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 Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith and Derek or Queer As Folk’s Brian and Justin 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.
When comparing the central couples of Grey’s Anatomy and Queer As Folk, it’s helpful to begin with the progressions of Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison), our two protagonists, who in their own ways, fought to get out of the shadows of their partners.
Meredith is a “dark and twisty girl” who, over five seasons, becomes a “happy woman” — it’s the most enduring theme of Grey’s Anatomy, now in its twelfth year, especially considering what the woman has been through. Plane crashes and mass shootings and the specter of Alzheimers. She died once and chilled out with God, got her hand stuck in a guy who exploded, went blind from IVF, and more recently, was put out of commission for months by a deranged patient. She had the most uncomfortable, blurred-consent sex on network TV with her buddy, George, witnessed her mother’s suicide, and — in quick succession — lost her soul mate Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) to Zurich, and then her husband Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) to another disaster. That a person as screwed up as Meredith can fight her way to wholeness and still be interesting is a revolutionary idea, and one we only get to see evolve because the show has been on for so long.
Justin, on the other hand — from his initiation at the hands of a supernatural sexual force named Brian Kinney (Gale Harold) to a life-altering attack at his senior prom — begins and ends his journey with dogged cheer. They literally call him “Sunshine” on the show.
Justin’s five-year story and Meredith’s five-season residency both end in weddings called off at the last second: Justin’s so that he can move to New York to pursue his art, and Meredith’s so that Izzie can marry Karev and stop boning a ghost. In 2016, it’s odd to think of anyone treating the sacrament of marriage so callously, but both couples made sure to underscore the fact that a simple piece of paper doesn’t consecrate love on its own; that a marriage certificate is nothing more than a Post-it signed by a ship’s captain or internet pastor.
But it’s where they begin that’s the interesting part: Justin is 17 when he goes home with 29-year-old sex god Brian Kinney in 2000; Meredith is on her “last” tequila-fueled bender before starting her residency when she goes home with a random hottie in 2005. Teen Justin’s agency is in question from minute one, while Meredith’s is only retroactively called into question the next day, when she finds out the rando is her new boss, a mythically desirable and talented neurosurgeon.
Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd is something that happens to Meredith, because everything that happens is happening to Meredith: His haircut, his talent — Meredith was raised to worship surgical skill totemically, to pursue excellence above all else — and his wife Addison Montgomery Shepherd (Kate Walsh) are all things that happen to Meredith. Over the course of their relationship, she walks herself backward, eyes closed, into domestic bliss, untwisting herself as quickly as she can; she goes so far and changes so much — makes so much room inside herself, for him and their children and his haircut and his ego, her own discovered ability to love — that Yang’s last words are a reminder: “He’s not the sun. You are.”
Meredith and Justin both struggle to get past their “supporting character” complexes and into the spotlight. Meredith’s hang-ups more complicated than Derek alone: It’s the pressure of her complicated family and history, the genius mother and genius sister and long-lost one, Maggie, the daughter she was supposed to be. She doesn’t know we’re watching a show about her; she spends most of the series just trying to keep her head above water. It would be so easy for her to give in — to let Derek, or Cristina, assume her mother’s place in her life — and at times her recklessness can seem like taking the easy way out. That death, or at least permanent disappointment, might be preferable to the complexity of understanding herself and someone else at the same time. But being with Derek, Meredith learns — through the many outs and opportunities to disappoint she’s constantly handing him — that she doesn’t need to hide pieces of herself from those she loves, any more than she would ever be allowed to hide her talents from the world.
Unlike Meredith, Justin is something that happens to Brian Kinney, because — at least in the show’s first season — everything that happens is happening to Brian. The show’s indelible pilot places Brian at the center of a lot of hot and iffy dynamics: Brian’s biological son is born at the moment he’s bedding Justin; they call him “Peter” because he’ll never grow up, or risk losing his powers; he calls both son and lover “Sonnyboy” — just like his father calls him. Sit with that for a second. You could spend five years unpacking all that, and so that’s what the show does.
For Justin, overcoming his supporting-character complex is a lot simpler: He won’t be a man — a real, independent person — until Brian loses power over him, and that isn’t something anybody but Justin can accomplish. What is for Meredith a subtle foreshadowing and a reminder of something she already knows — “He’s not the sun” — is, for our Sunshine, the beginning of his life.
