Non-doomed fictional couples
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You recently did a spiel on “doomed fictional couples,” which is a challenging exercise only because it must be hard to limit yourself to one or two examples when the movie world is full of romances in which the central couple doesn’t stand a chance of still being together after five years. I’d like to know which ones convince you as “love that will last” portrayals. Which fictional couples could you imagine dropping in on 20 to 30 years after the credits roll, and still find them in love with each other and weathering the storms? —Marco
This could potentially be a kind of dull Q&A, given that there are so many happy couples in pop culture—I felt like the “doomed couples” question was interesting largely because it highlighted how many books and films feature a final hookup to give characters a semblance of a happy ending, but aren’t particularly convincing about their “relationship” lasting past that moment. Still, while that question comments more on a silly convention of modern fiction, it seems to me like this question comments more on us personally, and what we think goes into a successful, meaningful relationship to make it work. Thinking about it that way, the first one that leapt to mind for me was Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man, the Dashiell Hammett novel and film adaptation, and their subsequent sequels. They aren’t particularly realistic as couples go—they’re both exaggerated character types, they banter like comedians and drink like alcoholic fish, and they’re pretty over-the-top. But amid all the comic sniping, they have a real affection and respect for each other, and more to the point, they’re perfectly matched, with the exact same interests: solving crimes, sucking down booze, and admiring their obnoxious dog. Maybe they’re destined to grow happily, obliviously old together simply because they’re so unsuited for anyone else; they’re kind of the same person, just in different sets of formalwear.
I’m mad at Tasha for taking Nick and Nora from me. One of the reasons the Thin Man series stands as a model for cinematic marriage is that it’s one of the few movies that makes marriage look fun and sexy. Aside from that, I tried to think of a movie where we see a couple that actually seems to work together, that has fun and isn’t based on sturm und drang and boners. For some reason, the first one that sprung to mind was Bill Hader and Liz Cackowski in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. They’re only minor characters in the movie, but it said something to me that Jason Segel takes advice, for better or for worse, from his happily married stepbrother. I find it charming that Cackowski (maybe against Segel’s wishes), listens in on Hader’s video chats in order to give romantic advice to Segel, and that the two seem to get such a kick out of each other as Hader changes the background on his computer screen. (From my experience, this is what marriage is really all about—dumb laughs with your spouse.) Hader may roll his eyes while Segel gets Cackowski to pantomime giving her husband head, but when Segel tries to claim that his ex-girlfriend was “better” than Cackowski, Hader’s response is classic: “I have no qualms with sticking you! I will equalize you! You dick!” Who says chivalry is dead?
The writers of Lost had endless fun with the relationshippers in their audience, pairing the main characters off hither and thither in an attempt to make us care more about them. None of those relationships really struck home for me, though, except one: Bernard and Rose Nadler were the only thing close to a genuine loving couple the show ever offered us. I’ve always felt that one of the characteristics of a good relationship is that you’d rather be with the person you love than anyone else, and Rose and Bernard were the only people who ultimately got sick and fucking tired of getting yanked around by anyone who promised them answers. They were the only ones who decided that being with each other on a tropical-island paradise was just fine, thanks very much, and they’d rather just spend their remaining years together instead of gallivanting off in search of the next bit of bait. They nagged each other like a real couple, they fought each other like a real couple, they needled each other like a real couple, and they poked at each other’s weaknesses like a real couple—but they also never gave up on each other like a real couple, and they loved each other like a real couple. I never resented Lost’s manipulative qualities; they were necessary to make the plot move. But the moment where Rose and Bernard told the rest of the castaways that if it was all the same to them, they’d rather just run out the clock together—that struck me as one of the most genuine moments the show ever offered, and reminded me why I pulled for these two minor characters so much over all the big stars I was supposed to be rooting for.
