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Working It Out

Couples Therapy as Performance Art

ISSUE:  Winter 2019

A later episode of the debut Showtime series Couples Therapy features a wedding montage. Harvested from personal archives, the footage depicts real-life couples in their respective matrimonial costumes. They smile and preen for the camera, appearing as they should in their tuxedos and lovely white dresses: euphoric, beguiled, never more full of love and promise. In this the images stand in contrast to the rest of the show, which documents these same couples some years later—now in crisis, unsure of themselves, one another, and how to proceed. 

That both states exist on video suggests a bind of its own, the wadding of already loaded public rituals and private relationships with yet more layers of performance and representation. Nested within a docuseries that chronicles marital impasse, the wedding footage is more poignant for appearing a little outshone. The drama of seeking guidance—alone and together—now rivals that of matrimony in the narrative canon of modern life. Which means it too must be ritualized, performed, documented in the style of the real, acquiring along the way its own aesthetic, a set of narrative constraints and formal signifiers.

That process finds new and old expression in Couples Therapy, the bulk of which was shot on a soundstage replica of the office of a New York City therapist named Orna Guralnik. The series condenses six months’ worth of weekly therapy sessions; the couples were cast from over a thousand applicants. The producers sought participants whose need for help was genuine, or at least outweighed their desire to play a couple in crisis on TV. In its rough outline the show replicates the premise of Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin?, a podcast in which Perel counsels one couple per hour-long episode. Created by Weiner directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman and producer Eli Despres, Couples Therapy toggles between its subjects, stitching different sessions together to form each half-hour show. 

Eager to distance itself from its relationship-drama-obsessed reality-TV kin (another Couples Therapy, featuring off-brand celebrities like Joe Francis and Courtney Stodden, aired on VH1 from 2012 to 2015), the show flaunts its own propriety. What, after all, is more civilized than attending couples therapy in downtown Manhattan? Guralnik’s office is a tweedy womb of earth and moss tones. Flattering, even afternoon light anoints recessive furniture. Most conspicuous is Guralnick’s dog, Nico, a mini husky who greets patients sweetly and respectfully before making a tactful retreat to her bed, and who can be glimpsed looking bored but not entirely uninterested in the discussions that ensue. 

The couples, likewise, are well-spoken, impeccably groomed, and appropriately diverse, with knotted, enigmatic, but generally low-octane complaints. Lauren and Sarah have opened their relationship and struggle with whether or not to have a child; Evelyn and Alan are stuck in a vertiginous power dynamic, one needy and one aloof; Elaine and DeSean can’t agree on how much to expect from each other and from their marriage; it’s hard to know where to start with Annie and Mau, who in their third decade of marriage appear from moment to moment either rock solid or spectacularly wrong for each other.

The cameras are hidden and the crew effaced, part of a shooting mandate centered on the look and feel of realness, and on keeping the dynamics of an actual session as close to intact as possible. The result is impressive, which is to say it satisfies even the most discriminating taste for performed authenticity. The subjects appear to speak openly, spill without self-consciousness, have moments of revelation, if not surrender. But the session-jumping format prevents a satisfying depiction of any one couple’s predicament. Though we watch them come and go, pick at or ignore each other in the waiting room, shift and grimace and occasionally go deep on the couch, the show resists character-building and well-defined arcs.

Instead the couples merge into a larger design, one that applies a humane skepticism to the deferring of certain burdens onto the marital unit, the notion that coupling up should resolve or protect us from those dilemmas of modern existence too vast and frightening to face alone. Rather than build to a series of climaxes, the episodes attend to a steady hum of frustration, a looming sense of impossibility, the constant threat of defeat. 

Playing both witness to and conductor of this spectacle, Guralnik is our proxy and the show’s North Star. Chin down and eyebrows up, her listening face emits even more than it absorbs, holding together with willful, radiant focus the mess of bourgeois affliction spread before her. Her scenes with her own clinical adviser, Virginia Goldner, function as a release valve that is its own source of tension. She carries the weight of her couples’ unhappiness, returning again and again to the question of expectation. Why spend your life with someone if you can’t be honest with them? What’s the point? How can one relationship meet two people’s bottomless trove of needs? “All those hopes laid on something called a middle-class marriage,” Goldner sighs. “It’s really extraordinary how much the relationship has to bear,” Guralnik replies. “And I feel for them all.”

Though they are the putative subject of discussion, the couples recede in such moments; their struggles appear less vital. Episode by episode, Guralnik emerges not as accessory to the drama but its engine. As her patients surely do, the viewer begins making up a life for the therapist, filling in her character, wondering over her essential wounds and habits of mind. Is she single? Divorced? A mother with strong social ties and a high-end online shopping habit? And what’s up with the dog?

