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This is the final round of Vulture’s annual pop-culture bracket. In 2015, we battled it out for the best high-school TV show; this year, we’re holding a TV Couple Scuffle to determine the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. Each day for the past three weeks, a different writer was charged with picking the winner of a round of the bracket. Here, Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals between Friday Night Lights’ Tami and Eric and The Office’s Pam and Jim. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which couple you think should have won.
You wanted a happy ending to this bracket, and you’ve got one. It might not be the couple you prefer, but love wins out here. Love has won in every matchup thus far, whether the TV couples in question got along famously or squabbled constantly, strayed or stayed faithful, got together and stayed together or broke up forever, got together and broke up and got together again; love won in every matchup because the characters love each other (even when they can’t stand each other, or mistreat each other); love won because we love to watch people in love — and because we love these characters.
Love wins here, too, because our final competitors, Jim and Pam from The Office and Eric and Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights, are the most consistently kind, upbeat, realistically rendered, altogether positive examples of coupledom in this contest.
In the Best Comedy or Best Drama bracket, writers struggled with aesthetic questions: What is each show trying to do, and how well does it do it? How consistently good was it? How funny, how dramatic, how formally adventurous?
The couples bracket was not terribly interested in any of that stuff. It tended to focus on a more basic question: As a TV viewer, would you rather watch love as it should be, or love as it often is?
Love as it should be.
That’s why Marge and Homer Simpson, who’ve stayed married and frisky for 27 seasons, bested Don and Betty Draper from Mad Men, who divorced after three, their love shattered by Don’s affairs and the revelation of his sordid past. That’s why Tami and Eric, an equally strong but more stable couple, knocked the Simpsons out, just one round after vanquishing the magnificent Jersey dumpster fire that was Tony and Carmela Soprano. It’s why Sam and Diane of Cheers, one of the liveliest and most emotionally violent of TV’s will-they-won’t-they pairings, got knocked out in the first round by goofy, eccentric Ross and Rachel from Friends. And it’s why Maddie and David survived a matchup with Luke and Lorelai of The Gilmore Girls (friends who became lovers), only to get sent packing by Jim and Pam, who also drove a stake through the hearts of Tara and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“The David and Maddies of the TV universe are exciting and amusing to watch,” wrote Noel Murray, who decided the outcome of the Jim and Pam vs. David and Maddie round, “but Jim and Pam are more like the teeming masses of ordinary couples … the kind who’d spend nine seasons rooting for a Jim and Pam. We, too, deserve a win.”
Philip and Elizabeth from The Americans, a honeypot-trapping, neck-snapping spy couple, had the most staying power of the “darker” pairings, beating out Lena and Stef from The Fosters and the cheerful Huxtables from The Cosby Show, who had advanced in the first round past the equally loving but more bruising Roseanne and Dan Conner; but in the end, our sexy Russian avatars still got iced by Tami and Eric. Meredith and Derek from Grey’s Anatomy beat out Brian and Justin from Queer As Folk, in part because, to quote Jacob Clifton, they became “a cultural shorthand for love hard-won and the most absolute rarity of all: a television couple that fights, fights dirty sometimes, that gets ego all over everything … and then makes up.” They miraculously pulled ahead of Ross and Rachel (“Real-life romance is supporting your dreams, loving you despite your dark-and-twisty tendencies, and being true partners till death do you part,” wrote Jennifer Keishin Armstrong). But they, too, crashed headlong into Jim and Pam’s Great Wall of Snuggly Goodness. Cut to credits, cue jangly guitar music.
And here we are.
I can’t adopt some of the same methodology as many of my colleagues, because in this last couples bracket, the distinctions are too fine. Jim and Pam versus Tami and Eric is not a choice between happy and happier, nice and nicer, ideal and even more ideal. All things considered, these two couples are equally loving, equally loyal, equally invested. This is pie versus cake, a sunbeam versus a cool breeze, Halley’s Comet versus the Harmonic Convergence. Love as it should be, versus ditto.
Both couples fight, even become mistrustful or estranged, but patch things up because they can’t imagine life without the other. Both are happy to be together and determined to stay together. In every aspect that defines lasting love, these couples are evenly matched.
