Will They or Won't They: A Retrospective

There's been a lot of talk lately on the Internet about what makes a good will they/won't they on TV. There are a lot of people who strongly believe that will-they/won't-they dynamics are a central part of the television landscape, and there are people just as strongly in the other camp who see it as a necessary evil. With three new candidates from this fall's pilot season floating around to varying degrees of success (Nick and Jess from New Girl, Emily and Jack from Revenge, and Max and Johnny from 2 Broke Girls -- see Todd VanDerWerff for a particularly good discussion of what's going on with that show), I figured it was time we revisit good examples of that age old form, the will-they/won't they. I should probably confess up front that I am a strong supporter of this format of narrative conflict, when it's handled correctly.

To make a list like this, I think it's important to establish criteria, otherwise it would have just ended up as a list of my favorite TV couples. You'll notice that I left Mulder and Scully off, for example, so I think that should tell you how seriously I'm taking this. To qualify for this list, a fictional TV couple must:

  • Regularly experience extreme longing or some variation of pining.
  • Exhibit palpable sexual tension on a regular basis.
  • Be openly acknowledged as a real story possibility by the show itself (hence Mulder and Scully's disqualification).
  • Experience some factor or factors prevents the couple from being together. Extra points given if that factor is character-based rather than situation-based.
  • Extra points were also rewarded if the show remained watchable after the couple got together, if the couple got together relatively early in the show's run and didn't drag the tension out for no reason, and if the frequency of back and forth break-ups (a natural consequence of will they/won't they) didn't give everyone whiplash (you'll notice the absence of JD and Elliot from Scrubs . . .)
  • Minus points if the show took the easy way out and only got the couple together in the finale.
  • The Moonlighting Curse does not exist.
  • Why only fourteen? It's my lucky number.
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    14. Lois Lane and Clark Kent, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

    I will admit straight off the bat that this couple made it onto this list largely on the strength of childhood nostalgia. HOWEVER. A rewatch of the show on DVD a couple years ago confirmed for me that the first two seasons of Lois & Clark, while extremely cheesy and dated, at least got one thing right. The sexual tension between Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain is deliciously fun, and it was their chemistry that elevated the show's problematic writing. Once the characters gave in to their urges, though, it became much easier to see the underlying flaws of the show, and as for their eventual journey to the altar, well . . . it was kind of a joke.

    13. Ed Stevens and Carol Vessey, Ed

    This show got a lot of things wrong (ridiculous obstacles constantly in the way of their one true love, the unnecessary dragging out of the romance, they only got together in the finale, etc), but it also got a lot of things right. Ed's (Tom Cavanagh) quirky but sweet courting of Carol (a pre-Modern Family Julie Bowen) was often the thing I looked forward most to watching every week. It's been too long since I've seen the show though, thanks to it's infamous struggle to be released on DVD, but I remember watching it and just sighing with happiness.

    12. Daphne Moon and Niles Crane, Frasier

    Niles and Daphne (David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves) is something that could have been awful, but wasn't. His comic pining for her over the course of six seasons (after which they finally got together) was played as much for its hilarity as it was the real emotion of the thing. Frasier also regularly threw silly roadblocks in the way of their one true love, but it was so funny it didn't seem to matter. Eventually, the show realized it had played the dynamic out and moved on to new things, but Niles's unrequited love is still one of the best things I've ever seen.

    11. Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham, Fringe

    Fringe gets points for a lot of things, but one of the things that doesn't get mentioned a whole lot is the way it handled the relationship between its two leads, Olivia and Peter (Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson). There wasn't much mention of romance between the two of them in the first season, but mid-way through season two little hints started to appear here and there: the way one character would glance at another, tiny touches, an almost kiss . . . and by the end of the season, the will-they/won't-they was firmly answered when Olivia traveled to another universe (no, really) to proclaim her love for Peter. What could have been dragged out and ruined over seasons and seasons was quick and satisfying, and what's more, taking the plunge into relationship status actually opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities in terms of the story. Nowadays, Peter and Olivia are just as star-crossed as ever (she doesn't remember him, because technically he never existed), but it's a different, fresh kind of tension that I think officially proves that the will-they/won't-they can evolve into something more mature if given the chance.