What Susan Sontag described in 1967 as an age of “permanent apocalypse” has minted at least one new archetype: the facilitator as first-person hero. The previous era’s yield of human genius left us not perfected or resolved but “standing in the ruins of thought,” Sontag wrote, bereft of collective vision, shipwrecked and alone with the question of our own survival. The best thoughts have been thought and stories told, and yet “the need for individual spiritual counsel has never seemed more acute.” 

Not by coincidence, the advice business has never been bigger, or more promiscuous. In recent years especially, media platforms high, low, and other have added new columns and podcasts at a progressive clip, hiring professional experts, amateur philosophers, and personal essayists in what feels like equal measure. Of the last, Cheryl Strayed stands out as head pioneer of a hybrid form. A decade ago, her Dear Sugar column at the Rumpus (subsequently a podcast cohosted by Steve Almond) introduced a style of digressive, aphoristic, intricately crafted essays—published under what quickly felt like the pretense of advice—that met each questioner struggle for struggle, query for query, disclosure for personal disclosure, and then some. 

Sugar was a pseudonym but also a new kind of persona: the adviser as warrior, the oracle as subject in her own right. The drama this figure enacts is that of not merely affirming or analyzing the trials of others, but merging with and transfiguring—making her own—their stories of middling and sometimes crippling malfunction. A prophet of the present moment, her counsel is exquisitely bespoke and therefore universal. She roots abstract, existential dilemmas in the language of feeling and the world of lived experience. The wild appeal of this approach confirms the increasingly pervasive notion of narrative as a vehicle for personal interchange—the idea that a story is better, truer, more useful if audience participation is an explicit feature of its design. 

In a time of total access to everything, advice formats affirm the difficulty of figuring out literally anything—but perhaps especially how to feel. Consoling her maybe-sociopathic, would-be politician son (Ben Platt) in the pilot of the 2019 Netflix series The Politician, the serene, inscrutable Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) suggests that many teenagers worry, as he does, that they’re incapable of relating to other people. “Your generation got the terrible idea that it was best to vomit every thought and feeling all over each other,” she coos. “It’s the pandemic of overcommunication that’s led to an absence of intimacy.”

The advice boom might be seen as an extension of and answer to that condition. The genre operates on the pretense of personal address, commonly focusing not just on individual problems but problems of individuality—how to be whole, authentic, the keeper of one’s own truth. At the same time, the hero-adviser proposes acts of emotional salvage—of relating, empathy, alliance—as an ultimate form of truth. As narrative, the form often turns on its demonstration of how two people might not just commiserate but converge, one cannibalizing the struggles of the other less in the name of guidance than of love. Advice is the new survival story, enthralling for the way it affirms and enlarges a dominant cultural space: the theater of personal struggle. Seekers find there a renewed possibility of intimacy and therefore of something even more elusive: a shared sense of truth.

Couples Therapy hinges on its claim of access to something genuinely private. To make that claim, the show must first revive the savvy viewer’s faith in privacy’s existence. Guralnik’s complaints about the impossible burden borne by paired relationships find an echo in our expectations of a show like this one—for a taste of intimacy, reality, the narrative purity equated with personal revelation. In fact, the show is notable for how little of its subjects it reveals. B-roll of the pairs waking up together, ignoring each other at home, and walking arm-in-arm in the street threads throughout the episodes. The viewer is invited to deduce from these brief, purely visual windows on the couples’ lives beyond therapy a set of clues to their fate. Mostly, though, the images further a sense of the couples as generic, figurative, less than particular. 

Though she makes no strictly personal disclosures, Guralnik is the show’s most sustained, specific presence. In this she departs from the popular role of adviser as radical empath: She relates to her patients’ problems—sometimes her dreams take place in conversation with theirs—but the show presents her struggle as very much her own, and that of her profession. To be of use to couples seeking a common reality requires an approach to truth that favors dispassion, intellect, reasoned analysis. Her sessions with Goldman are the most satisfying part of Couples Therapy because they reveal the vigilance and exhaustion of that work, and hint at its futility. 

“Let’s not equate the feeling with truth,” Guralnik cautions in one session. The reminder is more curious within a show whose sensational premise no amount of good taste can disguise. To those who might dismiss Couples Therapy as documentary clickbait,the producers have invoked a higher mission: revealing the truth of how therapy works. For sheer impossibility, the plight of the earnest documentarian may rival that of the psychoanalyst; the relationship of image to truth is a marriage no amount of therapy can save. More than the truth of therapy, the show demonstrates persistence in the face of all sorts of troubled relationships. 

One of those involves the viewer, who may find her learned appetites—for realness, exposure, and big feels—frustrated, her ready judgments challenged. Guralnik’s warning about truth and emotion extends to that same viewer, the one groping her way forward, post-thought and mid-overstimulation, consuming the blights of others like it’s her job. Our heroine knows it’s hopeless, she’s in the same fight. She feels for us all. “Bizarre profession,” says Guralnik in the final episode, her face tired and amazed. “So bizarre!” 


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