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 Friends’ Ross and Rachel or Cheers’ Sam and Diane 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.
I’m going to get it over with and tell you my choice upfront because: (a) You are probably like me and scroll to the bottom of these anyway and only read them if they align with your worldview, and (b) I have a lot of explaining to do. So I’ll tell you now, I choose Ross and Rachel, and wait, don’t shut this tab yet, I said wait, please, because, I know. I know. I know! I know. I agree with you. I am beneath contempt for this. But it’s the right choice for a thousand reasons. Here are some of them.
Conventional wisdom (and many, many TV critics) will tell you that Cheers was a better show. It was funnier, darker, a little nihilistic, and willing to sacrifice any character or note of logic for a laugh. Friends was designed to please a wider kind of crowd: Part comedy and part soap opera, its relationships were as important to its success as its humor. Put it this way: Cheers was a place where everyone knew your name and made fun of it; Central Perk was the place where, with each rigidly categorized character embroiled in his or her own romantic-comedy plot, everyone knew your name but instead talked about their own problems ad infinitum.
What people forget is that Friends was very funny, too. It’s become important to be embarrassed by how much we loved Friends, but honestly, it was the anchor of Thursday-night TV — it was (and here I’ll duck) the thing that allowed Seinfeld to enjoy its success as much as it did, which is why they remained companion pieces in syndication for as long as they did. Man cannot live on nihilism alone. We all want characters who will fall in love.
But this is about couples, not about shows, so let’s get to it:
There are two ways to examine which is the better couple — how we felt as we watched them from our couches, or what it would be like to have known them. Since this is a TV tournament, let’s step inside our domed monitors and ask ourselves: Which of these couples would have been the better couple to actually know?
Sam was a standard-issue bro who, had we been permitted to watch him grow to middle age, would have more in common with a Kevin James character making “take my wife” jokes than anyone else. Diane is the person you know writing New York Review of Books stories about how chick lit is leading to the erosion of humanity and how owning a TV is the death of the novel. Rachel is your friend who takes too many selfies and uses emoji and LOL sincerely. Ross is the guy you set your friends up with after their first divorce. He was at least an intellectual, but, as such, he was whiny like an intellectual. (Diane was a pseudo-intellectual with aspirational tastes — proof of this is that she loved opera in a way that people don’t actually love opera — and therefore even more intolerable.)
I would submit that you would not enjoy a dinner party with any one of the four people here, so please leave aside any notion that these people were likable and not tedious. Now that we’ve accepted them in their tedium, let us decide which pair had a better chance of surviving.
Sam and Diane were compelling as a couple at first because of their unresolved sexual tension. We were a sophisticated audience by the 1980s. We knew that two such opposing characters had to be headed for bed. We called it a “will they or won’t they” dynamic, until we realized that of course they will, it was just a matter of when. When Sam and Diane were finally together, they became the couple friends we all know who are hate-fuckers. Hate-fuckers are good for a one-liner, but they tend to suck all the joy out of the room as we debate if their insults and bickering and overall disdain for each other is something enjoyable to be around. It is not.
Friends, which began its run a year after Cheers ended, was an even more sophisticated show in that it acknowledged something far closer to the banality of reality: that we end up with people who are more or less like us, socio-economically, personality-wise, all of it. My husband is far funnier than I am; I am far more gregarious than he is. These are our major differences. But other than that, we might as well be the same person. The tension between Ross and Rachel was a sweet one: that he was in love with her and always had been; that she’d been clueless and always had been; that one day she would look up and see him there and everything would be okay. They did. It was. Ross and Rachel fought over real-world couple issues. They made mistakes. They lied to each other. They seethed with jealousy. They did everything we all do (we all do this, yes?) before finally hanging it up and realizing that they belonged together. They became the couple whose house you have Thanksgiving at.
Let’s take a look at each couple’s Sitcom Moment of Realization That You Are the One. Both happened relatively close to the beginning of the show (end of season one for Sam and Diane; seven episodes into season two for Ross and Rachel), both happened with a kiss in the final moments of the episode. Before Sam and Diane kiss, they negotiate terms of the kiss (which is funny!) as Diane admits that she doesn’t really want to be with Sam’s brother, and Sam doesn’t really want to be with the 42 unseen women with whom he copulates nightly. This negotiation angers Sam so much that he threatens Diane with no fewer than seven egregious misdemeanor acts of violence.
The same moment on Friends took place in an episode with the usual levels of high jinks. Monica decides to be Chandler’s personal trainer. Phoebe wants to get laid. Joey is dumb and hypermasculine. And Ross is getting a new cat with his new girlfriend, Julie. This last one sends Rachel into paroxysms of jealousy, and so she gets drunk on a blind date and leaves Ross a message from a borrowed giant cell phone saying she is over him. The next day, he checks his messages right in front of her and says in vintage pathetic whiner voice, “When were you under me?” The deal is sealed, though it’s another scene before it happens. There’s an argument — how could you mess up my new relationship, he wants to know, for he does not yet know that Rachel will only ever want him when other women find him attractive — and then there is a kiss. They will date, they will break up 1,000,000 times, and ultimately, they will be together. Sincerity tends to take a huge hit in comedy, but the truth is, it was nice to watch two people fall in love, work it out, have an accidental pregnancy, and work that out, too. It was nice to know we could laugh — because Friends was funny! It was! — and still have a complete emotional experience.
Proving my point: Once Diane left Sam to be with her more appropriate suitor, Fraser Crane, Sam would go on to have the same relationship with Rebecca: hatred, banter, insults, oh my god it was you all along. I would submit that only the girls with the lowest self-esteem end up with their insulters-in-chief, and only a show written from the sole point of view of a man would allow that any great woman would still want a man who had lurched the kinds of insults that Sam had onto Diane.
I turned 40 last year. This year, four of my couple friends announced their divorces. In every case, I’d seen it coming for years. In every case, it was the Sam and Dianes who couldn’t make it. The Rosses and Rachels stayed together. They moved to the suburbs and became the exact opposite of what would be interesting to watch on TV. If you have any luck, the same will happen to you.
WINNER: ROSS AND RACHEL