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How ‘Couples Therapy’ Creators Produce the Show

Over three seasons (and a pandemic special) on Showtime, “Couples Therapy” has quietly become a destination for healing for television watchers who are interested in the difficult work of digging into interpersonal relationships — or watching other people do that work, anyway. Through the empathetic, incisive probing of Dr. Orna Guralnik, executive producers Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres have not only explored the complexity of couples’ shared and individual lives, but the essential, often painful and yet invariably revelatory therapeutic process that helps people understand themselves, their partners and the world around them.

Following the April 28 premiere of Part 2 of the show’s third season, Variety spoke to Steinberg, Kriegman and Despres about “Couples Therapy” as a mirror for the challenges that many relationship face. In addition to talking about the themes that emerged from the conversations shared with their selected couples this season, the filmmaking trio broke down the process, both logistical and philosophical, that guided them, and examined some of the deeper notions exposed by the series’ format — and by therapy itself.

Can you talk about what changes you’ve seen in the needs of couples over the course of the series? Because for example, with one couple this season, it feels like even in Season 1, the idea of polyamory would not have been as sort of tacitly accepted as it is in this season.

Eli Despres: I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the zeitgeist changing, or the world changing, but obviously it has. We always feel like themes emerge organically season to season, and obviously this idea of questioning sort of traditional roles in a marriage or monogamy is a big part of this. Not that it hasn’t come up before, not that it won’t come up again, but it did feel like it emerged sort of naturally this season.

But yeah, now that you mention it, it does really feel like it’s something that has bubbled into the world or into our collective consciousness, and that is new. It’s not something we aimed for.

Josh Kriegman: That’s right. Season to season, we’re not designing it ahead of time. In the most wonderful, pure sense, this sort of verité documentary posture is the one we take — where we go in, and we really don’t know what’s going to happen. We have some sense of who the couples are, obviously, and some of what they’re bringing, but we have no idea what’s going to happen. And it’s been a real joy, season to season, to discover along the way what themes emerge, and what organically comes through that we don’t know, and then how the couples’ stories actually speak to each other.

And then each season starts to develop its own personality and its own voice. One of the things Orna really loves talking about is how the sociopolitical reality of what’s going on around us does infuse us in the most intimate way, and our personal relationships are unfailingly a part of that.

What were the themes that emerged this season, and how quickly?

Kriegman: It fairly quickly became apparent that as the therapy was unfolding that the couples were all struggling with various aspects of a long-term relationship. And whether it’s opening up the relationship, or cheating, or struggling with a lack of sexual intimacy within a longer-term marriage, it was very fascinating to see how they were kind of speaking to each other around that sort of central struggle of what happens over time within a committed relationship. And I love, in this season, just the way that they really do speak to each other.

Despres: One thing that’s lovely about the show is that it is a conversation between Orna and the couples, but it’s also a conversation between the different couples that the audience gets to have. So we can set up a tension in one couple’s relationship and respond to it in another’s. It’s a very concise show, visually — almost everything takes place in that room. But these wonderfully nuanced, fascinating subjects who we love, the fact that we create relationships between one another and can weave them together, it really allows us, in the edit, to create a very complex and fascinating world.

Elyse Steinberg: I also think the couples that came for this season are remarkably self-aware and articulate, and have an incredible depth of reflection about themselves. And we were blown away by them, and in awe of their openness and just how deep they were. I think we all felt it.

How do you initially determine who your couples are going to be?

Steinberg: We do extensive social media outreach, and we get thousands of applications each season.

Kriegman: I think we got 2,000 applications this season.

Steinberg: We’re just looking for people who are relatable, and who are genuinely seeking therapy. We have a diverse group in background, in age, in class, in ethnicity, sexual orientation, and in their issues, there’s some diversity. We’re always looking for that. But the first thing is people that are coming for therapy first — they are in real crisis and they want help. So I think that if somebody’s coming in and they’re more interested in just being on a TV show, they’re not the right fit for us. As documentarians, that’s something we look for.

The other thing is just wanting the couples to share in the vision that we have, which is that by sharing their stories publicly, they can help others who are struggling with the same issues. So there’s a central mission of wanting to show the universality of some of the struggles that we all have, and that can make people feel more connected and more universal.

Kriegman: It is a bit of a threading the needle. We’re looking for people who are not there to perform at all, but who are obviously comfortable with and eager to share their story in some way. They’re comfortable, obviously, being on camera. It’s been an interesting process of finding the right folks who are a good fit for this.

What made Orna the right fit for the show?

Despres: Orna was a standout from the first moment we saw her. I mean, we did an extensive outreach. I don’t know that there’s a therapist in the Tri-State area that we didn’t get in touch with, and there are many great therapists out there. But we found that lots of them, their priority is making everyone feel good about what’s happening in the room, and others have a script that they sort of follow.

There are some, like Orna, an important minority, who are incredibly engaged. She’s an intimidating listener. I am always a little bit taken aback at how I feel seen — X-rayed by her. She is so attuned to what people are saying and what they are not saying, and picks up on things so quickly and with such erudition that it’s startling.

