So, the ace documentary strand Wonderland is back and the new series kicked off with something pretty innovative: The Trouble With Love and Sex (Wednesday 11 May, 9pm), an animated film about the experiences of two couples and one single man at Relate, the relationship counselling organisation. The people were all real: you could hear their voices and those of the counsellors because they agreed - who knows why? - to be recorded. Their identities, however, were disguised courtesy of a charming cartoon. The Radio Times described it as Creature Comforts meets In Treatment, but this isn't, I think, quite right. For me, it was more like Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (the animated Hanna-Barbera sitcom from the 1970s) meets EastEnders. But, hell. We all have our different reference points, don't we?
Now, I must tell you right off that I have always had my suspicions about relationship therapy. The nice part of me - it does exist, honest - understands that some people need help, particularly when it comes to that great European (but not Anglo-Saxon) pastime: talking. But the greater part of me - you might call this the mean part; I couldn't possibly comment - feels that it is usually pretty obvious when a relationship is in its death throes, at which point it is better for both parties to call it quits and start thinking about which one of them owns the copy of Screamadelica (or whatever).
Did the programme help to change this? Not really. I took against one counsellor in particular - bearded, bespectacled and mildly patronising - pretty quickly. His client was a man called Dave who had obsessive feelings about a woman in his office. For Dave, this was fairly typical behaviour: he was always going after people who were unavailable and he had decided to seek help in order to break the cycle. In the consulting room, however, he told his counsellor that he often felt "dark forces" around him and that he was suicidal. Said counsellor's response to this - I promise you this is true - was not to refer Dave to a psychiatrist but to write a letter to said dark forces on his behalf. In essence, it told the dark forces that Dave was dispensing with their services forthwith. Dave had only to sign it and apparently all would be well. I don't call this counselling. I call it creepy.
Happily, the experiences of the two couples were less alarming. The first pair had communication troubles and so they were prescribed "homework": they had to spend special "couple time" together (the terminology of relationship counselling is, I'm afraid, crushingly banal). Did it work? Yes, like magic! Before long, they were drinking champagne cocktails in the bath, and I felt glad about this because when first we encountered them the pain in their voices was so obvious.
About the couple called Iain and Susan, I felt more ambivalent. Susan's desire to pick fights with her husband - "So, it's my fault, is it?" she would ask, the question rising from nowhere - was very dislikeable and I didn't blame him for feeling bewildered by it. Their homework involved writing down what sex meant to them - eew! - plus couple time. Result? The film ended with their visiting - grumpily, in Susan's case - a country pub for a drink. She decreed the boozer horrible even before she got out of the car, which was cheery.
The film seemed to reinforce sexual stereotypes: the broad suggestion was that women like to talk about things, and men usually fail to listen. In this respect, I found it rather depressing. But I liked the animation. It was witty, not to say mischievous. I don't know whether the animators based their characters' appearances on real people, but it was funny that Iain and Susan's therapist looked a bit like Alain de Botton and a lot like Darian Leader.
At one point, Iain quietly noted that he had spent his entire life dodging women's tears - and then he hopped nimbly to one side, narrowly avoiding a single, giant teardrop. It's my strong hunch that, over time, the film's animators grew rather tired of all the moaning and groaning to which they had to match images - though I'm not complaining about this at all. It was only thanks to their boredom-combating playfulness that I never came to feel the same way. l