For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding a TV Couple Scuffle to determine the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. Below, we ask: Which is the TV couple you’ve most related to in your life? Who taught you something about the realities of being in a relationship? Which did you most identify with? Which do you see as a model couple, or a cautionary tale?
Kurt and Blaine, Glee
When, in season two, Glee introduced Blaine — the perfect love interest who could perfectly sing Katy Perry (hey, it was 2010) — I’d like to say that I was thrilled, but I remember reacting with near-physical disgust. This had more to do with me than the show. I was in high school, and the-part-in-the-last-Narnia-book-where-they-discover-a-whole-new-Narnia-inside-Narnia deep in the closet. I genuinely couldn’t process Kurt and Blaine’s love story, because, as I had always assumed, gay people don’t get to be in love, especially not in high school. When I got older, Glee, and Kurt and Blaine, were still there. I wish I could put this better — that they inspired me, or that I was moved by their love story — but mostly, I wanted to stop hearing about them. Why do these people get to be happy? Why are they open in a way I’m too terrified to be? (Also, sometimes strangers would confuse me with Chris Colfer, which in no way made things better.) Of course, I kept watching the show, but it wasn’t until few years later, when I started to come to terms with myself, that I fully understood why. Somehow, in the crazy-pants universe of Glee, their love was always sacred (aside from a few late-season shenanigans I’d rather not discuss). To a person who had unconsciously written off the possibility of a healthy relationship with a guy, it made that relationship seem disarmingly possible. Not that I want anyone to sing “Teenage Dream” to me (please don’t), but Kurt and Blaine taught me to want a relationship like theirs — or at least a relationship that I could take as seriously as Glee took theirs. Maybe that was what was so powerful: Glee’s implicit assertion, before gay marriage became widely legal, that any love story could matter as much as any other, even your own. — Jackson McHenry (@McHenryJD)
Tim and Dawn, The Office (U.K.)
What makes a perfect couple? As a teen growing up in the early 2000s, I thought I’d found my answer: two British office workers locked in an unacknowledged romance. The relationship between Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) and Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis) instilled in me the very modern idea that the couple that works best together is the one that laughs together, but there was also something timelessly Austenian in how they flirted — the way their relationship rested on a series of subtle signals, momentously important to the two of them, but unacknowledged by anyone else in the room. (Also, just like in Austen, they were seemingly the only sane people in a world full of fools.) As I agonized through a series of hallway crushes, Tim and Dawn helped convince me that love could bloom between two people who were not actually dating, a dangerously appealing message to give a lonely high-school boy. — Nate Jones (@kn8)
Kevin and Winnie, The Wonder Years
When I was in junior high, I started writing a play solely to attract the attention of a boy I really liked. One of my girlfriends had come up with a scheme, which involved my writing the play, then convincing the boy to co-star in it as my love interest, which would obviously lead to real romance. I actually started to write the dumb thing, stealing banter for the lead couple straight from episodes of Moonlighting. I never finished it because the romance started to develop without needing to con this poor boy into memorizing lines. Once it did, I learned that most relationships, or at least ours, were not Maddie and David rip-offs. A show like The Wonder Years actually got it more right. I wouldn’t understand this until a couple of years later, when I was in high school and The Wonder Years arrived on the air, introducing audiences to the innocent love between Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper and reminding me, on a frequent basis, of my first boyfriend. His name also was Kevin. I wouldn’t say he was a Fred Savage look-alike, but if he had competed in a Fred Savage look-alike contest back then, there’s a real chance he would have gotten an honorable mention. Just like Winnie and Kevin, we started dating when we were in the eighth grade. The show mirrored a lot of other things about our relationship and young love in general, like the use of friends as romantic intermediaries and the way abject terror can thwart plans for a first kiss. The fact that The Wonder Years treated the Kevin/Winnie relationship as something genuinely meaningful and special captured the way first love also felt for me.
