By Bethonie Butler
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) had just finished detailing the sorrow and helplessness he felt over his son's depression when the tears welling up in his eyes turned to seething anger. "It's in his blood," the sensitive mob boss told his psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in a memorable Season 6 episode. "My rotten ... putrid genes have infected my kid's soul. That's my gift to my son."
It's been more than 20 years since Tony reluctantly sat down in Melfi's office, where he was referred after suffering a panic attack. And although The Sopranos wasn't the first TV series to feature a therapist character, many practitioners cited it as a refreshingly authentic representation of what therapy actually is.
Tony's competent and compassionate shrink set a new standard.
In recent years, therapist characters have proliferated across TV, in part because of increasing mental health awareness among TV creators and the larger entertainment industry. But not all TV therapists are created equal: In the decades since Tony started his weekly sessions, we've seen portrayals that strike similar authenticity, a few that push boundaries and others that resort to harmful tropes.
Here's a look at some of the most notable portrayals – on both sides of the spectrum - over the past decade.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-19)
Leave it to Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) to forge a long-time relationship with the psychiatrist from whom she once tried to steal a prescription pad. But Noelle Akopian (Michael Hyatt) was dedicated to helping Rebecca with her diagnosed borderline personality disorder. Their sessions sometimes included simple but powerful moments like the time Akopian told Rebecca she needs and deserves love.
The character, however, veers a bit too much into Black Lady Therapist territory, a term coined by writer Aisha Harris to denote TV's disproportionate number of black female therapists who exist on shows solely to help white characters. The trope is especially evident in the CW series' finale, when Dr Akopian manifests not as Rebecca's therapist, but as a "dream ghost" who shows Rebecca what her future would look like with each of the three men she loves.
13 Reasons Why (2016-20)
Nicola Pierre-Smith, a licensed professional counsellor in Philadelphia, cites Netflix's young adult drama as a bad therapist portrayal. In addition to the graphic suicide scene that was later deleted from the series, the show was criticised for a troubling scene between protagonist Hannah (Katherine Langford) and a school guidance counsellor (Derek Luke), whom she goes to for help. He dismisses her concerns, insinuates she may have somehow played a role in her own sexual assault and does nothing to assuage her when she alludes to suicidal thoughts.
Suicide prevention advocates worried that portrayal sent a harmful message to teens about seeking treatment, and it was one of the many issues the show attempted to correct over its four seasons. One prominent later story line found Clay (Dylan Minnette) in regular sessions with an insightful therapist played by Gary Sinise.
When the fifth and final season of HBO's Insecure premiered last month, we could see the growth Molly (Yvonne Orji) has undergone since returning to the stylish office of Rhonda Pine (Denise Dowse). Molly first entered therapy in the Season 2 premiere and spent much of that first session trying to pretend that her life was absolutely fine. She later told her BFF that she liked having a black therapist after seeing some practitioners who were less than culturally competent.
Eventually, Dr Rhonda was able to get Molly to open up – and to take note of how often Molly said she should do or have something in a relationship or job setting. But even in the third season, Molly was still withholding information from her therapist and she took a long break between sessions before calling at the end of Season 4 because she had been having "a hard time".
Never Have I Ever (2020-present)
Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is a teenage girl still reeling from the death of her father. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash) is a thoughtful therapist who challenges Devi to truly explore her feelings. She is also quick to call Devi out when she isn't her best self, such as the time she spread a hurtful rumour about Aneesa (Megan Suri). "I am on your side, Devi," Dr Ryan tells her. "But that means being honest with you and dunking on you when it's appropriate."
Nash used her own experience in taking on the Netflix show's recurring character. "I've been in therapy probably a little over two years now, right at two years, and it's such a valuable asset," Nash told the Daily Beast last year.
Blood & Water (2020-present)
Pierre-Smith cites Blood & Water as a particularly troubling portrayal of a therapist. Though groundbreaking in other ways, the South African teen drama offers a malicious portrayal of a private school counsellor in Janet Nkosana (Zikhona Sodlaka). Janet is brought in during the Netflix show's second season to help Fikile (Khosi Ngema) after a traumatic series of events, but she has the ulterior motive of trying to figure out what Fikile knows about an alleged crime. She persuades the school headmistress to also let her treat Puleng (Ama Qamata), who shares a close, if often adversarial, relationship with Fikile - but again, her goal is to obtain information that could be used to harm her young patients.
Though Janet is called out by her son (a love interest for Fikile) over her duplicitous approach, it is not the same as being called out by an industry colleague or an authority figure at the school.
Ted Lasso (2020-present)
The second season of Apple TV's beloved comedy Ted Lasso introduces Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), a sport psychologist, who helps Ted (Jason Sudeikis) realise that his sunny disposition can't solve every problem. And yes, she's a black woman, but as Harris discussed recently on NPR's All Things Considered, Sharon is among the characters adding depth to the trope.
"She does help the show take a turn toward more complex themes, unveiling Ted's layer of artifice as a happy-go-lucky dude," Harris wrote on NPR's website. "But that process also fully involves her as a human being who's bringing in her own baggage."
Sharon addresses that baggage as a real-life therapist might – in sessions with her own therapist.
Mare of Easttown (2021)
The hit HBO series revolves around a grim, twist-filled murder mystery, but is also very much about grief. Mare (Kate Winslet) plays a police detective struggling with the loss of her son, who died by suicide. Early in the series, the police chief orders Mare to see a counsellor to truly deal with the magnitude of her loss. Enter Gayle Graham (Eisa Davis), who helps Mare unpack her unprocessed grief and guilt over her son's death.
Though Mare argues that therapy won't "work" for her during their first session, she continues to see Gayle even after she is cleared to return to the force. Mare's therapy sessions build toward a moment of healing when she is able to find some closure around her son and how he died. "The therapist did a good job of conveying her compassion for her patient," Gabbard said.
That may be because Mare of Easttown relied on insight from a real-life therapist who specialises in grief. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, creator Brad Inglesby credited consultant Ariel Stern – who was also on hand for scenes between Davis and Winslet – with helping him come up with the series' powerful ending, which finds Mare finally confronting her grief.
Though Davis's character resembles the Black Lady Therapist trend, the portrayal gets a lot of things right.
This article was first published in Sunday Insider, Dec 5, 2021