Regardless of whether the chemistry doesn’t exist, runs dry, or fails to survive contrived and ridiculous situations, it can be quite frustrating if our favorite TV shows have to make time for romantic couples that just don’t warrant our attention or emotional investment week after week.
It only gets worse if the stolen moments they share tug ever so gently at viewers’ gag reflexes and force people to mentally tune out until the story resumes. The ups and downs of TV character relationships can be both exhilarating and irritating, and one wrong move can tip the scale towards the latter permanently, a conundrum that is a constant struggle in this medium. (Mulder and Scully held on as long they could.)
Instances of two characters working well together in a journey towards falling in love (over potentially a number of months or years, mind you. No small feat) while successfully following through with scenes of affection and longing without the saccharine undertones are few and far between. The exceptions to romantic mediocrity on television range from the simple and understated to the tempestuous and deeply touching.
Clearly lightening isn’t meant to strike twice and the following couples prove that originality is the secret to igniting that elusive spark.
Michael Westen and Fiona Glenanne: Burn Notice
From the outside looking in, Michael and Fiona appear to be susceptible to the same pitfalls of spies, detectives, and others who work in or around the law. The fast paced environment of catching bad guys (or evading them) creates a sleek and sexy allure to Michael and Fiona’s lives, but overused fallbacks like fear of commitment or emotional vulnerability are not the issues that plague their relationship.
Michael does not flirt with every attractive woman he meets and Fiona is never insecure about the bikini-clad prospects that frequently traipse through their Miami backdrop. The slightly tongue-in-cheek style of Burn Notice puts a crack in the fourth wall by frequently poking fun at stereotypical elements of a spy caper, thereby creating a more down to earth vibe and expelling any nauseating banter between our heroes.
And most of their angst revolves around worrying for each other’s safety, especially throughout Michael’s long-suffering mission to once again work for the people who ‘burned’ him.
Their feelings for one another and any anxiety between them may be blatantly addressed once in a while, with romantic gestures or heated arguments, but the writers/directors trust the audience enough to not spoon feed them scenes to constantly remind them that Michael and Fiona are into each other.
Watching them together in a gun fight, car chase, or a complicated con reveals more than dramatic heart-to-hearts or cutesy flirting ever could.
Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner: Spaced
Even though this duo never officially moved out of the friend zone, the possibility of an eventual hookup acted as a legitimate underlying plot point in the show. And because the potential for a relationship was there, so was the potential to make fans sick of the idea before it even became a reality.
Unresolved romantic tension is a dangerous route to take. If it stretches out too long, people start to get impatient and fail to buy it, but if it is resolved too quickly they might lose interest. Too overt, and the couple becomes obnoxious, but too subtle and characters’ intentions become unclear.
Tim and Daisy kept their cohabitation and evolving friendship intriguing and fun through a series of adventures that would make any twenty-something jealous. They brought the tension to the forefront occasionally, but it was always in connection with another storyline in the show.
When Daisy argued with Tim about moving back with his ex-girlfriend, it wasn’t so outlandish to think she had more than one reason for being against it, despite her claims to the contrary.
Above all, even within dramatic moments, the tone of the show never allowed the romance to take itself too seriously. The cleverly layered humor and uniquely drawn characters separated Spaced from other shows like it, and the same can be said for Tim and Daisy’s budding and open ended romance.
Zoë and Wash: Firefly
The married couple is another tricky dynamic. Their relationship must have enough angst and romance to keep people invested, but not too much that they become irritating and sappy.
Zoë and Wash had no trouble hooking fans with their rather unique partnership. Some might consider it a role reversal situation, with Zoë stepping in as the more masculine of the two, but as the show progressed, they proved to be a more complicated, multilayered husband and wife team. Both crew members stepped up as heroes in one way or another, even if Wash appeared to be absent or at Serenity’s controls for many of the major action scenes.
Many married couples in television tend to move through their shows as a unit, facing problems as a pair, rather than as separate entities, which can weaken their individual character development. While the Washburnes did face troubles and conflict together, Firefly gave them time away from each other, chances to breathe and grow as people, and moments for viewers to fall in love with them as complete beings, rather than two halves of one.
Kelly Kapoor and Ryan Howard: The Office
Sorry, Jim and Pam! The dysfunctional and often volatile exploits of Kelly and Ryan top my list as the most entertaining couple at Dunder Mifflin. While their chemistry isn’t based on a deep connection, their impact on one another’s evolution throughout the run of the show cannot be ignored.
Ryan may have started out as the aloof and ambitious temp and Kelly as the stalker who loves him, but the rise and fall of Ryan’s career left the self-proclaimed wunderkind defeated, humiliated, and a little bit unhinged.
And after a failed attempt at playing hard to get, everyone’s favorite ditzy customer service rep was there to pick up the pieces. Slowly, they fed into each other’s absurdity and their antics became more and more entertaining.
Viewers’ appreciation of this couple is not dependent on how they will overcome obstacles to achieve their eventual happiness, but rather on how much drama and hilarity they can cram into one relationship. With those expectations, it would be difficult for anything to derail this whirlwind romance.
James “Sawyer” Ford and Juliet Burke: Lost
Because Lost contained a sprawling ensemble cast, quite a few of the countless hookups on that crazy island could qualify for this list (so close, Sun and Jin, so close!).
What made Sawyer and Juliet so captivating was the combination of the almost complete lack of build up and the unprecedented amount of intensity and emotion they exuded in only a few episodes.
Prior to season 5, their scenes together were sparse and contained very little direct interaction. There was no indication that they would even strike up a friendship, let alone walk into the bright light of the afterlife together. Case in point, the first time they met, she pulled a taser on him and stuck him in a polar bear cage. Either Juliet ran out of pick-up lines or their romance was a delightful spur of the moment decision for the writers.
The late blooming relationship created a refreshing dynamic, where there was little room for awkward, corny flirtations but still expressions of bonding and a growing connection based on shared experience and strikingly similar personal motivations.
Even if viewers weren’t taken with the couple, Sawyer’s individual transformation was enough of a development to garner some fascination.
After two seasons of deliciously riveting and damaged characters acting as pawns in Jack and Kate’s tiring game of jealousy and denial, it was such a relief to see Sawyer and Juliet find happiness in each other instead.
These five relationships hardly cover the vast terrain of television romance. They are simply the five that stood out to me the most prominently.
In a plethora of nausea-inducing and insipid fictional liaisons out there, what pairings do you see as a breath of fresh air?