Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Therapy as Farce

Fair enough, I am behind the curve on this one. About three years behind, if you’re counting. And yet, and yet, and yet, I feel compelled to post something about a now deceased Netflix series called “Gypsy.”

It has nothing to do with gypsies in any serious way, but, who’s counting?

Since the show is about a New York therapist, I feel a moral obligation to comment on it. The show demonstrates definitively that my descriptions of today’s therapy practice are far too generous. Just in case you think that I am begin too harsh on run-of-the-mill therapists, stream "Gypsy."

The show shows-- to coin an expression-- that therapy has passed beyond the stage of being a caricature of itself. Now it has become pure farce. 

Therapy began when Freud declared that we were all living out Greek tragedies. It ends as farce. Where have we heard that one before?

Naomi Watts does a fine acting job as New York therapist, Jean Holloway. Watts is clearly very talented. Yet, the script is appallingly bad; but that is not her fault. She tries valiantly to rescue it. Billy Crudup, as her lawyer husband, seems lost in his role, a mediocre actor playing a mediocre role. Their daughter, naturally, is having gender dysphoria issues. She’s 9. Mother Jean barely notices or cares.

The show presents some of the most pathetically mindless and soulless therapy sessions I have ever seen. The supposedly licensed and credentialed therapist traffics in buzzwords, meaningless terms that are thrown around so patients will imagine that they have actually gained some insight. Obviously, words like: feeling, control, boundaries, power… if these words disappeared from the language, most therapists would be struck dumb. Surely, Jean Holloway would.

And the therapists are constantly obsessing about the Freudian issue of what people really, really want. Or, was that the Spice Girls version?

And like members of a cult, Jean and her fellow therapists obsessively repeat the word “work,” as though what they are doing with their patients ever rises above tedious, boring conversation in a pretentious salon.

For the record, and for your edification, Jean does declare herself to be a cognitive-behavioral therapist, at a point where she offers some warmed-over Freudian insights about something she knows nothing about. But, since we have seen her in action in her office, we know, beyond any doubt, that her practice is neither cognitive nor behavioral. It is touchy feely, to an extreme, and embarrassing, at that.

As it happened, the show was so bad that Netflix canceled it after one season. Since the last episode was open-ended, we are led to understand that the showrunner had expected it to continue. Putting an end to it was an act of kindness.

But, the worst part, and the part that resonates for me, is that audiences loved the show. The critics panned it. See James Poniewozik’s splendid review in The New York Times.

As I have often noted, the obsession with inner mental life, with soulful longings and empathetic drooling removes us from the reality of people’s live and makes patients into emotional basket cases.

Poniewozik sees it clearly:

The therapy sessions — Jean also treats the controlling mother of an adult daughter and a drug addict in an unhealthy relationship — are like “In Treatment,” but without the nuanced attention to the lives of the patients. 

I will conclude, if I may, that viewers saw the show as validation of their own experiences in therapy. If such is the case, we certainly feel some serious compassion for them. But, don’t say they weren’t warned-- by this blog, at least.

And yet, the story does not limit itself to therapy. It is not a remake of the far more interesting “In Treatment.” It shows that therapist Jean has her own problems. Her practice bleeds into her private life, and vice versa. It all happens when she takes on a new identity and develops a love affair with a comely barista, an aspiring chanteuse, named Sidney.

Apparently, all you need to have a new identity is to give your barista a pseudonym when you order that caramel pumpkin latte. So, Jean pretends to be Diane and begins to strike up a relationship with Sidney.

And, here is where the show goes off the rails. You see, Jean has a patient named Sam. He is consulting with her because, despite his being clearly in his late 20s, he seems never to have exited adolescence.  He is whining, bitching and moaning about his lost love. He is obsessed with her. He can’t get her out of his mind. He misses her. He does not know what to do about it. In fact, neither does Jean. She offers some embarrassing role playing-- by telling Sam to pretend that she is Sidney-- but it is clearly an exercise in futility.

Now, gird your loins, here is the show’s MacGuffin. You might know that Alfred Hitchcock coined the term MacGuffin to designate a plot device, something that is not entirely credible, but that we must believe in order for the story to have any substance. In the case of “Gypsy,” the MacGuffin is that Sam’s lost love is none other than Sidney, the very object of Jean’s crush.

The problem is: once Jean discovers the uncanny coincidence, she does not break things off with Sidney. She does not recuse herself as Sam’s therapist. She continues to both pursue Sidney and to influence Sam to give up on Sidney. A considerable part of the series’ suspense derives from the possibility that Sam might  discover what is going on behind his back. 

Jean and Sidney gain a kind of adolescent delight in playing with the possibility. It's more pathetic than dramatic.

The problem with the MacGuffin is, quite simply, that it is not credible at all. It is ridiculous. Surely, some therapists have stretched boundaries. Some have even broken rules. But Jean Holloway, a woman who is largely portrayed as sympathetic cannot also be committing professional suicide. She cannot also be undermining her patient’s life to make manifest her own moral deficiency.

I would say, for the sake of argument, that no serious or conscientious therapist would ever have done what she did. If you do not believe that that is a reason to throw the series in the trash, I would simply suggest that if you want to portray a character as a caring and decent human being, a loving mother and wife, you cannot at the same time make her into a moral degenerate and all-around bottom feeder. 

You might think that the show is about exposing the fact that Jean’s life is a sham, that her marriage is a fraud and that her profession is simply a way to manipulate other people. And yet, the show does not present it this way. It presents Jean as a caring and considerate therapist, one who cares deeply for a drug-addicted female patient, one who strikes up a relationship with the estranged daughter of one of her other patients. 

As it happens, Jean decides that she is going to live out a new life by adopting a new persona, that of Diane, lover of Sidney. If she were trying to satisfy her curiosity, as the saying goes, we could accept it. But since it is obviously professional suicide, we cannot. One trusts that there are other women out there who would happily enjoy a fling with Jean.

Similarly, Jean involves herself in role playing with her husband-- the better to spice up their marriage-- but such activities are charming, at the least. They do not signal someone who has breached professional ethics and is manipulating her patient in order to satisfy her curiosity.  

Of course, it gets worse. That is, it becomes totally boring. Poniewozik describes it aptly:

But the scripts and hazy characterizations undermine [Watts]. We’re told Sidney has an obsessive effect on her lovers, but her mystery is generic (has British accent, sings in band). The episodes are a slide show of sleek interiors and tastefully shadowed bars, the pacing logy without being suspenseful. Binge-watching it is like binge-drinking cough syrup.

A good point. Nothing about the show tells us why Sidney has the effect that she supposedly has. It's fine for her to be a vixen, but nothing in the show sustains the notion.


370H55V said...

First I thought it was a revival of the musical. Oh well.

Sam L. said...

I don't watch Netflix, so...I got nuthin'.