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At the beginning of 2020, Dr. Orna Guralnik was starting to shoot the second season of the popular Showtime docuseries, Couples Therapy, in her office/soundstage in New York. At the beginning of Couples Therapy: The COVID Special, we see the couples of all stripes that she brought into her office, including a few that are continuing their therapy from the first season. The initial sessions are done in that office, but then the lockdown came in March, and all of a sudden everyone’s lives were turned upside down.
The Gist: The COVID Special deals with how Dr. Guralnik and her patients are coping with everyone at home during the first 12 or so weeks into the lockdown. Dr. Guralnik is now doing her sessions via FaceTime, and we see her do things like tend to her kids and clean up after her pets. For their part, the featured couples aren’t coping well, either, because they’re around each other all the time, there’s financial issues to to job loss, or their are issues related to how each member of the couple handled the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
One of the returning couples is Laura and Sam; Laura is transgender, and Sam has decided that they are nonbinary. The couple have given up on their desire to have a baby, something driving the tension between them. Now, they’re dealing with the fact that Sam’s fledgling photography business took a fatal hit after lockdown, and both of them want to escape the city and go where they have more space.
The other returning couple is Elaine and DeSean; they moved to Florida at the beginning of the year. The communication between them is going a lot better than it did during their initial sessions with Dr. Guralnik. But getting DeSean to open up is always a challenge. And since George Floyd’s murder, he’s feeling things that he just can’t talk about to Elaine, since she doesn’t seem to be ready to listen. Elaine’s views on race are a bit unusual; she’s more for herself than anything else, which perplexes DeSean.
One new couple, Lara and Trey, have been together since they were kids. Both work in the theater, and their issue at the start of therapy was that they never saw each other. Now, in lockdown, they’re together all the time; she sees him as weak because he lost his job and can’t find work, but when the positions reverse, Lara then feels inadequate. Either way, they’re not having sex. Trey has had emotional and physical affairs during the times Lara was absent.
The other new couple, James and Michelle, have divergent political views, which they were OK with until they had a son. As the lockdown goes on, there are disputes about time management and Michelle working with their son underfoot. The Black Lives Matter protests also bring their differences into focus, but James, who is in law enforcement, actually comes closer to Michelle’s point of view as things progress.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The first season of Couple’s Therapy.
Performance Worth Watching: Dr. Guralnik does a good job of keeping her couples focused, even though she’s no longer seeing them in person. She feels unmoored herself, especially with the idea her patients will see a glimpse into her life through the backgrounds of her apartment. But, despite the distance, her remote sessions do bring out interesting insights and she is even able to build trust with the clients she just started working with before lockdown started.
Memorable Dialogue: Nothing, really.
Sex and Skin: Discussions of sex, but not as many as you’d think.
Our Take: Couples Therapy: The COVID Special really feels like Guralnik and the producers’ attempts to make lemons out of lemonade. Right as the sessions that would make up season 2 were getting underway, lockdown hit. Knowing that they couldn’t make a season out of FaceTime sessions, they made this special. At least that’s the impression we got watching it.
Unlike the first season, that spent 9 episodes exploring how its couple relate to one another, the special just scratches the surface, especially for James-Michelle and Lara-Trey, whose issues seem relatively superficial because we don’t really know them. Lara and Trey especially feel like they have issues they can’t get past, given how Lara tends to feel about Trey when he doesn’t have a job and how Trey can’t seem to get past the fact that they never spent time together until the lockdown.
Seeing the continuations of Lauren-Sam and Elaine-DeSean was more satisfying because we just needed a coda to their stories instead of another full season. In season 1 we were especially annoyed at how entitled Sam was at their desire to have a baby, even though Lauren was still just settling in as an openly trans woman. To see them in a better place, though suffering a bit from the economic downturn that came from the lockdown, was a welcome sight.
We were especially appreciative of how Dr. Guralnik admitted that she’s out of her element with some of the issues she’s been coming across during lockdown. For one, it feels like everyone’s stories are becoming the same, as she tells her advisor Dr. Virginia Goldner. Everyone’s going through the same thing, as is she, and she isn’t sure how to help them get through it. But when the issues of Black clients like DeSean and Michelle come up after George Floyd’s murder, she turns to another advisor, Dr. Kirkland Vaughans, to figure out how she can give advice to them despite the fact that she’s White.
Because this is a continuation of an established series, this can’t be grouped into the lockdown-generated scripted and unscripted fare, which just goes through the events we just lived over the last 10 months. This is more intriguing because it shows how Guralnik has had to adapt her methods to the current situation. From what we can see, she’s doing just fine.
Our Call: STREAM IT. While Couples Therapy: The COVID Special won’t give you as much insight into its subject couples as Season 1 of Couples Therapy does, it certainly feels like a way to see how the couples Dr. Guralnik treats are coping with lockdown just as poorly as you are.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Stream Couples Therapy: The COVID Special On SHO.com