tv review

Trust Me, You Want to Watch Couples Therapy

Photo: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

There has been a tidal wave of docuseries in the past few years, a sudden overwhelming flood of them that’s saturated streaming platforms and cable networks alike. True-crime docuseries, cult series, heist series, sports series, personality series, food ones, medical ones, travel ones, comedy ones. As the genre has exploded recently, the styles and aesthetics have slowly hardened into a set of familiar, repeating tropes — not every series is the same, but there is a gradually expanding language of how to tell docuseries narratives, and as they return again and again, they grow more comforting and commonplace. Re-creations of a crime, labeled timelines, talking-head interviews intercut with a long group scene, slo-mo shots of food being assembled, all of it can be transcendent TV, but it’s also become a little cookie cutter. So when there’s a docuseries built differently, a series that can tie the standard, tell-me-a-real-life-story docuseries appeal together with beautiful, idiosyncratic, painstaking filmmaking, it feels like striking gold.

So, why haven’t you watched Couples Therapy yet?!

My guess is that Couples Therapy has flown under the radar a little because it’s on Showtime, a premium network that can still feel like a far frontier for a TV viewing audience overwhelmed by subscriptions to a dozen different streaming services, many with their own bundles and add-ons. But watching the first season of Couples Therapy, released a little over a year ago, was like stumbling onto a secret TV treasure trove, a tiny, perfect piece of docuseries storytelling. Season two, premiering Sunday, April 18, is different in some ways — there’s no longer that hit of surprise, but there are other unexpected obstacles and revelations. It’s every bit as good as the first season, which means Couples Therapy is still far and away one of the best docuseries on television.

What differentiates Couples Therapy from a true crime series like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark or a medical series like Lenox Hill (another of my favorites from last year) is its uncanny fusion of the fly-on-the-wall documentary sensibility with the constructed premise and controlled creation of a reality show. The reality-show element immediately loses some people, I know, and I understand the concern. There’s an impulse to recoil immediately at something as sensitive and voyeuristic and potentially exploitative as therapy filmed for television. And it’s true. As Couples Therapy follows several couples over many weeks of sessions with a therapist, they say some incredibly sensitive, traumatic, messy, embarrassing, trivial, monumental things about their lives, in front of cameras for public consumption. There’s either an instant “yes please!” or a just-as-fast “no thank you!” to the idea in the abstract. It’s a series that exposes private stories, and it shows footage of people in sensitive, vulnerable moments.

But the exact things that suggest such an ick factor, the constructed premise and controlled production that are so suspect in most reality television, are the things that make Couples Therapy work. The episodes follow several couples through therapy, beginning before the pandemic in 2020 and continuing throughout a good chunk of the year, and aside from the portions necessarily filmed remotely, the series takes place in a set designed to look like a perfect, unremarkable therapist’s office. Cameras watch as couples come in, sit in a hallway, are welcomed into an office, take their seats on a sofa, and start talking. They all know they’re being filmed, but the genius of the set design means that they’re in a completely camera-free space. It’s completely seamless from the viewer’s perspective — the series just looks like being inside a beautiful, neutral therapist’s office. But when you follow the lines of sight and think about where cameras must be in order to capture any of these shots, it suddenly feels like a magic trick. We look directly at a couple as they recount some difficult interaction, and then the scene cuts swiftly to the therapist, who nods in concern. And yet there are no cameras behind either of them, even though the moment flows smoothly with no cuts in the conversation.

Couples Therapy is filmed on a set, a therapist’s office that’s been painstakingly constructed with cameras hidden behind walls and throughout the space so that filmmakers can capture these processes while being totally invisible to the participants. It’s the reality-show house, the Bachelor rose ceremony, the Wipeout obstacle course with cameras carefully stationed at the perfect position to catch people as they come slamming into the ground. Except instead of intending to capture people as they hit the lowest point they can, and instead of producers goading participants into traumatic revelations, Couples Therapy sets up its magic peek-inside office and then stays silent behind the wall.

The participants — three couples in this season, including an Orthodox Jewish married couple, an unmarried couple with young kids, and a gay couple without kids — are there because they want help. They talk about fears and frustrations and deep anxieties. They talk about big giant traumas and little annoyances and inherited patterns, and the aim of Couples Therapy is not to watch them get in fights or to uncover all the darkest secrets they’re hiding from one another. Over the season’s nine episodes, though, what you can see is how a therapist can guide people through their moments of disconnection. They might recognize that one superficial, repeating argument is rooted in something else, or that when they say one thing, their partner is hearing something very different. Couples Therapy is fascinated by the couples and creating portraits of their lives, but at its core the show is reverent about the practice of therapy.

The series works because its filmmakers have created an immaculately careful space to shoot it in, a box that almost lets them escape the Schrodinger’s cat question of whether observation always changes an experiment’s outcome. It’s also beautifully shot and edited, allowing the series to present what feel like full, detailed arcs for each couple even though hundreds of hours of therapy have been cut out of what eventually shows up onscreen. It works because the producers are careful to cast couples who will have interesting stories, but who don’t throw tantrums for the public attention.

The final key, though, is Dr. Orna Guralnik, the therapist at the center of the series. She is warm and compassionate and firm, and she’s incredibly insightful about the dynamics between the couples who sit across the office from her. The season is driven by the couples and the disconnect they want to bridge, but the framework comes from Guralnik’s ability to perceive the undercurrents between them, and her acumen in guiding them toward embracing new narratives about themselves and their relationships.

The series is not the same as going to therapy yourself, of course. But it is a moving, poignant illustration of what can happen when people sit down and really examine themselves, and a lovely portrait of the hope that can come with mutual trust and a good faith effort. And, for good measure, Couples Therapy is also totally absorbing television.

Trust Me, You Want to Watch Couples Therapy