When 5 cents is too high a price: 26 destructive fictional therapists
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1. Lucy Van Pelt, Peanuts
Sure, 5 cents is a bargain when it comes to therapy, but the advice Peanuts’ Lucy Van Pelt dispenses from her psychiatry booth isn’t really worth much more than that—and if you happen to be Charlie Brown, it’s probably worth even less. (Though if you seek comfort from the girl who consistently humiliates you on the football field, then buyer beware.) Lucy apparently practices an extreme version of Gestalt therapy that involves belittling her patients, pointing out their myriad faults, and telling them to “snap out of it,” though her professional credentials as a psychiatrist seem somewhat suspect: At only 8 years old, it’s doubtful she could have completed the necessary decade or so of schooling usually required for accreditation.
2. Dr. Leo Marvin, What About Bob?
To be fair, most therapists would probably struggle to maintain their professional composure in the face of a patient as relentlessly annoying as Bill Murray’s titular character in 1991’s What About Bob?, who invites himself along on the family vacation of his therapist, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Then again, going on a trip, leaving an emotionally delicate patient behind with only a copy of Dreyfuss’ book for comfort, isn’t very compassionate, and Dreyfuss’ increasingly maniacal responses to Bob’s well-intended, though frustrating, actions only serve to alienate his family, who find their unexpected house guest simply delightful. Then again, Bob is eventually cured by the conclusion of What About Bob?, though Dreyfuss’ method of kidnapping his patient at gunpoint for “death therapy” probably isn’t board-approved.
3. Ben Harmon, American Horror Story
It’s only the show’s first season, and competition is tight, but it’s tempting to call Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) the worst fictional therapist ever. For starters, most of his patients are ghosts (he does live in a haunted house), ghosts he never realizes are dead and keeps badgering for their health-insurance information, even when he’s treating the Black Dahlia. For another, when Ben’s pregnant wife says she was raped, instead of trying to figure out what’s going on, he has her institutionalized. (And sedated!) And during a brief tenure as a professor of psychology, he starts sleeping with a student. But his “finest” hours all come thanks to Tate, the ghost of a homicidal teenage sociopath who starts sleeping with his daughter. Ben’s constantly revealing detailed personal information to Tate for no particular reason, then telling Tate he can no longer treat him—because he keeps popping up in Ben’s house unexpectedly and stalking his daughter—before completely reversing himself a few minutes later. There’s more, too; we could fill a complete Inventory with “ways Ben Harmon is a bad therapist.”
4. Dr. Vinnie Donatti, Cat’s Eye
“Our methods here at Quitters, Inc. are rather radical,” Alan King calmly states in the “Quitters, Inc.” segment of Cat’s Eye, the 1985 anthology film based on Stephen King’s short stories. Calmly, that is, except that Alan King just knifed open his client’s pack of cigarettes and karate-chopped them all over his desk, while screaming like a psycho. The hapless client is James Woods, who seeks out King in an attempt to quit smoking through behavioral therapy. Woods’ unnerving first meeting with the doctor should have sent him running for the comfort of the nearest smokers’ lounge. Instead, he intrepidly sticks with the treatment. After all, he has a great incentive: King’s “rather radical” therapy involves torturing Woods’ wife and daughter if Woods is caught with a lit cigarette in his mouth. The nightmare scenario unfolds with typical Stephen King tragicomedy, but its ultimate twist underscores how an addiction to a cure—especially in an age where we hire others to break us of our habits—can be far more harmful than any vice.
5. Dr. Malcolm Long, Watchmen
Even Sigmund Freud probably wouldn’t make much progress with Rorschach, a Watchmen crime-fighter who uses his traumatic childhood to power a career as an uncompromising vigilante—and Dr. Malcolm Long, the court-appointed psychiatrist who analyzes Rorschach in prison, is pretty far from Freud. At first duped by his patient’s feigned responses to questions, he then has his mind blown when Rorschach recounts his origin story, as if he’d never really encountered the dark side of human nature before that moment, despite having presumably spent years in the penal system. Long probably couldn’t even cheer up Nite Owl, and that guy’s only problems are a costume fetish and impulse control at the candy counter.