Kevin and I went to different high schools, but remained good friends. (For the record, we’re each happily married and are still good friends.) At the end of our senior year of high school, in my yearbook, he wrote, “You are a part of me and I take a part of you with me wherever I go.” Almost a year later, the Wonder Years episode “Accident,” in which Kevin and Winnie are still dealing with the aftermath of their breakup, was broadcast on ABC. At the end of that episode, via voice-over narration, Kevin Arnold says: “Winnie Cooper was part of me, and I was part of her. And no matter what, for as long as we lived, I knew I could never let her go.” The context for Kevin Arnold’s words was totally different (also: fictional), and the words weren’t quite the same as the ones in my yearbook. But, damn: They were pretty close. — Jen Chaney (@chaneyj)
Harriette and Carl, Family Matters
My house was a TV house growing up. Not in the Cable Guy sense that TV raised me, but it was always on, and it was something my family gathered around. Movies were for the weekends, but Friday nights were reserved for pizza and TGIF, with its early 1990s dream lineup of Family Matters, Boy Meets World, Step by Step, and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper. We loved Married With Children in my house, too, but I knew that Al and Peggy Bundy’s dynamic wasn’t quite one to build a future around, even if it did bear a strong resemblance to what I knew at home. Of all those households, the Winslows of Family Matters were my favorite. I considered Harriette and Carl to be model parents with a partnership I could aspire to, but not because they were perfect. They were flawed. They were working class. I wanted to be the mom with the always-open door who took in the awkward neighbor boy. I wanted the excessively normal partner that would love our boring and simple life just because we shared it together, and who, most of all, would shamelessly dance with me in the living room when one of those hip songs started playing on the music-TV channel. If I could have been Laura Winslow and grown up into her parents, that would have been just fine by me. — Jordan Crucchiola (@jorcru)
Emily and Bob, The Bob Newhart Show
I’m a little older than most of the Vulture team, and that means that the TV couples I grew up with had traditional marriages. I remember very few shows in which the wife had a job. Nearly every wife on TV served her husband dinner, and sometimes burned the roast, and squabbled with him if he’d come home late. Most of them lived in houses in the suburbs. But there was one exception: Bob and Emily Hartley, played by Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette on The Bob Newhart Show. They were an urban couple, living in a high-rise postwar slab of an apartment building in Chicago. They were childless (not by choice). Now, they did not have what we, in 2016, would see as an equal marriage. The opening credits showed Bob shlepping home from the Loop every day, on the El, where Emily met him at the door with a smooch and perhaps a raised eyebrow. Emily made and served breakfast and dinner while Bob sat at the table and read the paper, never mind that she too had a job. But the vital difference was their back-and-forth. They didn’t often keep things from each other; they spoke as equals; she was sassy and funny, and they teased each other lightly, not in that lacerating sitcom way.
They also, notably, lived like adults. Emily, in particular, dresses for the big-city world every day, and looks smashing and tailored when she heads to work. The pajamas Bob wears at night look ironed; the house has copper pots hanging on the kitchen wall that have been scoured, and low-slung Danish Modern leather chairs I would happily have in my apartment right now. The Hartleys’ apartment building, as seen in the opening credits, is a real building, and a two-bedroom apartment there just sold for $243,000. It’s achievable comfort. To be clear, I do not live Bob Hartley’s life. My wife is at least as professionally accomplished as I am, probably more so; we have a kid; I left dirty dishes in the sink when I left the house this morning, and pajama-ironing is not something we expect or achieve. But when I leave the office tonight, I’ll take the train home to a postwar slab apartment building, and my wife is likely to be waiting with a smooch and the occasional raised eyebrow. If you have a lead on any of those Danish chairs, let me know. — Christopher Bonanos (@heybonanos)
Monica and Chandler, Friends
I’ve always been a proponent of being friends before lovers, if for nothing else, out of convenience. I love my friends — how nice would it be to fall in love with one of them? Monica and Chandler’s sweet romance always appealed to me for this reason, but it wasn’t until I met my own friend-turned-boyfriend that I related to the sitcom beats of their story. You see, I was friends with my boyfriend — the Chandler of my friend group — for three years, and roommates with him for another year before one night, suffice it to say, things changed. Like the early days Monica and Chandler, being together had its social complications: His brother was in a serious relationship with my best friend, and we were part of the same tight-knit group of 20-something friends in New York. The course of a friends-turned-benefits relationship never did run smooth. What dogged us most throughout those first six months was the dance we had to do to hide it from our friends, and third roommate, until we sorted out if we actually meant anything to each other. In truth, this is a more awkward, confusing period than Monica and Chandler could convey on a network sitcom: The stakes can feel incredibly high when you risk losing a close friend for the chance of something more. But it’s a time I remember only with fondness, where our friends finding out about us felt as huge as Joey, Phoebe, Rachel, and, finally, Ross, discovering that Monica and Chandler were a thing. As the Friends crew taught me, if your friends are happy you’re together, you’re probably doing it right. — Gazelle Emami (@gazellephant)
Karen and Jim, The Office (U.S.)
