Book Excerpt: Sopranos Psychology

The human condition involves psychological conflict, the inevitability of strife in intimate relationships, existential loneliness and crises of meaning. These psychological struggles are writ larger than life each week on The Sopranos, and we are drawn to the show because of them. In this book, I explore human psychology as it unfolds in The Sopranos, not only in the context of psychotherapy but in the characters' relationships, behavior and dreams that occur outside the consulting room. The series' writers, clearly serious students of human behavior, have done what Hamlet recommended to a troupe of traveling players visiting Elsinore. They have held a mirror up to nature-human nature, that is, and 11 million viewers can't take their eyes off the reflection.

Psychotherapists have shown a particular interest in The Sopranos. Many of them hooked up to cable or subscribed to HBO solely to see Jennifer Melfi's latest session with mobster Tony Soprano. And the next day over coffee or in the elevator, they critique Melfi's therapeutic strategies, chortle over Tony's malapropisms (Hannibal "Lecture" is one of my favorites), argue vehemently about whether or not Tony is treatable, express their growing distress about Dr. Melfi's crossing her legs when she wears a short skirt; and they debate Tony's diagnosis and micromanage Melfi's medication choices. These informal discussions were formalized in the third season when three other psychoanalysts and I began discussing each episode on the TV Club. The Slate discussion became popular beyond the wildest expectations of its editors, with hundreds of thousands of readers regularly following our dialogue.

To be sure, we therapists had been waiting a long, long time for a depiction of psychotherapy in the media that even approximates the complexity of real life we see in our offices. From Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium (1906) to Hannibal (2001), we have endured cinematic depictions of therapists that range from the buffoonish to the malevolent with very rare exceptions that approach what a therapist might actually do in practice. We've watched Peter Sellers attempt to seduce his women patients during group therapy in What's New, Pussycat? (1965). We've munched popcorn in darkened theaters while Woody Allen's other protagonists grow increasingly disillusioned with the therapeutic inaction of psychoanalysis. We've chuckled as Richard Dreyfuss unravels to the point of attempting to kill his patient (Bill Murray) in What About Bob? (1991). We've marveled as one beautiful female therapist after another succumbs to the charms of handsome male patients in movies like Spellbound (1945), Knock on Wood (1954), Sex and the Single Girl (1963), The Man Who Loved Women (1983) and Prince of Tides (1991). And, of course, our culinary preferences have been challenged by watching Hannibal Lecter sauté Ray Liotta's brains while making light conversation in the kitchen (although I think poor Hannibal is regarded with excessive harshness by my colleagues, especially since the American Psychiatric Association ethics code does not strictly forbid eating one's patients).

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