It never fails to amaze me that people can be persuaded to bare all on television. I mean this in the literal sense – if you have ever seen Channel 4’s Naked Attraction, you will know what I’m talking about – and also in terms of soul-baring. Why allow the cameras to film your most private moments and intimate thoughts?
I had this feeling when watching Couples Therapy (BBC Two), in which people discuss their relationship troubles with a New York City therapist, Dr Orna Guralnik. It is so beautifully lit, and tastefully filmed, that you could at first mistake it for a drama – and there is some level of artifice, because this is a set rather than Guralnik’s actual office. But no, these are real people discussing their real problems.
We started with Annie and Mau, married for 23 years, and discussing the fact that Mau was disappointed by Annie’s plans for his birthday. Dinner at a restaurant not to his liking? A pair of slippers? Nope. She had planned a weekend of “sexual events”, including a threesome, but he seemed annoyed by her attention to the admin. “What I want is to have zero responsibility. To have all the sex I want without any work on my part, and it has to be spectacular and enthusiastic and genuine,” he explained. Wow.
It feels both intensely voyeuristic and also put together so thoughtfully that you don’t dislike yourself for watching it. And it’s not as if the participants don’t know what they’re signing up for – zero patient confidentiality is part of the deal.
The skill is in the editing, because each couple’s story is distilled into a few minutes of each episode and made riveting. However specific the issues here, there is something universal at their core. Mau is a very particular character, but what is recognisable is a marriage in which one partner feels their needs are not being met.
Another marriage of two years is in difficulty because Sarah wants to have a baby, and her partner doesn’t feel ready; that her partner is a trans woman makes this particular situation unusual, but the fundamental argument will be familiar to many.
The unshockable Guralnik is a soothing presence whose skill as a therapist is also evident: she makes no judgments, only asks questions, amplifying what the participants themselves have said in order to throw light on their problems.
Director Josh Kriegman said he wondered before making the show if “it is possible for people to be open and raw and vulnerable… while also knowing that they’re being filmed?” The answer, however odd it may seem, is yes.