Why I Don’t Hate VH-1’s “Couples Therapy”

I first realized I like Dr. Jenn Berman when, in a session with Flavor Flav and his partner of nine years, Liz Trujillo, Dr. Berman hollered, “Look at her f*cking face!”  Now, some might take issue with a therapist raising her/his voice or swearing in session, especially about somebody’s face, but f*ck those people.  In this case, Berman was trying to cut through Flav’s hyper-defensiveness, and get him to actually pay attention to Trujillo.  And for anyone who viewed the recently-concluded third season of “Couples Therapy,” there is an obvious transition (not in this particular session) where Flav drops the clown act and actually engages with Trujillo, and where she goes from balled up and permanently scowling to opened up and smiling.  The cynic in me says these could all easily be TV editing tricks, but the optimist in me says that I know therapy works, and I hope these changes hold.

I’ll confess that I first started watching “Couples Therapy” (in season three, not having any awareness of the first two seasons) because I saw a few promos and thought it would be easy to do a hatchet job on it for the sake of a blog post.  In one of the commercials, Dr. Berman was shouting down Joe Francis of “Girls Gone Wild” fame (I had no idea who the guy was at the time).  My first thought was, ‘Great, make insecure guys think that couples therapy really is about a therapist siding with women and berating men.’  (And I don’t mean to be overly reductive here, but anybody working in the field who has tried to refer people to much-needed couples therapy will probably have a pretty clear idea what I’m talking about).

But like much of what takes place on the show, to take the promo clip out of context is to fail to see the larger picture of what is actually taking place.  That particular clip involves Dr. Berman asserting herself over an emotionally abusive narcissist for the clinically important reason of ensuring that Abbey Wilson (Francis’ partner) doesn’t have her efforts to overcome an eating disorder repeatedly derailed by Francis’ insistence that he can fix the problem by badgering Wilson into eating.  Whoops…so much for not being overly reductive.

Dr. Jenn Berman acknowledges the awesome nature of this post.

Dr. Jenn Berman acknowledges the awesome nature of this post.

To be sure, if I really wanted to rip into the show, it’s within the realm of possibility.  However, to do so would show a fundamental lack of understanding about how ‘reality TV’ works.  Of course there’s going to be an emphasis on confrontational interactions.  And of course the show adds in exciting/gimmicky activities that fall out of the usual scope of plain, old, in-the-office couples therapy, like excursions to rock-climbing walls, a visit from a psychic, and “expressive therapy” where couples smash things in a junkyard.  Without such catches, attracting an audience to a show about couch-bound therapy sessions would be plenty difficult.  To the show’s credit, though, the field trips and seeming diversions are used as a way of highlighting communication between the couples in order to provide the audience with a clearer picture of how the couples behave than might be evident from therapy sessions, and is definitely more entertaining than watching couples talk about how they communicate.

And despite seeing most of the individuals and couples in some unpleasant/ridiculous situations of their own making, there are still plenty of moments that reveal the core goodness in everyone present.  I actually came away thinking well of everybody, or at least not totally hating anybody, having seen their willingness to accept responsibility and engage honestly in some difficult work in a setting more conducive to fist fights, broken bottles, and thrown furniture than it is to therapy.  Add to that the expectations of reality TV viewers who want blood, and the restraint shown by the cast members on the show is pretty remarkable.

On multiple occasions, cast members disengaged from decidedly negative interactions, reserving the right to judge others not on gossip, but on their own interactions with them—Tyler Baltierra walking away from Joe Francis’ cackling excitement at videos of Dustin Zito’s pornographic past being a prime example.  (Weirdly enough, I didn’t see anyone call Joe on the hypocrisy of him mocking a porn performer, given the millions Joe made off of flashed breasts and college-age-lesbian-experimentation love scenes).

At other times, situations cropped up where cast members, drawn into an argument between a couple, would mediate rather than taking sides, working to make the members of the couple see each others’ perspective—as with Baltierra attempting to bridge the gulf between Temple Poteat and Chingy Bailey that opened up each time Bailey powered up his tablet.

Instances occurred where efforts to stir up trouble were met with, dare I say, Socratic challenges to the thinking driving the pot-stirring.  Temple Poteat questioning Joe Francis’ obsession with Dustin Zito’s missing shoes (after Joe tried to draw Temple into complaining about Dustin) comes to mind.

In general, cast members sought out each others’ advice in earnest, and were provided with real support.