Kriegman: One of the wonderful things about meeting Orna from the get-go is she came to this project with a certain kind of skepticism, which is to say that she wasn’t interested in being on television. When we met her, we knew she was the one, but she didn’t know it yet. It took a lot of conversation and a lot of discovering that we kind of shared a mission and a certain spirit and a certain vision of what this could be that ultimately, I think, made her comfortable coming on board. But first and foremost, her interest is the therapy. And she deeply values what it means to share this in this way, but the idea of being a celebrity TV personality is, I think, the furthest thing from what she imagined for her ambitions.

Steinberg: We had been doing this insane outreach all over all New York City, talking to hundreds of therapists. Sometimes these conversations would go up to an hour. And when I got on the phone with Orna, it took me only two minutes to know that she was the one — in that conversation, I could feel that magnetic energy. And the questions that, actually, she posed to me just made me realize just how brilliant and special she would be with our couples.

Given her skepticism at the beginning, how easy or difficult was it to get Orna on board with incorporating her discussions with other therapists to work through her own understanding of each couple?

Kriegman: One of the things that I think is amazing about Orna is she has a core devotion to the truth. This is partly, I think, how we found a connection with her as documentarians ourselves, is if we go toward what’s true, we go toward what’s real. And in this case, I think she was thrilled at the idea of finding a way to genuinely portray what happens in therapy, including her own struggles and her own challenges, and the work that she does with her colleagues to try to make sense of what’s going on. It’s incredible how willing she is to just be real about who she is and what she’s doing and what’s going on, and that it really speaks to kind of the sort of core philosophy that she brings to bear on all of this, which is, ultimately, the truth is the North Star, and that’s what we’re trying to do with this project and what she’s trying to do with therapy in general.

How much, if at all, has your sense of empathy for these people changed through the therapeutic process, either in your personal life or in the documentation of the show?

Despres: The joy of the project for us is watching it in ourselves and watching it in our audience, and watching people’s understanding of someone who they don’t have empathy for suddenly transform once they understand them. And that’s the key. It’s like if you can truly know someone, you can’t judge them anymore, because you understand what makes them the way they are, and you can see the same things in yourself.

It happens every season, it happens all the time, and I think all of us look for it in our own lives, too. If you’re feeling judge-y, if you’re trying to find that understanding and that empathy in yourself, trying to figure out what’s making the other person tick, or trying to figure out what it is about yourself that you don’t like and are seeing reflected in someone. We’re unbelievably grateful to and full of love for our subjects, because they’re really giving us a gift at taking this risk and exposing themselves. And I think that the way we try to repay them is by portraying them with truth and empathy. And it’s magic. What you’re describing to us is magic to us, and it brings us great joy.

Kriegman: And it really also reflects kind of the mission of the whole project and the spirit of the whole project. What I love most about the show is when it gives people a moment to confront that within themselves, the limits of their judgment and how shortsighted that we all can be when thinking we know what’s going on with other people.

Steinberg: I will say that every couple that we have on the show, I think we all feel tremendous empathy for and tremendous connection to. I think we have to feel that way, and we have to feel that we care about them, because that’s the kinds of people that we want to work with, work on, have the show, feel that sense of deep connection towards them, and feel like their story is something that other people can benefit from. The response from people is just, “Thank you so much for this story. Thank you for the representation. Thank you, I was going through something similar. I’m dealing with my grief.” So, we look for that in the couples that we put on the show. We look for people that we think will resonate and that there can be connection to. Obviously, they’re complicated, but that’s what makes them so interesting.

Kriegman: Our hope and our aspiration for the show is that it exists in the culture in a way that’s kind of a counterbalance to the sort of judgmental, sensational thing that I think seems to be happening all around us, whether it’s in politics or reality TV, social media. There’s something about really wanting there to be a deeper conversation and a more nuanced understanding of really what’s going on with people, and I think that our hope is that this show exists in that space as a way of trying to do something that feels a little bit different than what I think a lot of us feel is happening sort of culturally, all around us, all the time lately.

For how long can you see yourself continuing to explore these stories?

Kriegman: We would love to be doing this for the rest of our lives. Just on a personal level, we love what this show is. We love the process, what goes into it, what we learn doing it. Every time, every season, something new and profound emerges for the couples, for Orna, for us. We love what this is, and one of the wonderful things is that there’s kind of an endless number of incredible stories and characters. There’s no reason to think that there would stop being just incredibly compelling and fascinating stories coming through as people work through their relationships. And that’s part of what we love about this, and I feel like we could do it forever.

Despres: Outside of what excites us about these people that we’re shooting and the project itself, it’s a pretty special team. We’ve been together for a few years now. Our editors and operators, Orna, the relationships between the people who are doing intake interviews, everyone. We have a lot of affection for each other and a love of the process, and it’s a wonderful show, not just what you see on the screen, but everything behind it is just a pleasure.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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