TV’s Most Memorable Shrinks


Besides the fact that they’re both set in New York and air on Monday nights, there aren’t many similarities between Gossip Girl and Bored to Death. So we were surprised and amused to see that recent weeks have seen each show shake things up with the same type of new character — a shrink. While Chuck tries to seduce (and then get some real help from) the pretty therapist on Gossip Girl, Sarah Silverman guests on Bored to Death as a woman whose idea of mental health care involves demanding foot rubs from patients. This serendipitous convergence of Brooklyn and the Upper East Side got us thinking about some TV’s most memorable administrators of the talking cure, both real and fictional. Our top 10 are after the jump; add your picks in the comments.

Frasier Crane, Cheers and Frasier

Frasier Crane — who, between Cheers and Frasier, was on TV for two entire decades — is the prototypical TV psychiatrist. An erudite and pretentious soul, Frasier was a child prodigy, theater geek, and frequent target for bullies. Sadly, although he goes on to attend Harvard, the bad luck continues into adulthood. By the end of his tenure in Boston, he’s split from his second wife (Bebe Neuwirth’s also-memorable Lilith), tries to kill himself, and loses custody of his son. Frasier finds him relocated to Seattle, where he reconnects with his father and brother, and his deep, soothing voice makes him perfect for the job of radio shrink. Things are generally much less depressing from there on in; his biggest concerns on Cheers‘ genteel spin-off are his strange occupation, declassé dad, apparently cursed love life, and various upper-crust social events in which Frasier would like to be included.

Jennifer Melfi, The Sopranos

We imagine that, when therapists have a tough day, they seek solace in the knowledge that they’re not playing confidant to a mob boss. Lorraine Bracco’s Jennifer Melfi is the woman Tony Soprano turns to when he’s got a secret too horrifying to tell even his own family or, um, colleagues. In fact, Jennifer has to go into hiding when Uncle Junior realizes how much she knows about Tony’s professional life. If that weren’t difficult enough, their doctor-patient relationship is complicated by their palpable feelings for each other. So who could blame this mental-health professional for seeking solace in the bottle and turning to her own psychiatrist for help.

Tobias Fünke, Arrested Development

David Cross’s licensed “analrapist” (that is, analyst/therapist) Tobias Fünke may look like a mess — hell, he can’t even get naked in private — but he was once the top psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, before losing his license as the result of a stupid and humiliating case of mistaken cardiac arrest. As a result, we don’t see much of Dr. Fünke in action; he begins his tenure on Arrested Development by embracing a new career, acting. That turns out about as well as his sexually dysfunctional marriage, which is constantly in peril. Hmm. Shrinks who need to get their own heads examined seems to be becoming a theme of this list…

Dr. Drew Pinsky

Where there is tabloid-level drama involving famous persons, there is Dr. Drew. A practicing physician and psychiatry professor, Drew Pinsky seems to spend most of his time counseling famous addicts on such VH1 reality series as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, and Celebrity Rehab Presents Sober House and talking to the press about how screwed up he imagines certain celebrities who aren’t his patients must be. Pinsky rose to his current status as America’s #1 mental-health pundit from somewhat humble beginnings; in 1984, he began a stint giving sex advice on the radio talk show Loveline, which scored a late-night slot on MTV in 1996. Between then and now, he’s become a tremendously polarizing figure, with some accusing him of exploiting others’ misfortunes for his own personal game. If you’re still undecided about Pinsky, this great New York Times profile from 2009 might help you sort out your feelings.

Paul Weston, In Treatment

As this list illustrates, plenty of shows have featured shrinks as main characters. But HBO’s In Treatment, adapted from an Israeli series, was the first to make one therapist’s sessions their sole focus. Through his interactions with such patients as a traumatized fighter pilot and an art-school student struggling to come to terms with her lymphoma diagnosis, as well as weekly sessions with his mentor, we learn about Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) — his rough childhood, his ailing marriage, his feelings of guilt and sexual frustration. The personality that emerges isn’t always likable, but it’s one of the most nuanced portraits we’ve seen of a character who’s devoted his life to getting into other people’s heads.

Jonathan Katz, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist

Dr. Jonathan Katz is based on the real Jonathan Katz — but the real Jonathan Katz isn’t a therapist at all. He’s a comedian. This ’90s Comedy Central sitcom’s stroke of genius was to realize that there’s little difference between a stand-up’s routine and a patient’s monologue. Over the years, the frenetically animated, generally pleasant Dr. Katz listened to the troubles of everyone from Ray Romano and Joan Rivers to Louis C.K. and Sandra Bernhard, while contending with the aimlessness of his loser son and the obliviousness of his bored receptionist.

Jack Hattaras, The United States of Tara

Since the main character of The United States of Tara is a woman with dissociative identity disorder, it makes sense that we meet a fair number of mental-health professionals throughout the show’s three seasons. And while Tara’s own alter ego, ’70s New York therapist Shoshana Schoenbaum, is definitely a contender for this list, we’re giving the spot to Dr. Jack Hattaras. Originally Tara’s psychology professor, brusque, prickly Hattaras doesn’t believe in DID — that is, until he takes her on as a patient and her scariest alter nearly kills him. Did we mention he’s played to perfection by the one and only Eddie Izzard?

Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Who can resist and adorable, little, old lady with a German accent who just wants everyone to have better sex? The Sorbonne-educated psychologist taught in Paris before immigrating to New York in the ’50s. Ruth Westheimer’s journey to fame began in 1980, when the New York City radio station WYNY gave her a 15-minute midnight slot and she began interviewing sexual health experts. Eventually, Dr. Ruth scored her own show, Sexually Speaking, which saw her dispensing sex advice to listeners. By 1982, she had her own TV series, on Lifetime, and within a few years, both her television and radio programs were being syndicated around the country. She went on to become a full-fledged pop-culture icon, writing books, appearing in commercials, and winning the hearts of America as a frequent guest on Late Night with David Letterman. Westheimer may have reached the apex of her fame in the ’80s, but her face, voice, and plainspoken sex talk remain instantly recognizable.

Ben Harmon, American Horror Story

It feels almost disrespectful to move from Dr. Ruth to Dylan McDermott’s Ben Harmon, a therapist who moves his family across the country in an attempt to re-start their lives after breaking off an affair with his student. Unfortunately, Ben has chosen the world’s most psychosexually fucked up home, a haunted house in Los Angeles with a ghostly maid who he can’t stop seeing as gorgeous, aggressively flirtatious young woman (to everyone else, she’s Frances Conroy, the mom from Six Feet Under). Of all the fictional shrinks on this list, Ben seems the least realistic — partially because he spends so much time gratuitously nude.

Niles Crane, Frasier

We may have started with Frasier Crane, but we can’t help but ending with his younger brother Niles — a Jungian psychiatrist who’s constantly in competition with his more famous brother. David Hyde Pierce’s character is everything Frasier is, but moreso: effete, intelligent, delicate, snobby, pseudointellectual, unathletic. What makes Niles so likable, despite the affectations, is his all-consuming devotion to his father’s caretaker, Daphne — one of the great love stories of ’90s TV.