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 quarterfinal round will decide whether The Office's Pam and Jim or Moonlighting's Maddie and David 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.
Before Glenn Gordon Caron created Moonlighting in 1985, the TV detective genre had taken a turn for the moribund, far removed from the smart, stylish ’70s heyday of Columbo, The Rockford Files, and McMillan & Wife. Caron — who also helped launch the similarly snazzy Remington Steele in 1982 — brought fast talk and sex appeal back to the mystery show, patterning his bickering gumshoes David Addison and Maddie Hayes on the likes of Nick and Nora Charles. The show was a throwback to the screwball comedies and steamy crime pictures of the ’30s and ’40s, where guys and gals seemed as likely to kill each other as to kiss. To call Moonlighting’s David and Maddie an ideal TV couple is to cast a vote for romance, for passion … and for a relationship on the brink.
Meanwhile, picking The Office’s Jim and Pam is like looking into a mirror and sighing, “Yeah, that’ll do.” But there’s something to be said for that. Fantasy’s fun, but a run-of-the-mill, everyday love affair is in many ways just as special.
Neither of these couples is perfect — though to be fair, their flaws are primarily extratextual. The story of David and Maddie is bound up with the story of Moonlighting, with all its backstage drama and production delays. And Jim and Pam will always be shadowed by Tim and Dawn, on the original U.K. Office, where the story played out very differently.
When it comes to Moonlighting, does it matter that Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were reportedly barely speaking to each other by the time the series ended? Actually it does, a little — if only because the writers started to work their behind-the-scenes troubles into the show. From the start, episodes often broke the fourth wall, taking a cue from the Bob Hope–Bing Crosby road movies by winking at the audience with sly self-reference and nods to everything from Shakespeare to Looney Tunes. Over time, those meta moments started to be more specifically about the actors and the creators, and less about showbiz in general.
What was so enjoyable about Moonlighting during its first three seasons was that its two stars were discovering each other’s gifts at the same time that the fans were. After over a decade in Hollywood where she was treated as little more than an ornament, Shepherd found a role that allowed her to shine as a comedian, an action heroine, and a romantic lead. Willis, meanwhile, came out of nowhere to define a new model of '80s masculinity: the abrasive tough guy with the bruised heart and graceful stride. As the show became more popular, the talent began to have very different ideas about how to capitalize on their new fame. Willis, who was getting a belated big break, wanted to move on to movies as soon as possible. And Shepherd, who’d been burned over and over again by the industry’s self-appointed geniuses, wanted to exert more control over her character.
So they fought. They jabbed at each other and at the crew, until they filled the tabloids with reports of all the problems on set. Given that Caron was having his own difficulty getting scripts finished on time, he steered into the curve, following that old writers’ adage of “write what you know.” What he knew was a TV production that was an ongoing catastrophe. Rather than hide it, he embraced it, and made the gossip and rumors part of what Moonlighting was all about.
All of that messiness isn’t necessarily a strike against David and Maddie. If anything, the production delays and passive-aggressive freeze-outs that plagued Moonlighting’s fourth and fifth seasons made thematic sense, given what ABC had been airing for the previous three. The whole point of “David and Maddie” as a concept was that they were volatile. She resents him for not taking her seriously as the owner of his detective agency. He’s frustrated with her because she’s the rare woman who doesn’t want to “get horizontal” with him. The friction between them affects everything they do, from how they run the office to how they work cases. Everything’s a battle — and an adventure. Together, they’re funnier, braver, keener, and more intensely alive.
Throughout the run of the show — but especially in the first three seasons — the sparks between David and Maddie were what gave Moonlighting its glow. Even when the characters finally slept together, that didn’t really extinguish their raging, destructive fire. This was never going to be a “happily ever after” kind of couple. They were meant for those of us who wanted to spend an hour once a week living vicariously through the lives and affairs of a troubled film-noir hero and his frazzled femme fatale. (That was true sometimes literally, as in the all-time-great episode “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” with its self-consciously retro look.)
As for Jim and Pam, their great love story is both helped and hindered by the rapacious demands of American television. On the BBC, Martin Freeman’s Tim Canterbury and Lucy Davis’s Dawn Tinsley flirted away their workday boredom for 11 half-hour episodes, before he finally confessed his real crush on her in episode 12 and was flatly rejected. Then in the two-part wrap-up special, she changed her mind. Everybody was happy. The End. In the U.S. Office, John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert didn’t get together with Jenna Fischer’s Pam Beesly until the 53rd episode — which was still only one-fourth of the way through the rest of the series.
Yet even though their narrative stretched out so long that it ceased to have any kind of conventional romantic-comedy arc, the advantage of all that extra time was that it forced the creators to do what TV writers hate: tell stories with little to no real conflict. For a while, The Office kept the “will they, won’t they” going through the usual plot contrivances, via some silly misunderstanding or forced separation due to career circumstances. But after a while, the show just gave in and accepted the inevitable. The couple got married, had a kid, bought a house, and struggled to balance their dreams with their responsibilities. Whenever possible, the two inspired and encouraged each other. Jim pushed Pam to pursue her art. She nudged him to grow up, and to stop seeing his job as just another endless post-college purgatory.
“Jim and Pam” retains the sharp central conceit of “Tim and Dawn,” which is that in real life, romantic partners are far more likely to be thrown together by dumb coincidence than by some classic meet-cute. Most of us find ourselves throughout our young lives in a series of small pools, with limited choices of whom to pair off with. We find our mates at school or church, or in the circle of friends we see at bars and clubs every weekend. And yes, sometimes our Mr. or Mrs. Right is just someone we talk to every day because our job is tedious and we’re looking for a distraction. Both versions of The Office celebrate that reality as beautiful in its own way. The American Office explored that sublime mundanity for years, showing how the giddy excitement of a new love fades into something more stable and long-lasting.
It’s become a common fallacy among the modern TV watcher that sitcoms like You’re the Worst and Catastrophe are more “honest” and “true to life” because the couples there are seemingly always in crisis and at each other’s throats. And there is a lot of truth in those shows, which are both funny and poignant. But they’re not reflective of how most long-term relationships go. Real-life romance is about compromises and forgiveness, and learning to appreciate the value of a loyal companion. The David and Maddies of the TV universe are exciting and amusing to watch. 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.
WINNER: JIM AND PAM