    10. Sydney Bristow and Michael Vaughn, Alias

    Like Peter and Olivia, Alias's Sydney and Vaughn (Jennifer Garner and Michael Vartan) were sprung fully formed from the mind of J.J. Abrams, and also like Peter and Olivia, their romance was relatively quick compared to most of the couples on this list. The sexual tension between Sydney and her CIA handler Vaughn was palpible from the very first episode, and the show played it for all it was worth. After a season and a half of almost unbearable agony (on my part as well as theirs), the forbidden love between them had reached epic proportions. But in an unexpected move, the show essentially rebooted itself mid-season two in the episode "Phase One," simultaneously defeating the bad guys we'd thought it would take to whole show to defeat, and allowing its leads to come together in one of the best TV first kisses of all time. Unfortunately, it was pretty much all downhill from there. The mind-bending season two finale made huge waves, but the three seasons that followed it were as frustrating as they were rewarding.

    9. Luke Danes and Lorelai Gilmore, Gilmore Girls

    The great thing about the relationship between Luke and Lorelai (Scott Patterson and Lauren Graham) is that it was earned. Gilmore Girls was never a show about romance. It was first and foremost a show about mothers and daughters, and what it means to be a family. Great romance was just a secondary benefit. Luke spent four years pining for Lorelai quietly behind the scenes, and it never felt forced or awkward, and when both characters realized what was happening, they did the natural thing and got together. The great thing about this for me was that all the while this pining was going on, we got to know each character separately, so when they finally got together it was that much more rewarding. Unfortunately, everything went to hell at the end of season six when Amy Sherman-Palladino abandoned her creation for who knows what awful reason. Bad things happened in season six for Luke and Lorelai, and it was only by some miracle of God that they managed to finally reconcile in the finale. But I'm not bitter or anything.

    8. Laura Roslin and Admiral William Adama, Battlestar Galactica

    The long-simmering relationship between President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and her military counterpart Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos) on Battlestar Galactica was all the more satisfying because I never thought it would actually happen. There was also something incredibly gratifying about one of the most functional loving relationships on the show being between an older couple. So much of TV love these days is sexualized and beautified that it's just so refreshing to have these people finding each other so late in life, when they needed each other the most.

    7. Seeley Booth and Temperance Brennan, Bones

    This one was dragged out about one season too long, but they got together in the end. In the first couple of seasons, the relationship between Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) on Bones was strictly platonic, with only the occasional hint to us as viewers as to what these two might have been feeling for one another. They ramped things up in season three, however, and from that point on, it was a wonderful journey of feelings and stolen glances and puppy dog eyes, right up until season five, when Booth finally got up the nerve to make his move, and Brennan shot him down. It needed to happen for her emotionally stunted character, but the way it was handled in season six left many fans feeling unsatisfied. Too many new girlfriends, too much awful hostility between our favorite duo . . . it's no wonder the writers took advantage of Emily's real-life pregnancy to put a stop to the madness.

    6. Ross Gellar and Rachel Greene, Friends

    Come on, that first kiss was magical. Sure, by the end their constant off and on again relationship was a joke even to its own characters, but when Friends was good, it was good.

    5. Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway, ER


    4. Sarah Walker and Chuck Bartowski, Chuck

    The great thing about Chuck is that, aside from some rocky stuff in season three when both Chuck (Zachary Levi) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) were with other people, their forbidden romance has been a joy from the start. The show is still good now that they're happily married and ramping up to the series finale, but nothing can match those wonderful days when it oh-so-wrong for them to be together, but they wanted it anyway.

    3. Sam Malone and Diane Chambers, Cheers

    Sam and Diane (Ted Danson and Shelley Long) are perhaps the poster children for the will-they/won't they dynamic, but what's really interesting about them is that they didn't end up together, and it was okay. The couple always, always gets together, right? That's how it's supposed to work. But Cheers was a classy, smart show. There's a reason it ran for eleven seasons (oh, NBC, I bet you miss those days).

    2. Tim Canterbury and Dawn Tinsley, The Office (UK)/Jim Halpert and Pam Beesley, The Office (US)

    The original Office's Tim and Dawn (Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis) had only a short time in which to captivate us, but their will-they/won't they was punctuated by torment and the horrible mundanity of everyday life, before they were finally allowed to be together. Their US counterparts, Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fisher), have been allowed a much longer life, and so have taken the original concept as far as it can go. At this point in the show's eighth season, there isn't much for the pair to do, but from the first episode of season one all the way until their wedding in season six, it was practically perfection, and proof that getting your characters together won't kill your show.

    1. John Crichton and Aeryn Sun, Farscape

    None of you have seen Farscape. I dare you -- I DARE YOU -- to go and watch it and find out why Aeryn Sun and John Crichton (Ben Browder and Claudia Black) are not only the best will-they/won't they relationship on this list, but the greatest television romance OF ALL TIME. It's streaming on Netflix. You have no excuses.

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    So, who'd I miss? Disagree with any of my choices? Sound off in the comments.

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