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 Simpsons’ Homer and Marge or Friday Night Lights’ Tami and Eric 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.
Whoever wins … we lose.
That’s the tagline for the film AVP: Alien Versus Predator, but it feels equally applicable here. Brackets such as this are fun because we can talk about something that ultimately doesn’t matter: the lives of fictional characters. And yet, that’s silly, because of course this matters. Investing in these characters isn’t an escape from reality but rather a definition of it. It’s a way to work through our own thoughts and feelings as presented through someone else’s artistic lens. While it might often seem as if we watch television for plot, we’re really watching for character. Today, we have four of the most indelible characters in modern television, paired off into two of the most memorable marriages ever depicted on the small screen. And one pair must be declared the winner.
Like I said: Whoever wins … we lose.
Eric and Tami Taylor. Homer and Marge Simpson. Put those four faces on a Mt. Rushmore of great TV characters and you wouldn’t get many objections. (Who am I kidding? This is a debate about television. All you’d get would be objections.) They sit so far above most other couples on this bracket that the fact that this isn’t the final round seems wholly unfair. Seeing this pairing made me physically gasp for air: I didn’t know how to possibly resolve this. (Can you tell that I’m stalling? Because I’m totally stalling.)
Okay, enough of that. To break down these two pairings is to break down the type of relationships that Friday Night Lights and The Simpsons seek to portray. There are certain strains that both shows share, but they also differ in key factors. In terms of similarities, both shows depicted marriages that weren’t perfect yet made total sense for the participants. This allowed each program to create constant conflict that could be overcome in the context of a long-gestating relationship. With few exceptions, neither Friday Night Lights nor The Simpsons let tensions boil over to the point of possible separation for these couples. Rather, for both the Taylors and the Simpsons, fights occurred and were contextualized based on the acknowledged differences between two. These relationships are imperfect, but these couples are perfectly paired.
“Imperfection” is often seen as a bad word, but in this case simply denotes reality. Arguing that these two couples are perfect for one another does not in any way suggest they are perfectly happy all the time. The rose-colored glasses through which so many Friday Night Lights fans think about Mr. and Mrs. Coach often omits just how many times the two got on each other’s nerves. Late-era viewers of The Simpsons conversely often wonder just how many unwitting marital crimes Homer can commit before Marge simply leaves him. Indeed, what makes these two couples so perfect is just how much messiness they can withstand for the sake of what they know to be right.
None of this is to say that conflict defines happiness. This isn’t about a masochistic need to emotionally pummel one’s partner in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–esque manner. But conflict is an inevitability, no matter who one’s partner is, and the grace, humility, and patience exhibited in these relationships is what makes them ring true. Had these four always gotten along, I don’t think they would be in consideration for this bracket. That might be what we think we want in our fictional couples, but in fact, we’re usually looking for people who confront real problems in ways we wish ourselves to be capable of handling them.
Yes, no one has seemingly aged during the nearly 30 years that The Simpsons have been on the air. But we’ve watched the Homer-Marge marriage for that long. Yes, it can be frustrating to see Homer make microscopically little progress in terms of his selfishness, oafishness, and general dim-wittedness. And yet, his love for Marge and his family has also been unchanging. Likewise, Marge’s exhaustion over Homer’s behavior is also matched by her instinct that he does have an amazing capacity for selflessness when properly provoked. She knows the man she married, even if her husband only sometimes resembles that original individual. (At some point, she’s inevitably going to go full Elizabeth Schuyler and tell Homer, “The fact that you’re alive is a miracle. Just stay alive, that would be enough.”)
You could argue that Homer should have learned more by this point, or that Marge should have simply left out of sheer self-preservation. And yet, each time the show depicts this possibility, there’s an air of terror that even the “Treehouse of Horror” series could never elicit. Season one’s “Life in the Fast Lane” first teased this possibility, with Marge falling under the spell of a local lothario after Homer forgot her birthday. In season five, “The Last Temptation of Homer” shows his nuclear power plant co-worker Mindy Simmons attempting to break down Homer’s willpower. The Simpsons more than periodically tests the limits of the Simpsons’ marriage, an examination that extended into the 27th season premiere, “Every Man’s Dream.”
