“You wanna talk about it?”
With that breezy mantra, the latest shrink to hit the pop culture scene stakes his claim to the inner yearnings of his patients. In this case he’s a high school student, Charlie Bartlett, who in the teen flick of the same name goes from lonely new kid to big man on campus by setting up a psychopharmacology practice in a bathroom stall.
Is this the year of the therapist in Hollywood? Sure, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and psychologists have been fixtures in our popular entertainment through the ages. But often they’ve been silly caricatures on the sidelines, bumbling, repressed, ineffective, unethical, even criminal. Or they’ve been a tired vehicle to quickly extract some deep thoughts from the main character.
Suddenly, though, it seems the fictional therapist has hit center stage. On the small screen, one of the most unusual series on television is HBO’s “In Treatment,” which centers not on the patient but on the doctor, Paul Weston, tracking his therapy sessions five nights a week.
And though Weston has his own problems, he’s hardly bumbling or silly: Played by the contemplative, sad-eyed Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, he’s become a middle-aged sex symbol of sorts for series aficionados.
Then there’s Anna Smudge. She’s only 11, and she exists only in a comic-style sketch on the cover of “Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink,” an upcoming book for tweens. Anna isn’t just a shrink; she’s the top shrink in Manhattan, no less, who holds therapy sessions in a storage closet in the lobby of her apartment building.
No longer stonefaced caricatures
A schoolgirl, an appealing teenage boy, a sexy, introspective middle-aged man: These aren’t exactly the stonefaced caricatures we’ve seen in decades past. Is there something to it?
Not coincidentally, Nash is the son of a psychiatrist, who grew up knowing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the professional handbook, practically by heart.
His Charlie, played by Anton Yelchin, has been kicked out of his elite private school for running a fake ID factory. Arriving at public school in his dorky blazer, he’s beaten up on the spot. Then he hits on a way to be popular.
With prescriptions issued freely by his own shrinks, he opens shop. A little Ritalin, a little Prozac, and poof, everyone loves him. When disaster nearly strikes, Charlie flushes away the pills. But it turns out the kids want therapy just the same. They DO wanna talk about it.
“We were trying to say in the film that people drastically underestimate the value of talking and listening,” Nash says.
That’s an important message, says Dr. Susan Jaffe, a New York psychiatrist. She notes the current obsession on a “quick fix” that leads to so much pill-popping. “Maybe people are getting tired of that,” she says hopefully. “You can’t just medicate every problem.”
‘Height of voyeurism’
Talking and listening — that’s pretty much all Dr. Weston gets to do in “In Treatment,” where he spends most of the time in his chair (or that of his own therapist.)
“Certainly our culture has reached a height of voyeurism,” says Rodrigo Garcia, head writer of the series and an executive producer, trying to explain the popularity of therapy-oriented themes. “Other people’s business: What’s more interesting than that?”
And yet, he says, without the right element of drama, plus good writing, pure voyeurism loses its appeal quickly. What injects real drama into “In Treatment” — adapted closely from a hit series in Israel — is the turmoil Dr. Weston experiences after a female patient declares she’s in love with him. And there lies the problem for many therapists, who would prefer to see a depiction of proper therapy.
But of course, in the words of Dr. Jaffe, “Good therapy doesn’t create very good drama.”
Fans don’t seem to mind the boundary-crossing. On the HBO message board, Hot4Gabe writes: “I find myself watching each episode over and over again! We are all going to need therapy at the end of March!!!!!!!!!!” (That’s when the season ends.)
Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, agrees with Nash that “there’s more acceptance than there has been before. You can see a therapist without it being a Woody Allen-New York thing.”
And speaking of Allen, Saltz recalls the therapist figures in the director’s most famous films as “useless caricatures.” (Perhaps this is a result of Allen’s own long years in therapy. As Alvy Singer, played by Allen, said in “Annie Hall” of his 15 years of analysis: “I’m gonna give him one more year and then I’m goin’ to Lourdes.”)
But at least those characters weren’t murderers. In Brian DePalma’s 1980 horror film “Dressed to Kill,” Michael Caine plays a therapist with an alter ego who ends up slashing one of his patients to death. Barbra Streisand’s character in “The Prince of Tides” doesn’t kill anyone but becomes romantically involved with her patient’s brother. On “Cheers” and “Frasier,” shrink Lilith was comically repressed. The Peanuts’ Lucy wasn’t always nice.
By contrast, therapists were so delighted with Dr. Jennifer Melfi in “The Sopranos” that actress Lorraine Bracco got an award from the American Psychoanalytic Association. But then Melfi suddenly dumped Tony Soprano as a patient after seven years. Worse, her supervisor revealed Tony’s identity to other therapists. Real-life therapists winced.
As they might wince to know that 11-year-old “Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink” is the best therapist in Manhattan — presumably meaning all that study and training they go through in real life isn’t necessary. (This is, though, one kid’s book that may make your daughter aspire to be something other than Hannah Montana.)
“It’s a simple story about a girl who helps those around her,” says first-time author Melissa Calderone, 30. At the same time, the kid also solves a major mystery involving a criminal threatening her father’s life. And does homework, too.
Calderone says she’s never been in therapy herself. But she drew on her experiences as a Manhattan schoolgirl, where all of her friends, she says, saw their shrinks “in between soccer and piano lessons.”
“I think it used to be a New York thing,” she says of therapy, “but it’s really kind of spread. Just over the last decade or so, it’s been integrated into society. It’s everywhere.
“It’s become this must-have thing.”