This is not to say that there weren’t plenty of instances of cast members making snap judgments or otherwise engaging in self-indulgent tantrums.  Flavor Flav and Liz Trujillo were, as Joe Francis dubbed them, a “side show” for much of the first half of the season, clearly frustrating several in the group.

Joe Francis, in turn, provided the bulk of the traditional reality-show drama for the second half of the season by deeming various people or couples “trash” and whining about people interfering with “the process” and all of Joe’s hard work.  Even when Dr. Berman managed on occasion to break through Francis’ deflection to draw out what is essentially a scared, little, attention-seeking boy, Joe would then appear for his “confessional”—just Joe and the camera—and say something self-important and off-putting, suggesting that his insight is about as substantial and durable as a soap bubble.

And perhaps to the dismay of audiences and the cast, the full story of what was going on with Trujillo and Flav, individually and as a couple, was never fully revealed.   What little bit of privacy the cast members were granted, for legal or other reasons, was perhaps simultaneously one of the most frustrating and most endearing aspects of the show.  Dr. Berman, in deference to good therapy, and in defiance of reality show convention, at least created some small pockets of safe, off-camera and off-the-record space where couples could work out things they weren’t comfortable sharing with the world.

Plenty of other reality show conventions were broken, as well, or at least bent, on “Couples Therapy.”  Even with only a small portion of each episode devoted to showing actual therapy sessions, Dr. Berman gave a pretty good taste of how therapy works.  The audience doesn’t just get to smirk at the cast members’ bad behavior and watch Berman cut them down.  Rather, problem behaviors were identified, explored in terms of the incidents and patterns that contributed to those behaviors.  Then Dr. Berman collaborated with the clients on ways to better address the issues in a productive manner.

For instance, (and to greatly simplify) Temple isn’t portrayed as a stereotypical uptight control freak for the audience to roll their eyes at, but is shown to have ‘control issues’ stemming from a chaotic past, and is challenged to relinquish some of that control and manage the anxiety that comes along with letting go.  Catelynn Lowell and Tyler Baltierra have their eyes opened to how a lack of stability in childhood has led them to cling to each other, and how public pressure has contributed to them making decisions that may not be in their best interest, or the best interest of their relationship.  Heather Marter and Dustin Zito, who were probably expected to have the most salacious content to work through, seem to have put all the tabloid sex scandal crap behind them, in order to struggle with the more mundane, but more relatable, questions of how to make a relationship last.

One could cynically argue that the celebrities and pseudo celebrities on “Couples Therapy” are merely trying to keep themselves in the public eye and make a few bucks.  But even if that was their original intent, most of them ended up violating their “brand”—Chingy by being reflective as Temple says they need to end their sexual relationship if they are not going to have a full relationship, Temple herself by breaking away from Chingy and his greater “star power”, Tyler and Catelynn by breaking off their expected marriage, Flavor Flav by stopping his perpetual performance as court jester and openly weeping at his past failures and current joys.

And certainly if one wants to chastise Dr. Berman for being egotistical, one can find examples to try to build that argument, as when she proudly trumpets the work she’s done to help Abbey Wilson address her eating disorder.  It would be too easy to sneer about Dr. Berman doing nothing more than taking Abbey to a restaurant.  But that would be taking the restaurant scene and Dr. Berman’s comments out of context.  The restaurant visit comes only after a great deal of preparatory work, and is rather a monumental thing, one which Dr. Berman deserves much credit for, along, of course, with Wilson.

Overall, even in the unreal context of reality TV, Dr. Berman’s show is arguably much less damaging to public perceptions of therapy and therapists than is the average movie or TV show with a therapist as a character.  Such fictional portrayals of therapists often show them as oversexed, overpaid egomaniacs who go about uncaringly inflicting damage on those they are supposed to help.

In contrast, what Dr. Berman does on “Couples Therapy” is manage to sneak some actual therapy in between the egos and the outings.  Ideally, viewers will see through the distractions to get a glimpse of real, honest-to-goodness therapy playing out.  And at the absolute worst, Berman may get some less discerning viewers to attend couples therapy in the belief that they’ll get to smash car windows and go bowling, which isn’t all that bad if the therapists they end up with can get them to buy in without all that excitement.

Ultimately, I was so appreciative of Dr. Berman’s ability to get some snippets of real therapy on reality TV that I’m not even going to say anything mean about her distractingly sparkly and otherwise spangled collars—which are kind of weirdly cool.  And everyone respects my fashion sense.

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