The steamy title of this week’s installment of Frontline, My Doctor, My Lover, sounds like the name of a leftover network TV movie and has a juicy plot to match: It’s all about the affair between a female patient and a Denver psychiatrist, complete with tabloid-urgent dialogue like ”She was childlike, but with the ability to kill herself.” But because this is Frontline, the respected PBS documentary series now entering its 10th season, we know that these protagonists are real people, and that the situation is far more complicated and messy than any TV movie starring Cheryl Ladd or Joe Penny.
Which is not to say that this edition’s title is just hype, malarkey designed to lure you away from Roseanne and Law & Order. To the eternal credit of Frontline‘s executive producer, David Fanning, this series has never run away from provocativeness — never smothered controversy in prissy PBS propriety. Whether confronting the incalculable small tragedies of the S&L scandal (as it did a few weeks ago in The Great American Bailout) or examining, as it did in 1987, the Death of a Porn Queen, Frontline delivers the goods — hot, messy, and frequently troubling.
So it is with My Doctor, My Lover. In the mid-’80s, geologist Melissa Roberts-Henry went into therapy with Dr. Jason Richter — she was depressed and guilty about an extramarital affair she’d recently ended. He treated her for nearly a year, but Roberts-Henry remained emotionally troubled. Soon after stopping therapy with Richter, Roberts-Henry had sex with him, and continued to do so for about a year and a half. ”I thought a sexual relationship would be good, because he was already my doctor and helping me,” says Roberts-Henry. ”And if he became my lover as well, he would help me that much more. He would be my doctor, and he would be my lover.”
But Roberts-Henry’s psychological condition worsened over this period, and after the affair ended, she took Richter to court, saying that the psychiatrist had taken advantage of their doctor-patient relationship. Frontline follows the trial to its final, semi-surprising verdict.
Roberts-Henry and Richter were interviewed separately, and it is through their comments that director John Zaritsky tells this story, with each of them putting his or her own spin on the facts. As produced by Virginia Storring, the show contains two vivid character studies plus a rousing condemnation of the American Psychiatric Association, which endorsed and aided a variety of aggressive defense tactics on the part of Richter’s lawyers.
You might object that My Doctor, My Lover was exploiting this situation, trying to cast a ratings-grabbing ploy as an expose of shoddy medical practices. To an extent, you’d be right. An emotion zapper like this show is Frontline‘s equivalent of Phil Donahue wearing a dress on one show so that a few weeks later he can conduct a serious discussion of the Iran-contra scandal: It’s a matter of getting the audience’s attention. The cynical-but-realistic logic of television is that if you can attract viewers with stuff they expect will be juicy, they might stick around for weightier editions that are truly juicy, like corruption in government and big business.
As a source of serious nonfiction TV, Frontline is now virtually alone — only 60 Minutes comes close to conducting the sort of aggressive reporting and documentary filmmaking that Fanning and a shifting group of Frontline producers perform every week. Nowadays, the commercial networks’ idea of a documentary is something like Life in the Fat Lane, NBC’s 1987 joke of an investigation into Americans’ problems with dieting.
Frontline, by contrast, has offered its viewers tough-minded, invaluable shows. High points from the series have included its 1983 exposure of the working ties between Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and U.S. intelligence agencies, and two segments from last season: The Election Held Hostage, about the efforts of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign managers to delay the release of hostages in Iran until Jimmy Carter was defeated, and the wrenching Innocence Lost, about a North Carolina day-care center closed down because of charges of sexual abuse that may not have been true.
Over the course of 10 years, Frontline has managed both to offend and to comfort every political sensibility imaginable. If, as its detractors suggest, the series’ editions on U.S. government policy have a ”left-wing” bent, it is only because, since Frontline‘s inception, that government has been overseen by the right; Frontline does its best to maintain the adversarial position that journalists are supposed to take toward any established power. Were a liberal administration voted into the White House, who can doubt that Frontline would be unearthing scandal and corruption there, too?
This sort of attitude is so rare these days — the press, both print and broadcast, so assiduously meek — that Frontline strikes many as impudent and, heaven help us, rude. My Doctor, My Lover rates a solid B, but for a decade of programming so useful, entertaining, and, yes, rude, Frontline deserves its A.