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 Friday Night Lights’ Tami and Eric Taylor or The Sopranos’ Tony and Carmela 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.
Tami and Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights are definitely the best couple in the history of television, in the sense that they make being married look like the greatest thing that could possibly happen to a person. Every time the Taylors collapse onto the couch after a long day to talk about their obnoxious, pure-hearted, small-town neighbors, you want to be right there with them. You want to hear all of Eric’s little stutters and watch his eyes dart when he gets frustrated and witness all of his bashful downward glances as Tami calls him on his shit. She sees right through that man, but God, get a load of his puppy-dog eyes. Who couldn’t bathe in her heavy sighs and bask in his slow Southern apologies forever?
Tami and Eric make putting up with another human being’s annoying dysfunctional tics for the rest of your life look like the most luxuriously intimate and natural and relaxing thing in the world. Their marriage makes you want to find some emotionally stunted Southern man with a taste for something as brutal and pointless as football and spend the rest of your life in a two-bedroom ranch-style house with a scraggly front lawn on a terrible street in the middle of West Texas. Their marriage makes you want to get a thankless job at the local high school and stick to-do lists under refrigerator magnets and bake casseroles for the PTA-sponsored event full of good-hearted members who are confused about everything and get aggressive when they drink.
Because, from the very start of Friday Night Lights, the illogical babbling of the small-town folks serves as a kind of Greek chorus against which all of the action plays out. Like a slow-motion, even-more-horrifying modern take on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, the people of Dillon, Texas, are always poorly informed yet utterly committed to stupid traditions, even when they’re completely unreasonable and unfair. The sacred message at the center of Friday Night Lights is that living a full life is all about taking care of the people closest to you and being a vital part of your community, even when your community, like most communities, is filled with ignorance. And the only way to survive that purgatory of other people, FNL teaches us, is to align yourself with one person who feels just as tortured by other people as you do.
But what’s truly delightful about Tami and Eric, what makes you want to marry both of them and have a million of their babies, is that they can calm each other down and love each other even in the middle of a shitstorm. In fact, they make marriage look like the only sane thing that can exist in the middle of a shitstorm. Even when Tami’s co-worker kisses her and then tells Eric about it, Eric and Tami end up joking about it instead of fighting over it. They don’t doubt each other for a second. At every turn, they embody a lifelong commitment that can’t be shaken by outside forces — or by mutual ribbing, for that matter. “You know who I miss? The coach’s wife,” Eric tells Tami when she’s promoted to the school’s principal. “You know who I’d like to meet?” Tami replies. “The principal’s husband.”
Loving Tami and Eric so much that it’s disgusting? That’s normal human behavior, actually. If you doubt me, peruse YouTube and feast your eyes on the tributes to the Taylors, set to the tunes of “Pull Me Through” by Jim Cuddy and “Perfect” by Hedley and “Fix You” by Coldplay. Tami and Eric are the gold standard in Forever Love, particularly to regular folks with solid values who believe in standing by your man/lady through tough times, in sickness and in health, until God returns to judge the living and dead. That’s just how true love should look, sweet and reliable and (insert Tim McGraw lyrics here).
But Tony and Carmela from The Sopranos are also, arguably, the best TV couple ever, because they make being married look as relaxing and enjoyable as being burned alive. And in spite of the eternal glory of Tami and Eric, that’s how plenty of long-term relationships actually feel: like watching your skin melt off your bones. Even if you’re lucky enough not to be in a marriage like that, most of us have been one half of a terrible couple at one point or another in our lives, so watching someone else go through it feels oddly enjoyable.
