May 19

Therapists On TV and In Movies: Common Tropes

If you’ve been reading my blog, you already know I believe therapists on TV and in movies are often badly portrayed. Today’s post organizes the types of therapists we’ve all seen into categories designated by, a useful resource that describes itself as “a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction.”

According to, therapists on TV and in movies tend to be shown in three different ways:

  1. The Harmful Shrink: “The worst kind,” of course. Possible traits include cruelty, lack of empathy, non-compliance with confidentiality ethics, pill-pushing, likely to cultivate dependency for financial gain.
  2. The Well-Meaning, But Dopey And Ineffective Shrink: Possible traits: liberal, highly empathic, a good listener, but with an inability to have a helpful perspective or strategies.
  3. The Awesome Shrink: “He can be compassionate and understanding where everyone before has been cruel to the protagonist. Alternatively, he provides the character in question with the kind of Tough Love he’s always needed. Regardless, he’s always smart, almost always cool and never resorts to drugs when they’re not needed.”

As with all typologies, there’s often overlap between categories. Also, many characters may not fit neatly into any one type.

Taken from previous posts, some examples are listed below of therapists on TV and in movies.

The Harmful Type

  • Therapist Boundaries That (Hopefully) Go Without Saying, 10/21/11: What About Bob?‘s egotistical therapist (Richard Dreyfuss) tries to kill his annoying patient (Bill Murray).
  • Halloween for Therapists, 10/31/11: A now-deleted post had a couple video clips, first from the film Dead Bang and second from TV’s Dexter, featuring bad shrinks.
  • Hannibal Not-Yet-Known-to-Be Cannibal, 4/1/13: “Hannibal the new TV series offers a prequel kind of twist on Lecter. As described by Slash Film, ‘Hannibal follows Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) in their early days — back before the FBI profiler knew that the famed psychiatrist was actually a cannibalistic killer.’ Lecter is a forensic specialist working for the FBI in some capacity. Graham’s boss is Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI.”

Well Meaning, But Ineffective

  • Two posts about 50/50 the movie, from October 2011, are here and here. Crossing of boundaries by an earnest inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick) places her somewhere between this category and potentially harmful.
  • “Prime” Therapy, 10/19/11: Meryl Streep as a therapist who seems to want to do right but can’t.
  • Silver Linings Therapy Playbook, 11/30/12: Dr. Patel tries to encourage client Pat to make healthier choices but doesn’t model this very well himself.


  • A President in Therapy, 9/26/11: Adam Arkin helps President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on The West Wing.
  • The Therapist’s Day Off, 10/20/11: In the video clip it’s seen that as a client “Monk” (Tony Shalhoub) is a challenge; his kindly therapist has trouble being firmer, but overall he’s a good shrink.
  • Meet Dr. Sidney Freedman, 1/11/12: The psychiatrist on M*A*S*H played by Allan Arbus. As stated in the post, “Although I’m a fan of Freedman’s wry sense of humor, progressive politics, and ability not to be fazed by things others may consider bizarre, I do need to point out that the schizophrenia joke written for this character has probably helped perpetuate the myth that schizophrenia consists of having multiple personalities.”

Multiple Types

  • Therapist Boundaries That (Hopefully) Go Without Saying, 10/21/11: The “good” therapist (Robin Williams) who achieves a breakthrough with Will previously chokes his client in Good Will Hunting. Is he both awesome and harmful?
  • One TV Therapist’s Scary Dilemma, 11/3/11: Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) on The Sopranos is generally considered competent, but her limits were also severely tested, leading to highly questionable urges.
  • A Charlie Brown Therapy, 12/23/11: “Peanuts” character Lucy Van Pelt is not a psychiatrist—she just pretends to be for “5 cents please.” But, oddly, her services can be helpful.
  • Grief Counselor: “Scrubs,” 1/26/12: TV Tropes says, “Sacred Heart’s grief counselor is portrayed as a great counselor, but is nonetheless seen as smug and annoying by the main characters, even when it’s them he’s helping.”
  • Psychiatrist Brothers on Drugs, 4/19/12, and Confidentiality Unbreakable, 10/25/12: Both Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce), apparently reputable enough shrinks, continually have heaps of trouble in their own personal lives—and sometimes professional, as in considering breaking confidentiality in order to help their dear friend.

Additional examples can be found at the TV Tropes website.