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A Session With ‘Couples Therapy,’ the Non-Reality Reality TV Show

Showtime’s latest purports to be a docuseries, with elevated production and an absence of staged story lines, but it also carries the same voyeuristic pleasures as the genre it truly belongs to

Earlier this year, Netflix made waves with Dating Around, a tastefully streamlined take on one of reality TV’s most prolific subgenres. Its six episodes eschewed elaborate concepts, retroactive testimonials, and other telltale signs the action before us had been intensely stage-managed. They also tapped into the prurient interest in others’ personal lives said stage-managing is typically designed to facilitate. This was the paradox of a new kind of relationship show, and its chief innovation: By stripping away the more nakedly sensational aspects of its genre, Dating Around could better deliver the sensation viewers were seeking all along.

Couples Therapy, on Showtime, sees this useful discovery and raises it several emotional notches.

The docuseries—not reality show, as the press materials are careful to note—reads like a spiritual sequel of sorts to Dating Around, even if the two shows aren’t formally connected. Where one chronicles the potential beginning of a relationship, the other depicts its rocky middle and even potential end. Many of the techniques are the same: the cinematography, which had me checking several times to make sure the show wasn’t scripted; the casting, which values naturalism and diversity over big personalities; the editing, which carefully splices separate meetings into a whole greater than its parts. So is the effect, a startlingly intimate glimpse into the most private (legally protected, even!) of spaces. And ultimately, so are the discomforts. Even the most thoughtfully presented of reality show subjects is still being presented for our entertainment.

The center of Couples Therapy is Dr. Orna Guralnik, whose real-life practice is based in downtown New York City. (Interstitial shots show couples mingling in iconic locations such as Washington Square Park, like bonus scenes from Sex and the City or Master of None left on the cutting room floor.) Together with executive producer Eli Despres, Guralnik works under the watchful eye of filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the duo behind feature-length documentary Weiner, also for Showtime. Certain scenes from that film, which followed a few of the many sex scandals plaguing former representative Anthony Weiner and their effects on his marriage to political operative Huma Abedin, seemed like couples therapy themselves. Weiner blustered, Abedin stared disbelieving daggers, and we watched them ask each other what we were asking ourselves: Why would she stay with him? (Ultimately, she didn’t.)

The subjects of Couples Therapy are in a much less extreme situation than Weiner and Abedin’s, with much more quotidian problems—communication, major decisions like having kids, disparities in finances, expectations, and libido. This makes it all the more remarkable that they’re willing to work through these issues on camera. The four couples who take up the series’ nine episodes are not prior patients of Guralnik’s; Kriegman and Steinberg found them via open casting call, then selected for diversity and candor. Unsurprisingly, Couples Therapy is not the first show with its name or premise, but where the VH1 version featured public figures like DMX and Courtney Stodden, this one prefers relatability to celebrity. In keeping with its premium-cable environs, Couples Therapy has more in common with State of the Union (miniature excerpts from a larger relationship) or High Maintenance (artfully juxtaposed portraits of urban life) than its unscripted peers.

To ease patients’ awareness that their therapy would be televised—which, in turn, makes their therapy better television—Kriegman and Steinberg concealed their cameras behind one-way glass throughout Guralnik’s office. The goal, Kriegman told The Guardian, was for couples “to come in, sit in the waiting room, have an hour-long therapy session, leave and never once interact with any element of production or camera-person, or see any camera.” The most stereotypical use of such one-sided observation is the interrogation room, and while these couples haven’t done anything criminal, they show the skittishness that comes with knowing one’s discretions are about to go under the microscope. While they wait for their session to start, one couple half-jokes about a “safe word,” lest their arguments get out of hand; another person brushes off her wife’s attempt to adjust her shirt. All four couples try to decipher the abstract painting in Guralnik’s foyer. Some see a person; others see a bird.

Guralnik herself is a near-textbook therapist, more Dr. Melfi than Dr. Phil. Her office is swathed in calming neutrals and artfully arranged bookshelves, and her listening pose is a feat of architecture: brows knit together, upper body angled down, eyes angled up, broadcasting total attentiveness and deference to her patients. So well does Guralnik fill the role that it’s a surprise to learn she initially wanted to limit herself to the role of off-camera consultant. Couples Therapy also delivers on a fantasy familiar to anyone who’s been in therapy of any kind, joint or solo, following Guralnik out of her own workplace and into that of her clinical adviser, Dr. Virginia Goldner. There, Guralnik is the one seeking advice, worrying that one couple is beyond repair or that she’s projecting her feminist beliefs onto another. It’s the kind of judgment you know, hope, and fear is going on behind that silent nod, but never get to see for yourself. (Goldner, for her part, reminds Guralnik that her job is to help patients better understand their problems, not solve them.)

Still, the real stars of the show are the couples themselves. Kriegman (the child of two therapists in his own right) and Steinberg have shrewdly selected for a broad range of pairings. Some have been married for just three years, some nearly 25; some are straight, some queer; some are affluent, some are middle class. Whatever their starting point, Couples Therapy is able to bring all of its subjects to a similarly honest place. Over months of real time but mere minutes of edited footage, Guralnik coaches her charges through conversations about sex, trauma, trust, and personal history. Total strangers disclose their past abusive relationships, or walk Guralnik—and, by extension, the audience—through the exact terms of their open marriage.

Kriegman has said that couples agreed to this potential violation because “sharing their stories publicly could be helpful to other people who are having similar struggles.” Empathy and catharsis are certainly some of the responses Couples Therapy brings out of its audience, but they’re by no means all of them. At the end of its first episode, Couples Therapy introduces a sort of “twist”: We’re shown at least one couple mutually agreeing to separate, followed immediately by a flashback to their first-ever session. The implication is unmistakable. This could happen to any of these people—keep going to find out which! To the couples, the discoveries made in Guralnik’s office have far-reaching, potentially devastating consequences. To us, they become a guessing game, the inverse of most relationship shows’ which-one-will-they-pick. This couple has deep-seated conflicts, but their body language seems affectionate; maybe they’ll make it. This couple has a good routine, but they also seem cold and irritable; maybe they won’t.

Couples Therapy makes significant efforts to distance itself from the outright exploitation that makes up so much of reality TV. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the show ends up catering to the same impulses that govern its medium, and that exist inside us all. Recently, I found myself flinching away from Netflix’s Styling Hollywood because I found it too uncomfortable to watch the two leads argue about parenthood; not 48 hours later, I devoured a near-identical dispute on Couples Therapy. It’s all but impossible to separate healthy curiosity from emotional leering, or processing feelings vicariously from outsourcing pain. Maybe the only solution is to find the version of both that fits your sensibility.