In a double dose of weak sauce, Entertainment Weekly’s writers recently chose “Friends’ ” Ross and Rachel as the greatest TV couple of all time, and readers responded by choosing some random couple from “Glee” (which, research reveals, is actually still on the air). Over at his blog, my buddy Seth Stringer upped the standards by selecting Jim and Pam, from the American version of “The Office.” (Check out his full list here.)
Seth tended toward smart, mature adult couples, but my list leans toward the kind of pain-wracked, gut-wrenching, broken relationships (or not-quite-relationships) that make one want to listen to a mix tape highlighted by Weird Al Yankovic’s “One More Minute” and rounded out by the saddest selections from the Drive-By Truckers’ catalogue and the “Garden State” soundtrack. Yeah, I like me some serious first-love/first-heartbreak yarns, the kind of pain that makes you realize you’re alive. But not ALL of my selections will be in that vein; I went for at least a little variety …
1. Buffy and Angel (“Buffy,” 1997-2003, and “Angel,” 1999-2004) — … However, the variety is coming later down the list. The beautiful heartache here comes from the great performances (particularly Sarah Michelle Gellar’s) and the awful timing. Just as she’s starting to dig Angel, Buffy learns he’s a vampire. After they have sex, he loses his soul. So she resigns herself to killing him, and he regains his soul after she’s already committed to the task (I am stunned that Sarah McLachlan’s “Full of Grace” was not written specifically for that sequence). Then on the spinoff series, to give Angel a share of the hurt, he becomes human and they share a perfect day together — then he returns his gift of humanity but retains the dream of a future he can never have. (By the way, I like Spike as a character, but is Buffy-Spike a legitimate relationship? She uses him the whole time, and the closest she comes to loving him is apologizing for treating him like crap for three seasons.)
2. Dawson and Joey (“Dawson’s Creek,” 1998-2003) — I listed all of the seasons here, but the only one that matters is Season 1, the perfect encapsulation of awkward and strong feelings between childhood buds who happen to be of opposite genders. It’s bolstered by the hearts-on-their-sleeves dialogue from Kevin Williamson and the timelessly beautiful backdrops of Wilmington, N.C. For pretty much half the season, Dawson tries to tell Joey he loves her, but he can’t. And for at least one episode (“Detention,” with its truth-or-dare session), Joey’s in the same boat. The awkwardness is compounded because they stupidly turn to each other to clarify matters, instead creating more layers of confusion and hurt. There are some things I like about the later seasons (including Pacey-Andie, of course), but if “Dawson’s Creek” had ended after that first-season finale, I might rank it as my all-time No. 1 show.
3. Max and Liz (“Roswell,” 1999-2002) — So often, showrunners think the key to a compelling relationship is to keep characters apart. “Roswell” takes the opposite tack: For pretty much the entire series, Max and Liz are unambiguously in love with each other, like Romeo and Juliet, except with “star-crossed” given literal meaning. There’s rarely anything as artificial as “the other woman” or “the other man” to keep them apart (although the show flirts with those notions). Instead, the forces working against their happiness are out of this world, literally, since Max is an alien. (New rule: Sheryl Crow’s “I Shall Believe” shall be retired as Max and Liz’s song, and henceforth cannot be used by any other couple in TV or film.)
4. Homer and Marge (“The Simpsons,” 1989-present) — The idea of watching a generic set of parents for 20-plus years — and not even a forward-moving 20 years, but rather 20 years of being stuck at the same age — should be unappealing. But it works because they are cartoons: All of Homer’s buffoonery is somehow sympathetic and adorable rather than merely pathetic. Meanwhile, Marge’s endless well of forgiveness — most sorely tested in the big-screen “Simpsons” movie — makes us like her, along with Homer.
5. Jessie and Katie (“Once and Again,” 1999-2002) — This relationship, which emerged organically in Season 3, works because for two full seasons we were so invested in the fragile flower that was Evan Rachel Wood’s Jessie. Any first love was bound to put her through the emotional wringer, so to up the stakes further by having that love interest be a girl was a stroke of genius. It plays out so well, especially during the scene where they both cry and say they just want to be friends (and end up kissing) that I was actually fooled into thinking Mischa Barton was a talented actress (in the role of Katie, she truly is).
6. Tim and Dawn (“The Office,” 2001-03) — In this wonderfully unglamorous yarn, workaday schmo Tim has an across-the-office crush on receptionist Dawn. Tim has no self-confidence, and Dawn has a mean and muscle-bound boyfriend, but Tim can’t stop thinking about her. And she seems to like him well enough, too. The combination of their shyness and Britishness would be unbearable if it wasn’t so giggle-worthy. Tim giving Dawn a set of art supplies in the finale is more romantic than a kiss would be on most series.
7. Ken and Amy (“Freaks and Geeks,” 1999) — In what is still the best acting job of Seth Rogen’s career, Ken (a character who has no business whatsoever being written into a romantic plot) falls — against his will — for the first girl he’s ever met who can keep up with his sarcastic, insulting banter. Adding a weirdly poignant layer of comedy to the arc, he worries he might be gay after learning that Amy was born a hermaphrodite. (The fact that Jessica Campbell is quite obviously a girl makes it all the more funny.)
8. Luke and Lorelai (“Gilmore Girls,” 2000-07) — Admittedly, this story has all the clichés of the overdone “When will they get together?” almost-pairings that writers use to keep viewers tuning in for seven seasons. And, certainly, the incredible chemistry between bundle-of-energy Lauren Graham and classic-guy’s-guy Scott Patterson leads to a certain amount of eye-rolling when we have to put up with Lorelai’s — and rarely, Luke’s — various lovers. However, “Gilmore Girls” had so much going for it overall that somehow I never minded letting Luke-and-Lorelai simmer. And in the end, they get together, which is all I could really ask for. (Yes, I’m glaring at you, later seasons of “Dawson’s Creek.”)
9. Mulder and Scully (“The X-Files,” 1993-2002) — This is one that I appreciated much more when I rewatched the series straight through on DVD. Initially, I felt the show didn’t need any romance; the FBI partnership was a strong enough statement. But I grew to enjoy the barely-even-on-screen subtlety by which the romance evolved to the point where they were undeniably a couple by the second movie. When some fans ripped “I Want to Believe” for not being epic enough, I defended it for being a nice little Mulder-and-Scully story. (Also, you can’t go wrong with a romance where first names are never used.)
10. Nick and Jess (“New Girl,” 2011-present) — Ever since the pilot episode, it seemed inevitable that Nick and Jess would get together. But rather than being an awful Ross-and-Rachel-style snoozefest, the writers ratcheted things up in the middle of Season 2 with the great spin-the-bottle episode where they kiss — but not when you expect it. Jake Johnson, a brilliantly understated actor, has always conveyed to the viewer that he loves Jess but doesn’t know how to get her. Now the show is moving into the dangerous territory where they are indeed a couple, but also roommates. While it might be hard to resist doing an arc patterned after “The Break-Up,” hopefully Nick and Jess will be as funny as a couple as they were when not quite a couple.
Share your own top 10 list in the comment thread below.