It’s fair to say one is still growing up in one’s college years. I certainly had no idea how to be a caring and mature human in my university days, and in that era, one fictional relationship resonated with me as a tale of what not to do in a relationship: the brief pairing of Jim Halpert and Karen Filippelli in the immaculate third season of The Office. Never have I seen a more vivid and cringe-inducing portrayal of everything that makes straight men like me terrible. Sure, Jim is attracted to Karen — I mean, Jesus, she’s Rashida Jones — but he makes a grave error by getting into a Serious Thing with her. It’s been, what, a few months since his epochal kiss with Pam? He’s in no way over her and, deep in denial, he starts dating the wonderful Karen in a narcissistic attempt to use her as an antidote to his star-crossed love. But at the same time, he pushes Karen away and gaslights her about the dangers of getting too attached. When she’s weighing her options for a new apartment, he tells her to avoid getting one in his neighborhood because it would move things too quickly for him. And Christ almighty, he’s such a dick when he dumps her: He just straight-up abandons her in another city so he can run back to Scranton for a date with Pam. The whole story line is a vicious example of the way all too many dudes treat women like romantic tools and not humans with their own narratives and internal universes. Screw you, Jim, and screw me for ever acting like you. — Abraham Riesman (@abrahamjoseph)
Leslie and Ben, Parks and Recreation
“TV couple you related to most” is a tough question, because it forces you to look directly at yourself and ask exactly how much of your admiration is actual relating, and how much of it is envious aspiration. I have been in a happy relationship with my husband for so long that if we’re measuring “relate to” in terms of resemblance, I’d probably have to shuffle my feet and mumble something about Cory and Topanga. So instead, I’ll lean more on the aspirational side — there is something so gorgeous and human and appealing about Leslie and Ben from Parks and Recreation. Their shared values get split across diverging ambitions, and they deal with it. Their overlapping interests are shaped like a Venn diagram, not a perfect circle, and they respect that as well. They are friends. They respect each other’s happiness as individuals as well as in partnership. They love each other and they like each other. It is the kind of relationship that makes you appreciate the entire institution of coupledom. — Kathryn VanArendonk (@kvanaren)
Ryan and Marissa, The O.C.
Everything I know about relationships, I learned from watching Ryan and Marissa on The O.C. While they certainly had their fair share of ups and downs, what with Marissa shooting Trey, Ryan moving back to Chino for Theresa, the whole Oliver fiasco, they really seemed to love each other, through all of the drama and brooding and Marissa’s scary ex-boyfriends. But Ryan and Marissa’s relationship also taught me invaluable lessons about love, loss, and early-2000s indie rock. For example, if I ask someone who they are, and they respond, “Whoever you want me to be,” I know that I should run far away, unless I want to end up in a shoot-out while Imogen Heap plays in the background. Of course, Seth and Summer made a great couple, but you still rooted for Ryan and Marissa against all odds. They never had much to say to each other, but that’s what made them great, because sometimes actions, and forlorn glances into the distance, speak louder than words. — Julia Edelman (@_juliaedelman)