1. Cheers (Sam Malone and Diane Chambers)
The whole idea of using a “will they or won’t they” slow-burning romance as a recurring plot driver on a TV show is largely attributable to Cheers, where the five-season cycle of flirtation, consummation, and rejection between a likeable bartender and a prim waitress kept generating new stories and new viewers. The genius of Cheers was that the writers were willing to risk alienating the audience by letting Sam become more than a little jerky once he finally hooked up with Diane. They made each other miserable, so they split up (not-so-amicably), then reconciled, then got engaged, then split up again when Diane left the bar to pursue a career opportunity. When her character was replaced on the show by Cheers’ new manager, Rebecca Howe, the writers initially tried to repeat the formula by having Sam pursue Rebecca for a couple of years. But the chemistry wasn’t the same, and they wisely let that storyline drop after a while, freeing them up to bring back Diane for the series finale, and thus bring resolution to a romance that—while fun to watch—was never meant to be.
2. The Office (Tim Canterbury and Dawn Tinsley / Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly)
Nearly every iteration of The Office has featured a sad salesman taking small solace in his flirtations with a pretty receptionist engaged to another man. The UK original strung this storyline out as the spine of its entire run, culminating in Tim finally winning Dawn’s heart after giving her the perfect Christmas gift in the post-series “Christmas special.” Along the way, the two had heartbreaking moments galore (most notably when Tim professed his love to Dawn sans microphone, and she rejected him), but the series was always heading toward that happy ending. The U.S. version of The Office initially followed a roughly similar storyline, involving salesman Jim and receptionist Pam, but around the end of the second season—when the writers realized they were going to run for many more episodes than the original—the show switched things up by having Jim kiss Pam, then having her reject him, then having him move on to another woman. At the end of the third season, the two characters finally got together and have been together ever since, charting a course now involving an upcoming wedding and baby, with the conflict arising from the common struggle of two people trying to blend their lives together. Both versions of the show contradict the idea that the only way to do a relationship story on TV is a will-they-or-won’t-they pairing, but the U.S. version’s embrace of gentle domesticity as the driving force for drama has been more revolutionary.
3. Friends (Ross Geller and Rachel Green)
For the first season and a half of Friends, the Ross and Rachel dynamic worked exactly how a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship is supposed to. He had a crush on her; she remained sweetly oblivious. By the time she found out about the crush, he’d already given up and started to move on with a new girlfriend. It’s the sort of not-quite-there romance that adds suspense to a new series, giving viewers a reason to invest emotionally in the characters—which is one of the reasons why having the two finally hook up was such a bold move. Their love affair started sweetly and surprisingly well-observed, and then things took a dark turn when the couple hit their first real bumpy patch. The writers would ultimately yo-yo the two characters in and out of each other’s arms one too many times in the ensuing seasons, but at the time, it was shocking (and thrilling) to see a happy ending go so thoroughly, hatefully sour.
4. Freaks And Geeks (Lindsay Weir & Nick Andopolis)
Like most of what happens on Freaks And Geeks, the romance between budding rebel Lindsay Weir and drummer/burnout Nick Andopolis is touching and hilarious because it’s so familiar. It’s one of those tragicomic teen relationships that doesn’t so much blossom as it just… happens. Lindsay and Nick fall into it almost by accident, for lack of anything better to do. Lindsay is actually smitten with the handsome, troubled Daniel DeSario, who isn’t interested in her; meanwhile, Nick simply wants a girlfriend, and idealizes Lindsay out of proportion just because she’s nice to him. It’s a doomed relationship from the very beginning, because neither participant really wants to be there. Inertia almost instantly takes hold, keeping the two together due to their reluctance to hurt each other’s feelings. The agony—and delight—of watching it all unfold comes from guessing when and how it’s finally going to disintegrate.
5. The Wire (Jimmy McNulty and Beadie Russell)
In a series that covered so many characters and so many subplots, the coupling of two Baltimore citizens was unlikely to cause many ripples—especially when, like virtually every plot development in the show, the change was bittersweet. After becoming well acquainted with cocky, profane alcoholic detective Jimmy McNulty (who in the first season was already separated from his wife and having an affair with assistant state’s attorney Rhonda Pearlman), the audience wasn’t set up to expect a hook-up with the gentle, inexperienced Port Authority officer Beadie Russell, introduced in season two. Yet in season four, McNulty and Russell are suddenly living together, and it works, half because the audience roots for Russell and her positive influence on McNulty, and half because the writers don’t dwell on the burgeoning of the relationship. It just happens, and it works just fine. (Until it doesn’t, but that’s Jimmy and Beadie’s problem, not the show’s.)