Tony and Carmela just can’t do the right thing; they can’t learn any lessons or make good choices, they can’t be kind, they can’t take the high road, they can’t show mercy without regretting it, they can’t be present without feeling vulnerable and exposed. They are a two-headed monster of shame, hideous overgrown babies who are clumsy and hurtful with each other and never grow up. Tony’s blood money keeps them locked in hell. But we still feel sorry for both of them, over and over again. That was the real motor of The Sopranos: not the crime, not the threat of violence, not the plot twists, not the search for meaning among selfish people in a greedy era of human history, but the terrible pity you feel for the central characters. Poor Tony, a grown man with so much supposed power, doubting every move, hating himself every step of the way, slumped over in a lawn chair, waiting for the ducks to come back to his pool. Poor Carmela, a grown woman living the most leisurely American dream but knowing that it’s all paid for with savagery, hating herself even as she puts on her new jewelry or condescendingly waves for the help (even when “the help” is her friend Charmaine). Tony and Carmela were soul mates every step of the way, whether they were tolerating each other or about to get divorced. They were locked together by their fears and by their shame at the gargoyles they had become.
The Sopranos also have lots of videos on YouTube, by the way, but theirs have titles like “Best Fight Ever” and “Second Best Fight Ever” and “Tony & Carmela Argue About A Vasectomy.” These fights are not mundane, relatable events. These two don’t just yell, they pinpoint each other’s secret insecurities and stomp all over them. Tony tells Carmela her badly built model home is going to crush an unborn baby, for example, and Carmela hurls a vase at his head. But David Chase doesn’t end the shot after Carmela runs up the stairs, crying. We have to watch Tony, that big sulky self-hating bear, step around broken pieces of vase. Anyone who had parents who fought ferociously knows that this is the saddest part: two embarrassed, broken people, trying to return to everyday life after everything has been blown apart.
Tony and Carmela make marriage look like a kind of waking death, in which nothing can ever be good again. What is that last disturbing scene of The Sopranos even about, if not being trapped in sap forever at the exact moment when you’re stuffing yourself full of greasy food with your mediocre family, feeling nostalgic for a past that was never that great to begin with? Chase’s vision of American life at large and of Tony and Carmela specifically was horribly dark, with or without the murdered friends and the doomed racehorses. When Tony’s mother, Livia Soprano, blurted out, “It’s all a big nothing!” she was talking about birth, marriage, kids, death, and everything in between. That was the nihilistic heart beating at the center of The Sopranos, which is why Chase felt the only appropriate way to end it all was by simply pulling the plug, mid-scene. “Here’s how it really ends for all of us,” he said. “Everyone keeps childishly hoping that they can recapture some pure feeling they had decades ago but can barely remember now, but nothing ever stacks up to the imagined past — which wasn’t even that good, by the way. And then one day, without fanfare: Lights out.” The moral? It doesn’t matter if it happens now or 30 years from now, because it’s all a big nothing either way.
Tony and Carmela embodied the pointlessness of believing that Forever Love will save you. They showed us that when you hate yourself and everyone else, you will spend your entire life like a greedy, badly behaved child. Love will not save you, because you don’t know how to love. You can’t show empathy for anyone else because you have no empathy for yourself. If Tami and Eric Taylor showed the power of a marriage between two pure-hearted, compassionate people, Tony and Carmela showed the sheer hell of a marriage between two people who hate themselves even more than they hate each other.
So, which of these two best TV couples ever is the best-best?
It’s hard to argue against Tony and Carmela as the more vivid and memorable couple, possibly because hell is more familiar and thus more provocative than heaven. But where Tony and Carmela show us what we might become if we’re lazy, blame each other, and let our fear rule our actions, Tami and Eric demonstrate what we can become if we’re honest and vulnerable and believe in each other’s goodness. Fear versus hope. And at a time when we’re awash in fearmongering and nostalgia and wishfully believing that somehow our misremembered past can save us from having to show up and take responsibility for the present, Tami and Eric remind us that empathy and patience can create a kind of paradise in the middle of the hell. Even if you believe that Tony and Carmela should be in the final round of this tournament — and I definitely do — is it even possible to imagine a more compelling, more romantic, more influential, more progressive, and most of all, more beloved TV couple than Tami and Eric? I don’t think so. In their relaxed, effortless comfort with each other, in their affection and humor and acceptance of each other’s flaws, Tami and Eric don’t just show us how it actually looks and sounds to be in love. They show us what love is.
WINNER: TAMI AND ERIC