6. Deanna Troi, Star Trek: The Next Generation
The heroes of the original Star Trek seemed to spend most of their five-year mission a few dilithium crystals short of a warp drive, so it made sense that when the spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation hit airwaves in 1987, someone would think to bring a psychologist along to help deal with all the space madness. Unfortunately, as the Enterprise’s ship counselor, Deanna Troi was a wash, to put it mildly. A half-Betazoid, half-human with the ability to sense the emotional states of those around her, Troi was a smorgasbord of feminine clichés and bad choices, and her counseling, when it actually helped anyone, consisted largely of straightforward platitudes. That’s ignoring the times when her involvement actively made a situation worse, or the way so much of her time on the bridge was spent informing Captain Jean-Luc Picard and others of things they all already knew. (Worf: “The Romulans are raising their shields!” Troi: “Captain, I sense they’re hiding something.”) It’s hard to be too hard on poor Troi, though, since the show seemed to go out of its way to torment her, from alien pregnancies to mental rape to mysterious ambassadors who drained her life force. Plus, having Deanna Troi on board meant frequent, unwelcome visits from her shrill, unfunny mother, Lwaxana. As Troi, Marina Sirtis did as well as she could with the material, and the character did improve significantly over the course of the series, but it was still an undeniable case of missed opportunities.
7-8. Dr. Stuart Framingham and Mrs. Charlotte Wallace, Beyond Therapy
Christopher Durang’s farcical 1981 stage play Beyond Therapy tracks the on-again, off-again romance of bisexual Bruce and homophobic Prudence, in a New York trying to move past the touchy-feely ’70s and into the gung-ho ’80s. But the couple is hindered more than helped by their respective therapists. Prudence reports to the always-on-the-make Dr. Stuart Framingham, while Bruce talks to the dim and infantile Charlotte Wallace. Beyond Therapy has been performed on Broadway and turned into an excessively sloppy Robert Altman film, and it continues to be performed regularly in regional theaters. While its references are dated, there’s something timeless about the notion of two romantic partners unable to get out of their own heads, largely because they’ve put their trust in professionals who have no interest in helping them get better.
9. Dr. Robert Elliott, Dressed To Kill
At first, Dr. Elliott (played by Michael Caine) seems like a stand-up guy, as he rejects the sexual advances of his patient Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), and tries to warn people that one of his patients—a transgendered person named “Bobbi”—has been making threats that mark him/her as dangerously unstable. But in fact—spoiler alert!—Dr. Elliott is Bobbi. When the doctor gets sexually aroused, his Bobbi side emerges and goes into a murderous rage. Which means that when Kate asks whether Dr. Elliott would ever consider having sex with her, she effectively signs her own death warrant. (Well, that’s one way to preserve doctor-patient confidentiality.)
10. Dr. Wayne, Mad Men
Betty Draper’s therapist in the first season of Mad Men is pretty accurate in diagnosing her as being “a very anxious young woman” and having “the emotions of a child,” and it’s nice that he allows Betty to chain-smoke during their sessions. But for all his astuteness, the good doctor doesn’t seem to put a lot of stock in the whole “doctor-patient confidentiality” thing. After seeing Betty to treat her for numbness in her hands, Dr. Wayne turns right around and reports his findings to Betty’s husband Don. Betty eventually wises up to them, though, and discontinues her therapy—until season four, when she finds a new therapist who’s better suited to her: her daughter’s child psychologist.
