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 quarterfinal round will decide whether Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith and Derek or Friends’ Ross and Rachel 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.
Meredith and Derek began their relationship with a romance-free hookup, and things got less romantic from there: She left his place to rush off to her first day of work at Seattle Grace Hospital, only to find he was one of her new bosses. Meredith and her best friend, Cristina — modern soap heroines who resisted romance at every turn — distanced him with the objectifying nickname “McDreamy.” But Meredith could resist neither his perfect hair nor his charm, and soon they embarked on an epic romance that could make any practical, career-driven woman swoon: a proposal in the hospital elevator, vows sealed via Post-it Note.
Grey’s Anatomy, now starting its 13th season, has grown into staid old age, its quiet is-that-still-on phase. But when it premiered, in March 2005, millions of people went bananas over it. And for good reason. It looked like a doctor show, but it was really a depiction of a postfeminist utopia where the women were all flawed, badass, and driven as hell, and the men were objects of the female gaze. In Meredith, we had a woman who was instantly relatable to young women who were at that confusing stage in life when we knew how to nail our jobs, but still drank too much, made poor decisions, or otherwise felt totally unequipped to deal with the relationship part of adulthood. In Derek, we had an understanding (usually), supportive (for the most part) dreamboat who … wait, isn’t that the guy from Can’t Buy Me Love?
Theirs was the quintessential Grey’s Anatomy relationship — one in which personal and professional passion were barely distinguishable from each other — and it anchored the show for 11 seasons. Cristina had a similar romance with her mentor, Preston Burke, and other pairings throughout the seasons echoed this dynamic. By definition, every coupling was also a match between colleagues, subordinates and superiors, teachers and students, all of them united in their passion for medicine. This allowed them to act out the perfect relationship paradigm for the 2000s: true and equal partnership, fueled by support for each other’s ambitions and respect for each other’s individuality.
Of course, that didn’t stop Derek and Meredith from facing plenty of obstacles. After all, they were pursuing an epic romance on a soapy drama. His infuriatingly cool ex-wife, Addison, showed up to mar their relationship in its fledgling early days. Meredith got all “dark-and-twisty” and relationship-resistant a lot. They fought over clinical trials they worked on together. They each dated other hot people. And that’s not to mention all the hospital-related drama they endured: shootings, plane crashes, near-death experiences, bombs.
But they won! They grew up, got married, had two kids, and till death did they part. When Dempsey left the show in season 11 (a decision creator Shonda Rhimes says was mutual), with Derek dying in a car crash, Rhimes knew death was better than breaking up for these two: Either he had to die, Rhimes said at the 2015 summer TCA press tour, or he was going to “walk out on Meredith and leave her high and dry, and what was that going to mean? That was going to suggest that the love was not true, the thing we had said for 11 years was a lie, and McDreamy wasn’t McDreamy. For me, that was untenable.” Every relationship ends either with a breakup or a death. Death is worse in many ways, but it’s a fictional couple’s ultimate victory.
In this way, Friends’ Ross and Rachel have an uphill battle as a couple from a sitcom — Friends dealt in feelings, sure, but dramatic deaths were not on the Central Perk menu. That said, they’re one of the few sitcom couples who could even try to compete with Mer and Der. Like their doctor counterparts, Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they tension drove much of their show’s plot (while Friends is a comedy, it’s among the soapiest comedies ever). And just as Mer and Der embodied the 2000s as co-workers turned romantic, Ross and Rachel represented relationships in the ’90s: They were friends turned lovers.
Friends premiered in 1994, introducing the sitcom world to a bold new concept: a mixed-gender group of young, single friends. Some of them had sexual feelings for each other; some of them did not. They made it work anyway, always being there for each other when the rain starts to fall, etc. Other boy-girl combinations would later crop up among them — most notably the surprisingly perfect pairing of Chandler and Monica — but Ross and Rachel brought romance to the show, starting with Ross’s first longing look at Rachel in the pilot episode.
Ross and Rachel were the stuff of fantasies: the hopeless high-school crush who sees you in a new light in adulthood, the nice guy who’s been in front of you all along. Both halves were equally alluring, and that — plus the solid writing and acting — sold us on the push and pull of their coupling. It felt like Rachel, as the oblivious longtime object of Ross’s affection, should have the upper hand in the relationship. But Ross managed to even that score by sleeping with copy girl Chloe when he and Rachel were “on a break.” By the time Rachel gave him an 18-page demand that he ’fess up to being wrong, they’d made some pretty funny relationship comedy while also building Ross and Rachel into a believably equal couple … that had now broken up.
Then … oh my God, it was only season five, and Friends was still a huge hit! What to do now? We subsequently endured lots of tedious hookups, makeups, breakups, and other relationships, including Ross’s almost-wedding to Brit Emily (naturally, he wrecked that by saying Rachel’s name during the vows), and Ross and Rachel’s drunken Vegas wedding that was later annulled. Friends producers seemed to be buying time, knowing Ross and Rachel had to end up together at the end of the show but not knowing when that might come. Even when Rachel got pregnant with Ross’s baby, the show sent Joey in as a last-ditch placeholder, claiming a sudden love for Rachel in an obvious bid to buy more time until the series’ end was in sight. Meanwhile, we were placated with the sudden budding romance between Chandler and Monica, which by comparison felt mature, lived-in, and moving as it developed. In short, Ross and Rachel were kept alive with plot devices, while Chandler and Monica were the real deal.
Not unlike Meredith and Derek.
And yet, while both couples were, at times, sustained by plot, we got to see Meredith and Derek overcome their melodrama and grow into a grounded, mature couple facing relatable problems together, from fertility issues to questions about whose career to prioritize. And once you’re past your Friends 20s and you’re into your Grey’s Anatomy 30s and beyond, you come to appreciate the Merediths and Dereks more than the Rosses and Rachels. When you’re young and you imagine your dream relationship, you tend to imagine it like Ross and Rachel’s: Maybe that high-school crush will come back begging to be yours. Maybe that sweet, trustworthy friend will turn out to be dynamite in bed and you’ll see him in a whole new light. Maybe he’ll accidentally say your name during his wedding to someone else. Wouldn’t that be romantic?
Sure, it would make a good TV show. But real-life romance is supporting your dreams, loving you despite your dark-and-twisty tendencies, and being true partners till death do you part.
WINNER: MEREDITH AND DEREK