When my boyfriend and I started watching Couples Therapy, a new series from Showtime that follows a therapist and her rotating cast of patients, we couldn’t stop talking about the acting.
“Every one of these people deserves an Oscar!” I screamed as a women expressed her dissatisfaction with an awkward smile. “This is unsettlingly real,” Avi said when a fighting couple sat in a loaded silence. By episode two, we were in such disbelief at the stomach-turning reality of it that we Googled the show, only to learn that it was a docuseries following real couples, and wasn’t scripted at all.
Turns out the only thing more shocking than thinking it was a work of fiction was learning it wasn’t. The palpable discomfort, the casual vulnerability, the artful camera work—it wasn’t like any reality TV I’d ever seen.
Couples Therapy follows four couples as they receive counsel from Dr. Orna Guralnik over the course of six months. At the outset, their issues range from tricky (differing brunch opinions, clashing communication styles) to dire (an alarming difference in world views, an untenable lack of trust), and nearly everyone comes with an agenda: to get Dr. Guralnik to agree with their perspective. But this quickly changes. As Margaret Lyons put it in her rave review of the show for the Times, “After 40 seconds, I was positive every couple featured on the show should break up. After all nine half-hour episodes, I’m less sure.”
This evolution is important. Since there’s not a lot in the way of narrative arc—each episode depicts the same people discussing the same problems in the same room—the drama exists primarily in the emotional realm. In this respect, the show over-delivers. Every time the self-assured Elaine, for instance, was struck dumb by a wise observation of Dr. Guralnik’s, the breakthrough felt like my own. If you’ve ever been to therapy yourself, you’ll recognize the feeling. By which I mean: There’s more to the show’s appeal than schadenfreude. Even if you don’t relate to the couples’ specific problems, seeing them through Dr. Guralnik’s eyes might help you reframe some of your own.
In that sense the premise of the show is plainly ambitious, but what makes Couples Therapy particularly astonishing is how the participants betray no trace of awareness of the cameras—a quality that may sound banal until you witness it yourself. My and Avi’s shock at the couples being real was a direct response to the distorted version of “real” life we’ve come to expect from reality TV. When that’s replaced with behavior that’s genuinely true to life, it’s striking.
I later learned the authenticity of the show is owed to the production setup: Since Dr. Guralnik’s office was too small for filming, it was rebuilt on a hyper-realistic soundstage, outfitted with 360 degrees of reciprocal mirrors. “We created an office where the cameras actually were concealed behind one-way glass,” co-producer Josh Kriegman told Vulture. “[Participants] could come in, sit in the waiting room, do an hour session with Orna, leave, and never once interact with any element of production or see a camera.” One couple confirmed they completely forgot they were being filmed, which I had no doubts about while watching, sometimes to an unsettling degree.
But perhaps surprisingly, Couples Therapy never feels dramatized or exploitative, and a sense of goodwill and intention runs through the filming and editing of the show, which seems invested in offering viewers a genuine glimpse into therapy. Watching Dr. Guralnik work is a crash course in radical empathy (at times Avi and I could barely hear her respond compassionately over our shouted accusations of psychopathy*)—and also in understanding the psychological undertaking of providing therapy. In brief sessions filmed with her own counselor, Dr. Guralnik seems crushed by the weight of her responsibility.
Not typically ones to binge, Avi and I finished all nine episodes in a few days. And when I came into work still reeling, I was comforted to find fellow zealots in Amalie and Mallory, neither of whom could shut up about it either. Couples Therapy can offer a lot of things to a lot of people, not least of which is a humbling reminder that people and relationships are far more complicated than we often give them credit for. But I think it’s particularly intoxicating for a certain type of person. If you’ve ever passed a couple fighting on the street and secretly wished you could stop to listen, or envied a fly on the wall of strangers’ day-to-day lives (two of my perversions of choice), heed my enthusiasm wisely, because this show expertly tackles both, with better cinematography than us voyeurs deserve.
*for those who have watched, this is a Mau subtweet
Images courtesy of Showtime.