Scene from a marriage: A husband, having betrayed his wife and humiliated her, lavishly, in public, plays her a video of himself arguing on television. Grinning helplessly at his own against-the-odds scrappiness, he keeps looking over to the wife for approval. In the unforgiving light of their home office, she is a picture of weary, dignified suffering, large eyes turning toward heaven, elegant fingers twitching with unease. Even if you’d never seen these two before and knew nothing of their history, you’d recognize this as one tiny episode in a tragicomic saga—they’ve thrown in their lot together, pooled their considerable resources, cast their differences as fruitful or even romantic, and now here they are, bound on a perpetual wheel of frustration, error, and disappointment. The qualities he takes most pride in have become a torment to her. Off camera, a voice asks, “She must like that about you, right?” and the husband, momentarily crestfallen, replies, “No, I think she may like me in spite of that.”
It’s somehow a surprise that this domestic tableau should feel so revealing. At the time of filming nearly a decade ago, its protagonists, Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin, have already spent years in national politics and provided the New York Post with some of its most eye-catching headlines. Both are well aware that they are not in private. And yet the dynamics we see playing out feel unmistakably intimate—they are real.
It makes sense that Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli B. Despres, the writer-director partnership that produced this documentary, Weiner (2016), have since developed the brilliant high-end reality show Couples Therapy, now in its third season on Showtime. You could, of course, say that the three of them struck it lucky with Weiner. The couple granted all kinds of access for what was meant to be the rousing-yet-predictable story of Weiner’s political comeback, tracing his run for New York City mayor; in practice, the cameras were very much rolling when Weiner spectacularly blew up his own campaign with another sexting scandal, demolishing his marriage in the process, and rendering the movie a New York classic. Still, it seems fairer to acknowledge that the filmmakers reaped the rewards of a psychological and narrative intuition that is now, in their later series, on full display.
The signal accomplishment of Couples Therapy, which each season follows a new set of three or four pairs over many weeks of sessions with clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Orna Guralnik, seems to grow directly out of the lessons of Weiner. The show manages to blend the risk and rubbernecking thrill of reality TV with the emotional riches of narrative cinema, while aspiring to the moral authority of responsible documentary. And it throws in a dash of intellectual and even political legitimacy courtesy of the ever-elegant Guralnik, who lends philosophical gravitas to her therapeutic insights and often sprinkles them with hints at a more radical framework: “All those hopes laid on something called a middle-class marriage,” her clinical adviser, Virginia Goldner, muses in the show’s first season. “Will my partner be able to compensate for everything that didn’t happen for me, for all my agita?” Guralnik concurs. “If they’re not doing it—are they bad? Am I bad? It’s really extraordinary how much the relationship has to bear.”
Not unlike a successful marriage, Couples Therapy draws strength from its inherent contradictions and liabilities, rather than being undone by them. The role of the therapist on most reality TV shows is a self-defeating one—to opine on the interactions of people whose psychological frailty is being visibly exploited and exacerbated by the show itself; to capitalize on the very professional credentials she’s undermining. But Guralnik expertly manages the tensions of operating on-screen. Despite allowing cameras to feast not only on her listening face but (in B-roll) on her home, son, and wolflike dog, Nico, she appears nearly unimpeachable.
This is partly thanks to the show’s astute premise. Unlike individual therapy, which is slow, halting, and often wretchedly tedious, couples work, usually sought at a crisis point when urgent decisions need to be made, tends to be swifter and more explicit. And whereas individual therapy must take place in an inviolate private sphere, the couples version comes with elements of exposure and artifice built in. This, after all, is one of the great appeals and disadvantages of any long-term relationship: a constant witness. A couple will almost always perform—for each other, or perhaps an imaginary parent, if no one else is around—and the therapeutic situation would seem to encourage, if not require, some competitive role-play. All this makes the process suited to the otherwise punishing rhythms of television.
