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests are the best ways to support someone with psychosis: “Avoid criticizing or blaming the person for their psychosis” and “Avoid denying or arguing with them about their reality and saying, ‘That doesn’t make any sense.'”
About the Author
Wes Kilgore is a writer, musician and bon vivant based in the Washington, DC area, and the proud parent of two disturbingly well-adjusted young women and two borderline sociopathic Corgis.