Similar to the classic set-ups on The Bachelor or The Real World, shows that bring a melting pot of cast members under one roof, Couples Therapy has 10 cast members—reality TV’s usual assortment of B-list celebrities—who live together in a house for the duration of shooting. But instead of facing weekly challenges from the producer, hooking up with each other, or filling their days with actual jobs, their role is to work on themselves while people watch. The casts’ days consist of individual, couple’s, and group therapy, which can be scheduled or spur of the moment when an issue in the house (like when DMX tries to skip a session) calls for a counselor’s intervention.
Kami Storck, a licensed psychotherapist who appeared on the show’s recent spinoff, Family Therapy, believes the show’s approach to counseling can teach the public the benefits of therapy. The intensive, rehab-like approach, she says, means “the amount of work you can get done in that short time is so beneficial.” I wondered if after three-ish weeks of relentless on-camera breakthroughs, the housemates would choose to cut off care the moment they returned to their real lives with no potential audience in sight. According to Storck, cast members are instead set up with therapists in their hometowns, and some stars from her season, the show’s first (which included Bam and April Margera, Michael and Dina Lohan, and Damon, Bobby, and Jeremy Dash), still reach out when they have good news to report.
Despite plot points like DMX’s mother’s miraculous appearance on the set, Storck says she decided to do the show because there’s no extraneous pot-stirring. “There are activities that are set up, but there was no ‘let’s put this person with this person and watch them argue,’” she says. “It’s not a game. If you’re not here to get some work done and you’re disturbing the process for everybody else, you’re kind of not welcome.”
Then again, displays of genuine emotional growth don’t necessarily mean a reality-TV show has forfeited the reality-TV game. The Real Housewives of New York’s Bethenny Frankel, the show’s barking voice of reason, struggled through a failed talk show and a public divorce two seasons back. The show, in turn, began to televise sessions with her longtime therapist, Xavier Amador, which an anonymous insider last year hinted were at least as strategic as they were cathartic. “It’s come down to what she talks about with her shrink in her therapy sessions that air,” the tipster told New York Daily News. “Last year she made the show do a contracted four sessions with her psychiatrist and the point was to soften her image and bring out the violins.”
RHONY’s co-executive producer Lenid Rolov claims he used Frankel’s sessions with Amador simply to add to the telling of her life story. As a producer, he says, he’s working to tell Frankel’s authentic story, of which therapy just happens to be a part. “Therapy, or anything medical,” he says, “you let play out without interfering.” Of course, they can’t include an entire 50-minute session in a 60-minute episode. On his shows (Bravo’s RHONY, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, NYC Prep), a full session is filmed and then trimmed until it “typically will be about 4 minutes.” That explains why almost every on-screen therapy session I watched in preparation for this article included crying. Real Housewives editors are pretty much the best in the business, but you don’t have to be a genius to choose the moment when your star reaches for the tissue box.