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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You've probably seen them on TV, maybe on "White Lotus" (ph), maybe on "Mare Of Easttown," "Broad City." We're talking about Black lady therapists.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BROAD CITY")
MARCELLA LOWERY: (As Betty) You must be Ilana Wexler. Come in.
ILANA GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) So cozy. Wow. You can keep the plants alive. You're an adult.
LOWERY: (As Betty) Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARE OF EASTTOWN")
KATE WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) So I bet you see a lot of cops.
EISA DAVIS: (As Gayle Graham) I've seen a few over the years, yes.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Hard cases, right? Like, they don't want to be here. They didn't think they need the help.
DAVIS: (As Gayle Graham) Some. But most are...
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) You know, I just want to say, you don't have to worry about that with me. I'll be here on time, every time.
DAVIS: (As Gayle Graham) Wonderful.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Awesome.
DAVIS: (As Gayle Graham) You're actually a little bit early.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WHITE LOTUS")
NATASHA ROTHWELL: (As Belinda) Feeling better?
JENNIFER COOLIDGE: (As Tanya McQuoid) Oh, my God. Was that really 90 minutes? 'Cause, oh, my God, it felt like 10.
ROTHWELL: (As Belinda) I think you fell asleep.
MARTIN: Black lady therapists - or BLT for short - is a term NPR's Aisha Harris has been using to talk about what she sees as a TV trope. But Aisha says something about it is changing, and she's with us now to tell us more. Aisha, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.
AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So you came up with this phrase, Black lady therapists. Explain what you're talking about here.
HARRIS: So a few years ago, when I was still at Slate magazine, I noticed this trend popping up in TV shows and even some movies, where there's a side character, a small character, a therapist. The protagonist, who is usually white, has to go seek out this therapist for whatever reason or a counselor of some sort, whether it's couples counseling or just personal therapy. And I noticed that these characters, these therapists were often turning out to be Black women. These were usually older, established character actors who were playing these roles. And you saw it on everything from "Grace And Frankie" to "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."
And at the time, I kind of saw it as a sort of subset of the Black best friend trope, which is where you have, you know, the side character, the Black best friend who pops up in lots of movies and they tend to be just kind of there on the side to be the cheerleader and to be the coach for the white protagonist. And I think the Black lady therapist is an outshoot of that. But instead of, you know, just being the best friend, she actually gets paid. So I guess that's...
HARRIS: That's kind of a plus side.
MARTIN: Maybe this is before your time, but there was also the Black lady judge.
HARRIS: Yes, yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: So - but you're saying that you're seeing something new about these characters?
HARRIS: Yeah. So especially over the past summer and into the fall, there have been a few examples of this trope that I think finally seem like they're becoming aware and trying to subvert it. So you have the Natasha Rothwell character in HBO's "White Lotus" and then you also have Uzo Aduba playing a therapist in "In Treatment" season four. But the one that I was most interested in and I think a lot of viewers are probably even more familiar with is Sarah Niles, who plays Dr. Sharon Fieldstone on "Ted Lasso." And if you haven't seen the show yet, it's basically...
MARTIN: The three people who haven't, come on now. OK?
HARRIS: Yeah, I know.
HARRIS: But for those who haven't, the three who haven't, Jason Sudeikis plays an American football coach who is hired to go to the U.K. and coach a soccer team, U.K. football. And Sarah Niles is brought in - her character's brought in this season, season two - to help treat the rest of the team. But she actually winds up treating Ted.
And so it's really interesting to watch their relationship grow because it's not just about her being sort of this sounding board and way for Ted to reach his epiphanies of what's going on with him emotionally and mentally, but she also gets a little bit of an arc. And she has a little bit of a spice to her, a kick to her.
Here's actually a great scene that will show you kind of their dynamic and the way in which she kind of subverts the trope of the Black lady therapist.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TED LASSO")
JASON SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) So you think I'm scared.
SARAH NILES: (As Dr. Sharon Fieldstone) Yes, I do.
SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) Yeah. Maybe I don't want to learn the truth.
NILES: (As Dr. Sharon Fieldstone) Ted, the truth will set you free. But first, it'll piss you off.
HARRIS: Yeah, she's attentive, she's a patient but she also is ready to go toe-to-toe. And even though Ted is not initially open to it and even judges her profession and at one point says, like, you're only paid to listen to me, she's like, look...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TED LASSO")
NILES: (As Dr. Sharon Fieldstone) I was quite offended about what you said about my profession, that just 'cause a therapist is being paid, they don't actually care. Let me ask you something, would you coach for free?
SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) Yeah, I would.
NILES: (As Dr. Sharon Fieldstone) But do you?
SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) No, ma'am.
NILES: (As Dr. Sharon Fieldstone) And yet you care about your players, right?
SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) Yes, ma'am.
NILES: (As Dr. Sharon Fieldstone) Then why would you assume it's not the same for me? I don't assume that all coaches are macho ****heads.
SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) That's a good point.
HARRIS: I love seeing that sort of back and forth between the two of them. And between this and those other two roles I mentioned on "In Treatment" and "White Lotus," we're seeing a little bit more of a dynamic and understanding of what these Black women characters are doing and how good they are at their profession.
MARTIN: And does this tell you something?
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, to me, I think it's saying that these shows, these writers are at least aware that this has become a thing because even in the last three-plus years since I wrote that initial piece in Slate, there have been so many other examples to pop up on, things like "American Horror Story" and "Mare Of Easttown." But these three rules, I think they're getting to the nitty-gritty, and they're also understanding the dynamics of being a Black woman and a Black therapist whose patients are mostly white. And there's a lot of little interactions there that I think we weren't seeing in those earlier examples of the trope that we get to hear.
And in part, it also just comes down to screen time. They have way more screen time, and they have more time to develop those characters beyond just being stuck in a room, talking to their white patients and having the white patients unload all of that tension onto those characters.
MARTIN: Well, what I think I hear you saying and I certainly remember from the piece that you wrote initially about this is this all still seems rooted in this historical responsibility that Black people have been tasked with for taking care of white people and that that kind of still...
MARTIN: ...Locates them in that role. But what do you see as - really, as the new depth? Is that what? They - do they ever take care of themselves, too?
HARRIS: Yeah, especially in the sense of Belinda on "White Lotus," her character - towards the end of it, there's a moment where after she spent all of this time dealing with a very, very needy person, she finds another one who wants to do the same thing and kind of leech onto her and be like, hey, help me out with this personal problem I have. And she's like, I'm not going to do this anymore. I can't. I'm tapped out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WHITE LOTUS")
ALEXANDRA DADDARIO: (As Rachel) I don't know. I'm sorry. I don't want to burden you with this. I'm just having a moment. I don't know. I just - what do you think?
ROTHWELL: (As Belinda) You want my advice? I'm all out.
HARRIS: And so being able to see a character like that sort of take back her time and take back her energy from giving this sort of advice that she didn't want to give in the first place, I think we are seeing a little bit more pushback against the trope. It's still a trope. And it's still - you know, there are still limitations to it. These are side characters, at least in the case of Belinda and the Dr. Sharon Fieldstone character. So they aren't quite the center of the story, like Uzo Aduba's character in "In Treatment." But I think there is room to explore it even more. And hopefully, we get more Uzo Adubas, where we see these therapists at the center of the narrative.
MARTIN: That is Aisha Harris, one of the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Aisha, thank you so much for being with us.
HARRIS: Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF KIANA LEDE'S "FEEL A WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.