For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding its annual pop-culture bracket. In 2015, we battled it out for the best high-school TV show; this year, we’re determining the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with picking the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals, on October 14. Today’s round will decide whether Mad Men’s Don and Betty or The Simpsons’ Homer and Marge move on to the next round. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which couple you think should advance.
It turns out this may not be a fair fight. Don and Betty Draper, perennially dissatisfied both as spouses and exes — and, let’s get real, as human beings — have an Alpine hill to climb to defeat one of TV’s most enduring marriages. But Don Draper has never met anything he wasn’t prepared to try and mount; perhaps if we talk this out, he can get a leg over this problem.
The Drapers and the Simpsons aren’t as wholly unalike as you might first imagine. Sure, Don is way better at advertising than Homer is at … well, anything, much less his actual job of pretending he knows how to use nuclear-power equipment, but they’ve both passed out at work a time or three. Neither man can quit his beloved alcoholic elixir, though Homer’s comes with a foam head and its own amusement park, and Don favors a crystal decanter. Betty and Marge, once or forever, have each sported a beehive, and both begat three spawn: a preternaturally wise daughter, an infant who’s almost an afterthought, and a son whose name begins with B. (Of course, Bobby Draper did little beyond swapping faces four times — he’s like a human Snapchat filter — while Bart is central to The Simpsons.) One could even argue that both couples hail from period pieces, with Homer and Marge still moored in the early 1990s, when their TV lives began, altered only by the finer points of animation. In a sense, all four live in an existential rut, even if only the Drapers are aware of it.
Don and Betty danced a complex — and mostly depressing — ballet. Mad Men’s unflinching treatment of the sexual and relationship mores of the 1960s means that even in the premiere, Don — with the picture-perfect wife, the Hallmark life — cheats on Betty. But this was never a simple case of an angel being done wrong by a cad. If Don was a philanderer and a liar, he was also poor, scrappy Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute whose earliest comprehension of intimacy was that it came with a price tag. And though Betty was a prisoner of what society expected of her gender, she was also spoiled, casually cruel (especially to her children), generally disinterested in and dissatisfied by her own life, and prone to bizarre interactions with the neighborhood kids. Each is deeply flawed; you find yourself simultaneously rooting for both of them and neither one, in equal measure wishing they’d pull it together and flee each other forever. Ergo, if Don Draper is (arguably) the quintessential antihero of cable television’s current golden era, then Don and Betty are its anti-couple: messy and ugly and impolite, relentlessly self-sabotaging, and clearly doomed. That makes for compelling characters, but — to borrow from another pivotal rumination on human nature, Center Stage — as romantic partners, they kinda suck.
But Mad Men was never much committed to, well, commitment, and as such never defined itself by its couples. Joan’s story wasn’t about Roger, it was about Joan’s own self-actualization. When we think of Peggy, we’re not picturing Stan or even squirrelly Pete Campbell, but rather the moment she strolled down the hall like a boss, smoking a cigarette and toting a painting of a masturbating octopus. Likewise, Don and Betty were never intended to be aspirational, or even particularly schmoopy. If anything, their marriage explicated how fundamentally miserable two people can be in the lives they thought they wanted. (“What is happiness?” he mused in season two. “It’s the moment before you need more happiness.”) Even Don’s devastation at Betty’s terminal cancer, potentially the most wrenching outpouring of emotion he ever sent her way, was only as much about her as it was about his own nostalgia and ruminations on the collateral damage of his life. The complexities of the Drapers’ personalities reverberate throughout the show and yield compulsively watchable characters, but in the end, Don and Betty were perhaps even more interesting apart than they were together.
