The central figure is shrink Paul Weston. (No, not this Paul Weston.) A fresh half-hour episode every weeknight at 8:30 Central on HBO shows us that day’s appointment with a different one of Paul’s patients. Monday night lets us in on the weekly session of Laura, seriously effed up, promiscuous, and in love with Paul. Tuesdays are for Alex, Navy bomber pilot carrying a payload of guilt for killing a schoolful of innocent Iraqi children by mistake. If it’s Wednesday it must be Sophie, teen Olympic gymnastics hopeful who’s been sexually abused by her coach (and maybe others). On Thursday we get couples counseling, as Paul referees Jake and Amy going for each other’s thoats. Friday is for Paul’s appointments with senior shrink Gina, because after that week, Paul needs to talk to someone, too.
You have to be able to tolerate a show that’s all talk, no action. But it’s good talk. The patients draw you in, just as they draw Paul in. And if they draw Paul in a little too much for his own good (and theirs), they may be drawing us in a little too much for our own good, too; the show’s addictive.
When I started watching, I didn’t think I could or would commit to it every single night. And after the first few, I still thought that. I thought, “Hmm, that was pretty good—not great, but pretty good—I could live with catching it when it’s convenient.” But each night, 8:30 would roll around (as it is wont to do), and I had to tune it in. Here it is Week Four, and I haven’t missed a single episode.
I had wondered whether anyone was watching this show other than me and the few other devotees who are discussing it over at Television Without Pity. And I still don’t know what the ratings are like. But at least the Tribune critic is into it. Maybe it’ll catch on.
Sunday’s penultimate episode of The Sopranos felt like a warning to anyone who’s in therapy or ever considered it. Tony’s shrink Dr. Melfi, in a controlled rage akin to that of an aggrieved wife, dumps him, having been influenced by her colleagues (in some sort of shrink-on-shrink intervention) to believe that he’s a sociopath beyond help and that all she’s doing is “enabling” his criminal behavior. At this point, we know Tony better than that, and so should she. (That her colleagues learn the identity of her patient is alarming in itself. Despite wanting to believe in the whole “patient confidentiality” oath among therapists, I always somehow suspected it was bullshit, and Sunday’s show confirmed my suspicions. I suppose I shouldn’t take a fictional TV show as proof that I was right, but I do.) Even if Melfi’s response is out of bounds and atypical for the profession, the idea that a therapist could abruptly end years of work, kick a patient to the curb, because she finds him wanting or undeserving is enough to make me feel no patient is safe.
Now, therapists are human, and as subject to frailty as any of us. To expect them to be perfect is unrealistic. And we should judge them as we would any other service-provider, by their ability to produce desired results regardless of their own foibles. But therapists are different from other service-providers, in that their business is the sickness of the human soul itself. Would I hire an electrician who’s incapable of wiring his own house? Don’t think so. Well, if I’m trying to fix my effed-up nature, would I hire a therapist who hasn’t put his own psychological house in order? Since Sunday’s show had me considering the uncomfortable notion that there aren’t any therapists who are less effed-up than I am (Melfi getting caught up in the knickers of her countertransference is the blind leading the blind, and her titillated, passive-aggressively jealous colleagues weren’t an ad for mental health), it had me considering that the premise that anyone has the answers is an illusion. Sure, therapists are only human like the rest of us. That’s the problem.
Or maybe it’s not the problem; maybe it’s the solution. If no one has answers, maybe all we’re here to do is help one another not to be tormented by the questions. Maybe the very best person to lead a blind person is another blind person, making therapists uniquely qualified. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the head?
As I say, I am making inferences about real life based on a fictional TV show, which I probably shouldn’t, but The Sopranos is that good. It’s fiction—but great fiction has the power to be very, very persuasive. Not too long ago I came upon a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt (of all people) who said, “The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.” The Sopranos is great fiction.
There is a lot of trustworthy research—tons of it—that says that despite the human frailty of therapists, talk therapy really works, really helps people. And, encouragingly, therapists are up in arms over this Sopranos episode, as this article makes plain. They find the behavior of Melfi and her colleagues egregious, beyond the pale. I hope they’re right. I want everybody who can be helped by talk therapy to be in talk therapy, and if a loved one of mine were suffering and could find relief in it, I would want him or her to get it. (And, let’s be rational here, David Chase has portrayed all kinds of professionals on the show–surgeons, attorneys, et. al.–as world-class a-holes, and that hasn’t convinced me that seeing a cardiovascular specialist in the event of a heart attack is a bad idea.) So I want with every fiber of my being to go on believing that talk therapy helps. But Chase, through his mastery of the fictional dramatic form, has me freaked out. Maybe I just need to talk to someone about it.