Best and worst therapists of TV and film

I took some much-needed days off for the holiday weekend and started watching what looked to be a promising, feminist-type show called Workin’ Moms on Netflix. As much as I love the representation of women in a variety of workplaces and the show’s candid humor about the not-so-pretty aspects of femaledom, they totally lost me when it came to scenes with Anne, one of the main characters who works as a psychiatrist out of her home.

I actually liked her character development – she’s a person who is pretty blunt and sometimes too harsh and intimidating with other people, which is not the typical softspoken TV mental health professional I think we’ve come to expect and is a little closer to how I view myself. But the ethics violations!! I get that they are looking for humor but why oh why did the show’s writers decide Anne would start seeing her personal friend for psychiatry? Not just that, but also spend their therapy time chatting about their mutual lives and arguing over a cheese stick like they’re just chilling on a Saturday afternoon? I can’t with this. So this started me thinking about all the terrible representation (some of it, enjoyably so) I see of mental health professionals on TV and movies and here you have it, my ranking of the best and worst TV/film therapists based on shows I personally have seen.

  1. Dr. Akopian – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Dr. Akopian ranks #1 on my list because she reacts! Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in general does mental health fantastically well and brings humor to super dark topics without mocking people with mental illnesses. Rebecca (the main character) is pretty hate-able sometimes but she’s entertaining and even when she’s way out of line her mistakes and feelings about herself are relatable. Dr. Akopian doesn’t just sit back and watch her do whatever like a lot of on-screen therapists may, she challenges her and brings up uncomfortable topics. Also, the scene when Rebecca sees Dr. Akopian in public is pure gold – it’s so perfectly awkward and realistic. It’s hard to write a lot about Dr. Akopian since her personal life isn’t featured and we don’t know about her as a character outside of Rebecca’s interactions.

2. Commander Deanna Troi – Star Trek The Next Generation

When I started writing this list I looked at a bunch of other lists to try and see which people I forgot and you know who I never saw anywhere? Commander Deanna M-F’ing Troi. I don’t know if it’s cause she’s in sci-fi or if it’s disrespect to her being what I equivocate to a future version of a social worker, but this woman works HARD and deserves some credit. Not only does she have a caseload that is the ENTIRE USS Enterprise (a Class D starship which can accommodate anywhere between 1000 to 6000 crewmembers including civilians and family members of officers), which puts her right on par with your average county social worker, but she does it all! Kids, adults, Klingons, Ferangi, Romulans, glowing blobs, mysterious orbs of light which impregnate her – you never see her refer out for any population. And she does it all in this ridiculous skintight suit because they didn’t give her a Federation uniform until several seasons in, even though she is also an OFFICER. And of course, in the future social work still appears to be underfunded as her profession doesn’t have access to any of the cool gadgets that say, Dr. Crusher or Commander LaForge get to use to make their work easier. When someone on the Enterprise gets stabbed, Dr. Crusher can use a little asthma inhaler on the wound and BOOM it’s gone, but Commander Troi doesn’t even have an EMDR machine. Also, can we take a minute to give her some credit for how exhausting it must be for her to be an empath on a ship with SO. MUCH. DRAMA?? She works next to her ex every day! The only reason Commander Troi didn’t get #1 is completely personal in that I wish she would have dumped Riker because he’s a sleaze who is always partying on Risa.

3. Niles Crane – Frasier/Cheers

It’s too bad we don’t actually see Dr. Niles Crane in session, so it’s hard to tell what he’s really like on the job. However, I think we can infer from his conversations with Frasier and others that he considers multiple angles on situations, he is thoughtful, considerate, and ethical. Niles is a huge snob just like Frasier but he doesn’t suffer from the same grandiosity that Frasier does, and he’s much more relatable. You can see from his relationship with Maris that he is at heart a caretaker, who has his own issues about standing up for himself and setting boundaries, which are really common for mental health workers. When he finally (SPOILER ALERT!) gets together with Daphne, he treats her like a queen and their relationship is realistic. I particularly enjoyed a few episodes where the show was trying to hide Jane Leeves’s pregnancy by making her character fat and Niles was so infatuated with the idea of her that he never notices. He’s interested in delving into his own psyche and problems which I believe is the hallmark of professional work. He doesn’t rank higher because I honestly cannot see him working with anyone who makes under $80k a year, which is a topic for a whole other post about how shows like Frasier are laughable in the post-crash economy.

