Showtime’s Couples Therapy is an acclaimed docu-series starring clinical psychologist Dr. Orna Guralnik. The series elevates the genre because it focuses not only on the sensational aspects of therapy, but it also focuses on it’s subjects honesty and vulnerability. With each episode, audiences root for the couples undergoing therapy to fully address their issues. We want and need these people to get their lives in order, but the series shows how incredibly difficult that process can be.
Here, Awards Daily talks to Couples Therapy Season 2 directors Kim Roberts and Josh Kriegman about making this incredible and critically acclaimed series.
Awards Daily: So, tell us how you got involved with with the show.
Kim Roberts: My background is just straight up feature docs as an editor. So, I edited season one, and my husband is one of the creators and executive producers, which also got really interesting, of course, when you’re spending all day long, doing a show about couples therapy, and you bring some of that home. Sometimes we would find ourselves taking on different couples when we would argue. Then I came back for season two to direct. I worked with Josh, my co director on that, as well as the COVID special, which we did as a one hour show in the midst of all the madness. So that’s, that’s how I came on board.
Josh Kriegman: The origin story of this project is both of my parents were therapists growing up, and I was in this world growing up and heard lots of stories from them about the kinds of things that happened in therapy that are, you know, extraordinary: the breakthroughs, the struggles, the triumphs. I had always been noodling on this idea, and then at some point a few years ago, I was visiting my father. He has a home office where he sees patients, and he came out of a couples session. He was just freaking out because it was such a vivid, intense experience that he had been through over like the previous hour with this one couple where they started in kind of cold fury, not speaking to each other. Then they were screaming hot rage, and then crying and tears and having a breakthrough. By the end, they walk out feeling more connected than they had in years, and I could tell my father was just floored by the experience. He said to me Josh, if you could find a way, if anyone could find a way to capture this, in a way that preserves the authenticity of it, it would be not only really compelling material, but it would be useful, people don’t realize what it looks like, you know, therapy is conventionally obviously private and confidential.
So much extraordinary work is happening behind those doors that people don’t get to see. So that got the idea going. Then my filmmaking partners and I, for years, were thinking is there a way to do this? Is there a way to actually like capture therapy that doesn’t kind of ruin it by virtue of just putting cameras in the room. People need to be vulnerable and open and real while knowing that they’re being filmed. So that was always kind of the central puzzle to be solved, and this is how we did it.
AD: What’s the process of finding couples to volunteer?
KR: It was an extensive process of reaching out on in all sorts of ways. On Season Two, we both learned from season one, and we had the advantage that people could actually see the show and know what it was about, which also poses new problems. You obviously don’t want to find couples who just want to be on TV. We’re really looking for couples that have a lot of emotional intelligence. We think of ourselves as documentary, and we wanted couples that real people could relate to, that had a range of real issues that that you can watch. I think that a lot of the couples that we ended up ended up gravitating toward were couples who just really believed in the idea that they have real problems, they really wanted therapy, and they knew Orna was an incredible therapist. By the time we got to season two, because they could watch her work, they felt the value or the mission of what we were doing in terms of demystifying therapy and couples problems and just talking about these things.
AD: How did you get Dr. Orna to be involved in the project?
JK: We set out to find a therapist and basically cast the widest net we possibly could within New York City in the tri-state area. Meeting Dr. Orna was interesting because we spoke to her first over a video call, which is how we introduced ourselves. She came into the room after she had spoken to Orna. We didn’t think Orna realized it yet, but we knew she was the one. There was an instant connection and vibe. She had everything that we were looking for in terms of talent, charisma, and skill. Maybe most importantly, she was coming to this project in the right way. Originally, she didn’t think she was ever going to do the show. She started talking to us out of curiosity. She had a fair amount of suspicion and skepticism about how it would work. Then, I think in talking with us over many conversations, it became clear to all of us that there was just such such a feeling of of kindred spirit that she really understood what we were going for and understood the mission of the series in a way that we all just felt we should really do this together. So, she came on board.
AD: How did you guys decide on the three couples that were ultimately focused throughout the entirety of season two?
KR: We follow more couples than we ended up focusing on. Also, outside of the couples that Dr. Orna sees for this show, she has a regular practice. So she sees a lot of different couples and even some individuals. We wanted to convey the sense that what you’re seeing is just a small part of her practice. You have to follow more than the couples that you end up with because you never know what’s going to happen, right? Sometimes, couples stop or they’ll move or who knows? Life happens, as we all witnessed last year. We follow more couples, and then after the therapy is done when we see the arc of it all, we kind of decide these are the couples that we want to track all the way through.
JK: One of the wonderful things about this project and documentary in general is we really don’t know what’s gonna happen. So you start off with these couples, you have some sense of who they are, and what they’re about what they’re bringing to therapy, but we really don’t know them very well. Not in the same way that a therapist in the real world would just meet a couple and start therapy. So we don’t know how the story is gonna unfold. We don’t even know what the story is necessarily. What’s exciting is that it isn’t what we expect it to be. So a couple comes in and says my problem is we want to have kids and she’s not ready or whatever it is. The reality is there’s deeper issues or some other issues that sort of come in sideways, and we realize that’s not what this was about. That’s part of what’s dynamic about therapy is those kinds of discoveries.
We go on this journey with these couples. It’s a long period of 20 weeks, which is a very long time to shoot a show like this. Somewhere along the way, it starts to become clear. We figure out which are the strongest stories but also the stories that speak well to each other. A big piece of it is not only are we retelling the stories of these couples, but we’re interweaving them. They have to kind of somehow speak to each other in a way that comes together as a comprehensive whole. So that’s how we end up ultimately just choosing. In season one, it was four stories, and season two was three stories. It’s just a organic process of feeling our way through which stories are the strongest and how they fit together.
AD: What couple did you find provided the most entertainment in season two?
JK: I can’t it’s sort of like having children. I can’t pick favorites. I think this is true for documentary projects in general, but especially in this one, which is so intensely intimate. You spend this much time in this kind of setting, and you really fall in love with people. I just have such incredible admiration and respect and appreciation for all of the couples that do this with us. I think all of these couples in their own different ways are phenomenally compelling, interesting, fascinating, layered, nuanced, and dramatic. The one thing I’ll say about the season two couples is they each transform in really remarkable ways. The change over time is what you want in a story like this. It really is striking. These couples really make profound discoveries and breakthroughs that in some cases are kind of surprising. They end up in a very different place at the end of that when they start, and that’s what’s sort of remarkable to behold.
KR: Who did you find most entertaining?
AD: I said Michael and Michal. You could tell they loved each other.
KR: Yeah. They’re also really fun because she’s so smart. They’re both so smart, and I knew with them that they were going to push people’s buttons in the beginning, right? Then, they’re gonna push people’s buttons in the beginning, and then they are going to evolve. That’s what I love about the show and what I’ve come to really love about the documentary series is that chance at evolution because what it does is it involves the viewer in questioning their own judgments, right? So that in the beginning, you might be like, ‘Oh, I would never do this thing that Michal is doing.’ But by the end, you’re like, ‘Oh, I really get Michal. I get why she was doing that.’ It’s so cool that she was willing to actually work on herself and transform. I mean, how many of us do that? So I love that part of the show. The transformational power of it, both for the couples and for us, the viewers.
Couples Therapy streams online at Showtime.