“I was thinking when you get back from Vienna, maybe we can see another counselor,” Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, tells her husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård, in an early episode of Big Little Lies. As she heard this line, Alice Hawley Long held her breath. Long is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and so much of her profession’s portrayal on TV and in movies is cringeworthy, she and other therapists told me. In the 2011 film 50/50, for example, Anna Kendrick plays a therapist who starts a relationship with one of her clients; more recently, in the show You’re the Worst, the therapist played by Samira Wiley invites her client out to brunch. “It’s not accurate, boundaries are crossed — it’s not good,” said Jennifer Seip, M.A., a couples therapist in Philadelphia.
And then there is Dr. Amanda Reisman, the therapist treating Celeste and Perry, and then Celeste alone, in the most recent episodes of Big Little Lies. People love Dr. Reisman.
Our own Vulture writers have called the scenes with Robin Weigert, who plays the good doctor, “so realistic they’re draining,” and credit them with keeping the show’s “gorgeous excesses from spinning off willy-nilly into the Pacific Ocean.” And you know who else loves the therapist on Big Little Lies? Actual therapists.
“It was so refreshing to me that it was a therapist on a television show that was actually doing the job of a therapist,” said Erin Qualey, a licensed therapist practicing in the Fairfield County area of Connecticut. Long, who lives and works in Birmingham, Alabama, confessed to “nerding out” over the scenes in Dr. Reisman’s office. “It’s not only that she’s good — it seems like a portrayal of a pretty advanced therapist,” she told me. “She’s not using the stereotypical tools — she’s not just saying, Oh, and tell me how that makes you feel and those kinds of things over and over.” Rebecca Lanier, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Naples, Florida, had a reaction that took her a second to figure out. “At first, I wasn’t a big fan,” she said. “But as it progressed — I think my initial, visceral reaction was because it all felt so real.”
The scenes between Dr. Reisman and Celeste are spellbinding, easily the most compelling part of the show (which is saying a lot, considering all the sex, scenery, and projectile vomiting Big Little Lies also has on offer). But they’re also difficult to watch, in part because some of Celeste’s objections to Dr. Reisman’s techniques seem so reasonable to non-therapists. For one: If Celeste came in as part of a couple — is it ethical for Dr. Reisman to continue treating her alone?
“Usually in couples therapy, you really are not supposed to meet with people individually,” Long explained. It’s part of the way that treating a couple is different from treating an individual: In marriage or couples therapy, the three of you focus together on the relationship, and not on either individual. “Honestly, I really liked, as a therapist, how they handled that,” she continued, adding that it felt as if the show “gave a little nod” to other professionals like her watching. “It was like, Yes, we’re meeting with her individually right now, but they had Celeste confront the therapist about it, to acknowledge that it’s not typical,” she said. If it was a secret hat-tip to the therapists watching, Qualey caught it, too. “It did make me take a step back,” she said. She told me that sometimes, when her line of questioning hits too close to home for her clients, they’ll make similar complaints to Celeste’s. “That’s when I know they’re deflecting,” she said. But things change when the therapist suspects domestic violence. “A red flag goes up for you, and you really are supposed to take people individually at that point, but subtly divide them up. Okay, maybe next session we’ll meet individually,” Long said.
And in those individual sessions, the therapists I spoke to have loved watching Dr. Reisman’s masterful work at compassionately, but firmly, guiding Celeste to confront the deeply painful truth about the violence in her relationship with Perry. “She does a good job of very gently reflecting what she’s seeing — she’s echoing or repeating back words that the client is using,” Long said. “Or when [Celeste] is equivocating — Oh, it’s not a big deal — the therapist keeps coming back to, No, this will happen again, he will hurt you again, you need to have a plan. That is perfect protocol for working with clients who may be being abused.”
That said, not everything about the fictional Dr. Reisman is perfect. The mental-health professionals I talked to were concerned that she hasn’t yet asked enough probing questions about the children’s safety; if Celeste and Perry’s twins are being abused, or even witnessing abuse, Dr. Reisman would be obligated to break client confidentiality and report that, they told me. At the same time, some of them thought her tone had shifted to being overly blunt, even stern, in a way that might frighten away a real-life Celeste from seeking treatment. “It does make me a little nervous,” Lanier said. As the viewers, we don’t know exactly how many times she and Celeste have met, “but it does seem like she went there really fast,” she continued. “Could there be someone out there watching this, and is that preventing them from making a phone call?”
Watching from home, these scenes between Celeste and Dr. Reisman often make me squirm, as if I’m in therapy, too. Part of it, I think, is that Dr. Reisman doesn’t even take notes, an intentional decision on the show’s part. In practice, it means Dr. Reisman never breaks eye contact with Celeste; she’s always watching. It’s uncomfortable to watch. But then, a good therapist knows how to use that discomfort. “As therapists, you do so much work with emotions — you learn that all emotions are okay, and all emotions are necessary to communicate,” Long told me. “Sitting with that discomfort that’s in the room — eventually there’s a part of Celeste’s brain that picks up on, Okay, I’m with this person who is safe. Look how comfortable she is. She’s okay, and she is able to stay with me here. Eventually, that will help the Celestes of the world learn to be comfortable with their own emotions.”