Star of Showtime's 'Couples Therapy' calls series 'a real gift'
Couples counselor Dr. Orna Guralnik reveals behind-the-scenes details of the runaway hit show.
A young couple – perhaps in their their early 30s – are sitting on a couch. "It's her," the guy says, pointing at his wife. "She's never happy." They are sitting across from a marriage counselor. "I don't want to do this anymore," he says in a moment of despair.
That's a scene from the first episode of Showtime's new docuseries "Couples Therapy," which follows four New York couples as they embark on a brutal six months of counseling. These are real couples going through real marriage therapy, and the audience is granted fly-on-the-wall access. The couples shuffle in and out, but the one constant is their therapist, Dr. Orna Guralnik, whose calm and soothing energy keeps her office from becoming a tinderbox of explosive emotions.
"My goal is to help people communicate about their differences, and what's bothering them, in the best way possible. And in a way, make it possible for them to make their own decisions," Guralnik tells From The Grapevine. "I just help them detangle or deconstruct their defenses, so that they can have more honest conversations. And then it's up to them."
Guralnik was born in the U.S., but raised in Israel. She attended Tel Aviv University, where she thought she'd spend her career in the film industry. She eventually decided to return to the States, where she got her Ph.D. at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. She later taught in NYU's psychoanalysis program.
With specialties in trauma and couples treatment, Guralnik's Manhattan practice was thriving when Showtime contacted her about the series. She assumed they just wanted her advice and agreed to serve as a consultant. But as the show started taking shape, the producers knew who should serve as its moral compass. "I really grew to trust them," Guralnik says of producer Eli Despres, and filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. "And I got really excited about their vision for the project."
There was a practical issue: Guralnik's actual office was too small to fit a camera crew and producers inside it, so Showtime recreated her space on a soundstage. "It's an upgraded replica of my office," Guralnik admits of the book- and art-filled modernist room. To make it as authentic as possible, they built a round wall enclosing the entire faux office, complete with 360 degrees of a one-way mirror. This way, the cameras and crew would remain out of sight, giving Guralnik and her clients a modicum of privacy during the sessions. "There were cameras on dollies, and six camera people operating the cameras throughout all of the sessions," she says. "But you wouldn't know it sitting in the office."
Arguably, the breakout star of the show is Guralnik's dog, Nico. An Alaskan Klee Kai – which is a miniature version of a Husky – the pup greets each client and makes them feel at ease. "I bring her to the office almost every day," Guralnik tells us. "She brings a certain nonverbal sweetness and playfulness. She's a great calming, soothing presence. She's a pretty special dog."
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Showtime airs "Couples Therapy" alongside "The Affair," providing a sort of matrimonial whiplash for Sunday night viewers. When the series debuted earlier this month, Showtime made the unusual decision to release all nine episodes on-demand at once. "I would recommend taking it slowly, but I have to tell you that I am getting a lot of emails from people who have binged on the show," Guralnik says. "It's a little startling to me that people can binge on therapy."
The imminently watchable half-hour show has critics raving. The series has received a rare perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The New York Times has called it a "dream come true." The Daily Beast has dubbed it "the juiciest, most addicting show on TV."
While the Israeli psychologist is surprised by the response, she understands its appeal. "People want to know what's going to happen. Where are these characters going? And they get personally identified with the people on the show, and want to know, 'OK, does this go well or not? Is there hope or not?'"
She said the series has exceeded her expectations. "I'm really in awe of the directors and editors – in terms of their talent and their art, and what they've managed to do as documentarians. I feel like they did some kind of magic in their filmmaking back room."
The series could certainly have been salacious and low-brow, but the premium channel opted for a more refined and artful take on marriage therapy. It's more documentary than reality show, providing an intimate portrait of the mundanity of married life. It explores the quotidian nature of an argument that stems from: Where were you? How come you didn't call? Viewers are forced to contemplate their own relationships – for better or for worse – through the prism of their on-screen avatars.
"Everything the filmmakers told me in advance that they wanted to do, they did and beyond," says Guralnik. "They were super respectful of the participants, non-sensational, only wanting the truth, not wanting anything that is fabricated. I feel like in this day and age, it's a very important piece of work. It really goes against this whole intense polarization and demonization that this culture is afflicted by."
Asked if there are plans for a second season, Guralnik brushes it off. "I'm just trying to get through the launch of this project. I can't even think about anything beyond that," she tells us, before adding, "I'm really glad I did it. I feel like it's been a real gift."
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