Three’s take on the overseas hit format is one of the year’s bravest shows, writes Chris Schulz.
This is an excerpt from The Spinoff’s weekly Friday newsletter Rec Room. Sign up for regular instalments here.
Emma wants Parrish to be more romantic. She doesn’t want to have to keep telling him to clean up in the kitchen, or remind him to buy her the occasional bunch of flowers. “You very rarely ask how I feel,” she says. He’s sitting right beside her, nodding along. But Parrish doesn’t want to do any of that unless he’s going to get something out of it. Now into their fifth year, with one child, the couple is stuck, as therapist Amanda Cox puts it, in a messy cycle. No one gets what they want. “I’m at the point where I feel if I never had sex again, I wouldn’t care,” agrees Emma.
Tino and Johann are also having problems. They first coupled up seven years ago but an outcry from Johann’s side of the family, based on spiritual beliefs, saw them split. When they reunited many years later, they again faced outside negativity, but decided to get married and have a baby. But the pressure still shows and every mini blow-up feels like it could be the end of the world.
“This marriage is based on fear,” says Johann. “Everything’s really unsteady and shaky.” As he talks, Tino’s bouncing baby Spencer on her knee. She looks tearful, breaks into a nervous giggle, then apologises. “We’ve just never said these things out loud.”
Welcome to TV’s most real reality show. In Couples Therapy NZ, there’s no celebrity host to help ease you into things. A voiceover doesn’t explain how this is going to go. Viewers aren’t welcomed with music, flashy cues and glitzy intros. No one warns us about the material we’re about to plunge head-first into.
Instead, viewers are plonked onto the couch next to couples who are bravely baring all, first to a therapist, then to Aotearoa. Every scene is incredibly simple: three people unwinding their lives in a small room, with only a box of tissues and a glass of water for comfort. There are no hidden idols, pop quizzes, or elimination challenges. Celebrity Treasure Island this is not.
Couples Therapy is all talk, all of the time. It makes for an intensely personal, emotional and intimate experience. Often, the issues these couples are dealing with are years in the making. Minor transgressions have become major issues. Secrets have been bottled up but are starting to show in other ways. Communication has become tested and strained, and in some cases, it’s become toxic. Cox, wise and patient, with a piercing stare and occasional burst of refreshing honesty, is the steady moderator. “Frankly, that’s bullshit,” she tells Johann at one point.
It’s about as raw as a TV viewing experience can get. The up and down struggles of life are written all over the faces of these couples. The past comes up frequently. As they talk, and keep talking, every wince, grimace or eye roll, every twitch of the legs, gaze towards the door or sudden flinch of emotion is caught by the many cameras hidden around the room. Palms wipe at eyes, tissues dab at noses.
I found watching Couples Therapy such a full-on experience that I fidgeted, paced, and often remembered random things that needed doing in other rooms so I could have a breather. I required two or three days between episodes to recover.
But I found myself thinking of these couples, the things they were going through, and what they were saying, when I wasn’t watching the show. I thought about what kind of changes they might be making at home, how those conversations might play out. I felt connected to them in a way other TV shows can only dream of. That rugged realness sets Couples Therapy apart. We’re worn down by the tropes and cliches of most TV shows. We know we’re being played, when moments are skewed by savvy editors determined to heighten the drama and spark a moment that might look good cut into a quick clip for TikTok or Instagram.
None of that is necessary on Couples Therapy. It’s all happening, right there on Cox’s couch. “For two years, he didn’t say he loved me at all,” says one woman, as her husband glances down, then sideways. “He knows what I need,” says another, before turning to her husband and facing him head on. “You know.”
Anyone in a long-term relationship knows it’s often the things left unsaid that lead to the bad places. Couples Therapy is the place where those things get said. Give it up for Emma and Parrish, Tino and Johann, and the rest of the five couples who were brave enough to contribute to one of the year’s most important shows.
Couples Therapy NZ airs on Three every Wednesday night at 8.30pm; all 10 episodes are available for viewing on Three Now.