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 semifinal round will decide whether The Office’s Pam and Jim or Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith and Derek 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.
Some of the matchups in this bracket have felt like comparisons between two very different things. Marriages of love versus marriages of convenience, divorces versus happy relationships, brief flames up against long-held smoldering crushes. That’s not what’s going on here.
Despite some external differences, Pam and Jim versus Meredith and Derek is an unexpectedly apples-to-apples comparison. Both couples begin as two nodes of a love triangle, and both of them strain against the knowledge that their affection is strictly forbidden. Both couples navigate the tricky transition from the love triangle (a relatively stable three-legged narrative structure) into coupledom, figuring out how to balance themselves without that third person pulling energy and focus. We follow both couples through dating, marriage, kids. They’re well matched for scale, too — these are long relationships. Pam and Jim spanned the full length of The Office’s nine seasons; Meredith and Derek were a going concern for eleven.
And these are network-length seasons. None of your hit it and quit it 13-episode cable-style storytelling here — this is full-on, mid-2000s–style network programming, which required relationships that could sustain over 20 episodes a year of suspense and satisfaction. The stories of these two couples are long, messy, shifting, twisting, slow-burning, and ever-developing arcs that are full of low points and peaks, good times and bad, symbolic ferryboat scrub caps and yogurt-lid medals. In their breadth and changeability, these are the kinds of relationships that look the most like real life (assuming you are a pretty white straight person, anyhow). They are equally iconic.
So if these two relationships are so very similar, what do we use to distinguish them? Why am I about to pick Pam and Jim over Meredith and Derek?
Here’s my first question: Does Meredith even like Derek? It’s an inane thing to ask, because of course she loves him. She lusts for him, constantly, from the moment they first sleep together without the faintest idea of who the other person is, to the frequent, illicit, knee-bending encounters in the elevator, up through the final months of their marriage, when the sex nearly always worked even if the rest of the relationship was on rocky ground. Meredith likes Derek the way that a body is pulled toward another body, and in the way a surgeon’s intelligence is drawn to a fellow physician’s remarkable skill. She likes, and is always a little suspicious of, the fact that he likes her. She likes the life he imagines for them together, the children he basically wills into existence, and the miraculous therapies he conjures from wires and thin air. She likes his hair.
But does she like him? It’s hard to say, given that there is so little substance to Derek, so little meat beyond his twinkly eyed paternalisms and cheerful, unalterable ambitions. She’s drawn to him the way mosquitoes and human infants seek warm bodies to fill their empty stomachs — he’s a giant glowing orb of everything sunny and good, and she loves him. It is a testament to just how markedly good he is that in the earliest days of his relationship, he’s cheating on his gorgeous, regal wife, and somehow he’s still the one we root for. He’s just victimized enough to be the source of sympathy, not so much that he’s pitiable or tragic. Even in the moments where he’s deliberately drawn as complicated or in the wrong, like in his troubled recovery from the plane crash or his desire to pursue a career avenue that conflicts with Meredith’s, he’s reasonable. He’s aiming for excellence. If you need some heavily metaphorical signaling, his last name is Shepherd, for Pete’s sake. Meredith’s last name is a color synonymous with uncertainty and fogginess. She is all nuance and growth and conflict, and he’s mostly just a happy ending that she can’t accept for long.
Here is who Meredith actually likes: Cristina Yang. And believe me when I say that I am not holding this against her. But if the question is whether Meredith and Derek are a better TV couple than anyone else, and specifically whether they deserve to win out over Pam and Jim, it seems important to note that one of the indelible images of their marriage is Meredith sleeping between her husband and her best friend. Derek may well be her soul mate, but I don’t think it’s possible to say that Cristina’s not, also. Maybe the most romantic moments of the series are Meredith and Cristina’s repeated affirmations that they are each other’s person.
I don’t blame this on Meredith and Derek, not really. In the Grey’s universe, life is simply too uncertain and unpredictable and likely to end in bombs and plane crashes and shooters to ever fully give yourself to just one partner. When Cristina leaves, her “person”-hood transfers to Alex, not Derek, because two is just not a stable arrangement in Shondaland. If you are one of only two, who do you tell your relationship secrets to? How will you survive when your partner inevitably dies in a tragic, random car accident?
The universe of The Office is different. It has its cruelties, its unbearable cringe moments, and its tragedies and victories. But when it comes to Michael Scott and his band of misfits and oddities, the question more often than not is: What does it look like to be human? To be a good person? To be happy? And the answer, more often than not, is Pam and Jim.
Where Meredith and Derek are born out of lust and tequila and a strong sense of the forbidden, Pam and Jim’s relationship is endlessly and even frustratingly respectful. Pam is engaged to someone else, and while it’s clear from the very first episodes that they are meant for each other, Jim doesn’t force the issue. The same is true when the issue is reversed, and the Jim-Pam-Karen triangle is one of those fictional rarities — a love triangle where no one is in the wrong, precisely, and where the third wheel is also a happy, admirable, funny person. Jim realizes he should be with Pam, breaks things off with Karen, and asks Pam out to dinner. It is humane. It is human.
They have the same sense of humor. When something ridiculous happens, as it so often does, they look to each other for validation and shared intimacy. When they’re apart, and Jim tries to distance himself from Pam in order to get over her, what they miss the most is their friendship. They’re not the same person, and some of the most successful moments of the show’s later seasons are when it lets them explore what it means to grow in tandem. But it’s a relationship built on the same fundamental ideas about how to be decent, how to care about people, and what happiness looks like.
If the Shondaverse is in part responsible for Meredith and Derek’s not entirely successful coupling, it’s right that The Office’s form also feeds into our understanding of Pam and Jim. The mockumentary premise is scarcely credible for much of the series, and you can feel about that however you like. But its structure, and the way it presents Pam and Jim, goes a long way toward making them what they are. Jim looks straight at the camera — at us — when he catches Pam smiling at him drunkenly. The unseen but ever-palpable presence of cameras capturing tiny stolen moments between them makes those scenes feel more stolen, and more intimate. Deliberately bad camera angles, weird framing, and poor lighting all contribute to the feeling that we’re watching something special, something private. We can see the big milestones in their relationship even when everyone else around them cannot.
The presence of cameras filming everything that happens at Dunder-Mifflin is an indicator of display and visibility. These people are sharing their lives with an unseen audience. Supposedly, the documentary is about the whole office — there’s no way for them to know what the story will actually be about when it comes out. As a result, although Pam and Jim are central to the show, they also feel like something special and separate, a relationship often hidden inside the bigger picture. Even after they’re together and the whole office knows about them, they often choose to sneak away from the group. Their most private moments are special extras: They get engaged in the pouring rain at a highway rest stop, their real marriage is a private ceremony on a boat in Niagara Falls, and when they find out Pam is pregnant, the footage is shot through the glass of a hospital door. We can’t even hear the audio.
Pam and Jim hold some things for themselves. There is a space inside their relationship that is just theirs, separate from the dumb lovable hubbub of the bigger cast. And when they come back to the whole group, their happiness and their solidity becomes the backdrop for the office’s silly madness. On Grey’s Anatomy, the love and attachment between Meredith and Derek feels like a threat perpetually hanging over them and the whole hospital. “This is so great,” the show whispers, gesturing at their happiness. “Wouldn’t it be so sad if it went away?” Eventually, that threat comes true. On The Office, Pam and Jim’s slow-burn romance and their later marriage is a foundation for everything else, pulling the show along from one Michael Scott inanity to another, marking the passage of time, instigating change and grounding everyone around them. Their happiness is not a threat — it’s a life preserver.
WINNER: PAM AND JIM