11. Claire, Passengers
It’s important for mental-health-care workers to abide by certain basic, agreed-upon professional standards, primarily by maintaining a properly supportive yet emotionally distanced relationship with their clients. That means, for instance, not enabling criminal behavior, not personally interceding in their lives, and definitely not fucking ’em. Anne Hathaway’s timid, hesitant court-appointed counselor character gets absolutely everything about the caregiver/client relationship wrong in Passengers, a sorta-romantic sorta-thriller in which she’s called upon to provide therapy for the survivors of a devastating plane crash. First she bungles the group sessions, where she lets the patients run the show while she spends more time prying into possible inconsistencies in their memories than actually addressing their anxiety. Then she gets fumble-y and abashed when survivor Patrick Wilson hits on her; she says all the right things about professionalism and distance, but lets him bully and confuse her. When he alternates belittling her, flattering her, and ordering her around, she gratefully abdicates responsibility, puts him in charge of the relationship—which heads straight into the sack—and then starts using him as a therapist. The plot reasons for her ineffectuality, confusion, and neediness are eventually cleared up, but that comes late in the film, and it’s hard to sympathize with her at that point, after an hour of watching her be terrible at everything she does.
12. Harley Quinn, Batman: The Animated Series and various Batman comics
If anyone needs a good therapist it’s The Joker. True, sanity would be bad for business given that his whole criminal existence is based around his crazy persona, but Gotham would undoubtedly be better off without his deadly Joker toxin and willingness to resort to violence at the slightest provocation (or with no provocation at all). Arkham Asylum intern Dr. Harleen Quinzel would at least seem like a good fit for the job. As depicted by co-creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in the 1994 graphic novel Mad Love, she’s compassionate, credentialed, and she gets the Joker talking. Sadly, she gets an earful of lies that make her sympathetic to the bad guy and eventually prompt her to fashion a costume of her own and embark on an abusive on-again, off-again relationship with the Joker. As therapeutic techniques go, joining the patient in his madness is a pretty dubious practice.
13. Katherine, 50/50
Older female therapists in TV and films get to be stern-mother figures, nurturing patients while ordering them to shape up. Younger female therapists are more likely to be conquests—around in the first half of the story, so the protagonist can open up to a professional and deliver emotional exposition without seeming weak, but then turning into a girlfriend figure in the latter half of the story, once the protagonist gets it together. Anna Kendrick’s character in 50/50 fits that bill in every way. She’s consciously drawn as meek, inexperienced, unprofessional, and awkward: Protagonist Joseph Gordon-Levitt is only her third client, they’re the same age, and she has no presence or authority yet. She even relies on him for validation, as she practices her methods on him and he offers feedback along the way. She’s young and naïve and has a lot to learn, but the way she gets personally drawn into his story doesn’t bode well for her future career: Apart from providing a few key insights at turning points in the film, she’s mostly there to enable his narration, look cute and more vulnerable than he is, and ultimately take on the girlfriend role, presuming he survives his cancer.
14. Sister Peter Marie Reimondo, Oz
In some ways, Rita Moreno’s feisty psychiatrist nun on the HBO prison drama Oz is an entirely capable mental-health worker. She’s brave, calm in a crisis, largely unintimidated by the daily brutal violence around her, and honestly caring about the inmates of the Oswald State Correctional Facility. That said, she’s a prominent character in a soap opera, and thus as given to outsized drama and the needs of plot convenience as anyone else. So, for instance, she falls for a prisoner she’s counseling, even though he’s an obvious sociopath and a convicted multiple murderer. But generally, her devotion to principle and to helping her charges would keep her off this list… if not for her insane devotion to her victim/victimizer confrontation program, where she pushes old enemies to sit down together and explore their feelings. Given that those feelings include things like, “It made me feel helpless when you repeatedly raped me” and, “I murdered my son because of something you did, then had your son kidnapped, mutilated, and killed as revenge,” the whole idea is not only laughably misguided, but incredibly dangerous to the physical and emotional well-being of all concerned.
15. Dr. Bill Capa, Color Of Night
One great way to avoid ending up on a list like this: Don’t sleep with a patient. Here’s another one (though the spoiler-averse might want to stop reading here): Don’t sleep with nymphomaniacal women who might also be posing as 16-year-old boys named Richie, especially if you’re taking over the practice of a friend who may have been murdered by someone he was treating. (That only sounds like an easy problem to avoid if you haven’t seen the movie, which puts co-star Jane March into some of the least-convincing female-to-male drag this side of Yentl.) And if suddenly you start finding poisonous snakes in your mailbox, by all means don’t try to solve the murder yourself. Your degree did not prepare you for that.
