The chemistry! The tension! These TV pairings kept the romance going and going.
Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best will-they-won’t-they couple ever on TV? (Current and past shows are fair game.)
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
This is tough. The will they or won’t they trope is so pervasive in television, picking a “best” is like looking for the shiniest grain of sand on a beach. The classic duos are obvious: Sam and Diane, David and Maddie, Carrie and Mr. Big, Ross and Rachel, Kermit and Miss Piggy. They’re the backbones of some of the best shows on television, but they’re also tremendously obvious and discussed to death. So my picks are going to be extremely personal and super specific.
I always loved Remington Steele and Laura Holt, from the ‘80s-era show “Remington Steele.” Tough to believe now, but there was a time when the producers of the James Bond movies couldn’t see that Pierce Brosnan was the future of the franchise. So Brosnan launched his career with this NBC dramedy, playing a con man who pretends to be Remington Steele – the Bond-ish leader of a private detective firm actually run by Holt, played by Stephanie Zimbalist. For a couple of years, their banter and the show’s light Bond parodies were the hippest thing on network TV. Another personal pick is Tony Soprano and Jennifer Melfi from “The Sopranos.” As a fan of Goodfellas, it was wonderful to see Lorraine Bracco in a role that has a lot more agency, but was sexy in its own way. And there was an undeniable chemistry between her and James Gandolfini’s quietly psychopathic mobster Tony Soprano.
My final couple is much more recent: Issa Dee and Lawrence Walker from HBO’s “Insecure.” As two black millennials trying to figure out what they want from life and love, these two have fallen in and out of each other’s hearts for the life of the series. But star and creator Issa Rae gave their story a particularly heartfelt twist this past season, as they finally admitted to each other how they failed as a couple. So many online lists of TV couples in this vein feature no non-white characters, so its surprisingly groundbreaking to find a show where black characters are allowed to play in this sandbox.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
It’s not even close, you guys.
From the very first episode of “The X-Files”…
…Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny had the sort of chemistry that makes an on-screen couple iconic, able to survive and transcend some of Chris Carter’s weirdest writing choices.
What kind of couple they were at various points in their 20-plus-year relationship has at times been murky, but what was always clear was that Mulder and Scully cared about each other deeply and were far better together than apart (something Season 11 has been doing a good job of remembering, for the most part).
Mulder and Scully, together, investigating the X-Files. Forever epic.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I will always feel that we were robbed of this for “Glee’s” Rachel and Finn. They were so on and off, but so clearly endgame until real life stepped in and tragically changed everything. Breaks my heart. Still, I am normally not a fan of TV’s “will they-won’t they” situation because so many flame out storyline-wise or lead to the writers introducing weak-ass reasons to break up a pairing seconds after they get together. Surprise exes! Back-from-the-dead wives! Time jumps! Actors not-so-secretly hating one another! After months, sometimes seasons of foreplay, all of our investments are jabbed with the “well, if we keep them together, it’ll be boring” line of thinking and that is bullshit. Write them interesting stuff and then your characters won’t live or die on JUST sexual tension and expectations. So the best WTWT? pairing I can think of that has managed to maintain all of the intrigue and keep their chemistry from being overplayed is actually couple we may never see together in an official capacity, one that forever finds ways to be interesting and is pretty much ageless. Yes, I speak of the one and only Kermit and Miss Piggy. May they go back and forth until their felt-covered hearts’ content.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
I could list a number of will-they-won’t-they couples across current and past TV and all of them would be worthy, but the correct answer is obviously Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham on NBC’s “Hannibal.” Over the course of the series, everyone’s favorite murder husbands engaged in a beautiful, tragic love story that consistently pushed the boundaries of intimacy through its macabre storytelling. Their connection was complicated, dark, and incredibly passionate, and although NBC canceled the show after three seasons, the series finale delivered a fierce, if untraditional, declaration of love from Hannibal after Will helped to murder Francis Dolarhyde. He said, “This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For both of us.” The two then, spent from their actions, embraced. Yes, both men were covered in blood, but Will had accepted the truth he’d been resisting, and they came together as one. All Hannibal wanted was for Will to see him and see their potential, and by the end of the series, both men had found someone who would accept and embrace them, flaws and all.
