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 semifinal round will decide whether Friday Night Light’s Eric and Tami or The Americans’ Philip and Elizabeth 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.
From the moment we kicked off this TV couple scuffle, some readers were already calling the game in favor of Eric and Tami Taylor. Who could be a better example of what love is supposed to look like than this gloriously perfect couple, who may have disagreed about matters small (hosting barbecues) and large (whether or not to move to Philadelphia), but always treated each other with the utmost respect while still keeping their sexual pilot lights lit? I fully understand why some Vulture readers took one look at our round of 16 and immediately concluded that the pair with the clearest eyes and fullest hearts would and should emerge victorious.
At the same time, when it comes to TV couple contests, I’m a firm believer in democracy. As this presidential election cycle has, um, not at all taught us, it’s important to consider all sides of an issue before ultimately making a call. Which brings us to this semi-final matchup between the remaining married couples in our bracket: the aforementioned Taylors of Friday Night Lights and Elizabeth and Philip Jennings of The Americans. It’s a choice between the central relationships on two of the best TV dramas of the past decade — between a marriage with few secrets and one that remarkably survives in spite of them, between two wonderfully subtle acting duos, and between a couple of bone-deep Americans raising kids and two undercover KGB agents doing the same thing. Sure, this decision could be framed in a political context: You’re either with the red, white, and blue marriage, or you’re against it, and therefore a Commie. But like politics and most relationships, this situation is not that simple. I mean, Eric Taylor may be the true Texan here, but Philip Jennings can throw on a pair of cowboy boots and two-step to Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” in a way that suggests there may be a “Texas forever” hiding not too far from the tip of that man’s tongue.
Both the Taylors and the Jennings face the same relationship and family issues as any other couple you might find in Falls Church, Virginia, Dillon, Texas, or anywhere else in the world. They’re both trying to raise two kids, including strong-willed teenage daughters who suck up most of their parental energy. (Gracie Belle Taylor and Henry Jennings, there will be a place for you someday in TV’s Neglected Second Child Hall of Fame.) Jealousy and the specter of infidelity creep into both marriages, though that’s certainly more of an ongoing problem for Elizabeth and Philip, whose spy seductions make life far more slippery in this regard. Just like Eric and Tami, who work at the same high school for most of Friday Night Lights’ run, Elizabeth and Philip are colleagues, which means the line between their personal and professional lives often gets blurred, if not fully erased. For Eric and Tami, this leads to disagreements about Jumbotrons. For Elizabeth and Philip, it means arguments about whether or not to bump off Pastor Tim. So, you know: same?
What makes Elizabeth and Philip — and The Americans in general — more complicated and out of the ordinary is the fact that these two must tackle all the usual spousal challenges while making sure they never blow their covers or place their children in jeopardy. Tami and Eric might lose their tempers while talking to an eye-rolling Julie about her freshly acquired tattoo or whether or not she’s having sex with Matt Saracen, but Elizabeth and Philip? They freak out when Paige lets it slip that her parents are secretly working for the Russians, or when it seems like Paige is getting a little too close to the FBI agent’s son. Tami and Eric are just good people trying to get through each day. Elizabeth and Philip are morally conflicted people trying to get through each day alive.
“What happened was your dad happened,” Tami tells Julie in “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” the season-three episode in which Julie gets that aforementioned tattoo without permission. “I mean your dad, you know: He had struggles of his own, too. But we were lucky. We just always had each other.” The same words could easily be spoken by Elizabeth about Philip, or vice versa. These young Russkies were not in love when they met. Their relationship was built backwards, thrown together via a purposeful sham marriage, that, well over a decade in, finally gets infused with feeling.
As the possibility that their identities may be revealed has loomed larger and larger, we’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth increasingly become each other’s rocks. They obviously have major philosophical differences. Elizabeth, all these years later, feels a much stronger bond to her homeland than the more Americanized Philip does. Her blood also runs more cold and ruthless than his. Still, just as Tami and Eric saved one another by falling in love young, these two have regularly saved each other’s lives — sometimes quite literally — after starting to love later. Mr. and Mrs. Jennings may never have uttered public promises to have and hold each other in sickness and in health. But they keep that vow with a greater sense of urgency than most couples experience in a lifetime.