6. 3rd Rock From The Sun (Dick Solomon and Mary Albright)
After a solid season of teasing, the writers of the underrated ’90s sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun finally put straitlaced professor Mary Albright and lunatic alien-in-disguise Dick Solomon together. There were plenty of trite roadblocks yet to be thrown in their path—including a predictable botched marriage and subsequent breakup—but the pairing never got boring. Credit two gorgeously over-the-top performances by John Lithgow and Jane Curtin; not only did they throw themselves with abandon into a much more racy depiction of romance than is normally allowed for a couple of their age, they hammed it up delightfully at every moment. Lithgow used Dick’s character as a license to soar to ridiculous heights of cheese, while Curtin gave Mary a nicely debauched inner life to compensate for her prim, proper exterior. Their full-bodied overacting kept the romance fresh even when the plots turned stale.
7. Battlestar Galactica (Kara “Starbuck” Thrace and Lee “Apollo” Adama)
In the long view, it’s hard to get too invested in the sweaty ups and downs of two combat pilots facing the end of the human race. Whether or not Starbuck and Apollo ever made good on their innuendo, it wasn’t going to bring back the millions killed, or provide a credible solution to the Cylon threat. But one of Battlestar Galactica’s key themes was the ways in which deeply flawed individuals can struggle to achieve grace in spite of themselves, and watching two of humanity’s best give in to love and then get destroyed by it over and over again was an effective way of showing how much suffering comes from following one’s heart without understanding why. Lee and Kara sleep together for the first time offscreen; we only learn about it after everything’s already broken down. As the two of them try to punch each other hard enough to wipe away their memories, we get a glimpse of a joy that’s never going to be the norm, and a connection they’ll never entirely be able to shake.
8. The Wonder Years (Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper)
Over six seasons, The Wonder Years offered up a will-they-or-won’t-they for the younger set, as good-hearted Kevin Arnold pined wholesomely for the winsome Winnie Cooper. The two shared their first kiss in the series’ pilot, just after Cooper learned that her brother had died in Vietnam—a moment that almost single-handedly turned the show into an instant hit. As the series played on, the two dated and flirted and fought, their relationship surviving Winnie’s move across town and a car accident that nearly took her life. But the writers always played coy as to whether the older Kevin, the narrator, ended up married to the older Winnie. In the series finale, the two finally (probably) have sex in a barn. Then viewers learn that Winnie is going to chase her dreams of being an artist to Europe, while Kevin marries someone else, though the two remain friends. The moment put an appropriately bittersweet button on a series that relied heavily on that flavor.
9. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy Summers & Angel)
Shortly after “chosen one” Buffy Summers arrives in Sunnydale, California to attend high school and slay vampires, she meets the brooding, sexy Angel, who lingers in the shadows as her underworld informant and occasional protector. Then they share a kiss and he quickly turns feral, revealing that he’s actually a vampire himself—one cursed with a soul, and on a mission to make up for all his victims by helping fight evil. In the second season, Buffy and Angel’s relationship moves to the next level, but after having sex, Angel loses his soul again and became the gleefully malicious Angelus, Buffy’s tormentor. The transformation serves as a metaphor for what happens to some young couples after they have sex—the girl feels even more uncertain, while the guy becomes kind of a dick—but it also heightens the sense of tragedy in the Buffy/Angel romance. Even after he gets his soul back, Angel has to remain remote from the woman he loves, lest he experience happiness again and revert to wickedness. In the Buffyverse, nothing’s ever just-so.
10. Deadwood (Seth Bullock & Alma Garrett)
It’s a long-established television trope that people who truly love each other will defiantly overcome all social opposition to their romance. Sadly, that isn’t always the case in the real world, and few shows have shown the true consequences of a forbidden love as well as Deadwood. The hot-headed Sheriff Bullock and the strong-willed Widow Garrett have a memorably passionate fling at the end of the show’s first season, but it’s clear by the beginning of the second that continuing the affair would be the worst possible thing for both of them. Then, unexpectedly, the narrative becomes entirely different, about how Seth reconciles his love for Alma with the familial responsibility he has chosen, and how a now-pregnant Alma can save face by marrying a man she doesn’t love. It’s an often-heartbreaking twist on the love-conquers-all cliché, and Deadwood takes it in an unexpected direction while never losing sight of its essential tragedy.
11. Oz (Tobias Beecher and Chris Keller)
Tobias Beecher is Oz’s version of the ordinary man stuck behind bars, and embedded in his story is the suggestion that within all of us lies a heart of darkness, just waiting to escape. Keller, meanwhile, is a violent sociopath. Naturally, they fall in love. Though the two spent five of the series’ six seasons indulging in a back-and-forth romantic tug-of-war that could induce whiplash, the sheer operatic grandeur of their relationship pushes the storyline so far over the top that it becomes weird, tragic theater. At a time when gay relationships weren’t appearing anywhere on TV, the genuine and destructive love between Beecher and Keller veered between cautionary tale and heartbreaking romance, though it was never anything less than genuine in its portrayal of two men who never expected to fall in love with each other.