4. Dr. Melfi – The Sopranos

First of all, Dr. Melfi has MAJOR poker face. I know I just said I like Dr. Akopian because she reacts, which is realistic, but I have always envied people who are able to just sit and listen to anything and not give everything away on their face. She is the queen of using silence to allow space for processing, and her suits are fabulous even when you account for it being the early 2000s. I liked that we got to see her with her therapist Elliott, but it was weird to me that she and her therapist (or was he her supervisor? hard to tell) hanging out socially. If he was her supervisor, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but they seem to have a therapeutic relationship. She also continues working with Tony Soprano for YEARS despite him threatening her numerous times, lunging at her, trying to kiss her, and in general being terrifying or unwilling to do a whole lot of work on himself. This is part of why I’m ranking her #4 instead of #2. I think Dr. Melfi needed to work on her boundaries and this is shown in the final episodes when she decides to stop seeing Tony abruptly and gives him the news rather angrily. I can see why she continues working with him throughout the years, hoping she can help him, but when you start building resentment towards a client it’s time to let go before it can come to a head.

5. Dr. Andrea Bayden – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Dr. Andrea Bayden ranks #5 because she is almost perfectly half-good, half-bad as a therapist. She has a total Jekyll-Hide thing going on which is decently realistic for high functioning alcoholism, and not unheard of with people working in mental health. A lot of people go into this profession because they have patterns of caretaking for others that are potentially unhealthy and have a lot of mental garbage to take care of, and Dr. Bayden is an example of what it looks like when that trash doesn’t get taken out. She’s paradoxically self-aware in her awareness that her sober self and drunk selves are completely separate people and figures out how to make her sober self get things done. The good – she gives Kimmy excellent insights about her behaviors. The bad – she blacks out every night. While it’s definitely not recommended or ethical therapy, Dr. Bayden does actually help Kimmy realize that her relationship with Titus is one-sided, understand her baggage with her mom, and see she needs to emphasize her own needs in order to grow and get what she wants out of life.

6. Frasier Crane – Frasier/Cheers

Ok, enough good therapists, we’re getting to the bottom of the list and down to the bad ones. Yes I think Dr. Frasier Crane is a bad psychiatrist and if you re-watch this show you will too. Let’s start with his trademark phrase, “I’m listening.” No, you’re not! Dr. Crane does not listen to his callers, he only waits for them to stop talking so he can conjecture. Aside from the whole fact that radio therapy is a HIPAA nightmare and two-minute conversations between commercial breaks are completely ineffective means for dealing with serious mental illness or relationship issues, Frasier is condescending and rude as hell. I rewatched this show like a year ago because it’s hilarious and the writing is awesome, and realized that I think the main comedy of the show is that Frasier is a hilariously bad psychiatrist who is too full of himself to know. My fiance had never seen the show and kept saying, “He’s Sideshow Bob!” because he has these completely convoluted ideas and his bloated sense of self worth is cartoonish. Another thing that I think gets forgotten about is the episode where Frasier has a black woman named Dr. Mary as a guest host and he basically freaks out because her advice-giving is not “professional”. The show again is masterful in this episode by exposing how ridiculous Frasier is acting out of totally irrational fear of talking about race. Here is a great video example of Frasier being characteristically uptight and awkward because he’s unwilling to talk to her for fear of being called a racist.