As the couples on the show display and disrupt their established routines, express their wants and fears and needs, vie for favor or control, their cherished narratives fraying against one another, the audience remains aware that we must be altering what we observe. Cameras follow the participants home through New York City streets, in and out of the office where treatment takes place—which is a soundstage. The sessions are edited so that entrenched conflicts and long-buried traumas can emerge, be resolved, be reinterpreted, and resurface in new forms, all within small snippets of a 25-minute episode. Yet this falsity rarely compromises the show’s effects. The role Guralnik herself plays, meanwhile, doesn’t have to change much for the cameras. Like the audience, patients scrutinize her every move, expression, intonation, wanting to know more, ready to project their fantasies on her. Appearing credible, insightful, warm, emotionally present, without allowing any real intrusion or self-revelation, is already central to her job.
At one point during the first season, Annie and Mau—among the most glamorous, floridly entertaining, and irreducibly mysterious of the couples—whisper in the waiting room before a session. Annie pleads with Mau not to play the villain this time—“Please, we had one deal!”—and it’s unclear whether they are discussing the dynamic with Guralnik or acknowledging the viewers at home. “Maybe someone has to be the bad guy,” Mau says, “otherwise people can’t define themselves. They’d just be lost.” You see how Mau’s arrogance, his refusal of empathy or compromise, must be both unbearable to live with and a key part of the vivid, unpredictable intensity that has held the couple in each other’s thrall for more than 20 years. Their marriage has incorporated the grotesque, integrated it as fuel—and that’s what Couples Therapy does, too. While other reality shows rely on the viewer’s feeling of superiority, this one draws us dangerously close to the action.
Whereas TV writers have sometimes used past trauma as a lazy, all-determining stand-in for both plot and character, Couples Therapy zeroes in on the moments when lives that have been stuck on repeat actually begin to move. The show grants its audience an emotional arc equivalent to what the on-screen couples experience. Playing with our tendency to pick a side and jump to identify where the source of conflict lies, the show allows stories to shift and bend before our eyes, producing unusually subtle, unpredictable varieties of catharsis.
Each season features a couple (or couples) in which one is angry, demanding, and tempestuous, while the other is relatively passive and withdrawn. “Why do you find this funny?” Michal, an Orthodox Jewish woman, cry-screams at her gentle husband, Michael. “I just hate him so much!” But the truer dimensions of their relationship soon emerge—his muted rebelliousness, her inherited anxiety, and the mutual sense of fun and spontaneity that connects them underneath the constant bickering.
As in a good mystery novel, these shifts in perspective frequently turn on clues that have been lying in plain sight all along, waiting to be rearranged. People’s casual use of language, for example, can be wildly revealing. Elaine, another wife who initially appears to be bullying her mild-mannered husband, DeSean, will not tone down her cries for his attention. “You can’t punch someone in the face and then tell them you love them,” she says, when DeSean refuses to skip a funeral to spend time with her. “I promise you I’m saving your life,” she insists, when attacking his taste for a few beers. Guralnik draws out the fact that these phrases, while disproportionate to Elaine’s current situation, literally describe things she endured in the past. When her ex would wake her up with a punch in the face, Guralnik reminds Elaine, her “life really was in danger.”
The third season injects a somewhat unwelcome distance by including Guralnik’s sessions with a peer advisory group, who analyze the couples’ progress and her technique. “When you start your sessions with the couples, do you do a deep dive of each of them individually and their past history?” someone asks, even though the basics of Guralnik’s process must surely be familiar by now. In fact, these discussions often feel explicitly targeted at the audience, more didactic and less intimate than the check-ins Guralnik has with Goldner in earlier episodes. In those conversations, Guralnik occupied a position more like that of her patients, seeking a form of support and challenge she evidently needed. She implicated herself, interrogating her own rescue fantasies, voicing her frustrations and occasional alarm at the power the couples allowed her to wield over their fates.
The more personal approach of the earlier seasons enriched the viewer’s sense of what was at stake in the treatment. You saw Guralnik tell a couple who had seemed on the brink of ending their long partnership, both feeling injured, misunderstood, deprived, that if anything different is to happen, they will each have to struggle hard “to change something fundamental” in themselves. Yet you also saw Guralnik’s adviser critique her overweening ambition, reminding her of the limits of any therapeutic encounter, how little it can hope to solve or heal, as “just one session in time,” a moment amid the rushing course of life outside.