[pagebreak]12. Torchwood (Captain Jack Harkness and Ianto Jones)
Given the controversial end to the Jack/Ianto romance, Torchwood fans may not be in total agreement over whether their hooking up was good for the show. On the whole though, it’s hard to dispute that these alien-hunting-colleagues-turned-tempestuous-lovers added an emotional depth and friction to a series that had seemed a little glib prior to the two making a love connection. It’s one thing for a science-fiction adventure series to claim that its hero is bisexual; it’s quite another to have him sharing passionate kisses with one of the male members of his team. But beyond mere dramatic and social daring, the Jack/Ianto coupling became as complex and integral to the story as any TV romance has been—gay or straight. And when faced with the potential loss of Ianto in Torchwood’s third series, Captain Jack proved once again that he isn’t always so high-minded about his motivations. He’s willing to risk the lives of hundreds of thousands in order to keep his lover alive.
13. Lost (James “Sawyer” Ford & Juliet Burke)
Throughout its run, Lost has featured a few touching love stories (Desmond and Penny, Rose and Bernard, Jin and Sun), but until this past season, none of the good ones were of the will-they-or-they-won’t-they variety. If anything, the show’s major drawn-out love triangle—featuring perpetually distrustful castaways Jack, Kate, and Sawyer—has consistently been its weakest element, distracting from the more compelling mysteries on the island while providing head-scratching motivation for major plot points. The triangle became even more unwieldy when the show introduced Juliet, an island-dweller whose instant bond with Jack seemed shoehorned into the plot to make Kate jealous. What a pleasant surprise, then, when season five opened with Jack and Kate completely out of the picture, and Sawyer and Juliet left behind to develop a wary but more believable rapport. And what an even more pleasant surprise when the story skipped ahead in time (sort of… it’s complicated) to show Sawyer and Juliet living as a happy, functioning couple. Then Jack and Kate returned, tearing everything asunder. But for once on Lost, the romantic gamesmanship became something fans had a real personal stake in, not just something we suffered through in order to learn more about time-traveling bunnies.
14. That ’70s Show (Eric Forman and Donna Pinciotti)
The bizarrely long-lived Fox sitcom That ’70s Show was occasionally hilarious, but it rarely rose above standard genre trappings. One of the few elements with legs was the relationship between the two lead characters, Eric and Donna. It was obvious by the second episode that they were more or less a couple, but the show managed to milk an astonishing 42 half-hours out of the question of whether they’d actually have sex. The writers reflected fan frustration over the issue by having another regular character, Steven Hyde, meta-humorously note that he “couldn’t stand another week of this will-they-or-won’t-they crap.” Another long-awaited, but far more trite, hook-up—involving Hyde and Jackie—really did spell the beginning of the end for the show.
15. Greek (Casey Cartwright and Cappie)
The potentially ruinous love of Casey and Cappie remains unresolved at the moment, since these two have yet to definitively declare their love for each other, and the series could draw their flirtation out so long that the ultimate hookup feels anticlimactic. But that’s obviously where Greek is heading, and the show has placed believable obstacles in the way of the two getting together so far. When the series began, they’d been broken up for a year, but a speed bump in Casey’s then-current relationship sent them tumbling back into bed—an error the two have been trying to avoid repeating as the series has gone on. The pairing of a quippy slacker guy with a perfectly put-together pretty girl isn’t the world’s most original, but Spencer Grammer and Scott Michael Foster’s genuine chemistry is, so far, keeping it fresh.
16. NewsRadio (Dave Nelson and Lisa Miller)
As part of their effort to signal that NewsRadio wasn’t going to be a typical sitcom, the writers had their male and female lead sleep together in the second episode, then begin a romantic relationship that lasted well into the fourth season, when they broke up for reasons almost as capricious as the reason they got together. Outside of some storylines in the early going about Dave and Lisa trying to keep their relationship secret, NewsRadio was never really about their romance. Still, they were a cute couple—two type-A personalities with conflicting geeky obsessions—and the small details of their time together kept a frequently absurd show grounded.
17. M*A*S*H (Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan)
In the two-part sixth-season M*A*S*H episode “Comrades In Arms,” years of bickering and light-hearted sexual harassment between army surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce and head nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan come to a head when the two get trapped behind enemy lines for one tense night. They have sex, and in the morning, when the shelling stops, Margaret thinks that the two of them have embarked on a grand romance, while Hawkeye think that they’re colleagues who got scared, so they screwed. In the end, they find middle ground, and for the remainder of the series, they remain more friends than adversaries.