Here’s the thing about Philip and Elizabeth, though: Because their marriage was built on a falsehood, because they have so many alter egos and strategically selected side pieces, and because there is so much on which they continue to disagree, you’re never 100 percent confident the two of them are going to make it in the long run. Seriously: They can’t even get through through the first season without separating. While they’ve managed to remain a couple since then, the pressures they face continue seeping into the relationship in ways that can’t be shoved aside … or shoved grossly into a suitcase.
If Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage is mired in a sense of danger, Eric and Tami’s is all about dependability. The relationship between the Taylors is built out of bricks and glazed in several coats of concrete. It cannot be ruptured by anything. Not Mo McArnold, Tami’s slick cowboy ex-boyfriend (played by Peter Berg) who pops up in Dillon, then gets popped in the face by Eric. Not Glenn, the co-worker who puts extremely awkward moves on Tami. Not an unexpected second baby, not Eric’s temporary move to Austin, not even Eric’s stubborn initial refusal to move to Philadelphia. I mean, you knew that last one wasn’t going to break them up in the last two episodes of the whole damn series, but still.
Friday Night Lights is supposed to be a show about a football team. But the team at its core, the one that really can’t lose, is always Eric and Tami.
Because it aired on NBC — and, according to Connie Britton, because an initial sex scene didn’t go as well as hoped — we never see Eric and Tami get busy with the same intimacy and passion that often characterizes the trysts between basic-cable lovers Elizabeth and Philip. And yet, as undeniable as the chemistry is between Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, Eric and Tami have the sexier relationship, don’t they? With just a passing glance, Britton and Kyle Chandler can convey warmth, flirtatiousness, and a sense of how deeply these two know each other, in a way that is — to borrow the words Tim Riggins once used to describe Jesus during a prank call to Lila’s Christian radio show — “so hot.” When they go through a brief dry spell after the birth of Gracie Belle, the way Eric tries to court his wife back toward the bedroom is sexy, and also a little goofy. But mostly sexy. Better yet, in the season-one finale, when Tami tells Eric she’s pregnant, the way they hold each other’s stare and fall into each other’s embrace: my God. The way Eric looks at her in that scene, as they stand on that hotel balcony in Austin, could easily melt all the butter in all the dairy departments in all the grocery stores between the Texas state capital and Dillon.
What gives Tami and Eric an edge in this battle is their place in contemporary TV history. Elizabeth and Philip are at a slight disadvantage because The Americans is still unfolding. In some ways, they stand out as a symbol of television’s refusal to be pigeonholed right now. They’re the TV couple representation of what it looks when an antihero prestige drama and a plot-driven network thriller have a baby. Their legacy is still being written, though. Tami and Eric, on the other hand, are both timeless and exactly what we needed during Friday Night Lights’ five-year run from 2006 to 2011, when some of the most talked-about married couples on television — Tony and Carmela of The Sopranos, Don and Betty of Mad Men, Walt and Skyler of Breaking Bad — were of the high-stress, often volatile variety. By contrast, the Taylors, even at their worst, were more extraordinarily caring toward each other than most people we saw on TV or, for that matter, the people we were ourselves.
The knock on the Taylors is that they are too perfect, too aspirational. But even though what their daughter Julie says to them in the series finale reflects how many fans feel about them — “you’re my inspiration” — I also don’t think the notion of them as idealized marital comfort food quite does them justice. By virtue of Friday Night Lights’ documentary-style filmmaking approach and fly-on-the-kitchen-counter camera work, their marriage may be enviable, but it also always feels real, complete with rushed conversations over breakfast, advances rejected due to breastfeeding (“I gotta go pump and dump. I love you. Don’t touch me,” Tami says to Eric during that aforementioned post-Gracie sex drought), and long-simmering resentments that spill over when one partner back burners her needs for too long.
Those are the moments when we recognize ourselves. When Eric and Tami eventually work through those snags and come out stronger on the other side, they make it seem like that kind of strength is attainable, with luck and work and a willingness to compromise. Watching a marriage with those qualities unfold in the specific way that Friday Night Lights enabled it to felt different from everything else on TV at the time, and thoroughly refreshing. It still does.
Most people have heard this often-cited passage from Corinthians, if not at a church service than perhaps at a wedding: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
That section of the New Testament was not written about Eric and Tami Taylor. (I mean, probably.) But doesn’t that sound exactly like the kind of love they have? Isn’t that the kind of love that rarely shows up on TV in an authentic, meaningful way? Coach and Mrs. Coach, man. They always persevere. Always.
WINNER: ERIC AND TAMI