‘Unprisoned’ breaks free of the Black lady therapist trope

OPINION: Kerry Washington’s hilarious new Hulu series has a subversive, liberating message.

Kerry Washington in "Unprisoned." (Screenshot/Hulu via YouTube)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Usually, when a Black lady therapist character is introduced into a story, it’s a modern way for productions to add a pop of diversity to their casts while keeping Black women characters in the same underdeveloped, subservient roles of the past. 

This “educated mammy” character only exists for the betterment of the usually white, definitely not Black main character. Think Michael Hyatt’s Dr. Akopian in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” or Niecy Nash’s Dr. Ryan in “Never Have I Ever.” Even Kerry Washington’s hit show “Scandal” sussed out in later seasons how her lead character, the fixer Olivia Pope, had repeatedly sacrificed her own life to clean up white folks’ mess. 

Now, Washington is back with a new scripted Hulu series “Unprisoned.” But this time, her Black lady therapist character Paige Alexander is laser-focused on her own hot mess and taking her whole family — and the audience — along for the healing journey. Based on the life of its creator, writer and relationship expert Tracy McMillan, this series from legendary showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser shows us enough glimpses of Paige’s office and clients to know that she has them, but the story we’re following is all hers, with most of her oversharing and therapizing her own life to her adoring followers happening via Instagram Live. 

“Sometimes I feel like I get more from your Instas than I do from whatever we’re doing here,” one of her clients remarks during a session. Paige is the anti-Olivia Pope, helping others by first working out her own healing. Though she’s been raising her sweet teenage son Finn (Faly Rakotohavana) on her own since he was born, she is no superwoman. She’s awkward, she’s over the top and she has no idea what normal is or healthy boundaries, for that matter. Abandoned by her mother who was a sex worker and absent for her entire life, Paige is a walking mother wound, trying her best not to repeat her mom’s mistakes all while giving herself the mothering she always deserved.

Kerry Washington and Delroy Lindo in “Unprisoned.” (Screenshot/Hulu via YouTube)

Paige may not be the best therapist, she may not know what’s going on with her son, and she certainly doesn’t know how to fix her cringeworthy love life, but her willingness to be vulnerable and do the one thing her parents never did for her — try — is endearing. This may be Washington’s most fun role to date, and she is clearly having a blast with Paige in each of the show’s eight episodes. 

If “Unprisoned” were only busting up a tired trope, it’d still be worthwhile enough. Fortunately, this hilarious show goes the distance, exploring the pain and comedy of a single mom reconnecting with her estranged father who’s been incarcerated for nearly two decades.

The indubitable Delroy Lindo stars as Paige’s newly freed but not quite rehabilitated father, Edwin, a suave ladies’ man and career criminal who left Paige to be raised by his unmotherly partner in crime. When Edwin has to live with Paige and Finn in order to increase the likelihood that he’ll be able to stay out of prison this time, Paige’s childhood wounds are reopened, giving her space and opportunity to comically let her inner child (Jordyn McIntosh) out to play. 

Though Edwin doesn’t quite believe in therapy, his love for his only daughter and grandchild is palpable as he teaches Finn how to drive a car and give the Black head nod and schools Paige on how to be a main bitch instead of a side chick. 

In an exceptional episode directed by Numa Perrier (episode 6), Edwin even injects his family, (who have grown up around way too many white people, with the “Nigressance” they need to reconnect with their Black American roots and culture. Their trip down South to Edwin’s hometown unlocks hidden traumas that shed new light on what made Edwin the way that he is and therefore made Paige and Finn who they are. It’s the fullness of Edwin, as well as the systemic challenges he faces as a formerly incarcerated person and how that impacts his family, that make this series stand out. 

As someone who’s had loved ones taken out of my community and institutionalized, I loved seeing this reflection of a determined Black family rebuilding and navigating a system designed for them to fail given all of their humanity on screen. But with Bowser at the wheel, that’s par for the course. And executive producer Washington is doubly committed to telling stories of Black families working through the devastation of incarceration, with her Simpson Street productions and Effie Brown’s Gamechanger Films bringing the young-adult novel “From the Desk of Zoe Washington” to the Disney Channel as an original movie. These stories deserve to be told in all forms, and “Unprisoned” has offered a version of the experience with the necessary love and care.

Though the laughs are plenty, the heart of this series is the painful excavation of intergenerational family wounds and resentments with the goal of reconciliation. Paige’s therapy work not only gives us insight into Paige but also provides a blueprint for working through deep-seated hurt. It’s medicine wrapped up in honey and (F-bombs aside) sweet enough for the whole family to enjoy — and perhaps even get a little more free in the process.

Brooke Obie is an award-winning critic, screenwriter and author of the historical novel “Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.”

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