The Simpsons is an animated show that nevertheless presents marriage in a more realistic manner than most flesh-and-blood dramas. Asking, “Why doesn’t Marge just leave him?” isn’t the point. Asking, “Why does she stay with him?” is. It’s not about asking the same question in a different way, but a total reframing of the energy and effort that goes into preserving that family. The nature of “reality” on this show makes it difficult to see continuity over the course of 27 (going on 28) seasons, but we as viewers provide the continuity through our persisted viewing of this world. Whether or not the world of The Simpsons resets from episode to episode, our experience with it does not. And that viewer-side continuity is at the heart of what makes television such a profoundly affecting medium: The sheer amount of time we spend with these characters reduces the line between reality and fiction, forging a bond into which we can’t help but pour our own hopes, fears, and desires into. If Homer and Marge can’t make it, what the hell hope is there for the rest of us?
Viewers only had five years to spend with the Taylors in Dillon, Texas. And several of those years were truncated in terms of episodic order. We didn’t get three decades to grow old with Eric and Tami. And yet, because of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, we still felt like we got to live a lifetime with them. Part of that had do two with their talent and almost unnerving chemistry. But a lot of it had to do with the production design of Friday Night Lights, which sought to obliterate any obstacle that stood in the way between viewers and the emotions of the show’s characters. The show was almost obscenely intimate, putting its cameras in places that made one feel as if they were spying on something they shouldn’t. Yet in those previously hidden spaces in a small Texas town were seemingly endless reservoirs of universal experiences.
At the center of it all were the Taylors, who were not only parents to their children but also an entire town, in addition to millions of viewers. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” is the most-cited catchphrase from this show, but its signature mark might be the unspoken dialogue between Eric and Tami. The show did more with less because it knew exactly who these people were, and understood that extraneous exposition only exists in crappy fictional universes. Friday Night Lights could convey pages of dialogue with a simple glance between these two characters. The ways in which Chandler and Britton could convey love, forgiveness, betrayal, or even anger were augmented by the documentary-style cinematography. The camera caught every nuance of every performance, and we rode that roller coaster for five seasons.
If Marge and Homer often talk so loud that the Flanders can hear them next door, Eric and Tami often converse in a whisper so quiet we need to lean in to hear them. The Taylors are often so tired at the end of their respective days that they have little energy to do anything but whisper to one another on the couch. They don’t need to raise their voices to be heard. And when they did fight, the arguments were so prosaic and instantly punctured that they almost never reached the type of melodramatic heights we expect from lesser programs. (Best example? “They had a blanket!” “You’re an idiot.” Game, set, match to Tami Taylor.)
The Taylors were so good at maturely resolving conflict that it came as a shock in the show’s final season when Tami’s job offer from Braemore College threatened to split them apart at the seams. It’s probably not healthy to incur abdominal pain from the possibility of two fictional characters divorcing, and yet that’s what many of us felt as it was occurring. Did it feel like a series-ending device in order to raise the stakes? Sure! But again, the raw intimacy of this world implied that a happy ending for these two wasn’t entirely guaranteed, either.
As progressive as Eric was about many things, he still couldn’t quite let go of his identity as Texas football coach when it came time to support Tami when she needed it most. In the penultimate episode, as the two weigh their respective job options, Tami says, “I’m gonna say to you what you didn’t have the grace to say to me: Congratulations.” It’s one of the most devastating lines of the series, and a true departure from all that had come before it. It calls into very question the foundation upon which their marriage and by extension the entire show was built. Just typing all this out years later makes me queasy.
That one major hurdle aside, the Taylors worked because Friday Night Lights gave us a near Platonic ideal for how we would like our relationships to work. The Simpsons, on the other hand, represented relationships as they more realistically are. That’s what makes this decision ultimately so hard: Do you reward aspiration or reality? I’m not sure there’s a right answer. In fact, I know there’s not. These brackets aren’t ultimately about proving what’s best so much as analyzing different ways in which relationships are depicted. Friday Night Lights and The Simpsons both succeed in what they attempt, even if those attempts are crucially different. Should we punish Eric and Tami for being too idealized? Should we come down on Homer and Marge for playing out the same seemingly destructive loops? Should we reward what we want to be or celebrate our own shortcomings?
I can’t answer for anyone other than myself here. I acknowledge the brilliance of The Simpsons in its depiction of one of the most honest, complex marriages in television history. But no couple has ever moved me more on the small screen than the Taylors. They not only taught an entire town how to be better people, but had enough love and respect for each other to embrace setbacks as opportunities. They are the calm in the wild, the grace in the storm, the people we wish to be on our best days. Simply writing about them evokes emotion. With moistened eyes and overly full heart, I declare them the winner.
WINNER: TAMI AND ERIC