None of the crisis points seen in this one-hour program will strike viewers as particularly novel; they are iterations of the problems all couples are having and constantly complaining about — or, as Guralnik puts it as she juggles parenting, chores and Zoom sessions, it’s like “having the same dream day after day. . . . All conversations sound the same.” As such, “Couples Therapy” may not sound like anyone’s idea of entertainment at the moment.
And yet, this one-hour episode (airing Sunday) is a welcome attempt to salvage and perhaps savor what was clearly the show’s intended second season, which will have to wait until 2021.
“Couples Therapy” premiered in 2019 and became the peak-TV equivalent of a sleeper hit, a fascinating and addictive opportunity to watch couples hash out their issues in their homes and also in Guralnik’s office (a set constructed to look like her office, that is, providing the show’s cameras a way to intimately capture every inflection and nuance from behind two-way mirrors — an emotional bonanza for psychotherapy voyeurs). The show is respectful and open; at times it can be unsettling and hit too close to home, but the rawness is also its main attraction.
As “The Covid Special” begins, in February 2020, Guralnik welcomes new patients as well as some who were with her in the first season — including Lauren, a transgender woman, and her partner, who recently came out as nonbinary and now goes by Sam; Sam had to close down a thriving wedding photography business because of the coronavirus spread and is drained of hope. There’s also DeSean and Elaine, who’ve moved to Florida and are at odds over texts that DeSean sent to another woman. (Gone, but certainly not forgotten, are Annie and her passive-aggressive husband, Mau, whose toxic demands around intimacy are worth a re-watch of Season 1.)
“The Covid Special” follows Guralnik as she tries to master the art of practicing helpful therapy with all the joys and interruptions of modern technology. New clients James and Michelle’s problems (“Her voice is grating . . . like nails on a chalkboard,” he says) have grown only worse now that they’re both trapped in an apartment with a 3-year-old son. Lara and Trey, who both work in theater (she’s an actress, he’s a director), have been together since they were teenagers, but they never have sex anymore. (She’s on the road a lot; he’s had affairs.) Now unemployed and confined to their apartment, Trey has discovered that having Lara at home this much more is not what he wanted; she’s decided his current lack of employment lessens her attraction to him.
It’s a wonder — and a professional attribute — that Guralnik never blurts out all the things that we the viewers might be loudly telling the screen. If nothing else, “Couples Therapy” is a fine example of what true, hourly-rate listening ought to look like. Even through technical glitches and delayed disconnect, Guralnik always knows when to interject, when to stay on a subject and probe further, and when to let a dispute between her clients run a useful course.
Summer arrives and complicates Guralnik’s work even further. In the uprisings after the killing of George Floyd, her Black clients, especially DeSean, grow weary of explaining their feelings to others, including Guralnik, who was born in the United States but raised in Israel.
Already accustomed to meeting frequently and talking about her caseload with her White clinical adviser, Guralnik instead seeks out the wisdom of a Black therapist, Kirkland Vaughans, to help her figure out how best to listen to the raw, emotional pains she’s encountering around race. What to say? What to ask? And what not to?
Looking around her world, she notices that everyone seems to be just barely holding on: “There’s an ongoing attempt to blame the person in front of you, when in fact, there are deep and profound and disturbing issues that are rattling us all.” Returning to her office/set to start welcoming in-person visits, the show ends on that same note we all end on anymore — the shrug and the hope to get back to how things used to be. “Couples Therapy” is much better when the couch in question is a neutral and therapeutic space, rather than the well-worn, upholstered lump where we’ve spent the past 10 months slowly losing our grip.
Couples Therapy: The Covid Special (one hour) airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.