Romance on television
Ricky loves Lucy. Dan loves Roseanne. Homer loves Maggie. Joel probably loves but will never admit to loving Maggie, and Maggie thinks she hates Joel but actually she’s crazy about him. Happy Valentine’s Day 1992, a day that gets us thinking about couples. TV couples. The kind of fictional yet flesh-and-blood duos whose relationships sometimes feel as real to us as — well real life itself. We’ve put together our own Cupid’s Chart — couples we love as well as couples we love to hate. We’ve drawn up our own sex list, too — hey, finish this first! — of hot moments in TV chemistry that have changed the look of on-screen sizzle. (Surprise: Some don’t even involve Doing It.) And we put forth this hypothesis: Good real-life couples are all about high-grade chemistry; great TV couples are all about low-grade combustion.
Social winds blow, sexual revolutions rage, network censors loosen their ties. Family sitcoms are no longer about the mister who knew best (at least the missus let him think he did) and the missus who was fetchingly wacky. But some things never change: The best on-air duos are frequently happy — but not too happy.
Call it the Rhoda Principle, named for Rhoda Morgenstern, who was most endearing when she longed for a man. She was still endearing when she met a man (Joe Gerard), and when she married him (in 1974). Once Rhoda had him, though, ratings plummeted. Producers cobbled together a quick divorce, but it was too late. Rhoda died, just as Moonlighting died soon after David bedded Maddie. Anything But Love lost its way once Marty and Hannah fell in love, and Ellyn’s marriage to Billy on thirtysomething left many viewers somewhat cranky.
Why should everything be so great for Ellyn and Billy, anyway?
Great TV couples reflect pleasurable tension, but they also reflect their times. The conservatism of the ’50s was personified by the wholesome Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet and the marital goofiness of I Married Joan. But it’s Ralph and Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners who show true greatness, living in their dinky urban apartment and arguing over whether to buy a TV.
In the ’60s, America’s home life got swingin’, with a sexy, young couple in the White House, and sexy, young Rob and Laura Petrie in the suburbs on The Dick Van Dyke Show — sophisticated adults with a contemporary marriage that allowed for adult friends and an adult appreciation of irony and humor. Bickering and misunderstanding, meanwhile, took on a new nudge-nudge, wink- wink sexiness: Samantha Stephens cast (erotic?) spells on husband Darrin in Bewitched; Gomez and Morticia vamped knowingly in The Addams Family, right in front of the children; and improbable spy Maxwell Smart (a.k.a. Agent 86) shared sexy secrets with improbably brainy Agent 99 on Get Smart.
By the 1970s, domestic family life branched off in two new and very different directions: the realer-than-ever (the living-room battles of the Bunkers of All in the Family) and the richer-than-ever (the grand ballroom battles of the Ewings of Dallas). And something else happened: In 1970, Mary Richards, the first great grown-up single working woman on TV, was endowed by her creators on The Mary Tyler Moore Show with an inalienable right to life, love, and the nerve-racking pursuit of happiness. We adored her because she was so nerve-racked. (All those dates with the wrong guys, all that loneliness, all that unexpressed attraction between Mary and Lou Grant!)
The best couples of the ’80s were those for whom life was a fast-track obstacle course: single parents looking for relationships (One Day at a Time, Kate & Allie, My Two Dads); knowing, bantering adults involved in hypersophisticated careers (L.A. Law, thirtysomething); hypersophisticated families celebrating their knowing, bantering normalcy (The Cosby Show, Family Ties).
But now it’s the ’90s, and the best TV couples are the ones who are rethinking this whole couples thing. Whoa, say Al and Peg on Married…With Children and Jerry and Elaine on Seinfeld and Maggie and Joel on Northern Exposure and even Roseanne and Dan on Roseanne. Whoa. Let’s get real. Let’s, like, admit that often people who love each other sometimes hate each other, too.
Now, there’s a novel idea this Valentine’s Day. Although, come to think of it, wasn’t that what Ralph and Alice were telling us all along?
They’re two for the road. They’re made for each other. They’re who we invoke in our darkest shared hours. (”What would Fred and Wilma do?”)
