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 The Office’s Pam and Jim or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Tara and Willow 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.
For those whose early understanding of love was built on watching 1990s TV Will They, Won’t They romances, actual adult relationships might prove complicated. Thanks to the supposed Moonlighting curse, which had producers superstitious about the idea that once a couple got together, everything was over, countless love stories have been complicated with ridiculous soap opera twists — all to avoid dealing with the fact that love stories don’t end with the first kiss.
Both of the relationships in consideration here are proof that great TV can be created in the aftermath of love’s first bloom, when the true tests of romance take place.
Willow and Tara weren’t exactly a Will They, Won’t They couple — it was more that, at the very beginning, it wasn’t quite clear what was going on. By using Willow and Tara’s magical bond as a smokescreen for the actual romance in action, less-savvy viewers might not have even realized that Willow (who previously had only expressed interest in men, except for that weird season-three encounter with her vampire double) was falling in love with a woman.
Willow and Tara first sparked to each other during a word-free encounter in season four’s “Hush,” and their first serious “spellcasting session” occurs six episodes later in “Who Are You?” Subtext only becomes explicit text in episode 19, “New Moon Rising” — it takes a confrontation with Willow’s ex-boyfriend, Oz (Seth Green), for Willow not only to tell Buffy about her new relationship, but also to say the L-word to Tara.
While the WB’s standards and practices department kept Willow and Tara’s on-screen relationship technically chaste through season five (though, creator Joss Whedon and his writers never stopped slipping in sexy asides), their blossoming love benefited from the fact that they were never the show’s central relationship. Buffy’s personal romantic drama nearly always took center stage, but Willow and Tara were allowed to grow into a relatively happy and stable couple, staying loyal and true until early season six, making their relationship remarkably groundbreaking for the LGBT community.
They remained a reliable constant for the show until serious issues tore them apart, magic once again serving as a metaphor. But what breaks them up is more complicated than a simple “magic equals drug addiction” analog. It’s not just that Willow, after resurrecting Buffy from the dead in the season-six premiere, gets a little too into dark magic. It’s that when Tara calls out Willow for being hooked on the bad stuff, Willow uses a spell to wipe Tara’s memory of their fights. Willow’s addiction doesn’t break them up — an abuse of trust, that the show made clear was relatively unforgivable, does. We talk a lot about how toxic and destructive Spike and Buffy were for each other in season six, but Willow literally violates Tara’s mind. In multiple episodes. It was disturbing then, and in retrospect, with 2016 attitudes toward consent, it’s even more so.
Unfortunately, when they do reunite, it’s a rushed reconciliation. At the end of episode 17, “Entropy,” Tara literally gives a big speech about how rebuilding the trust and love between them will take time, buttoned with, “It’s a long and important process, and can we just skip it? Can you just be kissing me now?” The only thing more unfortunate than the show choosing to leap past the massive issues underlying their breakup is the fact that they’re back together for exactly one more episode … before Tara catches a stray bullet meant for Buffy. (Buffy was a pioneering show in many respects, but unfortunately one of the things it pioneered was the lesbian-death trope.)
Across the country, in a humble Scranton, Pennsylvania, office building, Jim and Pam weren’t bothering with metaphors. From the very beginning, their dynamic was clear — a classic Will They, Won’t They, complicated by the massive obstacle of Pam already being in a relationship. We got to know their playful dynamic in the first season, fell in love with their clearly sincere affection during the second, and pretty much passed out dead during the season-two finale, when Jim not only declared his love for Pam, but attempted to seal the deal with a kiss.
Season three proved that one stolen kiss doesn’t actually change everything — especially when the girl rejects the guy and he flees to Connecticut and starts hooking up with Rashida Jones. This made the season-four premiere, when Jim and Pam are together at last, feel truly earned. After a year of sorting out all the clichés that come with the Will They Won’t They trope, the receptionist and salesman were able to fully embrace their extraordinarily ordinary love. From love to engagement to (unplanned but welcome) pregnancy to marriage, it was the sort of great love story you don’t normally see on TV, but rather in your Facebook news feed, with this added bonus: You also got to see all the drama your friends don’t choose to share.
And once Jim and Pam got together, the major drama they faced wasn’t caused by any wavering in their affection. Instead, from the beginning of season four to the very end of the series, their biggest obstacles could all be tracked back to one central question: Even if you wind up with the man or woman of your dreams, is that enough to make you truly happy? Exploring that question even a little bit is something the best fairy tales and love stories never accomplish. From nearly the very beginning of their official relationship on The Office, Jim and Pam found themselves happily in love, but also not necessarily happy with their lives. What made them so relatable was that their search for balance ultimately required tears, compromise, and sacrifice.
Pam and Jim were also the narrative engine that kept The Office compelling in its later years. The ninth season had its flaws, especially when it came to many of the new characters, who were introduced too late to have much nuance. But the one strong point continued to be the drama unfolding between Jim and Pam, as Jim finally created for himself a job he could be passionate about — a job that took him away from Scranton, and Pam, and nearly tore them apart. Like Willow and Tara, that rift was in part healed by some bold declarations and a romantic gesture. But Jim and Pam’s journey also took a great deal of time, conversation, and grown-up decisions.
For so much of their time together, Willow and Tara made for a beautiful story. But one of the things The Office did remarkably well was make relationships seem authentic and lived-in, in part thanks to years of screen time and its mockumentary format. Jim and Pam’s love story did something quite unusual for television: It lingers in the memory as something true.
WINNER: JIM AND PAM