Who Is the Best TV Couple of the Modern Era?

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding our 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. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show you think should advance.

A famous and extremely wise hip-hop song by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock once said that it takes two to make a thing go right and, additionally, that it takes two to make it out of sight. Those statements — technically sampled by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” from the 1972 Lyn Collins track “Think (About It)” — are true in life, and they are also true in television. 

As any obsessive 'shipper can tell you, the budding romances, saucy flirtations, and marriages both rocky and solid are what often solidify our love affairs with our favorite shows. I mean sure, yeah, I want to go where everybody knows my name. But my ass used to show up promptly at Cheers every Thursday night because I needed to know what was happening with Sam and Diane. The very best TV couples elicit loyalty, passionate feelings, angry tweets when either member of said couple does something inconsiderate, and a lifelong belief that, despite all real-life evidence to the contrary, the actors playing them are probably actually married. (Coach and Tami Taylor: not real people and not actually married. But also completely real people and so, so married, right?) That’s why this year's Vulture bracket pops an important question: Who is the best television couple of the modern era?

Before that question can be officially posed and answered, some terms must be established. For the purposes of this bracket, we defined the modern era as to include first-run TV from the past 30 years, in part because we agreed that the modern television couple was born in the 1980s, thanks primarily to the arrival of Sam and Diane on Cheers and Maddie and David on Moonlighting, the first twosomes to inspire hard-core 'shipping before people were using that term.

Now, what does “best” mean? It does not mean the healthiest or cutest or most likely to stay together for all time, even after their show gets canceled. We’re looking to honor the TV couple that is, (a) most culturally significant, i.e., the couple that feels most important to television and had the most impact on how other TV couples would be written and received; (b) most memorable (does anyone, anywhere in the world, not know Marge and Homer Simpson?); and (c) most enjoyable to watch. We realize it’s possible to be in love with more than one awesome TV pair. But what we’re asking you, and our team of judges, to do is commit to one relationship.

In order to level the playing field and also make this competition easier to seed, we’ve organized it into two parts: There are eight “Will they or won’t they?” couples, those of the non-betrothed, make-up-and-break-up variety, and eight “married” ones, where spouses and life partners are located. (A couple had to be married at the start of the show in order to qualify for the "married" division.) To spice things up a little — because, you know, all relationships need that occasionally — we’ve also added two play-in games. For those who aren’t March Madness junkies and remain unfamiliar with the play-in concept: We’ve reserved slots for two shows — Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — but before they make it to round one, we'll have the memorable couples within those shows face off. Will it be Ross and Rachel or Monica and Chandler? Buffy and Angel or Buffy and Spike or Tara and Willow? Our play-in rounds will determine which couple will go to the Big Dance.

As you might imagine, deciding which 16 duos to include out of all the couples from three decades' worth of television was incredibly difficult. We considered a lot of factors, including historical significance, cultural longevity, depth of fanbase, and variety, in terms of the types of shows represented and the types of relationships (i.e., gay couples as well as straight ones). Basically, we had a meeting. We talked. Things got heated. And then we dumped a lot of people. Olivia and Fitz from Scandal got cut because we felt like that relationship has gone off the rails. Joey and Pacey/Joey and Dawson was almost a play-in game, but we felt the other '90s teen show from the WB on our list — Buffy — gave us more enduring pairs. We axed Big and Carrie from Sex and the City because we didn’t like the way that relationship turned into a fairy-tale romance. Mulder and Scully were on the bubble, but we needed to get this down to 16. They're an unforgettable duo, there's no question. But the other pairings excited us just a little bit more. That may not be fair, but breakups are often unfair. Mulder, Scully: It’s not you, it’s us. It’s definitely us.

There are still plenty of great TV couples in the sea, and, more specifically, in this bracket. So we do hope you’ll join us over the next three weeks, when each day, one of our judges will render a verdict on a different couple vs. couple scuffle until we reach the championship round, to be decided by Dr. Love himself, New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. At the same time, Vulture readers — including the lovers and the fighters — are encouraged to visit facebook.com/vulture daily to weigh in on their favorite couples so we can see how your feelings stack up against ours. There will also be tons of essays, lists, and assorted TV couple-related content arriving on Vulture throughout this very important selection process, so keep your eyes and hearts open to that.

Now it’s time to pay tribute to the flirters, the perpetrators of sexual tension, the ones who gave into their feelings and ruined the whole damn show because of it, and the spouses who stayed married, thereby convincing us that maybe romance isn’t dead after all. Let’s get together, just you and me, and celebrate TV love.