For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding a TV Couple Scuffle to determine the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. (Today, Heather Havrilesky will decide whether Friday Night Lights’ Tami and Eric Taylor or The Sopranos’ Tony and Carmela will move on to the next round.) Below, Kathryn VanArendonk breaks down the many relationship stages a TV couple cycles through.
Like the prehistoric apes and fans of the first season of Heroes, couple-dom on TV often follows a regular, inevitable evolution. We often love romantic relationships on TV at some specific, distinct stages, but if a show is on long enough (or if it burns through plot quickly), most TV couples will live through several iterations of narrative pairing, oscillating between driving the main story and taking a backseat to other plots.
Not all couples will follow this trajectory, and some of the best and most interesting are those who break the rules. There are also many who begin at a later stage. But for most shows, this is what the default life path of a romantic pairing looks like, a timeline suitable for examination, so you can prep yourself for when Cece and Schmidt inexorably move into post-marriage conflict phase.
The Together Phase
This is one of the most familiar, and most treacherous, stages in a TV couple’s life. It’s a device that crosses genres and decades, defining sitcoms and dramas, vampire shows and workplace comedies, and police procedurals and family melodramas alike. Moonlighting is perhaps the best-known example of a show where the couple (and the show) could not survive the transition past romantic consummation, but it’s often considered a turning point even in shows that go on for several more years. Remember when Castle was kind of fun? Yeah. In some of the best TV relationships, though, this is just the first, headiest stage of the relationship, full of sexy glances and meaningful stares and live studio audiences making the wooooOOOOooo sound.
The OMG, they did.
Many TV couples never make it past the will-they-won’t-they. The West Wing ends at the precise moment Donna and Josh get together. If they do survive, though, there’s a brief, confusing, sometimes giddy, and often fraught stage where everyone tries to adjust to the new paradigm. On Friends, it’s Phoebe and Joey playing a high-stakes game of chicken about who knows that Chandler and Monica are together. On Gilmore Girls, it’s Rory and Lorelai going on a double date so awful that they have to break out the Bop-It.
They’re together now, time to find some other story lines.
This is the moment when you really hope that your favorite TV couple is on a show that also has plenty of other stuff going on. Just as in real life, TV relationships often need some space to breathe, and it’s a good opportunity for a show to shift to some other plots while the happy couple spends some time being happy together. (Happiness is great in real life; happiness is usually pretty boring in fiction.) Corey and Topanga got together on Boy Meets World — time to tell some Shawn stories! If the couple is really the main juice going on in a show, though, hold on to your horses, because it’ll be time to move straight into …
The Breakup Phase
They’re together now, time to make them unhappy.
After the will-they-won’t-they, this may be the most familiar (and most frustrating) stage in any TV couple relationship. When your series hinges on the dramatic tension of one specific character, continued conflict is inevitable. You may recognize this stage as Ross and Rachel’s “We were on a break!”; basically all of Hannah and Adam’s relationship on Girls; Pam’s stint at art school and, later, the Michael Scott Paper Company on The Office; and the arrival of Addison on Grey’s Anatomy. Speaking of which …
The love triangle.
Technically, this stage can (and frequently does) happen in the will-they-won’t-they phase, but it’s often at its most potent after two characters have finally gotten together and are now threatened by a third party. Veronica and Logan/Duncan! Jane and Michael/Rafael! Meredith and Derek/Addison! Buffy and Angel/Spike! Elena and Stefan/Damon! The “now they’re unhappy” stage is often miserable, but when it really works, a good love triangle can provide narrative juice for weeks, powering countless “next week on” promos and thousands of pages of fanfic.
If they’re long-standing enough, TV relationships tend to run in waves — union, breakup, reunion; happy, sad, happy. Once you’ve hit the love-triangle phase, or you’ve spent some time together but unhappy, it’s probably time to turn things around again, and one frequent method is a big engagement/wedding plot. Jim and Pam (The Office), Lily and Marshall (How I Met Your Mother), Callie and Arizona (Grey’s Anatomy), the several Parenthood weddings, Ben and Leslie (Parks and Rec) — especially on a network show, there’s nothing like a TV wedding for some Nielsen sweeps TV couple action.
Marriage on television works out one of two ways. Either yours is one of those rock-solid relationships that forms a reliable backdrop for other tensions on the show (with the occasional rocky patch thrown in for realism and excitement). This is the marriage of sitcoms and of family dramas (there’s always at least one stable couple). The other option is a doomed relationship, bound by a show’s need for extreme relationship changes to inevitably end in death or divorce. This is almost any marriage on a Shonda Rhimes show, and also a good chunk of any marriages on “prestige” TV (we can all turn and wave fondly at Betty and Megan Draper).
The new partner.
When the marriage doesn’t go so well, or if the love triangle has too much juice before you even walk down the aisle, protagonists tend to jump ship and the whole TV couple cycle starts over again with a new person. Sometimes this is the direct follow-up to the love triangle and stays entangled with the old relationship, which is how you end up with Team Rafael versus Team Michael, people. But sometimes it’s just a breakup (or a death) and a new person. First, it was Sam and Diane, of course, but then it was Sam and Rebecca. Rory and Logan. Meredith Grey and New Hot Doctor.
And with every new relationship, the TV couple wheel turns again, swinging back through will-they-won’t-they territory and circling back through the next stages. And yes, it can get repetitive. It’s also one of the things that differentiates television from any other medium — TV shows, particularly a long-running one, are uniquely suited to portray the same lengthy, protracted, familiar-yet-new relationship cycles we experience in life. A Grey’s Anatomy relationship timeline is undeniably implausible. The not-quite-together-yet Booth and Brennan partnership on Bones was drawn out past the point of sense. And yet, part of why they resonate so deeply is that their length and twists and failures and tragedies and re-beginnings look so much like the relationships we know, far more than novels that end in marriage, or movies that end with a prom dance.
So roll your eyes the next time a TV couple gets together and then instantly falls apart, and grit your teeth through the next dumb love triangle. But celebrate them, too. And keep your fingers crossed for Cece and Schmidt.