In this oversharing, overshared age, the psychotherapist’s consulting room may be one of the last purely private sanctums left. Sessions happen behind firmly closed doors, the sound of patients’ voices masked by the whirr of white-noise machines. The promise of confidentiality is sacred. What happens in treatment is meant to stay there.
A few years ago, though, the documentary filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg decided that it might be worth trying to peek under the Freudian slip. Kriegman and Steinberg both grew up in upper-middle-class Jewish families on the East Coast, a milieu that does not so much condone therapy as consider it a part of functional adult life, as routine as filing your taxes or brushing your teeth. Steinberg’s father-in-law is a therapist, as are both of Kriegman’s parents. “I was visiting home, and my father busted out of his office, kind of freaking out about this session he had just been through with a couple,” Kriegman recalled recently. “He said that it would be not only incredibly captivating to watch but meaningful to share what it looks like for people to engage in this way—to go from speaking to each other in cold fury to rage, to tears, to ultimately ending up hugging and reconciling.”
Kriegman and Steinberg had experience getting subjects to bare uncomfortably intimate details of their personal lives on camera. Their first project together, edited and co-written by their creative partner, Eli Despres, was “Weiner” (2016), a fly-on-the-wall documentary that followed Anthony Weiner’s disastrous campaign for mayor of New York in 2013 and the simultaneous implosion of his marriage to Huma Abedin. This time, the three filmmakers had in mind something more salutary. They began to devise a concept for a television show. They would put real couples in a consulting room with a real therapist. Cameras would roll. Whatever happened would happen. The trick was finding the right person to build the show around: someone who possessed both sterling professional credentials and a magnetic, binge-worthy charisma.
They began to interview possible candidates, hundreds of them. “If I saw you on the street, I’d be, like, ‘Who’s your therapist? Do you like her?’ ” Steinberg said. Some seemed eager to embrace the limelight, but most therapists don’t go into the business dreaming of pop-culture celebrity. Among the professionals the team approached was Virginia Goldner, a widely admired psychoanalyst who has written papers with titles like “Romantic Bonds, Binds, and Ruptures” and “When Love Hurts.” “I wouldn’t do it in a million years,” Goldner said. “I was thinking, Oh, my God, who would ?”
To the Israeli American therapist Orna Guralnik, the thought didn’t sound so crazy. Her career had already taken some unusual turns. In the early two-thousands, after getting a degree in clinical psychology, she had co-founded a consulting firm, providing psychological insight for companies like Dell, Xerox, and Goldman Sachs. When she could no longer avoid the nagging sense that she was using her expertise not to improve lives but to help keep exploited workers productive, she decided to train as a psychoanalyst, a pursuit that took a decade. As an undergraduate in Tel Aviv, she had studied filmmaking; the prospect of cameras didn’t faze her. Plus, her daughter was about to go to college, and she had a feeling that she’d need something to take her mind off her semi-empty nest. She responded to an ad that the filmmakers had distributed at the N.Y.U. Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, where she now teaches, thinking that she might consult on the project.
The filmmakers had a different idea. “It’s kind of like when you meet your partner—you know right away,” Steinberg said. “I knew right away when I spoke to Orna.”
Guralnik is fifty-eight, with olive skin and dark hair. She has great glasses, a forearm tattoo, and the casual poise of the dancer that, as a teen-ager, she considered becoming. Since 2019, she has starred on the Showtime series “Couples Therapy,” the fruit of Kriegman, Steinberg, and Despres’s labors. Each season of the show features a handful of couples as they are given fifteen to twenty sessions’ worth of treatment, a process that unfolds over weeks and is then edited into nine half-hour episodes, creating a patchwork portrait of love in distress. The format has proved a hit; the show’s third season just premièred, and production has already begun on the next batch of episodes.
The chance to gawk at the splayed viscera of other people’s lives would surely attract viewers no matter who occupied the therapist’s chair. But Guralnik makes the show. “She’s like the Napoleon of human emotion,” Despres told me—able to rapidly discern the reasons for a couple’s stalemate and devise a plan of attack before viewers, or the patients themselves, have any read on what might be going on. Guralnik speaks in a gently accented murmur, but there’s a hint of the hawk in her gaze; with her chin tilted sharply down and her brows knitted, her eyes seem to bore into her patients’ very souls. “If you’re ever in the presence of an élite athlete, you notice that they have a physicality that’s kind of overwhelming,” Despres said. “I have that response to Orna. The focus of her attention is really quite intense.”