Fred & Wilma Flintstone
(of The Flintstones)
Did you know ”Yabba-dabba-doo” was Cro-Magnonese for ”Oh, joy! What an interesting and complex marriage we have, considering we’re prehistoric cartoon characters”?
Maxwell Smart & Agent 99
(Don Adams and Barbara Feldon of Get Smart)
Apart, they were nothing special. But together, their comic chemistry was totally out of C.O.N.T.R.O.L.
Batman & Catwoman
(Adam West and Julie Newmar of Batman)
Maybe it was that clingy catsuit, but no other woman put so much spin in the Caped Crusader’s Bat-erang.
Basil & Sybil Fawlty
(John Cleese and Prunella Scales of Fawlty Towers)
Some might call it hell. An obnoxious boob and a huge-haired fishwife chained together at a seaside dump. We call it Britcom heaven.
Ralph & Alice Kramden
(Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows of The Honeymooners)
If a couple could live in an apartment that awful and stay together, it had to be love. Maybe she really was the greatest.
Bob & Emily Hartley
(Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette of The Bob Newhart Show)
Imagine having a wife who could make the line ”Hi, Bob” sound like a proposition.
Archie & Edith Bunker
(Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton of All in the Family)
How two people manage true, constant, touching love even though one of them is a dingbat and the other a complete jerk.
Fred & Ethel Mertz
(William Frawley and Vivian Vance of I Love Lucy)
”You old coot!” ”You old battle-ax!” Marriage as a nonstop vaudeville act, and it was never crabbier or cuter.
Matt Dillon & Miss Kitty
(James Arness and Amanda Blake of Gunsmoke)
Call her madam. Call him the luckiest gunslinger in the West.
Oh, yawn. We’re happy they’re happy, but frankly, the problems of these little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Arnold Becker & Roxanne Melman
(Corbin Bernsen and Susan Ruttan of L.A. Law)
We liked him better when he was insufferable. We liked her better when she was suffering. So now they’re together and trying to make it work. Don’t we get a vote?
Stuart Markowitz & Ann Kelsey
(Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry of L.A. Law)
Perhaps Arnie and Roxanne could interest them in some mate swapping. (Now Rox and Stuart — there’s a couple we could enjoy.)
Rhoda & Joe Gerard
(Valerie Harper and David Groh of Rhoda)
Gee, what would Rhoda be like if she were skinny, happy, and married? Oh, sorry — we must have dozed off.
Marty Gold & Hannah Miller
(Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis of Anything But Love)
On again, off again, on again, off again, on again, CANCELED.
Cliff & Clair Huxtable
(Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show)
Sure, the family unit’s fun, but after eight years of relentless cutesy-poo chatter, we’d pay hard cash to see this overly adorable pair rip each other’s hearts out on Civil Wars.
They look — good Lord! — like they’re truly hot for each other. Sometimes we even see them in the act of hotness. But usually it’s what’s not shown that makes them sizzle.
Sam Malone & Diane Chambers
(Ted Danson and Shelley Long of Cheers)
Emma Peel & Jonathan Steed
(Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee of The Avengers)
Who could resist Mrs. Peel’s sleek jumpsuits?
Maddie Hayes & David Addison
(Cybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis of Moonlighting)
Their best private investigations were of each other.
Dylan Mckay & Brenda Walsh
(Luke Perry and Shannen Doherty of Beverly Hills 90210)
They’re everything you never experienced in high school.
Dwayne Wayne & Whitley Gilbert
(Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy of Different World)
So that’s what goes on in dorms.
Boris Badenov & Natasha Fatale
(of The Bullwinkle Show)
Yet another short, ugly guy gets the tall, foreign babe.
Couples from Hell
If you see these duos coming, run for your life! Otherwise they’ll wear your patience to nubs with their annoying, tedious codependencies. And equivalent buzzwords.
Arnie & Nancy Thomas
(Tom Arnold and Sandra Bernhard of Roseanne)
Isn’t there a 12-step program to deal with coboorishness?
Al & Peg Bundy
(Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal of Married…With Children)
These two don’t want to have sex with each other. Why does this not surprise us?