16-17. Dr. Barry, Maurice (1987) / Dr. Frederickson, Hairspray (1988)
It wasn’t that long ago that homosexuality was considered a form of mental illness. When fiction reflects that, usually via a psychiatrist or doctor advising a patient to just get over that whole liking-the-same-sex thing already, it’s usually meant as a snigger at the bad old days and the clueless dopes who perpetuated the belief—or a bitter strike at supposed professionals who let their own distaste for personal sexual matters prevent them from taking gay clients seriously. Take Denholm Elliott’s family doctor in Maurice, the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel; when the eponymous protagonist (James Wilby) comes to him, concerned about lusting after men and wanting a cure, Elliott explodes with disgust, saying that his self-diagnosis is “rubbish” and an “evil hallucination” that shouldn’t be spoken of: “I’ll not discuss! The worst thing I could do for you is to discuss.” Instead of talking over Wilby’s concerns, or even hearing him out, Elliott snaps “Find yourself a pretty young woman! She’ll soon cure you!” (Slightly more sympathetic: The hypnotist Wilby approaches, who claims a 50 percent cure rate, but fails to convert Wilby, and politely suggests he flee England and move to a less judgmental country.)
Very much in the same vein: The psychiatrist enlisted to cure Penny Pingleton of finding black teenagers attractive in John Waters’ Hairspray. As he attempts to spirit her away for shock treatments, the doc—played by Waters himself—cheerfully advises her, “Think of all the white boys in school, and how much you’d like to date one!” Whatever happened to meeting a patient and talking to them before prescribing women, white boys, and electroshock?
18-19. Dr. Frederick Chilton and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon/The Silence Of The Lambs
Thomas Harris’ thrillers suggest that he doesn’t have much respect for the psychiatric profession, at least not compared with FBI agents, who actually get the job done. In particular, there’s the matter of Dr. Frederick Chilton—the sanitarium director responsible for overseeing Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who looms large over most of Harris’ books. Charged with treating—and more importantly, containing—Lecter, Chilton clearly sees him as a ticket to career glory. As FBI agent Will Graham and later Clarice Starling attempt to secure Lecter’s help in running down serial killers, Chilton repeatedly prods the agents for access to any information they get, trying to eke out a little more glory by publishing an analysis of Lecter, and undermining the agents when they won’t cooperate with his venal ends. He’s made no progress with Lecter himself—he dubs him “impenetrable to psychological testing” simply because Lecter considers him a lower intellect and won’t deal with him—and he vindictively hands out petty punishments as a result. And then his own incompetence allows Lecter to escape. Actually, Lecter himself is a pretty lousy therapist: He’s great at analysis, insight, and subtly assisting people in the right directions without handing them the answers, but when he was still seeing patients, he had a nasty tendency to permanently “cure” them by killing them, then eating bits of them.
20. Dr. Naehring, Shutter Island
There’s something terrible happening on “Shutter Island,” a facility for the criminally insane that’s far enough removed from oversight that inmates/patients become natural test subjects for cutting-edge psychiatric experiments, circa 1954. Though Ben Kingsley serves as the head psychiatrist, the true man-behind-the-man is Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow), whose poorly obscured German accent and enthusiasm for Mahler pegs him as a relocated Nazi doctor. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s investigator first encounters Naehring sitting by the fire in quarters too decadent for such a grim institution, his mind immediately drifts to the trauma of German concentration camp. Later, Naehring turns up in the seediest wing of the place, “sedative” in pocket, clearly comfortable with doing the dirty work when necessary. His insights as a therapist may be sound, but they’re spoken with a silver tongue, hiding intentions that are unfathomably diabolical.
21. Dr. Nix, Raising Cain
Let’s set aside for a moment that John Lithgow’s psycho in Raising Cain has four personalities—including a frightened little boy and a shrill middle-aged mother—and focus on just one, the respected child psychologist and seemingly devoted husband and father. Early in the film, this Lithgow is shown trying to convince a mother to allow him to ship her son to Norway for experiments in early childhood development. (Who wouldn’t want their child scrutinized by psychologists 24/7 at a “Norwegian snake pit”?) Barring that, he simply snatches the boy, chloroforms the mother, and, at the suggestion of his chain-smoking alter-ego, dumps her and her car into a lake. Like many movie therapists, Lithgow is a head-shrinking head-case, though far more egregious than most. (On the other hand, three of his four personalities are not trained psychologists, and therefore accept no responsibility for his actions.)