Conversely, there has never been any doubt that Homer and Marge are each other’s lock and key. They dig the hell out of each other, and frankly, seem like they have a much friskier time in the boudoir than Don and Betty. (Quick, name one woman Don bedded who didn’t end up miserable for it. You can’t. Score one for Homer J.) Network TV comedies field a lot of complaints about an overreliance on the trope of the bumbling and imperfect portly dude who has a mega-hot wife — just ask Kevin James. But the beauty of Homer and Marge (and even The King of Queens, to be fair) is that, just as in life, none of that matters as long as the connection is real, and The Simpsons has been unambiguous on that point. Homer doesn’t just love Marge but values her, and in return, Marge both appreciates the depth of his need and sees through to his goopy, sentimental center. Ironically, she makes her best, warmest argument for Homer in the speech she gives when she leaves him in The Simpsons Movie. “When people point out your flaws, I always say, ‘Well, sometimes you have to stand back to appreciate a work of art,’” she sniffles, and that instant crystallizes the reality that Marge and Marge alone sees Homer’s best self, and she’s the mirror that lets Homer see it too.
Far from creating a weird power dynamic, that actually engenders mutual devotion. When Marge kicked Homer out in season five, he crawled back on his knees in a tattered loincloth and delivered a tour de force plea for forgiveness: “I need you more than anyone else on this entire planet could possibly ever need you. I need you to take care of me, to put up with me, and most of all I need you to love me, ’cause I love you.” And she melted because he meant it, and she needs both him and his need. The flawless voice work of Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner can take the credit; when necessary, Castellaneta makes Homer’s endless pleas for forgiveness a wholly believable mix of contrition and vulnerability, and Kavner infuses every teary, “Oh, Homey,” with as much love as if it’s the first time. Never has cartoon romance felt so three-dimensional.
True love isn’t the only prerequisite for iconic coupledom, but it helps. So do fidelity and consistency, and Homer and Marge’s impenetrable union has become TV comfort food. They’ve been married in the background of our lives through four presidents, and overlapped both the original run of Full House and its reboot. And while the show’s brilliant, acerbic satire always dazzled us, its central conceit is right there in the title: It’s The Simpsons. It’s about a family. And this particular family always concludes that it’s better together than apart. Twenty-seven seasons in, Marge and Homer are still in love at the end of every half-hour; they are the cement that may crack from time to time but won’t give. Not even when one of them nearly dies from eating the rotting corpse of a ten-foot hoagie, or gives his wife sporting goods etched with his own name, or causes an environmental catastrophe that leads to Springfield’s being encased in a glass dome, although who among us hasn’t walked that tightrope. Mad Men is a brilliant work of television, but that’s not because of Don and Betty; conversely, The Simpsons simply wouldn’t work if Homer ran off with some floozy at the plant. (Even that episode about Marge and Homer separating turned out to be an absurdist Lena Dunham dream.) That central relationship is the crux of The Simpsons — and you can see the DNA of its snarky-but-loving family dynamic reaching all the way into today’s TV schedule. Shows like Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, and Modern Family all echo Matt Groening’s creation by mining for humor in both the world at large and the minutiae of life, rather than any exhausting will they/won’t they dynamic between its leads.
“You know something, folks,” Homer rhapsodized in season one, as only he can, “as ridiculous as this sounds, I would rather feel the sweet breath of my beautiful wife on the back of my neck as I sleep, than stuff dollar bills into some stranger’s G-string.” We doubt Don Draper would say the same. In fact, it’s hard to remember much of anything Don Draper has said to, or about, Betty — or any of his ladies — that is as quotably funny or touching as Homer sweeping Marge off her feet in the power plant and announcing, to loud cheers, “I’m going to the backseat of my car with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for ten minutes.” So, yes, Homer may blunder courageously yet blindly into a night lit only by the flicker of his own dense worldview. In many ways, so does Don. But whereas that ultimately led Don to meditate alone on a hill, searching for answers only about himself (and finding them in a Coke), Homer’s soul always leads him back to Marge. Therein lies the difference, and therein lies the victory. Well, there, and in Homer’s sage advice, “Be generous in the bedroom. Share your sandwich.” Who wouldn’t want to end up with that guy?
WINNER: HOMER AND MARGE