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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
They’re listening: 13 actually good therapists in TV and film

They’re listening: 13 actually good therapists in TV and film

Photo: The Sopranos (HBO), Good Will Hunting (poster), You're The Worst (FXX), Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

Psychology gets a bad rap in television and film, with therapists often portrayed as one more hurdle characters must overcome, in addition to whatever problem brought them to therapy in the first place. Fictional therapists can be dismissive of their patients, betray their trust, or even traumatize them further with dangerous, experimental techniques—to say nothing of that one psychiatrist who ate his clients. That’s what makes it so refreshing to see therapists in a more positive, and often more realistic, light. The following mental health care professionals of the big and little screen not only are good listeners, never dismissing their clients’ problems, but they also show patience and restraint in leading their clients to some very difficult realizations, providing an empathetic ear and much-needed guidance. Whether or not their clients always heed their advice is another story.

1. Dr. Tyrone C. Berger, Ordinary People

Like so many fictional (and real-life) clients, Timothy Hutton’s Conrad enters therapy reluctantly, his time with Judd Hirsch’s Dr. Berger in Ordinary People (1980) beginning after his older brother’s death in a boating accident, then Conrad’s suicide attempt and stay in a mental hospital. Despite Conrad’s anxious insistence that what he wants is to be more “in control,” Dr. Berger recognizes the true goals of therapy are much more complex. Leveling with Conrad, and even mirroring some of the teenager’s sarcasm to make him see just how hard he’s being on himself, Dr. Berger is able to lead his pained client to some very real insights about the harmful dynamics in his seemingly perfect family. Life isn’t always easy, Dr. Berger tells him, but keeping yourself from feeling painful emotions will also keep you from feeling the good ones. Ordinary People is one of the most realistic depictions of teenage depression in film—Conrad’s anxiety and shame are palpable, yet he still experiences moments of levity—and Dr. Berger one of its best, straight-shooting listeners. [Laura Adamczyk]

2. Ruth Brenner, Russian Doll

Elizabeth Ashley as Ruth Brenner
Elizabeth Ashley as Ruth Brenner
Screenshot: Russian Doll

Russian Doll’s central character, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), is lovable and talented, but undeniably flawed. Yet she would have been even worse off if it weren’t for her surrogate mother, Ruth Brenner (Elizabeth Ashley), a therapist and family friend who intervenes at a crucial moment in Nadia’s childhood. Their relationship is much more found family than doctor-patient—Ruth remains a loving, concerned presence in Nadia’s life, offering refuge (note the ease with which Nadia regularly enters her old friend’s home), some semblance of stability, and, a bit more sparingly, counsel. The events of the series, including countless deaths, take their toll on Nadia; given her family history, she can’t be sure she isn’t imagining starting a new day in the same bathroom with the same birthday chicken. When Nadia decides to voluntarily commit herself to a psychiatric facility, Ruth makes damn sure that’s what she really wants before offering to follow Nadia’s ambulance to the hospital. Ruth is just as supportive in other iterations of Nadia’s no-good, seemingly never-ending day, and not once do they ever sit across from each other in an office. [Danette Chavez]

3. Sean Maguire, Good Will Hunting

In 1997’s Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s fist-fighting math genius makes short work of a number of court-mandated psychologists before finding one who can actually hang with him: Sean Maguire (the late Robin Williams in his Oscar-winning role), a fellow Red Sox fan and South Boston native who’s wrestling with a few demons of his own. Although he breaks some rules in the process of breaking down Will’s defenses (we’re pretty sure you’re not supposed to choke your client during session), Maguire gets the stubborn Will to open up by patiently waiting for him to engage first and then opening up himself, sharing his grief over his late wife and his own experience with physical abuse. Say what you will about that scene, a good therapist knows when to hold back and when to push. [Laura Adamczyk]

4. Dr. Edna Keener, Mad Men

Patricia Bethune as Dr. Edna Keener
Patricia Bethune as Dr. Edna Keener
Screenshot: Mad Men