18. Taxi (Alex Rieger and Elaine Nardo)
In the ’70s, sitcoms rarely gave in to the temptation to throw their lead male and female characters together unless said characters were already married. (One key counter-example is Rhoda, where the title character married a handful of episodes into the first season, before the producers realized that marriage was too constraining to the character). Before Cheers popularized the idea of a possible romantic pairing between central characters as a story engine, Taxi had veteran cabbie Alex Rieger and single mother/wannabe artist Elaine Nardo engaging in a slow-building flirtation. The two finally consummated their relationship while on vacation in Europe in the beautiful fourth-season episode “Vienna Waits,” after vowing that the sex would be a one-time thing and that they’d never speak of it again. And, true to the series’ on-to-the-next-story format, they never did.
19. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Mary Richards and Lou Grant)
As The Mary Tyler Moore Show approached its series finale—one of the first handful of sitcoms to have a planned finale—fans of the show had one question foremost on their minds: Would the longstanding subtextual flirtation between Mary Richards and her boss Lou Grant erupt into text? Would the two finally get together? Even Moore herself joked that it might be funny to see the two go on a date, then have the episode end with a shot of a darkened bedroom and Mary exclaiming, “Oh, Mr. Grant!” But the show’s producers stuck to their guns in saying that Lou and Mary would not make a good couple, and in a late episode in the final season, the two did go on a date that didn’t go well at all, ending with the pair sharing an extremely awkward kiss. Few shows deflate sexual tension between their leads like this, but Mary Tyler Moore suggests it’s a trick in need of rediscovery, given how fresh it still seems.
20. Futurama (alternate-universe Philip J. Fry & Turanga Leela)
Fry’s longing for a relationship with the generally indifferent Leela has been one of Futurama’s more inconsistent plot threads. It’s generated some top-rate scenes and some pretty rotten ones. In the fantastic season-four episode “The Farnsworth Parabox,” however, fans finally get to see what Fry and Leela would be like as a couple. In the “evil” alternate Universe 1, Fry and Leela are happily married. The result of a coin toss (the only real variable element in Universe 1), their couplehood and eventual marriage serves only to infuriate the original Fry and embarrass the original Leela, whose endless excuses for not going out with him get lamer and lamer. To add insult to injury, when “evil” Fry and Leela—seemingly the perfect couple—celebrate their engagement, our own version of Fry gets beaten up at a Neil Diamond concert by a guy named Scrunchie. Who can’t relate to that?
21. Seinfeld (Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes)
In the world of Seinfeld, little happened that disrupted the character dynamic from episode to episode—and that included romance. Though the characters had a romantic relationship prior to the show’s first episode, and a season-two episode was wholly dedicated to the topic of avoiding the awkwardness that comes with hooking up with a friend, Jerry and Elaine’s forays into “this, that, and the other” are almost completely ignored in ensuing episodes. Jerry and Elaine again fell into bed in season five’s “The Mango,” as Jerry begged for a chance to give Elaine a real orgasm, but again the topic was forgotten by the next episode, thereby proving that the best way to avoid ruining a series with a romantic relationship is just to pretend that it never happened.
22. Moonlighting (David Addison and Maddie Hayes)
Conventional wisdom holds that David and Maddie falling into bed together in the third season of Moonlighting stands as the ultimate example of a hookup that destroyed a show. That conventional wisdom is wrong. Witness the final episode of that third season (the de facto third-season finale, since creator Glenn Gordon Caron couldn’t keep production humming along smoothly enough to fill a full 22-episode order). In that episode, David and Maddie have to deal with the prickly reality of the fact that they’ve had sex and still have to work together, even though they aren’t sure they want to be a couple. Caron was eager to explore that wrinkle in their relationship, but then a variety of circumstances conspired to foul up a promising storyline. Caron’s unusual production schedule created a five-week gap between the episode featuring the David-and-Maddie sex and the follow-up, even though the network kept promoting new episodes week after week, generating frustration among viewers. In the show’s fourth season, Cybill Shepherd’s pregnancy and health problems—along with Bruce Willis’ own health problems and burgeoning movie career—created a situation where the two characters would frequently spend episodes apart, killing the interplay and flirtation at the heart of the series’ appeal. (Even with all of that, the fourth-season première was a terrific examination of what happens when a career woman realizes the man she’s sleeping with isn’t nearly on her level.) The 1988 writers’ strike took the show off the air for nearly nine months between the fourth and fifth seasons, and then Caron was removed as ABC tried to get the show back on track. Since Caron’s literate scripts were as important to the show’s success as the two leads, the show died quickly. But for a few months in 1987, Moonlighting seemed like it would be a rare will-they-or-won’t-they show to survive the curse of sex.