Tami and Eric and Jim and Pam are each at the center of an ensemble-driven show, but while they often anchor the shows emotionally, they never serve as the primary focus. Jim and Pam, played by John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, are attracted to each other from the start of The Office, when Pam is in a failing relationship with Roy, a warehouse employee and Jim briefly dates a saleswoman. The core of their relationship is their shared incredulity at their boss and co-workers, and their fondness for playing tricks on Dwight (Rainn Wilson), a self-important ninny who sits near Jim. As the show unfolds, Jim and Pam’s attraction grows, Pam breaks up with Roy, and they eventually get engaged after a protracted will-they-won’t-they tease by the show’s writers that brings in other potential partners. Their relationship is tested by the relocation of Jim or Pam to other cities (where they’re tempted by another person, or where their partner fears they’re being tempted), as well as by the post-honeymoon period of marriage and impending challenges of parenthood.
Friday Night Lights’ Eric and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) are much more settled when we meet them. She starts out as a guidance counselor at Dillon High, where her husband coaches the football team, and as the show unfolds, they start to seem like a waystation for all the other characters on the show whenever they lose their emotional moorings. Tami and Eric are tested mainly by professional challenges, in particular when Eric is offered a coaching job at a university in Austin, and Tami doesn’t want to move again, particularly because of her own growing ambitions. Tami, who’s been following her husband across Texas as he takes one coaching job after another, becomes principal of the school in Dillon, which shifts the power dynamic between the two and puts her in the public eye. It also makes it impossible for her to be quite as much of a rock to Eric. Their attraction to and mutual respect for each other ultimately gets them through these rough periods and others. Just as Jim and Pam’s relationship is a model for more or less healthy dating (when push comes to shove, they’re always honest with each other, and very good about admitting and addressing mistakes), the Taylor marriage is a Platonic ideal of a husband-wife relationship. Nobody’s dominant, neither character is the Smart One or the Competent One or the Faithful One. There’s a sense of balance in their scenes as well as a belief in reason and empathy, expressed in the way the characters look at each other, talk to each other, and touch each other.
So let’s go in a different direction. Let’s agree that Jim and Pam and Tami and Eric are essentially the same sorts of people: well-meaning, thoughtful, dedicated partners. The kinds of couples that get teased for being boring by drama-prone friends — all of whom eventually confess, after a drink or two, that they really wouldn’t mind being bored that way.
Now let’s entertain the idea that if you could preserve Jim and Pam and Tami and Eric’s shared values and fundamental goodness but swap their life experiences, they would still get together, then stay together through good times and bad, till death did them part. (And how adorable it is to imagine Jim and Pam speaking with drawls and hosting a barbecue, or Tami and Eric making eyes at each other across Dunder Mifflin’s office floor?)
If this experience-swapping scenario would yield the same end result — and I feel certain it would — the distinctions would become finer still. In fact, they would evaporate. And we would be left with — not an endurance test, exactly. Something else. Perhaps a contest that’s mainly about a couple’s willingness to do the work and keep doing it. To prove to themselves and each other that they believe in love as both a noun and a verb, as destiny and heart’s desire.
Tami and Eric must win, then, because they’ve stayed together longer. They’ve walked a longer road with more twist and turns. Seen more. Survived more.
Jim and Pam’s story is the part of Friday Night Lights we didn’t get to see because it happened years before the show’s main narrative began. Jim and Pam’s past is Eric and Tami Taylor’s prologue. Eric and Tami are what Jim and Pam dream of becoming. They are Jim and Pam’s narratively unknowable North Star, guiding them toward the next phase of their journey.
On top of all that, you just know that if it were possible to cross TV universes and have Jim and Pam and Eric and Tami face off in some kind of reality-TV–style couples contest, Eric and Tami would still win.
They would win not because they wanted it more, but because Jim and Pam, being Jim and Pam, would get to the very last round, a nail-biter like this closing bracket, then do that wordless “Can I borrow you for a second?” thing they always do, and have a sidebar.
“You go first,” Jim would say. “No, you go first, I always go first,” Pam would say. “No you don’t!” Jim would protest, then realize he was getting distracted from his point and cut to the chase and tell Pam, “Okay — so, hear me out — I was thinking mayyyyyybe it would be a nice gesture to, I dunno …” and then Pam would finish his sentence, “Let them win out of respect for their 18 years of marriage, yeah. Yeah! Yes.”
Jim: “Uh, is that what you were gonna say, too?”
And Jim would look into the camera.
Eric and Tami would hem and haw a bit. “Oh, no, you’re young, you’re just starting out,” Tami would say. “You really should have this.” And Eric would look around and mutter because he’s more comfortable speaking from the heart when surrounded by teenagers in helmets. Jim and Pam would refuse to budge — politely. And Eric and Tami would give in, and laugh. And then they’d send the film crew home and drink beer and watch the sun go down while their kids played in the yard.
WINNER: TAMI AND ERIC