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?