Mad Men put both one of the best and one of the worst therapists on screen in its seven seasons. In the first season, there was Dr. Arnold Wayne, who would betray doctor-patient confidentiality by telling Don Draper how his wife, Betty (January Jones), is (not) progressing. It wouldn’t be until season four that we’d meet an upstanding—and effective—member of the profession, when Sally (Kiernan Shipka), after having been caught masturbating at a sleepover, is sent to see child psychologist Dr. Edna Keener (Patricia Bethune). The two develop a relaxed rapport, with Dr. Edna making it clear to Sally that Betty’s anger toward her daughter has more to do with Betty’s own problems than anything Sally does. Dr. Edna’s a sweet encourager to young Sally, who gets little such recognition at home, and she also proves to be a tactful professional, placating a pouting Betty when, after noting Sally’s progress, she says the two of them should no longer meet either. Indeed, she’s a very good child psychologist. [Laura Adamczyk]

5. Malcolm Crowe, Sixth Sense

Illustration for article titled They’re listening: 13 actually good therapists in TV and film
Photo: Getty Images

Is there any mark of a good psychologist more clear than when the psychologist is so helpful that their patient turns around and helps them? Because for everything Bruce Willis’ Malcolm Crowe does to help Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole, in The Sixth Sense—specifically the way he actually listens to Cole’s concerns about being able to see dead people and guides him toward finding a purpose for this terrifying ability—the real payoff to Malcolm’s efforts is when Cole turns things around and suggests that his psychologist should try to figure out why his wife ignores him and why he can’t open that basement door. In the end, the kid is able to open up to his mother (Toni Collette!), and Bruce Willis is able to move on to the afterlife, which never would’ve happened if he hadn’t been willing to actually listen to this weird kid. [Sam Barsanti]

6. Dr. Frasier Crane, Frasier

His pomposity aside, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) at least knew his limits—well, when it came to his radio call-in show. Yes, the psychiatrist regularly dispensed advice to Seattle residents, sometimes while only half-listening, and often with a superior attitude. And sure, Frasier was also inclined to psychoanalyze the people he encountered in his everyday life, including but not limited to, his producer, Roz (Peri Gilpin), his father, Martin (the late John Mahoney), and his father’s physical therapist, Daphne (Jane Leeves). But Frasier also recognized when a problem couldn’t be handled in a 20-minute conversation (not counting commercial breaks), and regularly advised his callers to seek help in a more official and confidential environment. His famous catchphrase, “I’m listening,” is more than just a tagline—it’s a disclaimer, a reminder that a sympathetic ear isn’t tantamount to therapy. [Danette Chavez]

7. Dr. Jennifer Melfi, The Sopranos

In The Sopranos’ sea of criminals, mafia bosses, and inherently bad people, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) was the moral anchor of the series. Named after creator David Chase’s grandmother, Dr. Melfi was a compassionate yet no-nonsense therapist who was one of the few people in Tony Soprano’s (the late James Gandolfini) circle who actually called him on his bullshit. His revealing weekly sessions with her helped personalize and soften the mercurial mob leader, as well as offering an interesting, insightful break from the brutal dealings of the Soprano family. He started seeing her after suffering a panic attack, and the two embarked on seven years of therapy, weathering Tony’s crush on her; the mob guys finding out about Tony’s therapy, putting Dr. Melfi in danger; and even Melfi considering asking Tony to go after the man who raped her. Nevertheless, she stopped seeing him at the end of the series, perhaps finally realizing that a man so steeped in mob life was never going to change and become a wholly good person. His ironic final words to her on his way out the door: “What you’re doing is immoral.” [Gwen Ihnat]

