Unscripted TV about relationships tends to be fueled by cynical impulses and sensationalized conflict. There’s a nervousness that audiences are only interested in an outrageous collision of bright lighting, alcohol and drama goaded by unseen producer manipulation.
“Couples Therapy,” now in its second season on Showtime, is something different entirely: A sincere look at sorting through the twists and wrinkles that can make living with a partner (but also living with yourself) feel so miserable.
It’s one of the most unlikely shows on television. By turns moving, uncomfortable and raw, it is also unquestionably entertainment, rooted in a nosy voyeuristic curiosity about what happens behind closed doors. Executive producers Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres navigate that invasive cringe factor with a series of confident, stylistic decisions that convincingly make the case that a grounded sensibility within the reality TV genre can actually be riveting and incredibly human.
In the cozy office of Dr. Orna Guralnik, the therapist at the show’s center, the cameras are tucked away and unseen, even by the show’s participants. The room itself feels comfortably lived-in. Guralnik’s chair is opposite the terra cotta couch where the couples sit. Guralnik’s dog, Nico, accompanies her to the office. He looks like a shrunken husky and he is quiet and sweet and greets her patients when they arrive. There’s an overall informality to the environment, but the work that happens inside is serious.
SUCCESS RESTS WITH THERAPIST
The success of “Couples Therapy” as a viewing experience rests entirely on Guralnik’s shoulders. A clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, there’s something reassuring about her presence. She has a soft vocal timbre, but she’s very intentional about the way she speaks and the words she chooses and the way she navigates each session. She’ll laugh. She’ll smile. She’ll lean forward and nod. But she’ll also push. Pretty firmly if needed. She is thoughtful and warm and empathetic — a careful listener, alert to nuances her patients miss in the heat of the moment.
On her website, she talks about focusing on unconscious thoughts and feelings that end up shaping our moods and behaviors. A lot of that work is what we see on the show.
A gay couple and two straight couples are the main focus of the season. (All are in their 20s and 30s; if there’s a third season it would be interesting to see older couples at a different life stage featured as well.)
“People come in convinced that the problem lives in their partner,” she says at one point. “And what they’re going to ask me to do is help them change their partner so that life gets better. But that’s not the work of couples therapy.”
Often Guralnik encounters resistance. Of course there’s resistance. “They come with their own highly developed narratives about what’s going on,” she says, “and here I come and try to disrupt those narratives and people don’t like it. Sometimes people fight me tooth and nail about it.”
Michal and Michael are a prime example. Married for 11 years, their fights escalate with alarming speed: “You literally do nothing,” Michal tells her spouse at their first session. “You are so lazy, your existence is worthless right now. It’s absolutely worthless.” I don’t know how a relationship comes back from that kind of blow. But Michael seems unfazed.
On the surface, she’s the impatient, domineering wife, and he’s the shrinking, shrugging, smirking husband, but it’s so much more complicated than that. And to see them work through their individual and joint issues over a period of months is fascinating. They really are in a better place by the series’ end.
“Couples form this world between them, in which they come to assume all sorts of things,” Guralnik muses, “as if that’s, of course, just the truth. (But) if you stand a little outside that structure, you realize that is not the truth, that is the mini-universe that you’ve created for yourselves. If you step out of it for one second, everything you thought was completely true is not necessarily so, and you can see it totally differently.”