Why Would Anybody Want to Put Their Therapy Sessions on Television?

Dru and Tashira
Dru and Tashira
Photo: Showtime (provided courtesy of Showtime PR)

In a non-televised context, subject matter regularly discussed on Showtime’s Couples Therapy would qualify as raw. “Uncomfortable” barely begins to describe conversations had the show’s Season 2 couples have with their therapist, Dr. Orna Guralnik—sometimes they’re borderline taboo. Tashira describes the attraction disparity between her and her partner, Dru: “He’s more attracted to me than I am to him.” Matthew recounts showing up intoxicated to the hospital where his partner Gianni had been admitted for a panic attack; elsewhere the newly sober Matthew discusses being blocked sexually as he has habituated mixing sex with substance. And in perhaps the most explosive example, Michal berates her husband Michael, whose characterization on the show is mostly defined by affable indifference. “You literally do nothing. You’re so lazy. Your existence is worthless right now. It’s absolutely worthless,” she tells him.

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Though it’s unwise to look a gift horse in the mouth, I found myself harboring a persistent question as I watched this show that I love: Why? Why would people put themselves through this? Couples Therapy could be roughly described as reality TV, but it’s not exactly a platform for the kind of star-making stunting that can lead to an extended career in the medium. For one thing, the interactions are confined between the couples and Guralnik as the action takes place almost entirely in an office that has been outfitted with a host of hidden cameras (aside from some interstitial footage of the couples at home). Therapy is less stigmatized (and more integrated into our vernacular) than ever, but the (largely) quiet work performed on the show hardly ensures a pipeline to social-media influencing.

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Michael and Michal
Photo: Showtime (provided courtesy of Showtime PR)

Interviews with all three couples who participated in Couples Therapy this season suggest two key factors that motivated them to put their relationships and work on display. The first was a sense of civic duty.

“We knew going into this that hopefully other couples would be able to relate,” said Dru, who watched the show’s first season with Tashira before she applied for them to appear on its second. “There’s a sense of comfort know that you’re not the only one.”

“Addiction is a thing, immigration is a thing, there are lots of topics where people can relate and see themselves in us,” Gianni told Jezebel. (He and Matthew were the only couple that appeared separately on Zoom. Gianni was in Italy, while Matthew was connecting from Baltimore, where he is working. Like the rest, they remain a couple.) “It was a good opportunity to share our story and somehow help each other and maybe help someone else.”

The second factor was Guralnik, whose skill had been on full display last season. She is ferociously intelligent, enviably empathetic, and deftly capable of projecting simultaneous warmth and a refusal to suffer bullshit.

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“Who wouldn’t want to have therapy with Orna?” said Tashira.

“I just fell in love with her way of practice,” said Dru.

“When we got a peek at Orna as a person, we decided okay, let’s go deeper and deeper and see how it goes,” said Michael, who applied for the show via a Facebook ad and then went back and watched its first season.

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In exchange for their time, Matthew said he and Gianni received “minimal” compensation and it didn’t factor into their decision to participate on the show. Michal described the compensation as “modest.” Michael said they were “paid in, like, Uber rides,” adding, “There is no compensation better than 20 therapy sessions with Orna.”

“I wouldn’t have forked over so easily that kind of money, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that,” said his wife, Michal, who had the couple’s third child, Elia, earlier this year.

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Gianni and Matthew
Photo: Showtime (provided courtesy of Showtime PR)

Edgeline Films, the production company run in part by Couples Therapy co-director/executive producer Josh Kriegman and executive producers Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres, filmed several couples’ sessions and whittled down the pool to the three that are the focus of Season 2. “I had not realized that we would get the amount of coverage that we did when I set out on this journey,” said Michal.

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“There was a natural hesitation but I think once we had the opportunity to meet the crew that were a part of the onboarding process, it felt so natural and comfortable that we moved forward with the process,” recalled Matthew. He said that aside from getting miked at the start of their sessions, there was no reminder of the production during their sessions.

“The way they have the studio, or Orna’s office, if you will, is so natural and authentic that the moment you walk into the office, and even Orna’s energy, is so contagious that we just melted right into that sofa and just let it all out,” said Matthew. “It was just very comfortable.”

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“You get so into the conversation and your feelings that you’re not thinking about a show, you’re not thinking that cameras are watching and recording you,” said Dru. “It’s literally a triangle: Me, Tashi and Orna, just sitting down having a conversation. You forget about the whole show thing.”

Michal, however, admitted that there were times when the production’s invisible presence influenced just how much she shared during a session. “Most of the time I wasn’t thinking about the cameras,” she said. “But sometimes, like times when I would talk about a topic that was very sensitive, there would be a nagging voice in the back of my brain like, ‘Oh wait, pause stop. Just a second there, how much of this do you really want to share? This could potentially end up on TV.’” When asked what was off-limits, Michal said details of her finances and bedroom.

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“Even if we did broach those topics we would just [focus] on the core issue,” explained her husband Michael. “In terms of the therapy, we were focusing on the work.”

