These are dark days for television romance. The rise of unscripted shows has diminished the attention, if not the airtime, available to traditional storytelling.
Soapy shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives”are couple-driven only in a sort of detached, bumbling sense. Investigation dramas like “C.S.I.” and the various “Law and Order” franchises are likewise tough places to find attention given to romantic relationships.
The irritating Valentine season brings out the cold, list-making tendencies of the most determined romantic, so there’s no better time to look at a few of the best and the worst couples television has given us.
Best Mom And Dad:
Julius and Rochelle, ‘Everybody Hates Chris’
Most romantic when they’re: Yelling. Young Chris’s house runs loud. Pennies are pinched, and there are endless hassles for his put-upon parents. But while the comedy in “Everybody Hates Chris” can be hard-edged and unflinching, the portrayal of Julius and Rochelle leaves no doubt that they adore each other and they adore their kids. They holler a lot — especially Rochelle — but they come back to the family every time.
Maddie and David, ‘Moonlighting’
Most romantic when they’re: Fighting, obviously. While they’re widely remembered as the textbook lesson in screwing up a show by uniting a will-they-or-won’t-they couple, there is no taking away Maddie and David’s title as the greatest practitioners of lightning-fast banter in prime-time history. There’s a tragic lack of sexually charged jousting on the current landscape, and the paucity of promising heirs to the throne — like last year’s promising but quickly canceled “Eyes” — makes snappy, sexy dialogue even more dearly missed than ever.
Best Romance That Shouldn’t Have Been:
Mulder and Scully, ‘The X-Files’
Most romantic when they’re: Just friends. Despite the fact that their prospective coupling inspired one of the most determined fan followings of all time, Mulder and Scully were infinitely more compelling before they became romantically linked. The attempt to build sexual tension was the least interesting thing about the show and the relationship. Making out is kind of obvious; what was unique was the portrayal of profoundly connected souls for whom sex was not so much undesirable as largely irrelevant. Their fierce devotion to each other and their unwavering trust was the heart of the show. Waiting around for them to kiss? Eh. Whatever.
Best Geek Love:
Jeremy and Natalie, ‘Sports Night’
Most romantic when they’re: Trading sports facts. One of television’s most disappointingly premature cancellations, “Sports Night” specialized in sharply observed relationships. Among them was the endearing love story between conventionally adorable Natalie and her smarty-pants boyfriend Jeremy. For women who swoon over geeks, Jeremy was the ultimate: smart, cute, shy, dryly funny, and the master of preposterous quantities of trivia about his areas of interest. One babbling speech from him about following Natalie to a job in Galveston, Texas if necessary — going because he loved her, in spite of “the heat and the cattle and the malaria” — represented a high-water mark in the show’s terrific two-season run and showed just how much a nerd has to offer.
Worst Example For America’s Youth:
Dawson and Joey, ‘Dawson’s Creek’
Most unappealing when they’re: Discussing fate. Has there ever been a more ill-conceived notion of “destiny” than the nutty conviction that Dawson carried for years that he and Joey were soulmates of some sort? Dawson was at his most intolerably self-important when declaring his entitlement to Joey’s devotion, and Joey was at her most simpering and indecisive when it came to Dawson. They were boring, they had no chemistry, and the show’s insistence on briefly throwing them together late in the game came off as silly pandering.
Worst Mental Image:
Paula and Simon, ‘American Idol’
Most unappealing when they’re: Breaking the hearts of bad singers. Okay, Paula and Simon aren’t a real couple. But “American Idol” bases as much of its dynamics on the relationship between them as many dramas do on core characters. Every season starts the same way: Simon is mean, Paula takes exception, Paula tries to soften some of the blows, Simon makes fun of her. He mocks a woman’s weight; she scolds him. She swoons over some young man; he ridicules her. It stopped being interesting somewhere around the time the show faked up a nauseating fantasy sequence in which they kissed — a shot that has reappeared over and over in defiance of the quantities of Pepto-Bismol it requires one to ingest. Seeing her behave like an ineffectual scold while he haughtily dismisses her has gone from irritating to boring and mechanical.
Worst Multiple-Choice Question:
Veronica and Everyone, ‘Veronica Mars’
Most unappealing when they’re: Inexplicably together. The thing about Veronica is that she’s a smart girl. Flawed, sure, but overall, a smart girl. And while it’s not unrealistic for a smart girl to be stupid about her own relationships, Veronica’s romantic choices border on the inexplicable. The recently departed Duncan was a beefy dullard, clearly undeserving of his status as the great love of Veronica’s teenage years. As for Logan, the less said, the better. Veronica would tell any other girl her own age to stay far away from a freak with a personality disorder who would smash her car with a crowbar. She is the last character anyone would expect to perpetuate the myth that psycho behavior in men is romantic or poetic, as opposed to just psycho. Veronica is in desperate need of a decent boyfriend. It shouldn’t be that difficult for such a clever girl to do a better job of securing someone moderately sane without settling for someone boring.
Worst Foregone Conclusion:
Ross and Rachel, ‘Friends’
Most unappealing when they’re: Still hanging on after 10 fruitless years. Not a popular opinion, perhaps, but the conviction that Ross and Rachel were a terrible couple is supported by the fact that for a decade, they made each other really, really unhappy. At that point, it’s time to cut your losses. The feelings they supposedly continued to have for each other mostly emerged in the form of jealousy over each other’s new relationships. The show forced them together in the series’ last few episodes as a sop to longtime fans who couldn’t stand not to see them reunited, but it’s easy to see in their relationship every pointless, endless, circular drama in which your friends have ever ensnared you. People who can’t make it work after, say, five years should break up.
Worst Waste Of Chemistry:
Luke and Lorelai, ‘Gilmore Girls’
Most unappealing when they’re: Lying. This is a heartbreaker, because at times, Luke and Lorelai’s palpable chemistry and spark has been part of a very good show’s central dynamics. But the decision to give Luke a secret long-lost daughter was disastrously poisonous to the airy joy of their relationship, and having him keep the secret from Lorelai for months was even worse. What once was primarily an abiding friendship now looks like it doesn’t even encompass trust, and that’s just not very romantic.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.