The early bird gets the obvious answer: Jim and Pam from The Office (and Tim and Dawn from the original British Office, for that matter). Anyone who watches the show knows the characters were made for each other in the writers’ room, and every episode made it clear that they belonged together, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. Their personalities, their senses of humor, their interests, their values, etc., all aligned, to the point where it was goddamn frustrating when they didn’t just hook up—and beyond that, get married already. When they finally did, it felt more rewarding to me than other will-they-or-won’t-they couples on TV, because Jim and Pam felt more relatable and realistic than, say, your Ross and Rachel. Their relationship arc has provided The Office with a lot of thematic mileage, but has also shown the show’s strengths beyond its standard sitcom premise. Where other shows descend into pure schmaltz when their will-they-or-won’t-they couples finally hook up, The Office minimized the cheese by underplaying the big moments in Jim and Pam’s relationship: the newly single Jim asking Pam out, the proposal, the wedding—okay, the Chris Brown song wasn’t subtle, but it was funny—the birth of their child. It’s all felt realer, and even though I know it’s a show, I think those kids may just make it.
Part of the travesty of Party Down’s cancellation is that we’ll never see the fate of Henry and Casey’s fast-and-furious romance. But something tells me they’ll be all right. Even in two short seasons, the two have proved they’re perfect for each other. They seem to hate the same things and love making fun of the same people. They’re inexplicably drawn to each other while dating others. But, I suppose most of all, they make each other be better versions of themselves. Their expert banter and comic timing was in the DNA of the show, and their relationship gave me something to root for amid the bleak job and sad-sack individuals. Plus, it wasn’t an effortless relationship—which is much closer to reality, and something you don’t see on TV every day. They worked at it.
What I love about the old screwball comedies is the sense that the things that draw romantic interests center together are the same things that will inevitably push them apart. Then they’ll come back together again after a few years, with this process repeating until one or the other passes on. The lure of conversation-as-sex constantly keeps them batting at each other from ever-shrinking distances. I have more faith in Walter and Hildy from His Girl Friday than I do many of the people I actually know who are together in real life, even though they begin the movie divorced, with her about to marry another man. The film treats this less as an obstacle and more as just another thing the two of them have agreed to place between themselves on their path to remarriage, as if this were an old, old game they’ve played many times. We know once the film ends, their marriage will sink into boredom again, and they’ll likely split up again, but they’ll be drawn back to each other by those same forces. To me, love is about a long system of falling in and out of passionate love, but still figuring out ways to keep yourselves amused. I don’t doubt that Walter and Hildy will be playing out these games for years and years to come, that they still are in some fictional, alternate universe. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they look like Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Not at all.
As a semi-newly domesticated man, I’m drawn to onscreen couples that appear happy and functional rather than stormy and tumultuous, winning duos that seem like they’ll stick together long after the credits roll and haven’t been paired off solely by necessity. That’s one of the reasons I liked I Love You, Man. Of course, any film that casts the endlessly charming, ingratiating Paul Rudd as a leading man has an automatic head start, and his chemistry with the delightful Rashida Jones felt very lived-in and natural, like they’d known each other forever, yet familiarity bred comfort and security rather than contempt. If Jones sometimes looked askance at Rudd’s sometimes weirdly intense friendship with Jason Segel, that was eminently understandable. These not-so-crazy kids seemed like a good bet to grow old together without ever tiring of one another’s company.
It seems like an obvious choice, but to me there’s no more idyllic pop culture couple than Friday Night Lights’ Eric and Tami Taylor. Together, the Taylors have faced hirings, firings, daughter drama, money troubles, handsy co-workers, countless downs in Dillon football, and the tyranny of the nosy Buddy Garrity. Dealing with every situation with grace and good hair, actors Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have managed to create a depth and unstated backstory to this couple that just makes them so damn believable. The actors and writers have built the fictional relationship slowly and quietly, like a storm, and with that comes a grace and serenity that just makes the Taylors so damn enviable. More than once, I’ve had conversations with FNL-minded friends about relationships we’ve had that have failed, or how we someday hope to find what these fictional characters have. Marriages end in divorce, and not everyone is in perfect teenage blissful love forever, but what the Taylors have seems real. While it might not be clear what will happen with Riggins or Smash, I know in my heart of hearts that Eric and Tami will grow old together, serenely curled up on the couch, quietly enjoying each other’s presence, and I want to be right there with them.