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Showtime's Couples Therapy Is TV's Smartest, Most Authentic Reality Series

The docuseries doubles as your own personal therapy session

Tim Surette

"So... talk to me," couples therapist Orna Guralnik says to her clients to open a session in Showtime's docuseries Couples Therapy. And talk they do. A lot.

The most amazing thing about Couples Therapy -- which, as its title suggests, brings viewers into professional therapy sessions of real couples on the rocks -- is how honest and open its participants are about subject matter that is typically reserved for behind closed doors, be it the doors of a bedroom or the doors of a therapist's office. The intimacy and compatibility issues that bring these four couples to seek help from Orna are raw, occasionally embarrassing, and sometimes savage.

"I hope you can tell from the series our goal here was to find a way to capture therapy authentically," creator Josh Kriegman told TV Guide. "You know, one of the main questions going into this was is it possible to create a space where people can be authentic and raw and vulnerable in the way they need to be in order for real therapy to happen? Is it possible to do that and also film at the same time without interfering with that process?"

Lauren and Sarah, Couples Therapy

Lauren and Sarah, Couples Therapy


You'd think it would be hard to find participants willing to discuss their trust issues, sexual dysfunction, and personal hangups with millions of people watching, but Kriegman says they received nearly 1,000 applications and narrowed them down to four couples who fit what they were looking for: couples willing to be totally honest, and from diverse backgrounds. To keep things authentic, a new office with one-way mirrors was built, meaning Orna's clients never even saw a camera or crew member throughout the 20-week process that's been boiled down to nine extremely addictive episodes.

The results pour out of the couples as Orna does her thing and cracks the relationships open for all to see. One couple realizes the wife's abuse she suffered in a previous relationship is manifesting in her demanding behavior with her husband -- she calls her husband 20 times a day at work and is incensed when he doesn't answer. Another couple -- a woman and a transgender woman -- has trouble overcoming the gap between them about having a kid. And the season's player who leaves the biggest mark, a man named Mau, is so stubborn and unwavering in his stance that his wife has mental bruises from repeatedly running into the brick wall he's put up, which comes from a history of mommy issues.

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Throughout it all, Orna is a sponge, absorbing every choice of word her clients make and facilitating dialogue between them while also keeping things on track if they begin to go wayward. More than being a show to take in deep whiffs of dirty laundry, Couples Therapy is the most detailed avenue to show how couples therapy works and how it benefits couples. Seeing therapy in session will do wonders for anyone who has had doubts about it. And of course there's the self-reflective aspect of it all, where viewers recognize their roles in their own relationships from what they see on screen.

That was very much by design, according to Kriegman, who came up with the idea for Couples Therapy because both his parents are therapists and his dad used to leave sessions and tell him what an incredible thing it would be for him to witness therapy because it's such a useful tool for others to see.

"The utmost importance to us was that the folks we were looking for were inspired by the idea that sharing their problems publicly could be helpful to other people," Kriegman told TV Guide. "Doing this as part of a documentary was something that I think was really inspiring to the couples in the series because they shared that mission that being able to share our struggles it helps us feel less alone and more connected and we can see ourselves in other people."

Couples Therapy

Couples Therapy


Couples Therapy is overflowing with awkward body language, disgusted looks, and outright disdain for the people they supposedly love. There are also moments of understanding and love that fill the show with hope. The wonderful montages that thread the couples together sparkle; sometimes clips of mutual frustration from all the participants cross the screen, other times we seem them lovingly cuddle each other at home. And most tellingly, there are shots of the mundane moments of coupling up as husbands and wives pass time side-by-side absorbed by their phones. That relatable feeling of a years-long relationship -- with elements of excitement, regret, and boredom -- is where Couples Therapy becomes the kind of documentary that's absorbing because you can see yourself in that same position; it can become your own therapy session. It's almost frightening and too mindful of the universal efforts of keeping a relationship between two individuals afloat.

Each episode also takes time to turn the camera on Orna, which becomes a fascinating part of Couples Therapy. While the couples work out their sh--, some of that stink undoubtedly sticks to Orna, so she visits with her advisor to discuss her clients and take some of the weight off her shoulders from the intensity of the sessions. It's fascinating to see this side of therapy; Orna knows she's not there to pass judgment on these couples or suggest routes they should take, be it sticking it out or breaking up, she's there to facilitate their own decision-making process. But she can't help but have a personal opinion, which she airs out in these intimate conversations previously only seen by those in the industry. More interestingly, the emotional investment Orna has in these couples and her desire to see them be happy is a rare passionate side of therapists that's typically hidden behind professionalism and confidentiality agreements.

Couples Therapy

Couples Therapy


While watching each session, there's an urge to tell all these couples to break up. That it's not going to work out. Relationships are harder to maintain than ever and take lots of work to be successful, and there were times in Couples Therapy where the takeaway may have been that we should all give up on finding another half and stick out the rest of our lives solo. But just when you think a couple has passed its breaking point, a breakthrough is made and things seem to be on the mend.

Each couple ends their time with Orna more knowledgable about their situation than before. For some, it clears a path to recovery with a little concession and a lot of faith. For others, it's the stark realization that they're about to go their separate ways. For us, Couples Therapy is the first step toward looking inward at our own lives and learn from the openness of others.

Couples Therapy airs Friday nights at 10/9c on Showtime, and the entire first season is available to Showtime subscribers through Showtime's web site or the app. It has been renewed for a second season.

(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)