Pop culture and therapy are an amazingly good match. First of all, most worthy comedies and dramas are populated with people facing sizable problems. Secondly, introducing a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker cuts to the heart of the matter without special effects or car chases. It also makes for insightful writing and acting.
LORRAINE BRACCO IN “THE SOPRANOS”
Lorraine Bracco was as crucial to the success of “The Sopranos” as the sex and violence that punctuated the show. Dr. Melfi’s sessions with Tony brought clarity to the proceedings and had an electrifying intimacy separate from everything else.
BOB NEWHART IN “THE BOB NEWHART SHOW”
I have a feeling Newhart’s portrayal of psychologist Robert Hartley was more accurate than most TV and movie therapists. He used jargon, he rarely raised his voice and he kept incredibly regular office hours. Thank goodness he also treated the occasional clown.
ROBIN WILLIAMS IN “GOOD WILL HUNTING”
Not everyone is a fan of Williams as the feisty therapist helping Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.” I liked his performance; I thought it had tons of heart and soul. How do you like them apples?
MARIAH CAREY IN “PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE”
It’s easy to lose sight of just how good Carey is as the social worker in “Precious.” She’s as tough as she needs to be in a film about hope in the face of brutal reality. Is there anything in this world more courageous than standing up for an abused kid? An amazing job.
JUDD HIRSCH IN “ORDINARY PEOPLE”
This fine performance is central to the effectiveness of 1980’s Oscar-winning “Ordinary People.” Hirsch’s scenes with a young Timothy Hutton have a real urgency to them, while noting the limitations and boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship.
LISA KUDROW IN “WEB THERAPY”
Lisa Kudrow is a master at delivering the disarming remark. She did it to perfection on “Friends” and she continues it on “Web Therapy.” As highly-flawed Dr. Fiona Wallice, Kudrow levels her snark on everyone, including herself.
STEVE CARELL IN “HOPE SPRINGS”
For such a skilled comic actor, it’s surprising how good Carell is at playing a subdued character. This is a great quality for his therapist in “Hope Springs.” He’s patient, probing and decent, without being boring.
ALLAN ARBUS IN “M*A*S*H”
Allan Arbus was always a welcome sight on “M*A*S*H,” as psychiatrist Sidney Freedman. Funny and fatigued as that character was, his appearances never failed to remind viewers of the insanity of war.
JOANNE WOODWARD IN “SYBIL”
Joanne Woodward brought a wonderful sense of authority and humanity to her part in “Sybil.” Sally Field, as a woman with multiple personalities, had the showier role, but Woodward had to give the whole thing plausibility.
KELSEY GRAMMER IN “FRASIER”
I doubt that any actual therapist has as soothing a voice as Kelsey Grammer. On “Frasier,” he offered a tour de force of comical compassion, without hiding the quirky side of the people giving the treatment.
HELEN HUNT IN “THE SESSIONS”
Helen Hunt is her usual, decent-but-intense self in “The Sessions.” She plays a sex therapist here, and much has been made of her willingness to bare everything onscreen. I thought her most revealing scene was in a car in a motel parking lot, fully clothed.
RICHARD BURTON IN “EQUUS”
In “Equus,” Burton is a doctor treating a very disturbed young man who has blinded several horses. What unfolds during their sessions is a deep well of guilt, trauma, religion and sex. As you’d expect, Burton brings heaps of dramatic heft to the part, for which he earned an Oscar nomination.
DYLAN McDERMOTT IN “AMERICAN HORROR STORY”
Worst. Therapist. Ever. I don’t know where this joker went to school, but I’m pretty sure they tell you on the very first day, “Don’t have sex with patients who are ghosts.”
JANE LYNCH IN “TWO AND A HALF MEN”
As Charlie Sheen’s therapist on TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” Lynch was able to talk tough, but also be sympathetic. It was a clever way to reveal Sheen’s – I mean the character’s – insecurities and motivations.
BILLY CRYSTAL IN “ANALYZE THIS”
Light fare, to be sure, but Crystal generated very solid laughs as a shrink forced to work with a mobster in “Analyze This.” He clearly loved being in a film with Robert DeNiro, who was in full self-parody mode.
J.K. SIMMONS IN “LAW AND ORDER”
What a superb job Simmons did with this small, occasional role as a psychiatrist who sometimes testifies in court cases on the various “Law and Order” shows. He was calm, yet razor-sharp in his scenes evaluating suspects and victims; he could seem jaded and cynical, yet also honest and hardworking.
ANNA KENDRICK IN “50/50”
Therapists have to start somewhere, right? It was brilliant to have Anna Kendrick as the inexperienced caregiver to cancer patient Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It flipped the normal power dynamic and felt much more real.
RICHARD DREYFUSS IN “WHAT ABOUT BOB?”
This movie about a therapist (Dreyfuss) who can’t get away from a patient (Bill Murray) has many devoted fans. Dreyfuss gamely gives in to the rising exasperation the part calls for, which is why it works so well.
BRUCE WILLIS IN “THE SIXTH SENSE”
What I often like about Bruce Willis is his ability to be very still. It comes in quite handy in “The Sixth Sense,” where he’s trying to help Haley Joel Osment deal with a … tricky situation. Willis listens with a thoughtful intensity.
GABRIEL BYRNE IN “IN TREATMENT”
“In Treatment” isn’t simply a great TV show about therapy; I think it’s one of the best shows ever. Byrne plays Dr. Paul Weston, whose patients range from a cancer patient and a troubled businessman to a little boy caught in the middle of his parents’ divorce. Each season, the show tracked the progress of several patients, session by session. Byrne is astonishing, as is the delicate-yet-powerful writing.
But I see our time is up. I didn’t even get to the therapists in “Annie Hall,” “Mad Men” or “The Prince of Tides.” Which are your favorites?