8 - 9. Drs. Charles Kroger and Neven Bell, Monk

Was there ever a more patient TV therapist than Dr. Charles Kroger (the late Stanley Kamel), who counseled Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) for years? The fact that they met two to three times a week, and never for a second less than their scheduled hour, would warrant inclusion on this list; that Dr. Kroger continued to see Monk even after the latter had his trash boxed and sent to the former’s home (in “Mr. Monk And The Garbage Strike”) should put him up for sainthood. But Dr. Kroger helped Monk achieve some hard-earned, albeit incremental, progress—it was only under his therapist’s care that Monk was able to work with new assistant, Natalie (Traylor Howard), after Sharona (Bitty Schram) left. Dr. Kroger also regularly helped Monk overcome professional hiccups; he even rescued his patient from a cult at one point. But he also maintained professional boundaries, as difficult as Monk made that. After Dr. Kroger’s death, Dr. Neven Bell (Hector Elizondo) continued his good work, going to great lengths to ensure a smooth transition. He even displayed one of Dr. Kroger’s paintings in his office to put Monk at ease. Their approaches differed somewhat, as Dr. Bell was ultimately more compassionate than challenging, but they were both able to help someone who most therapists would have written off with the first request to start at an even-numbered time. [Danette Chavez]

10. Dr. Amanda Reisman, Big Little Lies

The scenes between Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her therapist, Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert), were the surprising heart of Big Little Lies’ riveting murder-mystery. The psychologist is the only person in the world besides Celeste and her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), who knows the truth about the abuse. Dr. Reisman starts out as a calm, resolute sounding board as she listens to stories about how the couple’s relationship is “too passionate.” Eventually, though, she realizes how much Celeste and her children in danger and cuts to the chase, telling her to get an apartment, set up utilities, and stock the fridge. When Celeste is taken aback, and calls out Dr. Reisman for overstepping, she retorts, “I’ll get you the number of the Better Business Bureau. You can report me.” With nowhere else for Celeste to turn, Dr. Reisman becomes a literal lifeline, the only person who can help her out of her dire situation. Big Little Lies contained an insightful portrait of how abuse can affect women at every income level, and Dr. Reisman is the commanding voice of reason that shows Celeste a better life exists for her somewhere else. [Gwen Ihnat]

11. Dr. Noelle Akopian, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

There’s no reason you can’t be a good therapist even if your patient is uncooperative, right? Michael Hyatt’s Dr. Akopian tends to do everything right when it comes to trying to help Rebecca Bunch on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, so it’s not her fault that her client has a tendency to ignore everything she has to say until she just comes to her own misguided revelations. Dr. Akopian is kind and supportive, always willing to reopen her door even after Rebecca tries to break in or runs off in the middle of a session to reignite her toxic romance with Josh Chan, and that persistence finally pays off after a few seasons when Rebecca decides to take her well-being a bit more seriously. Still, whether she’s a real psychologist or she’s just coming to someone as a Dream Ghost, you can always count on Dr. Akopian. [Sam Barsanti]

12. Justina Jordan, You’re The Worst

Not only is Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) one of the most damaged characters ever to grace the small screen, she’s also childishly defensive and a poor listener. So pairing her with a therapist is a comically rewarding through-line in You’re The Worst’s third season, with Justina Jordan (Samira Wiley) doing her dogged best to help her self-absorbed patient through depression and other issues. Despite Gretchen’s best efforts, Justina does arm her with the tools to cope better than she has been. Most therapists probably wouldn’t have made it past the insults and insincerity Gretchen slings Justina’s way, much less her stalking via Foursquare. But Justina sticks it out, helping a patient who only grudgingly attends therapy after her “happy pills” don’t fix her. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

13. Dr. Wong, Rick And Morty

“I think it’s possible that you and your father have a very specific dynamic. I don’t think it’s one that rewards emotion or vulnerability—I think it may punish them. I think it’s possible that dynamic eroded your marriage, and is infecting your kids with a tendency to misdirect their feelings.” And with that, Dr. Wong (Susan Sarandon) nails her counseling session with the Smith family, mere minutes into a discussion over why Rick could have turned himself into a pickle—the obvious answer being, of course, to get out of attending this very therapy appointment. But over the course of her hour, Wong gets to the heart of the fractured family psychology that drives both the Smith children and adults to act as they do, all while delivering her analysis in a calm, non-judgmental manner. Not that it means her advice is heeded; Beth and Rick quickly decide to bond by rejecting emotional growth, possibly over drinks at Shoney’s. [Alex McLevy]