“You literally do nothing. You’re so lazy. Your existence is worthless right now. It’s absolutely worthless,” Michal yells at her husband, Michael. Arguments and conflict like this are often part of reality TV shows, because arguments are part of the human experience. On whether it’s couples bickering on The Amazing Race or people screaming at each other on The Real Housewives, the focus is usually on the heat of conflict itself. Resolution usually means just moving on.
But on Couples Therapy—Showtime’s phenomenal, perfect reality TV show, which is back for an even-better second season—conflict doesn’t end with someone flipping a table, or the editors cutting to commercial. From behind angled mirrors that conceal cameras in a cleverly designed set in New York City, we watch Dr. Orna Guralnik in conversation with three couples, pushing them to talk more and explore what they’ve just said and what it means.
While the episodes are less than 30 minutes each, there’s actually time to sit with the couples. During their conversations, and especially across the weeks and months reflected in the episodes, Michael and Michal, Gianni and Matthew, and Tashira and Dru all go deep: into anxiety, sexual intimacy, parenting, and other issues that surface in their relationships, and also into more disquieting territory, too, such as physical violence, alcoholism, attempted suicide.
Matthew, who’s in therapy with his partner Gianni, says, “Yes, I haven’t dealt with any of this, but I’ve also moved so past it, that I’m kind of in the it-is-what-it-is.” Orna leans in, literally, and helps them peel back the layers past the is-what-it-is. The couples explore still-raw childhood trauma, dissect patterns of behavior, and explore how all of this is affecting their ways of interacting in the relationship now.
It’s absolutely riveting television, but the the remarkable part is how it’s also intimate without being exploitative, and observational instead of judgmental. (All of season two is streaming for Showtime subscribers now, and airs Sundays at 10, but if you’re not a subscriber, all of season one is free to watch on Sho.com, and free with Amazon Prime until the end of the month.)
The couples have, of course, volunteered for this, and know they’re being filmed as they’re being so open and vulnerable. Each episode ends with a title card that says, “Our deepest gratitude to the participating couples for their bravery and honesty.” That gratitude is not just a platitude, but is evident in the editing and presentation. The editing takes care of its subjects as human beings; it doesn’t treat them as footage to manipulate, nor has reality been hacked to pieces by bad network notes.
Michael and Michal are this season’s most-frustrating couple for me, especially when, in early episodes, they both smirk as they bicker, and ignore Orna outright. As Michal berates her husband, Orna interjects: “I want to make a suggestion.” But Michal keeps ranting, not even listening. Orna continues to try, firmly: “Michal, Michal, Michal. I need for you to engage with me in a way, because we can’t have you just repeating yourself. I really get it. But do you want some help in changing things?”
“Yeah,” Michal says, and then continues to scream at her husband that he’s worthless and useless. Orna says, “Michal, you are unraveling.”
In these moments, right as I feel myself start to unravel, ready to unleash a torrent of judgment toward an individual, a couple, their decisions, or even the way they’re responding to Orna (like pouring water instead of listening), the show moves past that moment to a place where everyone, including me, can observe what just happened.
During one session, Orna turns to Michal’s partner, Michael, and says, “Is this method working? Is that going to get you there? I’m assuming the only thing it’s doing is making you shut down.”
Orna observes for the couples, and for us, and that brings everyone closer to a place of understanding. “Sometimes I need him to listen and just hear me,” Tashira says of Dru. Couples Therapy really does allow the couples and viewers to just listen and hear what’s happening.
That isn’t always easy. Orna tells Michal she’s “unraveling” through a screen, because they’re not together in the office, but having their session via video conference. Couples Therapy season two began production in early 2020, and by late March, the sessions had to switch to virtual appointments. The show transitions, too, with masks appearing on people in its metaphor-heavy New York City B-roll, and with self-shot footage showing us the couples in their homes.
“I’m not managing to have much of an impact, and I’m know if it’s partially due to this technology, but it’s very difficult for me to intervene at all,” Orna tells her advisor/therapist, Dr. Virginia Goldner, also via video chat. “It’s easier for them to leave me out because of the technology.” (The sessions between Guralnik and Goldner are short but contextualize what we’ve been seeing, and also give us such useful insight into Guralnik’s strategies and struggles with her patients.)
The change to virtual therapy is quick—in just an episode and a half, they’re back in the office, though in real time, months have passed. The show does an excellent job of compressing time.
I actually asked about the editing during a Television Critics Association virtual press conference earlier this year. Director and editor Kim Roberts told me that “the main challenge of the process is figuring out which sessions stay in, which don’t. We try to stay as linear as possible.” Guralnik told me that, despite having to condense footage, “somehow the filmmakers manage to completely get into my mind and even into my unconscious, and put it on film the way it happened,” and said “it feels kind of magical and very, very true—not only to what happened, but true to the sort of unconscious narrative that unfolds in a treatment.”
That narrative is both insightful and incisive, as it was during season one, and my only complaint with the series is that it’s too short. I wanted to spend more time with these couples, with the important work that they’re doing, learning from them as they learn about each other. I wasn’t alone in that.
In the last episode, Orna tells Goldner, “With the added dimension of the whole pandemic and all the upheaval that we’ve been through, I just feel more attached to my patients than ever.” Couples Therapy season two is such outstanding reality television that it made me feel the same way.
Couples Therapy: A+