Beyond Meredith and Justin’s self-discovery within their relationships, it bears mentioning that both of these couples were also narrative firsts, presented at the dawning of two very important kinds of television we now take for granted. Queer As Folk put Showtime on the map in a lot of ways, back in 2000. Based on the U.K. series by Doctor Who maestro Russell T. Davies, it felt slapped together, often more Canadian than American, no offense, and even at the time felt a little dated. But it was also the first mature-viewers show about (urban, white, cis) gay men, delivered to the first generation after HIV broke history in half. The already weak links in the story of gay America were wiped out with surgical precision, and that need — for community, for legacy, for a tradition in which to locate the transpersonal elements of the self — had no real outlet in 2000, when even the internet was still being born. It did not need to be good to save lives; it just needed to exist. The fact that it was so often good — transcendent, beautiful, angry as hell — is just a bonus.
Gay relationships on television in particular are tricky, because queer characters are always part of at least one minority, so it’s a double bind: Either your gay character has a typical string of relationships, which means bringing in extra characters for them to romance, and risking complaints that the character is “about” being gay — or your gay character remains gay only in theory, which stirs things up even faster.
Drama involves romantic relationships, and most characters are straight, so most stories involve established characters hooking up with each other. Now — partly thanks to Grey’s — ancillary queer characters feel like props a lot less of the time, because it’s never the only fact we know about them. But at the time Queer As Folk began, there was no such buffer zone. A queer character, like Dawson’s Creek’s Jack or Once & Again’s Jessie, forms relationships with random outsiders.
What Queer As Folk gave us, first and still pretty rarely, was a space so defiantly and specifically queer that its relationships took place outside the lens of straightness altogether, not recentered on the straight characters, to judge or tolerate or enjoy vicariously. In order to have a storytelling canon, you need room to move, play, experiment. As unusual as the circumstances of their meeting and twists in their relationship might have gotten, only a world as large and safe as Brian and Justin’s, in which straightness itself is suspect and threatening, could ever provide that room. The world particularly needed Justin, at the specific time we got him, in a way the straight world can barely understand, much less emulate. He is very much of his time, and helped deliver us to the world we live in now.
Grey’s Anatomy, similarly, is such a part of American culture — and TV writers rooms across the world — that despite winning its time slot much of the time, it often falls prey to the old “That’s still on?” from people who don’t actually enjoy television as much as they enjoy being a part of a conversation. Outside of premium cable, literary drama was family-oriented, “soapy,” and not even the richest and most emotional workplace dramas gave quite the respect to emotional turmoil and transformation that Grey’s introduced to the network scene. Grey’s created the modern prime-time soap, and its effects — off-kilter symbolism, decade-long character arcs, shifting allegiances, and a notable lack of villains — have changed the game for everything that came after.
And part of its inclusion in Americana means Shepherd-Grey is a gold standard of television romances, 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.
Meredith came into love through a backdoor, telling herself that it wasn’t real — too dangerous, too concrete — until she was trapped by the very real, positive ways it affected her life. Justin shoved his way into love, believing in it when his partner was actively resisting, and only won when he stopped struggling and learned to own himself. Brian Kinney, after all, was a collection of archetypes — Peter Pan, Dionysus, Aphrodite torturing Psyche, Narcissus and Ganymede; a machine made for sex and for breaking men. A story about Brian Kinney couldn’t last, because machines don’t change. Similarly, Justin Taylor springs onto the stage like a cautionary tale, a dead twink walking, so ready to love and be loved. And for a generation of young people, cut loose and set adrift between the age of Camp and the age of Grindr, Justin offered both the grit to ignore our elders, and the sunshine we still need.
But Meredith Grey is the first soap lead who gives all of herself, who knows she is the sun, who dances it out, who believes in her person. Her relationship with Derek, over those ten-plus years, illustrates the complexity of the simple, like a fine food documentary: We’re led to believe that romantic leads are two halves of a whole, looking for their other part — but Meredith knows, as we all need to remember, that the real magic lies between two complete persons, who find each other anyway.
Justin showed us the door, opened it to love and, damn the consequences, picked out for himself the most unwinnable prince, the biggest dragon, the tallest windmill. But it’s Meredith who keeps us walking through it, daring us to stay in the uncomfortable feeling and the halfway meltdown and the hard parts we must do anyway; it’s Meredith who reminds us when we’re stuck in the mud, and that sometimes mud is all you get. If you asked Justin Taylor himself who the winner here should be, he would agree.
WINNER: MEREDITH AND DEREK