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'Black Lady Therapists' are still a TV trope. But now they have more depth

Natasha Rothwell/<em>The White Lotus</em>; Sarah Niles/<em>Ted Lasso</em>; Uzo Aduba/<em>In Treatment</em>
Mario Perez/HBO; Apple; Suzanne Tenner/HBO
Natasha Rothwell/The White Lotus; Sarah Niles/Ted Lasso; Uzo Aduba/In Treatment

In the middle of Ted Lasso Season 2, a tonal shift that's only been hinted at in earlier episodes renders itself fully visible. It comes during a tense scene between Ted, played by Jason Sudeikis, and Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, played by Sarah Niles. It's a one-on-one therapy session, the second opportunity the steadfast Sharon has had to attempt to break through Ted's fortified armor of wisecracks, aw-shucks platitudes, and hearty, feel-good optimism. (An earlier session ended abruptly, with an uncomfortable Ted bolting from her office within minutes.)

This time though, he slowly begins to crack. As Sharon gently but firmly prods him with questions about his previous experiences with therapy, Ted gets testy. He deems their chat "bull---t," and accuses her of being interested in his feelings only because she's paid to be. And then he bolts again. Later, Sharon confronts him to say she's offended by what he's said about her profession.

Sharon: "Would you coach for free?"

Ted: "Yeah, I would."

Sharon: "But do you?"

Ted: "No, ma'am."

Sharon: "And yet you care about your players, right?"

Ted: "Yes, ma'am."

Sharon: "Then why would you assume it's not the same for me? I don't assume all coaches are macho dickheads."

The B.L.T. is the sounding board and sage giver of advice, a 21st century incarnation of the broader and much older Black Best Friend trope.

It was in this episode, "Headspace," that it became clear to me the show was moving in a new direction that belied its utterly wholesome reputation. Likewise, it's also when it becomes obvious Dr. Sharon Fieldstone is more than just your typical onscreen Black Lady Therapist. Sharon's got some depth!

To explain: The Black Lady Therapist is a trope I named a few years ago in an essay for Slate, after observing Hollywood's growing trend of casting Black actresses to play psychiatrists/counselors to (mostly) white protagonists. The performers are usually older, established character actors inhabiting bit roles for an episode or two (sometimes more); rarely does the audience know anything about this therapist beyond their name – they serve the narrative only as a vessel through which the protagonist can reach an epiphany about whatever trauma or personal conundrum they are dealing with at the moment. The B.L.T. is the sounding board and sage giver of advice, a 21st century incarnation of the broader and much older Black Best Friend trope.

Since I wrote that piece, Hollywood hasn't slowed its stream of Black Lady Therapists, including Ms. Burble (Gina Torres) on Riverdale; Dr. Eleanor Berger (Vanessa Williams) on Season 10 of American Horror Stories; and Gayle Graham (Eisa Davis) on Mare of Easttown. (Another recent example, though the patient is South Asian: Never Have I Ever's Dr. Jamie Ryan, played by Niecy Nash.)

But not all tropes are hackneyed and frustrating all the time, and the last several months have introduced a handful of Black Lady Therapists that subverted, or at least challenged, the trope more than their predecessors: the aforementioned Sharon in Ted Lasso, Dr. Brooke Taylor in Season 4 of In Treatment and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) on The White Lotus.

Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and Tasha (Jennifer Coolidge)
Mario Perez / HBO
Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and Tasha (Jennifer Coolidge)

These characters show nuance

Here is where I'll note that Belinda is *technically* a resort spa manager who practices craniosacral therapy, which is widely considered pseudoscience by health and science experts. But her function within White Lotus is consistent with the B.L.T. trope, because Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a quirky, exhausting hotel guest, ropes Belinda into being her unwitting therapist to help manage her many fragile emotions.

Tanya tips well and sings Belinda's praises, lavishing compliments to anyone who will listen about her "magic" as a healer. She requests more sessions with Belinda, invites her to have dinner and even comes up with the idea for Belinda to open her own practice, with Tanya as lead investor.

