For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding our 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. We begin with a play-in round to decide which Friends couple will make it into the bracket. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show you think should advance.
On the one hand, you have Monica and Chandler.
In the battle to determine the ultimate TV couple, we must first dispense with the undercard battle to determine the ultimate TV couple on Friends. At first glance, it’s not a fair fight: I mean, Monica and Chandler were cute and all, but Ross and Rachel are Ross and Rachel. Their ten-season, will-they-or-won’t-they-or-can-they-or-did-they romantic pas de deux was the magnetic core around which the rest of the series revolved. The phrase “Ross and Rachel” is now shorthand for perpetually thwarted TV couples everywhere, having long ago surpassed “David and Maddie*” and rivaled only perhaps by “Sam and Diane.” (We’ll get to them later in the tournament.) “Monica and Chandler,” meanwhile, is shorthand for “the other couple on Friends.”
And yet, there were, improbably, two core couples on Friends and Monica and Chandler are arguably the more improbable. The one you prefer probably says as much about you as it does about the couples portrayed. It also depends on your criteria for “best TV couple”: Do we mean “best TV couple as series-extending plot device?” Or “best TV couple as realistic and inspiring portrayal of how actual couples might actually couple”?
Because, by the latter criteria, Monica and Chandler stand a chance. Unlike Ross and Rachel, they did not get together, then take a break, then get back together, then break up again, then marry the wrong person, then get divorced, then accidentally marry each other in Vegas, then get divorced again, then accidentally have a kid together, then vow to separate, then finally get together in an airport. Monica and Chandler fell into bed after a wedding — so that’s one point for realism. They were longtime friends who over time discovered a mutual romantic attraction — that’s point No. 2. And instead of dealing with fake-TV-couple dilemmas like a barely dispatched alternate fiancée whose names you misremember at the altar, Monica and Chandler dealt with real-life-couple dilemmas, like initially hiding their coupledom from their friends and not talking about the fact that one of their weights was yo-yoing dramatically in an unnerving way. Monica and Chandler dealt with fear of commitment. They dealt with insecurity. Neither of them ever owned, let alone lived with, a pet monkey. In other words, though they were often lost in the long shadow cast by Ross and Rachel, they just as often shone as the more nuanced — and more inspiring — portrait of how two compatible people fall in love.
And as high as the degree of difficulty is for teasing out a will-they-or-won’t-they romance like Ross and Rachel for ten freaking seasons, Monica and Chandler’s relationship also represents an admirably deft bit of writing. On any hit show that involves a coed group of friends, there’s going to be, by necessity, a bit of mixing and matching. You know, romantic spaghetti being flung against the plausibility wall. (Hell, Monica even hooked up with Jean-Claude Van Damme in season two.) On Friends, this roundelay was made even tougher by virtue of the fact that two of the six characters were more or less permanently spoken for — the show couldn’t realistically pair off Ross or Rachel with any of the other friends without undermining the sanctity of their ongoing attraction. Which is why the brief and regrettable story line about Joey and Rachel felt so flat. So the fact that the show’s writers were able to not only unite Monica and Chandler — the neat freak and the comic relief — in a believable and sympathetic and even emotionally engrossing way, then manage to keep them together as a couple right through their marriage in season seven (!) to their adoption of twins in the series final season (!!), is a remarkable feat that should not be underestimated or overlooked. Imagine if, on Cheers, while Sam was busy circling Diane (and later Rebecca), the show had also plausibly brought together Carla and Cliff in a way that made you care about them both.
Which is why, if you poke around the internet, especially within the musings of the newer fans of the resurgently popular Friends, you’ll find nearly as many tributes to Monica and Chandler as you will to Rachel and Ross. At the time the show was airing in the ‘90s, of course, viewers were wrapped up in the ongoing fate of Ross and Rachel, which had been teased from the series’ very first episode, when Ross kind of, sort of asked Rachel on a theoretical date. Monica and Chandler, by contrast, just appeared all of a sudden — literally, from under a sheet, in her case. A series producer once described the studio audience’s reaction to the reveal of their relationship as a combination “laugh/gasp/cry/shriek.”
But, inevitably, we come to the other hand, and on the other hand, we have Ross and Rachel.
They are clearly the winners of this battle. They’re Ross and Rachel, for crying out loud. Whether you started to find Ross sort of irritating by the series end (or the series middle), or got wrung out by all their implausible complications (a single last-minute fraught-good-bye-at-the-airport scene for any couple is pushing it, and Ross and Rachel debatably had four), you can’t deny that their relationship was the soul of the show. Early on in Friends’ first season, NBC executives started to realize what exactly they had on their hands: a really funny soap opera. Unlike Seinfeld, this was a show where viewers were invited to both laugh and care. This combination has remained seductive for 25 years to at least three generations of fans. The reason you watch any one episode of Friends to the end is for all the punch lines. But the reason you watch — or rewatch, or rewatch again — the entire series to the end is to find out, or relive, or relive again, what happens to Ross and Rachel.
WINNER: ROSS AND RACHEL
*This article originally misidentified Maddie. We regret the error.