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, we look at those couples who made history in their own ways.
Vulture’s TV Couple Scuffle encompasses some of the best and most memorable moments in TV couple history of the past 30 years — Sam and Diane’s tumultuous relationship, the Moonlighting rise and fall, relationships like the ones on Buffy and Queer as Folk that are real turning points in TV representation. But we had to draw the line for the bracket somewhere, and some historically notable TV romances didn’t make it in. Below, we remember the couples who bucked tradition.
The actual first shared bed on TV
1947–1950, Mary Kay and Johnny, Mary Kay and Johnny
They are mostly forgotten to time, but Mary Kay and Johnny were the pre–Lucy and Ricky. They were married in real life, they had to write Mary Kay’s real pregnancy into the series, and their actual infant son appeared on the show. But perhaps most importantly, theirs was the first – and for a long time, one of the very few – TV shows that let its married partners sleep in the same bed.
The best real marriage/TV marriage overlap
1951–1957, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy
A watershed series in so many ways, I Love Lucy represents not one, but multiple firsts in the TV couples pantheon. They are one of the first, and most memorable couplings who lived in the overlap between real relationships and fictional TV marriages — much of the onscreen juice between Ricky and Lucy Ricardo came from their viewers’ knowledge that they were also Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, married TV-production power couple. As a result, their subsequent real-life events (Ball’s pregnancies, their eventual split) also became TV landmarks. The Ricardos were never divorced in the series’ fiction — instead, their TV marriage was often defined by Lucy’s endless, often well-meaning shenanigans, and Ricky’s long-suffering, often misguided responses.
The first interracial kiss
1968: Kirk and Uhura, Star Trek
Okay, okay, they are not a couple. Never were. Which is why it’s also fascinating that theirs was the infamous first interracial kiss on TV — it was fictionally and socially safer to have Kirk and Uhura kiss while their brains were overtaken by an alien cult leader.
The grooviest second marriage
1969–1974, Mike and Carol Brady, The Brady Bunch
Technically, Mary Kay and Johnny was the first married couple to share a bed on TV, but Mike and Carol Brady’s double bed is by far the more memorable sleeping arrangement. Now, the image of a husband and wife in bed together is a sitcom staple — an image search for “Everybody Loves Raymond bedroom” comes up with dozens of separate scenes. At the time, though, Mike and Carol together in their room felt representative of a new kind of TV couple. This wasn’t their first marriage, and it was not the kind of marital permafrost of your ’50s and ’60s family sitcom. Instead, they were two people who chose to be together even though it was, frankly, a bit inconvenient for everyone else.
The best time a TV relationship was actually a tool for social change
1971–1979, Edith and Archie Bunker, All in the Family
If Mike and Carol were the gentlest, most square imaginable version of changing family structures and changing TV couple dynamics, Edith and Archie were resiliently, stubbornly throwback. For a long time on TV, representations of coupledom and marriage tended to double down on reinforcing the status quo — for all their fantastical quirks, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched are both heartily conservative. And from the outside, that’s how Edith and Archie look, too. They are the epitome of a staunchly traditionalist TV couple. Except All in the Family took the firm traditionalism of their marriage — Edith howling at Archie’s thoughtlessness and Archie firmly setting down its foot — and made it funny, rather than an unquestioned norm. Their marriage, for all its clear affection, was also the inescapable structure that Edith and the rest of the family used to slowly, painfully, unsuccessfully cajole Archie into joining the modern era. Edith and Archie’s relationship was a remarkable thing; it was a mirror for reflecting huge social change, but it was also rooted in the glorious, unmistakable specificity of their two characters.
The landmark gay TV marriage
2001–2004, David and Keith, Six Feet Under
Theirs was not the first gay relationship on television, but David and Keith on Six Feet Under were a vital flashpoint for the way gay characters would slowly be integrated into mainstream TV representation over the past decade. Their relationship is not perfect. They argue, a lot. David is deeply repressed and conflicted over his own sexuality; Keith is understandably infuriated by David’s self-loathing. They are also an interracial couple, as though their lives weren’t already complicated enough. And the very things that made Six Feet Under work so well — its complex depiction of a whole family, its preoccupation with death and meaning, its focus on intergenerational dynamics — are also what made Keith and David so important. Their relationship and eventual marriage are just one piece of a bigger story. It doesn’t diminish the significance of their relationship at all. But they’re not deviants, or jokes, or stereotypes, or deserving of Very Special Episode preciousness. They are as screwy and loving and mundane as everyone else.
The best TV couple that wasn’t a couple
2006–2011, the Hendrickson marriage, Big Love
This is a cheat, of course. The Henrickson marriage is, by definition, not a couple. Bill, especially, tries to insist that they are one big functional marriage, a crazy blend of personalities and experiences that operate together as one seamless machine. In reality, the many Big Love relationships look more like multiple couples all bunched up on top of each other, constantly renegotiating alliances and enemies. Each wife’s relationship with Bill is its own distinct mess; each wife’s relationship with each other is even more difficult. And the same premise that willfully flaunts traditional ideas of what a couple should be ends up becoming a fascinating, multifaceted portrait of what marriage — any marriage — can look like.
The timeline of TV coupledom certainly doesn’t end with Big Love, a show that purposely explodes the definition of what a couple is. But it’s suggestive that decades and decades later, TV romances can look remarkably different than they did in the ’40s, and can still be tussling over all of the same questions — trust, love, money, infidelity, sex, politics. And who sleeps in what bed.