Mar 31

“Big Little Lies”: Domestic Violence Therapy

The current and highly rated HBO comedy/drama mini-series Big Little Lies, a suburban murder mystery starring such notables as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård, and Adam Scott, is based on Liane Moriarty‘s 2014 bestselling novel.

One way the TV series differs from the book is that creator David E. Kelley has placed more emphasis on a certain delicate and challenging situation being addressed in therapy. According to Carolyn L. Todd, Refinery29, the series in this way helps “make a very unlikable character more sympathetic.”

That character is Celeste (Kidman), an abused spouse. Although she first enters therapy with husband Perry (Skarsgård), this changes when he has to go out of town.

But in the book, Celeste sees the therapist alone from the get-go. Having Perry participate in therapy makes him seem like a better guy: he’s a domestic abuser, yes, but he knows he has a problem and is willing to work on it. It indicates he knows his behavior is unacceptable and wants to change. Celeste and Perry seem like more of a team. Plus, the tense dynamic of the therapy sessions is riveting, as is watching the pair negotiate in the moment how much truth about their marriage they want to share with the counselor.

Although therapists on TV are often portrayed sketchily or negatively or unfairly, there’s a general consensus that this isn’t so in Big Little Lies:

Caitlin Flynn, Bustle: “Therapy isn’t often depicted on TV and, when it is, the scenes tend to be brief and lack depth. The therapy sessions on Big Little Lies don’t just break that mold — they shatter it.”

Maria Elena Fernandez, Vulture: “Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert) and Celeste and Perry Wright (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård) are so realistic they’re draining.”

Melissa Dahl, The Cut: “And you know who else loves the therapist on Big Little Lies? Actual therapists.” Some of the highlighted factors: the realism, Dr. Reisman’s apparently advanced knowledge regarding domestic abuse, and her astute ability to pick up on subtle cues from the client.

Regarding the advisability of seeing Celeste alone considering that it was supposed to be marital therapy, it’s the existence of domestic violence that allows for this. For the optimal care of the victim, an experienced therapist is aware of the need to further assess the circumstances without the direct participation of the abuser.

Bustle expands on how the therapy in Big Little Lies proceeds:

It was only when Celeste began seeing Dr. Reisman on her own that she very, very slowly began to shed her facade. These scenes hit the nail on the head because Dr. Reisman successfully strikes a balance between needling the truth of Celeste without pushing her too hard, which could cause her to shut down and never come to another appointment. The scenes are lengthy, which allows Big Little Lies to flesh out what therapy really looks like — especially for abuse victims. Celeste can’t bear to speak the truth out loud, and her strongest moments in these scenes are conveyed through facial expressions, body language, and eye contact.

Jun 10

“Mistresses”: Therapist Ethics Go Right Out the Window

Last Monday night was the premiere of ABC’s Mistresses, an adaptation of a British soap-drama in which four female friends deal in one way or another with infidelity. A possible hint to its quality? Says the snarky “Bullseye” column of Entertainment Weekly, “Only one episode in and we’re already cheating on Mistresses.”

What caught my interest is that one of the four friends is a psychiatrist in private practice named Karen (Yunjin Kim). As I’ve neither seen it nor plan on seeing it, however, I have to rely on the reviews for further info.

If you’re looking for a portrayal that represents the field at its best or if you’ve been victimized by a therapist, beware. Karen has had a sexual relationship with her patient Tom who had terminal cancer. In addition, she’s prescribed him a lethal dose of morphine to assist in his choice of euthanasia.

By the way, Tom was married. And now that he’s dead, guess what? His son and wife are both receiving Karen’s “help.” As a result, there are further complications: Karen’s now stung from learning that Tom chose to spend the final moments of life with his wife, and Tom’s grieving son wants to figure out with whom Dad was cheating. Oh. And he’s hitting on Karen to boot.

A little over the top, just maybe?

Therapist ethics violations:

  • Having sex with a client–it doesn’t matter that the client was the first one to show interest; it doesn’t matter if he was single, married, whatever
  • Assisting in euthanasia of a client
  • Offering services to a dead client’s family members after such grievous as-yet-unknown-to-the-family violations

One saving grace: at least the script makes it known that Karen has screwed up, a matter often neglected in these kinds of shows.

It’s yet to be seen if Karen can eventually be redeemed in any way. (In the BBC series the character with a similar profile and behavior, Katie, was a general practitioner of medicine, not a shrink. If you happen to be interested in what happened to her, though, check out the Wikipedia article.)

What do the TV critics think of Mistresses? (They seem less than impressed.)

Jacob Clifton writes (Television Without Pity) that of the group of main characters, Karen is “the front-runner by a mile in terms of making ridiculously shitty decisions at all times during her waking life.”

Neil GenzlingerNew York Times: “Karen, an educated, intelligent woman, is made to sound like a naïve 20-year-old when talking about her lover’s death. ‘In the end he chose his wife: that’s who he wanted to be with in his last moments,’ she says. ‘Which means the whole time I was just’ — and here there’s a pause to allow her I.Q. to drop — ‘a mistress.'”

Cory Barker, TV.com: “Kim is saddled with the most ridiculous of the stories—going from the now-dead father to the grieving son is quite the journey—and she’s morose enough to almost make it work, but Karen’s choices were so poor that it’s going to be tough for people to root for her.”