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Therapy on TV: "In Treatment" and "30 Rock"

Having only watched the 45-second HBO web clips of  In Treatment, I don't have a right to judge.  But these are fairly delicious.

Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), a dark, Jewish Dr. House-ish parental child with abandonment issues and at least three seasons worth of conflict, explores his feelings openly with a therapist, hits on his therapist, is hit on by his patients. What could be more compelling than this?

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How does it happen that in over thirty years of doing therapy, no one has hit on me? I must be doing something wrong.

In Treatment surely grabs us where we want to be grabbed-- emotionally, of course-- fully engages our empathy sensors. Someone told me the show feels voyeuristic, as if we're watching true stories, the scripts seem so real.  I took a look at the Wikipedia recaps and no surprise, the stories really do match the kinds of narratives we hear off screenin therapy. 

As time passes for a therapist, stories like these lose their edges, blend in with one another.  Patients I haven't heard from in ten years will call and ask, Remember me? I do and I don't.  But I remember them as soon as they plug in their key words: drug dealer, death of a family member, affair, domestic violence, rape, cancer, cut-off.

So much is universal.  Sometimes telling over bits and pieces of case studies here on the blog, changing the names, gender, race, location, etc., feels like overkill.   So much trouble just so that nobody can exclaim, Hey, you told my story!   Just not that special, is the truth, our stories.  At some point your story, like my story, is just like the story of somebody else.  There's a Jewish expression, Ain chadash tachat hashemesh.  There's nothing new under the sun.  Ecclesiastes, I think. 

Arguable, no doubt.  The way things present, the way the stories play out, the infinite variations of a theme, the content, the details, these are new.  The variations of narratives, like jazz, keep people like me in the game.  They are why people like you like to hear about therapy, talk about it, share the compelling, heart-tugging details of your lives. Every story really is special.

But back to teev.  The TV docs do have fabulous offices, don't they? At first I thought Paul Weston had an amazing office, but then I learned that his patients come to his apartment for therapy.  Dr. Jennifer Melfi, (Lorraine Bracco) Tony Soprano's doctor, he's not.

Still, he's compassionate, handsome, engaging. And although he really needs to get an office, just to be sure he doesn't get too comfortable with his patients, something tells me the show will have a very, very, nice run.

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Chain Reaction: Mental Anguish, a 30 Rock episode is completely different. (Spoilers coming up) It's a comedy, for one thing. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) can no longer deny needing therapy but has no time. So sunny Kenneth -- God gave us two ears and only one mouth because listening is more important than talking-- fills in at work.

Liz lies down on the couch to talk it all out- the betrayal, the lies (Santa)- and Kenneth grabs a pencil and a legal pad to take it all down. A therapist really only needs an ample supply of legal pads, fine tip pens, and a good sofa to go to work, much more important than tea or coffee service. These tend to distract. What, no latte machine?

Listening to Liz brings up unresolved history for Kenneth, which starts the chain reaction. Liz, having told her story, feels better, but Kenneth, the listener, feels sick. So Jack Donaghy, their boss, (Alec Baldwin) steps up to play therapist for Kenneth, and of course, he's next in the chain reaction.

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Jack's the one in the suit.

Everyone helps everyone else is the idea. Any one of us can be a pretty decent therapist, given the opportunity (interface be damned). It is why so many of us do dinner with our friends, leave our families behind so that someone else can listen. We may not lie down, but there's something about the process.

The lay therapists on 30 Rock are really funny, of course, at least everyone in my family room laughed out loud. But I couldn't (well, not so much), not because their timing was off, not because the lines weren't funny or didn't fit. They did. But there were too many of them, words. Certainly for a first visit.

If you go to dinner with friends for therapy, you know, to make it work, you really do have to pencil in as many hours as there are eaters. And choose your friends carefully, make sure they know how it goes, the rule not to monopolize. And no need to punctuate, not really.

Leave that for the guys on TV.

I could stop right here, but did read some research on therapy in the media, and learned is that it is variable. Sometimes what we see is spot on, sometimes not. But one thing's for sure. If most of it is like what I've seen lately, it is narrow.

They all seem to do the same thing! It's all a talk therapy, so 1930's, so forties. Whatever happened to the fun therapies of the fifties, sixties and seventies? And what about now, now that we have the Internet? Do you think I don't log on with a patient at least once a week? Look at somebody's facebook page? A single's profile?

There are probably as many different styles of treatment, as many therapy "aps" as there are therapydocs. The personality of the doc is a force of nature, and as hard as some try to be blank slates (the better to read your transference, my dear), it's just not fun, isn't always effective, and it takes forever.

Much more powerful to listen as a kid reads his poetry, or recites a rap, snapping his fingers. Nothing better than this. Or let a patient put someone in an empty chair, describe this imagined larger than life influence, often a parent or a boss, and scream away, express feelings in a safe venue. Or assert, learn to say it nice. The old Gestalt techniques of Fritz Perls are still powerful.

So is Joseph Moreno's psychodrama, literally playing out domestic scenes with family members, real dramatizations of power and control, conflict.

Virginia Satir, a mother of family therapy, had parents standing on chairs, pointing down at their kids, berating them. Virginia made parents feel ridiculous, acting as dictators.

We could go on, and on. Just wanted you to know. TV therapy? Enjoy. But it doesn't compare to the real thing.



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