7. Dr. Anne Carlson – Workin Moms

I added Dr. Carlson to this list even though I have not watched more than 7 episodes of this show because she was the reason I came up with the list in the first place. As I said before, I like that Anne is blunt and to-the-point with both her clients and her friends, but she goes way over the line in a couple scenes and she is extremely unprofessional to refer a personal friend to her services. This show is Canadian so maybe they have a different code of ethics that states it’s ok to prescribe psychotropics to your buds? I kinda doubt it. I debated about if she’s really worse than Frasier or Dr. Bayden and I think she is for the reason that she’s not set up to be a wackily unprofessional character. I feel like a Walter White or Nurse Jackie type portrayal that is showing us a person who is clearly outside the norm of their profession is ultimately less harmful to the reputation of said profession than one who is posed to look like a regular person. Add to it the fact that this show is supposed to be feminist (I really wanted to like it!!) and it really bothers me that someone in a traditionally feminine job is shown to be unprofessional. In real life, a therapist who is clearly unprofessional or rude like a Dr. Bayden or Frasier Crane is probably going to actually do less harm because people will stop going to them. On a personal level, I also cannot stand that her office and her clothing are all white when she’s doing therapy like it’s some kind of cult. It’s creepy. If I went to a therapy office that was a bare, sunlit room and they had an all-white outfit on I would start looking for the bodies with folded handkerchiefs and Nikes on them.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs

Not that I need to say it, but Hannibal Lecter murders people so he is not in good standing with his state ethics board. Also I am pretty sure when he flees the country he is skipping out on some renewal fees, which may be even worse in the eyes of the APA. In terms of people I would want to hang out with, Hannibal Lecter is actually pretty high on the list. He’s definitely got class and he knows what wine to pair with which body part which is really a dying art (ha!). I would love to go to Rome with him in a platonic way. I believe that he probably would be a fascinating conversationalist and if he was real and wrote books I would buy them. He really hates rudeness and I get that. I don’t think he would want to murder me because I speak French and I try to be courteous to strangers and not be an annoying tourist. But there is no way that even prior to learning he was a cannibal that I could imagine feeling comfortable enough with him to share anything of my personal life. Also he disrespects a U.S. senator by asking about her nursing habits with her kidnapped daughter and that’s just not cool. It was the late 80s and I’m sure it was hard enough for her to be a woman in the senate without all that, thank you very much.

9. Tobias Fünke – Arrested Development

This one is too obvious. Dr. Tobias Fünke is only on this list because he’s hilarious and I needed to add this picture of him with bloody hair plugs.

10. Dr. Leslie Rosen – The First Wives Club

Here she is! The worst psychiatrist on film and probably one you have totally forgotten about. Dr. Rosen is a couples therapist who Annie (Diane Keaton)’s complete douchebag of a husband cheats on her with. She exists in the movie to be the Other Woman and as such wears teeny tiny skirts and sexy silk blouses to do therapy so she can snatch up clients’ husbands. You’re probably thinking, well Hannibal Lecter bites off faces, how is this lady the worst? So many reasons. One, because the little bit of therapy we hear her doing is just repeating inane phrases like, “Work from love. Go from love.” Um… what? Maybe this was a new wave in the 90s that I was too late for, may it Rest in Peace. Two, because there was literally something called a Shame Puppet in one of the therapy scenes that I really wish would have been better explained and I could not find a picture of on the internet but you will have to believe me, it was there. *Shudder* And three, because characters like this are part of this whole infuriating narrative that women are at work just to be somewhere that they can find a man, no matter what job they’re in. It’s completely gross and predatory that any service provider would have sex with a client, and it doesn’t become sexy just because it’s a female service provider. And hey, who wouldn’t want to throw away half a dozen years of expensive schooling over a tawdry affair with someone whose relationship problems you already know extremely well? I realize that the movie the First Wives Club has not aged as well as its contemporary Better Midler flick Hocus Pocus in terms of female-to-female relationships either, but I have fond memories of watching this movie with my mom as a kid and pretending to be adult enough to understand divorces and menapause so I’ll still keep watching it.

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