Couples Therapy: why would anyone agree to televise their therapy sessions?

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The showrunners behind an honest, if uncomfortable, new series explain how they got four couples to allow cameras in the room with their therapist

Before the closed glass door of a therapists office in New York, a series of couples brace themselves for a slog. One man fidgets with a 3D puzzle; a woman, eyes closed, grips the chair arms. In the chairs, facing a Rorschach-esque painting, the couples seem aware of, if not reacting to, a discreetly installed camera one womans attempt to tuck in her partners shirt tag, met with a shrug and rebuff, morphs into a shoulder rub. But the anticipation seems to cut through any self-consciousness, landing back on the two people their unit, about to be picked as if an archaeology dig. One couple sits down, sighs, and looks at each other, as if to say: are you ready?

Showtimes new series Couples Therapy is, like a good apology, exactly as advertised: a peek into the process of couples therapy, a seat in the room as they unpack years of coiled narratives and resentments to find common ground. The footage is intensely personal, at times searingly intimate, and cumulative show-runners Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, and Eli Despres filmed four couples over 20 weeks of one-hour therapy sessions, then edited down and stitched together each couples journey into nine half-hour episodes. Other than brief transition montages or characterizing shots couple pouring coffee in their home, couple riding in the back of a car thats it: the couples and the therapist, outfits changing with the week, getting to know each other and themselves.

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A decently clear picture or, at least, the small-talk version of why each pair no longer sees eye-to-eye emerges by the end of the first episode. Theres Evelyn and Alan, a young couple whose mutual lack of trust perches them on separate ends of the couch and the brink of separation; Lauren and Sarah, a queer and trans couple whose spark dampens under the weight (or lack thereof) of potential children; DeSean and Elaine, a union of reserve and fire he calmed my noise, and I woke him up, Elaine says now speaking in mutual spite; and Annie and Mau, whose bickering over a birthday plan gone awry suggests a personal history of defensiveness and desire much more complicated than either let on.

The subsequent episodes, four of which were available for review, richly fill in or interrogate and flip those narratives as the therapist, Dr Orna Guralnik, masterfully steers part-conversation, part investigation into the many strands of personality, miscommunication, sex, money, power and mistrust (to name a few things) that pull a couple apart. This raw, potentially instructive honesty builds on years of popular media seeking to pull back the curtain on romantic coupledom: theres the viral Ted Talk by therapist and media figure Esther Perel, Rethinking Infidelity, viewed nearly 14m times, and advice podcasts such as the Dan Savage Lovecast or Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almonds Dear Sugar. Perel has her own podcast, Where Should We Begin?, launched two years ago, in which audiences listen in on capsule episodes of single therapy sessions with real couples.

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Orna Guralnik in Couples Therapy. Photograph: Courtesy of SHOWTIME/Courtesy of Showtime

But Couples Therapy breaks new ground with its camera, capturing the stalemates and breakthroughs in shifting gazes, unsaid interjections, raised eyebrows. Its presence offers a level up on the fascination of lurking behind closed doors, but also presents a conundrum how can you capture therapy, and whats so extraordinary about therapy, while also filming it? Kriegman, whose parents are both therapists, told the Guardian. Is it possible for people to be open and raw and vulnerable where they are able to do great work while also knowing that theyre being filmed?

Truthfully, we didnt know if it would work, he admitted. (He and Steinberg previously worked together on Weiner, a documentary about former Congressman Anthony Weiners scandal-derailed NYC mayoral campaign.) Nevertheless, the team set about casting a diverse range of couples in age, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity open to exploring their relationship on record. Their open call, according to Steinberg, received over 1,000 inquiries. After a series of long conversations, they narrowed it down to a few couples, then eventually four.

All agreed to have cameras in their sessions because they were inspired by the possibility that sharing their stories publicly could be helpful to other people who are having similar struggles, said Kreigman. In turn, the film-making team, according to Steinberg, sought to avoid sensationalism or salaciousness by eliding the cameras presence as much as possible: the documentarians stayed out of the therapy room, instead concealing cameras, integrated inconspicuously into the offices design, behind one-way glass. They maintain that the recorded emotion is all unprompted; couples were able 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, said Kriegman.

Alan Ameerullah and Evelyn Ameerullah in Couples Therapy. Photograph: Courtesy of SHOWTIME/Courtesy of Showtime

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Guralnik, meanwhile, flourishes as she treads an expert line between empathetically pulling on tightly held threads and acknowledging pain while sidestepping judgment. A New York City-based psychotherapist and psychoanalyst with 25 years experience, Gurnalik was initially skeptical of appearing on screen, but came around to the film-makers vision of unadulterated process. There are very parallel processes to documentary film-making and the psychoanalytic process the process of storytelling, narrating, finding the underlying narrative of something that seems obvious, she told the Guardian.

A former film student, Guralnik approaches couples therapy with what she called a psychoanalytic sensibility keeping an ear to the enigmatic unconscious, knowing that people dont always know whats motivating them and whats at play while also noting the system that theyve created together with its own individual and family patterns. Guralnik also in accordance, she said, with Kriegman and Steinberg pays particular attention to sociocultural factors: gender dynamics, politics, race, class, all of these large-scale issues and how they find expression within the couples life, and their most intimate moments.

Captured softly on tape, Guralniks work offers a welcome opportunity to witness the struggle of seeing another person for who they are of recognizing, as she tells her own clinical advisor-cum-work therapist, that a single person will never live up to your fantasy of them. The show, she hopes, will help people to think about the kind of couples dances that we all do that we get into repetitive cycles.

Those cycles work on a societal level, as well a national pattern of outrage not lost on the film-makers. I think its fair to say that our culture right now, were inundated with stories of conflict and polarization, said Kriegman. But even beyond politics, I think many of us experience the dominant narrative being one of people entrenched in their corners with opposing views and digging their heels in.

The contested terrain of the romantic couple offers a different story, he said, one that evinces humanity oft-underplayed instinct to sincerely improve. People really do want to do better they want to transcend, they want to grow, theres this underlying push toward health, connectedness, betterment, Guralnik said. I really feel as a therapist and an analyst, you get to tap into the underlying forces that mend humanity.

  • Couples Therapy starts on Showtime on 6 September with a UK date yet to be announced.

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