Love and the History of TV’s Attractiveness Gap

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by Netflix, HBO, ABC and Getty Images

Last Friday, Netflix debuted its latest binge-ready romantic-comedy, Love, from Judd Apatow. The ten-episode first season, which depicts the dueling perspectives of a man and a woman in a relationship, has picked up mostly positive reviews for its realistic portrayals of dating, addiction, and dependence. But one detail rings less true. See, Love stars Gillian Jacobs (Community) and Paul Rust (Super Fun Night) in the lead roles, making it the latest entrant in a long line of a popular but sometimes frustrating television trope: the “ugly guy” getting the “hot woman.”

Of course, beauty is subjective (there are certainly people out there who find Paul Rust attractive; I myself would not turn him down), but this trope fits into a larger attractiveness gap that’s abundant in television, especially sitcoms, where it’s sometimes acknowledged onscreen but more often not. You can find this in everything from The Honeymooners (1951–55) to animated kids’ show The Flintstones (1960–66) to current juggernaut hits Modern Family (2009–present) and The Big Bang Theory (2007–present); as well as The Sopranos, The George Lopez Show, Louie, That ’70s Show, Fresh Off the Boat, and all of Rob Schneider’s sitcoms. 

Sitcoms have featured these couples since, well, the beginning of television, though in the early days, it was often a pretty actress paired with a relatively plain actor (The Bob Newhart Show). They were slightly mismatched, a fact that was baked into the show’s premise and used for a quick chuckle. With Everybody Loves Raymond (1996–2005), audiences were quick to point out Ray Romano’s not-exactly-leading-man looks, especially when compared to his wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), and it became a joke within the show itself. In later seasons, the show ramped up this mismatch by making Ray into something of a bumbling idiot, unable to do anything right and therefore constantly raising Debra’s ire.

Because Everybody Loves Raymond was so successful, the series led to multiple copycats that paired beautiful actresses with similarly bumbling actors — and also added on a little weight. The fat husband/hot actress matchup (which took over Fox’s Animation Domination block with The Simpsons’ Homer and Marge and Family Guy’s Peter and Lois) came to prominence with the 2000s trifecta: According to Jim (Jim Belushi and Courtney Thorne-Smith), Still Standing (Mark Addy and Jami Gertz), and The King of Queens (Kevin James and Leah Remini). Much ado was made about the fact that you’d never see these couples in real life — especially because the men were often depicted as zhlubby, lazy, incapable of taking care of themselves or their family, and so on. It wasn’t just a physical mismatch but a personality mismatch as well. Sure, it was a stretch that Remini would be with James, especially when he kept screwing up. Of course, this is the point of most sitcoms: The opposites-attract, “look at that silly man fail at everything!” setup is the easiest way to get cheap laughs — especially in a multi-camera sitcom in the ’00s. Aside from the laughs, you could argue there’s something toxic about these pairings and the unrealistic expectations they promote, most obviously for reasons Apatow has long been criticized for popularizing in his films: The male fantasy that you, too, can be a lazy zhlub with barely any redeeming qualities and still get a super-hot wife willing to put up with it.

It bears mentioning that not all series handle the trope poorly — rather than using it for a cheap laugh, the rare show can actually deepen the characters and offer commentary on the nature of attraction. On Sex and the City, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) spends her adult life looking for very handsome, put-together men, but none of the relationships work out. Eventually, she considers Harry (Evan Handler), her chubby and bald divorce attorney, whom the show frames as everything Charlotte wouldn’t want (messy, rude). While once finicky, Charlotte comes to realize Harry is a perfect match — and the couple has great chemistry, not to mention he’s the best sex she’s ever had. What works is the show is acutely self-aware about this mismatched pairing, as are the characters. But their compatibility and attraction to each other — plus the fact that viewers see this courtship take place, rather than being thrown into the middle of a marriage — makes it believable when they wind up together.

In a more strictly comedic sense, 3rd Rock From the Sun subverted this trope with Sally (Kristen Johnston) and Don (Wayne Knight). On the surface, it could be another tall, hot blonde with a short, dumpy guy, but the humor is that Sally is literally an alien and has different ideas about what humans find conventionally attractive — at one point, Sally worries she’s not hot enough for him. To an extent, Curb Your Enthusiasm also excels at this with Larry (Larry David) and Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) — there’s a believability there not only because Larry’s rich and successful, but also because Cheryl ends up leaving him.

More recent, we have Modern Family, where the entire joke with Jay (Ed O’Neill, who once had a similar role when matched with Katey Sagal on Married … With Children) and Gloria’s (Sofía Vergara) relationship is that he’s unattractive and geriatric while she is young and impossibly hot. Modern Family does occasionally include somewhat heartfelt moments punctuated by poignant music or fourth-wall-breaking segments to explain that Gloria really does love Jay and that she’s not only with him for his money, but it usually feels more forced than natural. The Big Bang Theory’s Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) spent the first few seasons mostly making jokes about how nerdy and unattractive Leonard is in comparison to how ditzy and hot Penny is, and therefore, how they would never really work as a couple. Yet, by building their relationship over multiple seasons, they do.

As for Love — a merely okay series that I, along with a good portion of the internet, binged over the weekend — it has mixed results with the trope. Fringe characters occasionally express surprise that Mickey (Jacobs) is with Gus (Rust), or joke about how Mickey is out of Gus’s league. For the most part, however, they are kept on a level playing field because Mickey’s character is less than perfect. She's considered hot, but her attractiveness takes second fiddle to just how screwed up, insensitive, and flawed she can be — and how her addiction plays into her attraction to Gus. It’s a slight step in the right direction when it comes to handling this trope well, but on the whole, TV's attractiveness gap is still as wide as ever. We’ve gotten to a place where TV shows are being held accountable for their lack of representation and are making incremental changes: increasing diversity, shutting down the “Nice Guy” trend, writing gay characters that emphasize personality over flamboyance. But TV's hot girl/ugly guy pairings typically go unchallenged, largely because standards for female attractiveness haven't budged much over the past 60 years. More than just another TV trope, these pairings are a reflection of the culture: Women must be conventionally physically attractive, while men aren’t held to the same standards. And as long as that's a reality, this trope is here to stay.