Tanya's an eccentric mess and a rich white lady, and she moves about the world with rich-white-lady blinders on. She latches onto Belinda like a barnacle, to the point where Belinda begins allowing herself to dream that Tanya is actually serious about helping her start her own business. Yet just as soon as the dream has been sold, Tanya becomes distracted by the affections of another hotel guest. By the end of the season, she's distanced herself from Belinda and the promises she'd made. "The last thing I need in my life is another transactional relationship," Tanya puts it bluntly.

Throughout all of this, Belinda is deferential, kind and attentive, but also understandably guarded – it's just as clear to Belinda as it is to Tanya who holds the power in this dynamic. Belinda tends so closely to Tanya because her current job depends on it, and deep down she knows Tanya could change her mind about her future at any time. Is that transactional? Sure. But in the end, the only person who ever had the potential to be really, truly hurt by any of it was Belinda.

By the end, it's clear the toll Tanya's fickle attention span has taken on Belinda. She refuses to get sucked into yet another impromptu Black Lady Therapist role with Rachel, a guest who bombards her for advice after hours about her spiraling relationship with her new wealthy husband. "You want my advice? Well, I'm all out," Belinda says exasperatedly, as she gets up to leave and reclaim her time.

Dr. Brooke Taylor (Uzo Aduba) and Colin (John Benjamin Hickey)
Suzanne Tenner / HBO
Dr. Brooke Taylor (Uzo Aduba) and Colin (John Benjamin Hickey)

They're no longer secondary

On In Treatment, Brooke is even more of an onscreen rarity than Belinda: A Black Lady Therapist at the center of the story (well, mostly). Uzo Aduba has quite a bit of material to work with here, and she breathes so much life, pathos, and feeling into Brooke. Most episodes are structured around Brooke's session with one of three patients (two are people of color – also a rarity); others show the tables turned, with Brooke getting regular visits from her sponsor Rosa, who's there to help her work through recovery and confront a lifetime's worth of regrets and pain.

As each session plays out in "real time," Brooke's technique and deft ability to lead her patients to the truth – whatever that means for them – come through. One patient is Colin, a middle-aged white guy who is out on parole and only in therapy because it's been mandated by the court. He's the kind of guy who laments "cancel culture" while touting his woke bona fides with statements like "I've dated a lot of Black women! I've never voted for a Republican in my life." Their interactions can be contentious and testy, but Brooke isn't there just to be on the receiving end of middle-aged-white-guy-tears; we see her recoil, react and firmly push back to the point that Colin begins to open up.

Sharon (Sarah Niles) and Ted (Jason Sudeikis)
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Sharon (Sarah Niles) and Ted (Jason Sudeikis)

They're helping explore complex themes

And then there's Sharon, a character whose initial appearance elicited from me a huge eyeroll and resigned sigh. Here's a woman who shows up just as so many Black Lady Therapists do, dropped into an already-established cast and positioned as the outsider you don't expect to stick around for very long. There's a version of Sharon that bears out my fears – in which she's little more than a scold, a killjoy sent to throw some acidity on the show that's been both celebrated and dismissed for being so sunny and sweet.

But Sharon's arrival in Season 2 works twofold. Practically, she does help the show take a turn toward more complex themes, unveiling Ted's layer of artifice as a happy-go-lucky dude. But that process also fully involves her as a human being who's bringing in her own baggage – her struggles to get Ted to be more honest about what he feels are tied to her own reluctance to express vulnerability with him in return. As her own therapist advises her, she must meet Ted halfway.

When Ted finally opens up about his father's suicide, the revelation feels earned, because Sharon and Ted have each seen one another at their low points (Sharon's calls for help after her bike accident help fortify their bond). His breakthrough in turn benefits Sharon, who tells Ted that he helped her become a better therapist – "which is saying something because I was already f-----g brilliant." (Another reason to love Sharon: She's got a delicious way of peppering salient points with cutting obscenities.)

Belinda, Brooke, and Sharon suggest a trope that's officially reached its self-aware period, and some writers and casting directors seem to be playing deliberately with the Black-woman-as-caregiver stereotype. They suggest there are ways to morph it into something less confining and more interesting, namely by demystifying the labor and skill (and patience) it takes to be a good therapist in the first place, but especially a Black one. They may be Black Lady Therapists, but they aren't just Black Lady Therapists. That's progress.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.