‘There’s bombshell after bombshell’: will Blue Therapy be the wildest reality TV ride of the year?

In a world where we are on our seventh series of Naked Attraction’s genital unveilings, it’s hard to imagine there are many boundaries left for British reality television to break. But In Love & Toxic: Blue Therapy pushes at a more subtle taboo – Black people going to therapy. That may seem relatively innocuous, but it’s full of couples baring their souls on screen, admitting to infidelity and insecurities and uttering ludicrous statements such as: “But I’m a bad bitch!” It’s quite the way to challenge a stereotype the show’s creators wanted to battle against: that therapy is “exclusively for middle-class white people.”

Channel 4’s latest series is one of the most fresh, fun and subversive reality TV debuts of the year. It is not entirely new, however. It has been adapted from the hit 2021 YouTube show Blue Therapy, an outrageous but surprisingly complex portrait of Black people’s relationships that was named “the most explosive reality show of the year”.

The show peaked at 3m views with a truly shocking finale when fan favourite Jamel turned out to have been lying about infidelity. But even creator Andy Amadi didn’t expect it to reach the heights it did.

“I did know it would do well,” he admits. “But I didn’t expect the African aunties and the people in the US it resonated with. I certainly didn’t expect to do a show with Channel 4.” Executive producer Luti Fagbenle interjects to emphasise quite what a seismic feat Amadi has pulled off. “It’s incredible to produce a whole successful series completely self-funded. Andy was his own Channel 4, effectively.”

Jamel and Deborah: stars of the online version of Blue Therapy.
Jamel and Deborah: stars of the online version of Blue Therapy. Photograph: Gogo Mbanu

Bringing the show to Channel 4 meant scaling up. Previously, we had only seen people in the therapy room under the guidance of the unflappable relationship coach Denise. Now, viewers are taken into the couples’ homes to witness conflicts as well as friends and family having drinks thrown at them when they practically beg their loved ones to end their toxic pairings.

There has been an attempt to inject grandeur into proceedings: the single stark white room is gone, replaced with a palatial mansion setting, and all the participants are now styled and lit as if they about to star in a Black British Gossip Girl reboot. For Fagbenle, “making them look like movie stars adds bigger stakes when all the shit comes out”.

In the two and a half years between the E4 show and the YouTube show’s internet-breaking, gold-digging accusations and unrequited declarations of love, both Amadi and Fagbenle believe that the Black community (which they quickly point out “is not a monolith”) has somewhat warmed to the idea of therapy.

But in a healthcare system in which Black women’s maternal mortality rates are far higher than white women’s, and Black people are more than four times more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act than their white counterparts, there is a level of mistrust. As Fagbenle puts it: “Black people face worse outcomes in the medical system. In therapy, there is a fear that your therapist won’t be able to empathise with your issues of race.”

The five couples that have made it on screen discuss issues ranging from mistrust to infidelity to differing career goals and cultural values. Fagbenle was determined to avoid creating exploitative TV. The cast was “carefully selected, and we spoke to them at length to find authentic relationships which were suitable but not abusive”, he says. “We found couples where it’s like, ‘Sorry, you are too far. We cannot put you on television.’”

The first couple the show introduces, Marie and Tunde, desperately need help to break out of a pattern that brings out the worst in both of them. Having been together on and off for a decade, Marie struggles to accept the three children that Tunde had with other women in their fallow periods, brutally willing them into non-existence (“If he didn’t have kids we wouldn’t even be in therapy”). Meanwhile, Tunde sees himself as an alpha male with traditional African values and wants to replicate the relationship dynamic he saw modelled by his polygamous grandfather. To make matters even more outrageous, a fight breaks out over Marie’s insistence that Tunde should give her £15,000 to go on a four-day trip to Miami (your maths is correct, that’s £3,750 per day).

Michael and Lauren share a moment in episode one.
Michael and Lauren share a moment in episode one. Photograph: Channel 4

Other couples include Rae and Shaun, who have only been together for 10 months, but since Shaun lied about his age on their first date, there is a complete lack of trust between them. There is Lauren, who doesn’t feel supported by partner Michael in her pursuit of a music career, while mental health professional Annah has spotted a number of red flags in her boyfriend Lucky’s pattern of “love bombing” and “ghosting”.

As well as relationship coach Denise, the team have added a new coach in the form of Jo who, as a Black man, Amadi believes brings a new dimension to the guidance. “Jo is more stern, and he’s a Black father figure who can step in and talk Black man to Black man.”

The show’s first version incurred some accusations that the relationships had been fabricated (Denise’s previous work as an actor did not help to quash the rumours), which Amadi denies. All reality television involves some manipulation, but the pair are adamant that the problems and the help are real. “We give the contributors a lot of support off-camera. They’re all consulted on the issues we will talk about and, quite frankly, we won’t talk about,” Amadi adds.

Rae and Shaun on the couch.
Rae and Shaun on the couch. Photograph: Channel 4

It’s hard to imagine what could be off the table when you watch the show’s shocking twists and turns – from Tunde advocating polygamy to Rae not speaking to Shaun for several weeks because of a misunderstanding involving soup. Still, Fagbenle explains the project’s core values meant creating healthy boundaries around what would be televised about the couples “to protect them”. Amadi adds, “It is not just about the chaos and unravelling of crazy stories. People actually sort their issues out.”

Amadi and Fagbenle hope the couples’ conflicts will draw just as much debate as was seen in the YouTube comments; the audience looks set to be just as global, with the show already picked up by Black Entertainment Television – BET – in the US, and Prime in Africa.

Spirited discourse seems assured, given that £15,000 for a four-day trip to Miami is not the only wild topic for which we should brace ourselves. Fagbenle grins as he teases what audiences have in store. “There’s bombshell after bombshell, and none bigger than what happens in episode five. It is freaking shocking!”

In Love & Toxic: Blue Therapy is on YouTube and E4 from 5 October and available to stream on Channel 4


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