22. Dr. Oatman, Grosse Point Blank
A professional assassin isn’t the easiest of patients, but Alan Arkin’s hapless head-shrinker ought to be able to offer crisis-prone hit man John Cusack more than New Age nostrums like, “I am at home with the me.” Arkin tries to weasel out of their regular sessions, claiming “emotional involvement” (i.e. he’s afraid), but Cusack keeps dropping in, half-seriously warning that terminating their relationship would get Arkin ended as well. Eventually, he takes to screening his calls, eavesdropping as Cusack finally lowers the hammer and smashing his answering machine in a fit of impotent rage, which leads you to think that Arkin’s therapist must have his hands full as well.
23. Dr. Linda Freeman, Two And A Half Men
It’s too bad that Jane Lynch got the job as Sue Sylvester on Glee, because she was always a welcome sight when she played the therapist Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) went to when things in his life got out of control, which was often. Dr. Freeman actually wasn’t a terrible therapist: She spoke frankly to her patient, was a wise-ass when needed, and challenged Charlie to look at his “man whore” ways and see why things were the way they were. But Dr. Freeman failed whenever she thought she’d gotten through to Charlie, who soon reverted to his old ways. (Until, of course, he got smushed by a Metro train in Paris, but that was more Charlie Sheen’s fault than anything else.)
24. Kevin, How I Met Your Mother
Television sitcoms are fond of storylines where one of the single women on the show—preferably one in a will-they/won’t-they relationship—falls in love with her therapist. In the case of How I Met Your Mother, that character is Robin (Cobie Smulders), and that therapist is court-mandated and played by Kal Penn. The burgeoning attraction between the two was, well, a little icky, but the show needed another monkey wrench to throw in the gears of the inevitable Robin/Barney reunion, so it continued apace. To his credit, Kevin realized that his attraction to Robin was so strong that he could no longer treat her, but the show contrived a ridiculous rationale for the two to get together, involving Robin serving as Kevin’s ersatz therapist for an hour or two, despite lack of professional training. Now, Kevin occasionally pops up to offer psychological assessments of the whole cast, never to be Frasier Crane.
25. Frasier Crane, Cheers
On his own show, Frasier Crane seemed like a pretty good therapist. He didn’t get everything right, but he genuinely seemed interested in the lives of the people who called in to his radio show and gave them good counsel. Based solely on Frasier, he’s one of the best TV therapists, along with The Bob Newhart Show’s Bob Hartley. But back when viewers first met him on Cheers, the doctor had ended up at the bar because he was fascinated with Diane—a woman he’d just met while he worked at a psychiatric hospital. He went on to treat Sam but continue to date Diane (the root cause of many of Sam’s problems), and even after he’d successfully moved on from Diane with Lilith, his second wife, he still made snide, dark jokes about his patients at the bar. He wasn’t the worst therapist ever, but Cheers seemed to bring out the worst in him.
26. Dr. Jennifer Melfi, The Sopranos
What’s interesting about what makes Dr. Jennifer Melfi a bad therapist is that it’s what would make her a good therapist in almost any other fictional work: She doesn’t give up. Even though it’s obvious that Tony Soprano is never going to have the sort of breakthroughs she might like—and, indeed, will just keep using the things she tells him in therapy as ways to further his mob operation—she keeps pushing, continually unwrapping new, tiny nuggets of information. Melfi is the moral conscience of The Sopranos and the one person within its universe who could be described as unambiguously “good,” so it’s not as if she could be written out of the show entirely. But it’s still curious that she breaks off therapy with Tony at the end of season one, after he physically threatens her, then takes up with him again in season two, perhaps because of a subconscious attraction she can barely admit to herself.