Of course, I’d hate myself if I didn’t also take the opportunity to at least mention the more traditional will-they-won’t-they relationship between Miss Phryne Fisher and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson in the 1920s-set Australian series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” A bold, brilliant and sexy private detective, Phyrne’s knack for solving mysteries naturally put her on a collision course with local law enforcement, aka the responsible and reasonable Jack. I could say more, but I would be here forever. Just know that their love story is not as complicated as Hannibal and Will’s, but that doesn’t make it any less passionate. And the series is on Netflix. Go watch it.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
Honestly, I tend not to be a will-they-or-won’t-they couple guy. Too often, the TV shows I watch tend to get hung up on couples I truly hate, mostly because they get traction with a subset of viewers or because they create dramatic friction, which they usually do because of how bad they are. I’m thinking Blair and Chuck on “Gossip Girl” or Veronica and Logan on “Veronica Mars” or, worst of all, Barney and Robin on “How I Met Your Mother.” Still, I guess I like a lot of the classics. I rooted for Jim and Pam on “The Office” and can appreciate Sam and Diane on “The Cheers.” “Moonlighting” didn’t fall apart because Maddie and David finally hooked up, but I definitely remember rooting for said hook-up.
Josh Schwartz has created a couple decent will-they-or-won’t-they couples with Chuck and Sarah on “Chuck” and especially with Seth and Summer on “The OC.” And I want to make sure that for the second week in a row I honor the Donna/Cameron friendship on “Halt and Catch Fire” and I don’t care if Donna and Cameron didn’t have a romance. I ‘shipped their friendship aggressively, especially in the final season. I think it’s also fair to praise some will-they-or-won’t-they couples that DIDN’T. Like there was actually a segment of “Mad Men” viewers who wanted Don and Peggy to hook up. I like to refer to those viewers by their formal ‘shipper name as “morons,” but I also want to give Matthew Weiner credit for understanding that’s not what Don and Peggy were. Ever. Seriously, anybody who ever rooted for Don and Peggy to bang is a bad person. But really I have to go with my most formative will-they-or-won’t-they couple, namely Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper from “The Wonder Years,” because they were my peers and I truly wanted to believe they could find happiness and I truly feared they weren’t destined to be together. I invested deeply in Kevin and Winnie and I don’t think I’ve invested as deeply in a TV couple since.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx
Sometimes, being first isn’t the same as being the best. But it is for Sam Malone and Diane Chambers from ‘Cheers,” whose on-again, off-again flirtation, romance, and combat invented the whole Will They Or Won’t They? genre of TV romantic comedy. Between the scorching chemistry between Ted Danson and Shelley Long, the crackerjack one-liners both characters were given by one of the best joke-writing staffs ever assembled, the unerring timing with which those writers kept pushing their leads together and pulled them apart, and the fact that there were very clear reasons for them to not be together, it was a pairing that’s been oft-imitated, never-duplicated. Most of their spiritual descendants got some pieces right, but never all: “Moonlighting” drew out the coupling for much too long, there was never really a good reason for Ed and Carol on Ed to not start dating, Jim and Pam on “The Office” were sweet and charming but rarely super-funny, etc. Sam and Diane’s first kiss at the end of season one — a much earlier point for such a moment than many modern shows would have the guts to try, out of the misguided belief that couples who get together ruin shows — generates one of the most explosive responses I’ve ever heard from a studio audience, because they were that excited to see it happen after all the expert build-up, and because the moment was played as much for laughs as for romance.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
Sam and Diane. Next question.
Oh. You want more?
I recently revisited the magical first season finale of “Cheers,” to see how it held up in an era where we’re more acutely aware than ever of power imbalances between the genders, and the way that men have often abused those imbalances. Theoretically, this should have been more pressing on “Cheers,” which ends with Sam threatening Diane with violence (which seems like an incredibly real threat, thanks to Ted Danson’s dialed-in performance), before the two fall into the kiss to end all kisses. Why does this work where many similar beats from other early rom-coms make me cringe? I think it’s largely due to the skill of everybody involved, especially Danson and Shelley Long, who make those characters seem like they might really kill each other, but in a funny way. It’s a relationship that constantly flirts with being too much, and that means it’s able to weather the passage of time, that has only made some of its underpinning assumptions about gender feel all the creakier.
And, yes, the later seasons of the two’s pairing weren’t as great as the first few, and the relationship only managed to be an all-time great thanks to Long’s decision to leave the show (which kept the series from trying to throw the two of them into a marriage), but boy oh boy, when this coupling worked, it worked.
(The obvious runner-up is Mulder and Scully, but I also love David and Maddie from “Moonlighting” and feel that the two hooking up didn’t ruin the show. That said, I thought long and hard about answering with Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — and I might have!)
Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider
There’s a difficult balance for a will-they-won’t-they TV couple between getting together before the tension has reached its zenith, or drawing things out so long it’s irritating and ludicrous. And while there are a lot of possible and classic choices for the best will-they-won’t-they, I think ultimately it has to be personal. So I’m going to go back to my formative television years for my pick, back to a time before shippers dominated fandoms, and to a place where rooting for a key couple on a show was not all the show was about.
In the ‘90s, the Disney Channel co-produced a Canadian series called “Road to Avonlea,” which was based (increasingly loosely) on the stories of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who also wrote “Anne of Green Gables.” I was obsessed with this series, which took place at the turn of the 20th century on Prince Edward Island. Despite a number of questionable narrative choices throughout the years, something “Road to Avonlea” always did really well was set up compelling love stories. There are many to choose from, but it’s longest-simmering one was between Felicity King, the haughty daughter of a well-off local farmer, and the family’s stable hand Gus Pike. I mean, these dynamics, you guys.
Throughout the series’ run, the two characters would find themselves in various states of crushing on each other, and eventually courtship and a proposal (or two), but never without drama that would drive them apart, as a will-they-won’t-they necessitates. But it also made sense; both characters were fiercely stubborn and independent, and so when they finally (yes finally!) did get together for keeps, it was as two people who had pursued their dreams in a way that ultimately led them back to each other. SWOON FOREVER!
Addendum: With my sincere apologies to these two actual humans whose personal lives millions of people want to manage … Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian figure skating team who have been dazzling us with their Olympic routines since 2010. Despite saying for all of that time that they are just friends, I mean, the love is real. Americans are reminded of it every four years, but Canadians have had to live through this epic, for-the-ages will-they-won’t-they for a decade. It’s the rare and perfect convergence of a ‘ship, an OTP, and will-they-won’t-they. I try very hard not to ‘ship people in real life but … Tessa and Scott, please put us out of our misery!
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
I could go into the way-back machine and nominate Sam Malone and Diane Chambers of “Cheers” fame…but one of the better tension-filled “will they or won’t they” was from the wrapped HBO horror potboiler “True Blood.”
Anna Paquin’s character Sookie Stackhouse of the Charlaine Harris written The Southern Vampire Mysteries book series just detested vampire Eric Northman a bit too much! Alexander Skarsgård ate up that role with fang-filled flourish, and their chemistry and sexual tension was great fun to watch grow each season.
Also one of the greatest build-ups in romantic sexual tension between two characters was that of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and Dr. Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) whose electric coming together again in the episode “The Pull” made people REALLY buy into and love the FX series “Sons of Anarchy” that first season. Those two had wild romantic chemistry and that sexy doomed lover’s arc amidst all the 1-percent-er motorcycle carnage made the show rev like a Harley. .
Most recently though, the best answer I can give for this question of “will they or won’t they” is between Daniel Brühl and Dakota Fanning on TNT’s “The Alienist.”
Dakota plays Sara Howard, a monied society girl employed by the New York police department and Daniel is cast a Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a forensic Alienist, sort of a nascent psychiatrist for the times. They are heading towards something, it appears.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
Though Sam and Diane pre-dated Ross and Rachel, only “Friends” provided a satisfying romantic conclusion to a decade-long will-they-or-won’t-they question. It’s also one of the only shows to successfully start with that question and end with the answer. (A lot of will-they-or-won’t-they arcs develop later in the series, like, say, Mulder and Scully — platonic partners who later became romantic.) Say what you will about the last few seasons — please can we all agree the “shark porn” storyline never happened? — but “The Last One” offered up an aptly emotional, high-stakes ending to a couple who couldn’t get their shit together until backed against a wall.
With Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) leaving for Paris, Ross (David Schwimmer) finally got over his denial/anxiety and put his feelings on the line for his one true love. Rachel responded in kind, connecting with someone she’d wanted to connect with for years, but couldn’t force into commitment by herself. (And for anyone bitching that Rachel gave up her dream job in Paris to be with a man, no she didn’t! Nothing in the finale implies she and Ross didn’t move there, or that she didn’t split time between cities. Just because he asked her to stay with him, doesn’t mean she literally stayed in New York forever and ever amen.) Some choices are correct because they’re obvious: Ross and Rachel ending up together was obvious to the audience at home, just as they’re the obvious (and best) answer to this poll query.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Blue Planet II,” “One Day at a Time,” “Star Trek: Discovery” (two votes each)
Other contenders: “The Alienist,” “The Magicians,” the Olympics, “Queer Eye.”
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.