Thanks to the radio talk show maven's influence, women therapists are appearing all over the small screen, ''Ally McBeal,'' ''The Sopranos,'' and others

By Bruce Fretts
May 21, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Blame it on Dr. Laura Schlessinger. The best-selling author (Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives) and talk-radio queen’s daytime-TV advice show doesn’t debut until fall of 2000, but her influence is already being felt all over the tube. The prevailing image of small-screen shrinks as balding male Milquetoasts (Frasier, The Bob Newhart Show, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist) has given way to a new class of tough-talking, Dr. Laura-esque females on such series as Ally McBeal and The Sopranos.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Schlessinger herself will find success in her new medium — TV is more than just radio with pictures, as Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern have learned the hard way. Some viewers may not warm to the conservative Schlessinger’s strident views against divorce, day care, and premarital sex. But syndicator Paramount is hoping that Dr. Laura will become the Judge Judy of couch jockeys — a straight shooter who connects with average Americans seeking an advocate for ”traditional values.”

Schlessinger isn’t the first distaff doctor to take a shot at TV stardom. Dr. Joyce Brothers made her name as a boxing expert on The $64,000 Question in the late ’50s and has been a recurring presence on the box ever since, but she’s more famous for being famous than for any of her psychological theories. As for Dr. Ruth Westheimer, she could make David Letterman turn red by merely uttering the word erection but sadly couldn’t keep her own syndicated show’s numbers up.

Ally McBeal hasn’t suffered such ratings maladies yet, despite the fact that the dramedy has featured not one, but two grating lady docs: Tracey Ullman as the ”smile therapist” with whom Ally (Calista Flockhart) occasionally consults, and Rosie O’Donnell as the marriage counselor Billy (Gil Bellows) and Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith) enlisted after he and Ally shared an adulterous smooch. O’Donnell’s Schlessingerian adviser asked Ally to join the couple for a session and promptly proclaimed her a ”home wrecker,” at which point Ally broke the poor woman’s foot with a spike-heeled stomp. (David E. Kelley strikes another blow for feminism!)

Frasier staged its own parody of Dr. Laura recently, casting Christine Baranski (Cybill) as Dr. Nora, a radio barracuda who termed a bisexual caller ”an equal-opportunity slut.” The episode alluded to Schlessinger’s imperfect past (she has been divorced, posed for nude pictures, and cut off contact with her mother), even dredging up Dr. Nora’s estranged harridan of a mom (Carrie‘s Piper Laurie). Still, the satire ultimately seemed tamer than its real-life target.

Only The Sopranos offers a character as compelling as Dr. Laura herself. Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is the most fascinatingly complex therapist, male or female, ever seen on TV. She can’t resist the professional challenge — or the vicarious thrill — of treating Mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). Behind her detached facade, she aggressively tries to put Tony in touch with his anger towards his monstrously overbearing mother (Nancy Marchand). Maybe Dr. Melfi will finally experience a breakthrough with Tony now that he’s confirmed his suspicion that his dear old mom actually did authorize a hit on him. That’s the kind of dysfunctional twist that might leave even Dr. Laura speechless.