Being a couples therapist requires insightfulness and patience. But it also requires a willingness to empathize with individuals that are often at their breaking point, unable (or reluctant) to investigate the root causes of their issues. Over the course of Couples Therapy’s first three seasons, Dr. Orna Guralnik has exhibited all those traits, along with humility, toughness, a sense of humor, and loyalty. Thus, when she announces at the new half-season’s onset that “I’m not the right therapist for” a pair of clients, it’s an immediate promise that Showtime’s reality series (streaming April 28) will get knee-deep in irresolvable conflict.
It's also, of course, a tease meant to entice viewers to stick around and guess which of Couples Therapy’s four storylines prompted such a declaration. That’s not easy to initially discern, since Guralnik’s latest patients are all dealing with significant problems that may or may not be fixable. Like A&E’s Intervention, Showtime’s under-the-radar hit is a flash-free affair that immerses itself in genuine life struggles. Each half-hour episode gets up-close-and-personal with partners in the midst of crisis, in order to examine how those cataclysms came to be, along with the uncomfortable toil necessary to transcend them.
This premise is bracing precisely because its underlying issues are relatable and, moreover, treated—by Guralnik and the show—with honesty, pragmatism, and minimal narrative manipulation. Whether the couples succeed or fail may be the proceedings’ dramatic hook, but what’s truly gripping is the sight of unhappy people trying to figure out a way to repair fundamental bonds that, for whatever reason, have been strained.
There’s plenty of messiness to be found in Couples Therapy, particularly within the couples’ dynamics. The season opens on Brock and Kristi, whose 15-year marriage has been upended by two main factors: first, Kristi’s (and, later, Brock’s) decision to leave the Mormon Church, in which they were raised; and second, Kristi’s decision to cheat on Brock with the one man Brock—who was amenable to an open relationship as a means of exploring their new post-Mormon identities—asked her not to be with.
Kristi’s anger at her “abusive” religious upbringing and community manifests itself in her friction with Brock; both are struggling to reconcile their desires for commitment and freedom, while simultaneously forgiving each other for their past trespasses. Theirs is a stew of bitterness, regret, and fear, and, as is so often the case with Guralnik’s patients, it’s exacerbated by a trust-fracturing unfaithfulness.
Infidelity is at the core of three of Couples Therapy’s four tales, emerging as the most common source of relationship ruin. Erica and Sean are at odds due to Sean’s philandering, which he claims was instigated by his spouse’s intimations that “stepping out” was okay (a notion she rejects). Sean’s two-timing, however, is somewhat of a secondary hurdle for the duo; more pressing is his emotional remoteness, habit of blaming Erica, and related disinclination to take a long, hard look at himself. Guralnik believes that her job as a psychoanalyst is to make people think, “What about me, not what about them,” and Sean starkly illustrates the potential arduousness of that task.
Couples Therapy also features a pair this season that’s interested in polyamory, a unique challenge the show has explored before. Nadine asserts at the outset that this is a paradigm that they “need;” as it turns out, that prerequisite is wrapped up in both of her and her partner Christine’s childhood traumas. It’s also a symptom of something that’ll be obvious to most viewers, if not to Nadine and Christine: that wanting other people (even in the context of seeking to reinvent the monogamous status-quo) is often a tell-tale sign that you don’t want to be with each other. Moreover, Nadine and Christine’s difficulty defining their relationship is complicated by their concurrent efforts to figure out their own (gay, independent, estranged-from-family) identities—a dynamic additionally seen with Brock and Kristi.
In this season of Couples Therapy, only Joe and Natasha have remained loyal to one another; their dilemma has to do with an apparent lack of intimate interest on the part of Natasha. Nonetheless, they’re similar to Guralnik’s other patients, in that much of their tension is traceable to prior home and relationship troubles; for them, like the others, healing is feasible only through forthright communication about themselves and each other.
In that regard, Couples Therapy continues to be a snapshot of introspection, dialogue, and consideration as the pillars upon which successful relationships are built, and the best tools available to mend shattered fences. If, of course, those fences are mendable at all—not everyone on this show seems cut out for the long haul, and the depiction of that blindness (be it willful or not) is also part of the show’s revealing power.
Most invigorating are those moments when a breakthrough is suddenly achieved, either courtesy of Guralnik’s astute questions (which encourage patients to probe the basis of their feelings) or partners’ own self-reflection. Those instances are the highlight of Couples Therapy, demonstrating the value that people can derive from psychoanalysis. At the same time, though, Showtime’s series doesn’t pretend that there are solutions to everyone’s quandaries, and its scenes of people authentically fighting—sometimes in decidedly hostile and cruel ways—can be equally illuminating.
Shot unobtrusively and interspersed with interludes in which Guralnik chats about these cases with a peer advisory council and her own clinical advisor, Dr. Virginia Goldner, Couples Therapy provides an aesthetically calm, soothing environment. Here, both warfare and rehabilitation can take place. To be sure, there are occasional lulls in its action; not everyone is likable (or worthy of a season’s worth of attention), and not every thread proves as meaningful as it initially appears. In this season, Guralnik’s Israeli heritage and Christine’s Palestinian history afford a potentially intriguing angle that amounts to little. Yet this series connects more than it misses, and the fact that its subjects frequently don’t finish where they began—or where viewers probably expected—is a testament to its own serious commitment to therapeutic work.