Frank & Fay Furillo
(Daniel J. Travanti and Barbara Bosson of Hill Street Blues)
What unerring instinct drove her to barge into her ex’s precinct headquarters whenever the particles were hitting the ventilating system?
Douglas & Sheila Brackman
(Alan Rachins and Joanna Frank of L.A. Law)
All the sex surrogates in the world can’t cure what ails these two big, bitter babies.
J.R. & Sue Ellen Ewing
(Larry Hagman and Linda Gray of Dallas)
We like the evil. And the fighting. It’s the making up we hate.
They’re our Orpheus and Eurydice. Our Romeo and Juliet. They’re as deeply imbedded in our culture as…as Regis and Kathie Lee. Only we’re all nuts about them.
Ozzie & Harriet Nelson
(of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet)
A married couple played a married couple, and other married couples watched and learned.
Ward & June Cleaver
(Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley of Leave It to Beaver)
You remember them…they lived down the street from Donna Reed, just across from Robert Young, in Perfectville.
Tony Nelson & Jeannie
(Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie)
Bronze Age sexual politics (excuse us — did we hear you call him Master?) in a 1960s Playboy fantasy come to life.
Lucy & Ricky Ricardo
(Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy)
The first. The best. The funniest. The sexiest. And perhaps the most equally matched — we’re still waiting to see who wins.
Rob & Laura Petrie
(Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore of The Dick Van Dyke Show)
A house in the suburbs! Capri pants! Cardigans! Ottomans to trip over! If that’s not wedded bliss, what is? Or was?
They’re our barometers of the moment. Our correspondents from the front. We’ll have what they’re having. Providing it doesn’t involve power tools.
Maude & Walter Findlay
(Beatrice Arthur and Bill Macy of Maude)
Together they faced abortion and alcoholism and bankruptcy and nervous breakdowns. And still made us laugh.
Tim & Jill Taylor
(Tim Allen and Patricia Richardson of Home Improvement)
He just grunts like a caveman. Actually, as his wife knows, he’s just your average Neanderthal member of the plugged-in generation.
Mary & Tom Hartman
(Louise Lasser and Greg Mullavey of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman)
She worried about waxy yellow build-up. He worried about impotence. And so we survived the late ’70s.
Ellyn Warren & Billy Sidel
(Polly Draper and Erich Anderson of thirtysomething)
Neurotic woman used to dating the Wrong Man meets calm guy willing to commit, so she briefly considers wrecking the relationship. Sounds convincing.
Michael & Hope Steadman
(Ken Olin and Mel Harris of thirtysomething)
With two kids, 1 1/2 careers, and one Volvo, they are the yuppies di tutti yuppies.
Elliot & Nancy Weston
(Timothy Busfield and Patricia Wettig of thirtysomething)
With two kids, 1 1/2 careers, one separation, and one cancer crisis, they’re the dark underbelly di tutti yuppies.
These couples don’t bore us. They’re not hell. They’re just…spooky. Like they’re from the Village of the Damned. Or someplace. Or something.
Mike & Carol Brady
(Robert Reed and Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch)
Hurry, honey! Get the kids in the station wagon! There’s a polyester bell-bottom sale at the mall!
Frank Lambert & Carol Foster
(Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers of Step by Step)
Dimmer than 40-watt bulbs, blanker than a just-shaken Etch-a-Sketch…and we’ll probably have to watch them for eight more years.
Blake & Krystle Carrington
(John Forsythe and Linda Evans of Dynasty)
Why would one of the world’s most powerful men marry and adore a woman who, from all appearances, never learned how to spell her first name?
Frasier Crane and Lilith Sternin Crane
(Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth of Cheers)
Scary, yes — but good scary. One more kid and they could become the Gomez and Morticia Addams of the 21st century.
Sure, they talk about their spouses. But do they ever bring them around so we can meet them, chat them up? Nuh-uh.
Columbo & Mrs. Columbo
(Peter Falk of Columbo)
The last time she saw him, his raincoat was brand-new.
Phyllis Lindstrom & Lars
(Cloris Leachman of The Mary Tyler Moore Show)
Mary’s landlady didn’t actually kill her husband; she just ignored him to death while she nosed around in everyone else’s life.