Tashira’s unfiltered process led her to discuss family issues like her sister’s suicide attempt and her father’s rage, which included throwing things and breaking things. She recalled him hitting her mother and throwing a bike at her aunt when she was younger. “I don’t think he realizes the pain that he causes,” she told Guralnik.

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Tashira said that her father had seen some of the show but that at the time of our interview, she had yet to receive feedback. “I think and I hope that my story is one that is heard,” she explained. “It’s not meant to hurt anybody’s feelings. It just makes me who I am and I think some people are going to have to accept that part of my story because it is my story. We knew some of the things we said some people may not agree with or like to hear, but the purpose was for us to get our relationship in the right place. And that’s what was the most important thing.”

Michael described the process and the finished show as separate experiences. “The document focuses on the struggle we had in our relationship, not what is our relationship actually,” he said.

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“You kind of float out of your body when you watch yourself,” recalled Tashira. “It was pretty cool. It gave us a chance to see our progress, see how far we’ve come, see how much work we put in.” Dru remembered apologizing to Tashira for certain things he did and said on the show. “Now I’m in a different mindset, so I can see my reaction,” he said. “Now I can say, ‘I was thinking about my stuff, not your stuff, I’m sorry.’ It’s weird.”

Michal, whose emotional crescendos are among the season’s most memorable moments (see the “worthless” diatribe quoted above), said that it was “very uncomfortable” to watch herself back during her particularly fraught moments. “I almost feel like there’s a disconnect between how I feel now versus then,” she added. “There’s a piece of me that almost can’t even relate to myself insofar as feeling those feelings toward Michael. I think that’s due to the great work of the therapist.” Michal may have said the harshest words of the season, but she and Michael were the most engaged and humorous of the three couples in their interview with Jezebel. (Perhaps the overt nature of the interview, as opposed to sharing themselves in front of hidden cameras, caused the other couples to retreat into their shells a bit.) On the experience of watching herself back, Michal laughed. “I’m sitting there going, ‘I sound like a crazy person, but at least I look good!’” she said.

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Matthew and Gianni said that having their therapy available to stream means they can brush up on the work they did whenever necessary. “Orna taught us a bunch of tools to put in our toolbox and I think that it’s only natural and human for us to forget those in moments of stress or anxiety, frustration, any of those things,” said Matthew. “Being able to watch it back really allows us the opportunity to be reminded of all those tools that we did learn.”

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Tashira and Dru
Photo: Showtime (provided courtesy of Showtime PR)
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Couples Therapy offers a rather condensed version of the couples’ therapeutic journey. Each couple gets about 10 minutes in each of the season’s nine 30-ish-minute episodes. The couples underwent around 20 sessions (which were initially scheduled to be weekly, though the scheduling was broken up by the pandemic.) For the most part, the couples described their portrayals as accurate, with a caveat here and there.

“They didn’t manipulate our therapy in any way, but there wasn’t enough time to depict our full story,” said Michal. “One of the things I felt that wasn’t expressed was Michael tends to talk a lot more.”

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Her husband agreed. “I did get cut a lot, I noticed. A lot of the other couples were even and for some reason I was silent the entire time,” he said. They both allowed, though, that the editing did convey a tendency of Michael’s to retreat when Michal exploded. “It’s not like it’s a bad representation and it depicts the core elements, but would you say that you know me from watching that? I don’t think so,” said Michael.

“It does feel a little short, but it feels like the main concepts, the main things we worked through are there,” said Gianni. “I think they did a really good job of editing and finding the best parts. But we did a really long journey. It was seven, eight months of therapy. It’s kind of nice to see the journey abbreviated.”

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Though various individuals have continued solo therapy, only Tashira and Dru remain in couples counseling. Per Guralnik’s advice, Matthew and Gianni are taking some time off couples therapy but are considering returning to it eventually. “Our relationship is based on discussion. It was like a disease of the body. We cured the thing,” said Michael on his and Michal’s post-couples therapy status.

“There’s no end to therapy for us,” said Tashira. It’s an ongoing process. We didn’t go into therapy to get fixed, we went in to become self aware, to…”

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“Learn about each other,” said Dru, seemingly completing her thought.

“And try to figure it out together,” said Tashira, getting in the last, altruistic word.

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The Season 2 finale of Couples Therapy airs Sunday on Showtime; the entire season is now streaming on the channel’s app.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

DISCUSSION

seabassy
Seabassy

My spouse and I (7 years next month!) watched both seasons of these shows together. It was a learning experience to see how other couples communicate. Sometimes (especially in Season 1), the couples’ issues helped us feel better about our stuff by comparison. “At least we’re not like THAT!” At other times, exact phrases that we’ve said to each other left a participant’s mouth, and it was like “holy hell, we’ve had this conversation verbatim.”

Overall it helped us feel thankful for our relationship, the work we’ve put in, and the little roadmap that shows us what can happen as we continue down a path together. Watching was like our own couples therapy by proxy.