Mario Perez / HBO; Apple; Suzanne Tenner / HBO
Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Season 2 of Ted Lasso, the white lotus, and season 4 of Under treatment.
In the middle of Ted Lasso Season 2, a tone shift only hinted at in previous episodes, makes 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 chance the steadfast Sharon has had to try and break Ted’s fortified armor of jokes, aw-shucks platitudes, and heartfelt, feel-good optimism. (An earlier session ended abruptly, with an uneasy Ted leaving her office within minutes.)
This time, however, it slowly begins to creak. As Sharon prods him gently but firmly with questions about his past experiences with therapy, Ted becomes irritable. He views their chat as “bull—t” and accuses her of being interested in his feelings only because she gets paid for it. And then he shoots again. Later, Sharon confronts him to say she is offended by what he has said about her profession.
Sharon: “Would you like to coach for free?”
Ted: “Yeah, I would.”
Sharon: “But to 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 jerks.
It was in this episode, “Headspace,” that it became clear to me that the show was heading in a new direction that belied its perfectly sane reputation. Likewise, it is also when it becomes clear that Dr. Sharon Fieldstone is more than just your typical on-screen Black Lady therapist. Sharon has some depth!
To explain: The Black Lady Therapist is a figure of speech I mentioned a few years ago in an essay for: Slate, after observing Hollywood’s growing trend of casting black actresses to play psychiatrists/consultants for (mostly) white protagonists. The performers are usually older, established character actors who star in one or two episodes (sometimes more); rarely do the public know anything about this therapist outside of their name – they only serve the story as a vessel through which the protagonist can achieve a revelation about whatever trauma or personal conundrum they are currently dealing with. The BLT is the sounding board and the wise giver of advice, a 21NS century incarnation of the wider and much older Black Best Friend trope.
Since I wrote that piece, Hollywood hasn’t slowed down the flow of Black Lady therapists, including Ms. Burble (Gina Torres). Riverdale; dr. Eleanor Berger (Vanessa Williams) in Season 10 of American horror stories; and Gayle Graham (Eisa Davis) on Mare by Easttown. (Another recent example, although the patient is South Asian: Never have I ever‘s dr. Jamie Ryan, played by Niecy Nash.)
But not all tropes are corny and frustrating all the time, and in recent months a handful of Black Lady therapists have introduced who undermined, or at least challenged, the trope more than their predecessors: the aforementioned Sharon in Ted Lasso, dr. Brooke Taylor in Season 4 of Under treatment and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) on The White Lotus.
These characters show nuance
Here’s 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 inside white Lotus matches the BLT trope, as Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a quirky, tiresome hotel guest, seduces Belinda into her unwitting therapist to help manage her many vulnerable emotions.
Tanya gives great tips and sings Belinda’s praises and compliments anyone who will listen to her “magic” as a healer. She asks for more sessions with Belinda, invites her to dinner and even comes up with the idea for Belinda to open her own practice, with Tanya as lead investor.
Tanya is an eccentric mess and a rich white lady, and she moves around the world with blinders on. She clings to Belinda like a barnacle, to the point where Belinda begins to allow herself to dream that Tanya really seriously wants to help her start her own business. But once the dream is sold, Tanya is distracted by the affection of another hotel guest. By the end of the season, she has distanced herself from Belinda and the promises she made. “The last thing I need in my life is another transactional relationship,” Tanya says bluntly.
Through it all, Belinda is respectful, kind and considerate, but also understandably guarded – it’s as clear to Belinda as it is to Tanya who holds the power in this dynamic. Belinda cares so closely for Tanya because her current job depends on it, and deep down she knows that Tanya could change her mind about her future at any moment. Is that transactional? Certainly. But in the end, Belinda was the only person who ever had the potential to get really, really hurt.
Towards the end, it’s obvious the toll Tanya’s erratic attention span has taken on Belinda. She refuses to get sucked into yet another makeshift Black Lady Therapist role with Rachel, a dude who bombs her after hours for advice about her grueling relationship with her wealthy new husband. ‘Do you want my advice? Well, I’m completely gone,” Belinda says annoyed, getting up to leave and reclaim her time.
They are no longer secondary
on Under treatment, Brooke is even more of an on-screen rarity than Belinda: A Black Lady Therapist in the middle 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 the three patients (two are people of color – also a rarity); others show that the roles have been reversed, with Brooke receiving regular visits from her sponsor Rosa, who is there to help her recover and cope with a lifetime of regret and pain.
As each session takes place in “real time”, Brooke’s technique and deft ability to lead her patients to the truth – whatever that means to them – comes through. One patient is Colin, a middle-aged white man on parole and in therapy only because of the court order. He’s the kind of guy who complains about “cancelling culture” while touting his awake bonafides with statements like “I’ve dated a lot of black women! I’ve never voted Republican in my life.” Their interactions can be controversial and irritable, but Brooke isn’t just there to be on the receiving end of middle-aged tears; we see her flinch, react, and push back firmly to the point where Colin begins to open up.
They help explore complex themes
And then there’s Sharon, a character whose first appearance elicited a huge eyeroll and resigned sigh in me. Here’s a woman who appears like so many Black Lady Therapists, has thrown herself into an already established cast, and is positioned as the outsider you don’t expect to stick around for long. There’s a version of Sharon that confirms my fears – in which she’s nothing more than a swearword, a bummer sent to throw some acid on the show that’s both celebrated and rejected for being so sunny and sweet.
But Sharon’s arrival in Season 2 works twofold. Practically speaking, they is doing help the show take a turn towards more complex themes, revealing Ted’s low artifice as a lucky dude. But that process also includes full her as a human who brings her own baggage – her struggle to make Ted more honest about what he feels is linked to her own reluctance to express her vulnerability with him in return. As her own therapist advises, she should meet Ted halfway through.
When Ted finally opens up about his father’s suicide, the revelation feels deserved, as Sharon and Ted have seen each other at their lowest point (Sharon’s cry for help after her bike accident helps strengthen 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 damn brilliant.” (Another reason to love Sharon: She has a delightful way of peppering high points with sharp obscenities.)
Belinda, Brooke and Sharon suggest a figure of speech that has officially reached its self-conscious period, and some writers and casting directors seem to be deliberately toying with the stereotype of the black woman as a caregiver. They suggest there are ways to turn it into something less restrictive and more interesting, namely by demystifying the labor and skill (and patience) required to be a good therapist first and foremost, but especially a black one. They may be Black Lady therapists, but they aren’t only Black Lady therapists. That’s progress.