David Remnick: Recently, a few of our critics sat down to talk about something they've been seeing more and more of on TV. A huge number of shows, both scripted dramas, and reality shows, make psychotherapy a central plot point. The conversation ranged widely going all the way back to The Bob Newhart Show, touching on Ted Lasso, In Treatment, and more. Of course, they spent some time on Couples Therapy, the reality show that films actual couples working with an actual New York City psychoanalyst named Orna Guralnik.
Doreen St. Félix: There's a moment of identification where you are really drawn to the human drama of the couple and then there's also the moment where the camera flips and we're looking at Orna and we want to experience identification with her.
David Remnick: That's Doreen St. Félix talking with her colleagues, Alexandra Schwartz and Inkoo Kang.
Doreen St. Félix: That is, I think, the first television show that I've watched about therapy. Really heavy scare quotes there that did not leave me with a really slick feeling, a feeling that I had participated in something that was if not unethical, then at least slimy.
Inkoo Kang: Slimy. What about you, Alex?
Alexandra Schwartz: I went deep on Couples Therapy last year when I profiled Orna Guralnik. In one of my reporting sessions, I had been in attendance during a couple on that show who appears in the current season getting therapy and I had seen the full hour. In that case, it was an hour-plus session. It did give me occasion to think about how nice it must be not to have to stare at the clock wondering where your dollars are going when Showtime is footing the bill for your therapy and you can just go over because a big revelation is happening. To see both sides of it, to see one real session and how it happens, and to see how the showrunners and the editors end up shaping that was absolutely fascinating. I thought this was the best season of the show so far for a few reasons.
One is that the couples are fascinating. They always are. It's a show that makes you think there is no such thing as a boring couple. Surely there must be people who get cut, who are considered just too dull, and their problems too banal for the rest of us. What keeps me coming back to the show is that real work gets done. It's so interesting to see real therapeutic work getting done. A lot of characters who are getting therapy, Tony Soprano, whatever, the whole point is that they don't know what therapy is and they're not used to it, and it's stigmatized in their communities and it's weird. Now we're in a situation where everybody loves therapy and it's on TV and it's seen as the quickest path to healing and you're absolutely unreconstructed and unreformed if you resist it at all. In Couples Therapy, sometimes, to me, the most interesting couples are the ones who are the most open and yet come up against problems that are not so easily solved.
Inkoo Kang: Discussions of mental health has really entered the mainstream. Celebrities have become mental health influencers almost. I think you have shows that aren't very specifically about therapists, like Apple's Shrinking or The Patient. Some of my favorites actually have been animated like Harley Quinn or Tuca & Bertie and so you not only have a huge quantity of therapy depictions on TV but also a really varied number.
Doreen St. Félix: One of the first therapists on TV was in The Bob Newhart Show, and this is in the '70s when I would say I don't think, A, therapy as a good for the bourgeoisie was something that was prevalent but not spoken about, hidden within the economy of the suburban house or whatever. Then, B, there's this idea that the therapist becomes a plot engine, that because everyone's lay idea of therapy is about having a problem, addressing it, and fixing it, it would hue really well to the structure of a sitcom. My idea of therapy before ever having done anything like it in real life was shaped by the sitcom structure. You have 22 minutes, you call into a radio show, you deliver a problem, you receive a pithy response, and then you're fixed.
I think that what we're seeing maybe in the television shows that exist today is shows that look like they're elaborating on that model. Ted Lasso looks like it's complex. It looks like it might be more on the prestige end of thin1gs, although I don't even know what prestige means anymore, and yet is very much conforming to those bones. There's this weird slippage that's happening. Ideas about what therapy is supposed to do are then pasted onto what a sitcom is supposed to do.
Alexandra Schwartz: I think this redemption arc, which has become almost oppressive in a show like Ted Lasso, I might venture to say, broken people hurting, but by gosh they have soul and spirit and they'll get where they need to go. Would I want this for every person in the world? Sure. Do I want to watch this as a dramatic journey that is accurately reflective of the human condition? It's cheesy. The therapist's role in digging into those truths and handing you your better self seems weird to refer to a real person as a character. That person on couples therapy as well, it's such a fascinating thing because you really see the limits of the therapist's power. A bit of a red herring, but the show begins with Orna saying that she can't work with this couple anymore because she simply can't find a way to reach this man.
It is so interesting to watch that deep resistance happen and to watch his almost fascinating rhetorical evasion of straight and direct questions. Spoiler alert, she does find a way to reach him. To what end? We will not know unless we go and follow up with a couple's therapy reunion episode. Just throwing that out as a free idea for the producers.
David Remnick: Alexandra Schwartz, Inkoo Kang, and Doreen St. Félix. Their full conversation is at newyorker.com and it's part of a special edition we're calling The Therapy Issue, including Jia Tolentino on eco-anxiety and much more. That's all @newyorker.com.
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