Norm Peterson & Vera
(George Wendt of Cheers)
He’s out drinking every night. So where’s she, home watching network TV?
Buddy Sorrell & Pickles
(Morey Amsterdam of The Dick Van Dyke Show)
Work was much more fun; why go home?
Hey. Anyone who gets you through the night, you know what we’re saying?
Larry Appleton & Balki Bartokomous
(Bronson Pinchot and Mark-Linn Baker of Perfect Strangers)
Squabbling, feuding, making up, hugging — looks like a pretty ideal marriage to us.
Holling Vincoeur & Shelly Tambo
(John Cullum and Cynthia Geary of Northern Exposure)
What’s a 45-year age difference when you’re in love, and thousands of miles from anyone who can giggle at you?
Wilbur and Mr. Ed
(Alan Young and Mr. Ed of Mister Ed)
Hey, is that stall big enough for two? Just say neigh.
Kate McArdle & Allie Lowell
(Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin of Kate & Allie)
If they weren’t the perfect pair, then why did the show go sour the minute Allie got married?
Felix Unger & Oscar Madison
(Tony Randall and Jack Klugman of The Odd Couple)
TV’s originals — and still champs.
What do we have to do to get these people to realize they’re made for each other-rent the Goodyear blimp? Forbid them from seeing each other? What??!!
Maggie O’Connell & Joel Fleischman
(Janine Turner and Rob Morrow of Northern Exposure)
Chris knows. Ed knows. Even Marilyn knows. How many more spring thaws will it take for these two to get the picture?
Sebastian Flyte & Charles Ryder
(Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons of Brideshead Revisited)
Frankly, we don’t know what kept these two apart except for prevailing social mores, unresolvable religious differences, alcoholism, and that stupid teddy bear.
Dale Cooper & Audrey Horne
(Kyle MacLachlan and Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks)
With just a few more weeks on the air, Agent Cooper might finally have found the perfect woman — one who was actually alive.
Jerry Seinfeld & Elaine Benes
(Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld)
Sure, we get it…they’re just very good friends who used to sleep together, remain inseparable, and go down to Florida occasionally to visit his parents.
Abby Perkins & C.J. Lamb
(Michele Greene and Amanda Donohoe of L.A. Law)
Wanted: A TV writer smart enough to get these two back together; Law hasn’t had as interesting — or believable — a romantic couple since they split.
Mary Richards & Lou Grant
(Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner of The Mary Tyler Moore Show)
So their first date didn’t work out. That’s what second dates are for.
They remind us of just how romantic real life could be if it looked like TV.
Gomez & Morticia Addams (John Astin and Carolyn Jones of The Addams Family)
Proving that between love and madness lies…obsession.
Melissa Steadman & Lee Owens
(Melanie Mayron and Corey Parker of thirtysomething)
Proving that a younger guy is sometimes just the ticket for a conflicted older woman who still wears kneesocks.
Homer & Marge Simpson
(of The Simpsons)
Proving that a flabby buffoon can find comfort in the love of a good woman armed only with a helmet of hair.
Mary Beth & Harvey Lacey
(Tyne Daly and John Karlen of Cagney & Lacey)
Proving that every tough cop needs a little TLC after a hard day out on the streets shouting, ”Freeze!”
Couples from Mars
They’ve fallen to Earth, and they can’t get up. But as long as they’re here, at least they’ve set up cute little household, opened a bank account, gotten to know their neighbors. Hey, some of our best friend are Coneheads…
Beldar & Prymaat
(Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin of Saturday Night Live)
You know what they say…the longer a couple lives together, the more they start to look alike.
Latka & Simka Gravas
(Andy Kaufman and Carol Kane of Taxi)
They spoke to each other in the language of love. As translated from exotic Eastern European dialect that may or may not exist.
Adam & Eve
(Adam Arkin and Valerie Mahaffey of Northern Exposure)
The cook, the Abominable Snowman, his wife, and her aliments. More or less
Mork & Mindy
(Robin Williams and Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy)
He’s her brother from another planet. She’s girl from the planet next door.