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If not The Bachelor, then where? A search for the healthiest couples on television

With more television shows than we have time to watch, Laura Vincent searches for the rare on screen couples that are worth looking up to.

“They have their problems, but they always work it out by the end of the episode”

I was casually catching up with my two best friends, the three of us sitting cross-legged on the floor, our bodies forming a triangle around $5 Pizza Hut pizzas. We were talking about relationships and our lives and it got to a certain point of intensity and depth where it had turned into a legitimate therapy session.

I found myself asking, somewhat frantically, “but how are you supposed to even know how to just be?”

While it’s badly worded, you get the urgency and confusion behind my question, right? We came to no real conclusion, but we did agree on one thing: we may all be screwed up in our own way, but it’s no bloody wonder when there are hardly any romantic relationships on TV that are genuinely healthy and role-model worthy.

Of course, TV shows require their characters to constantly be in some state of conflict to propel the narrative forward. It would be a fairly pointless medium without this. Nevertheless, few of us are immune from forming ideas about ourselves and the world – examples of how to just be – from the media we consume.

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Who are the good couples that we can learn from and model ourselves upon? Who out there is genuinely in love, rather than acting out vignettes of thinly-veiled murderousness week after week?

Let me tell you, it was somewhat of a slog to find these people. Do you know what’s even harder? Finding “good” couples who aren’t white and heterosexual. It’s hardly a revelation that television and film have long been a let-down in terms of diverse characters and stories, but… mate. We need to do better. Nevertheless, I ploughed through the shows I’ve connected with and gathered together some loved-up people doing it well across all genres.

COMEDY

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Bob and Linda Belcher (Bob’s Burgers)

The Schlubby, Useless Husband with a Shrill, Harpy Wife trope benefits one person only: whoever gets paid for lining up the canned laughter track. Luckily sitcoms – and indeed life itself – have more to offer than just this wince-inducing tired pairing.

The animated show Bob’s Burgers could easily fall into this trap with Linda and Bob Belcher, but the pair are treated with a surprising tenderness. They lurch from episode to episode with a pretty consistent lack of success and financial solvency. However, Linda’s immense enthusiasm for everything and Bob’s dogged passion for his work, plus their endless love for their three trying children, is an inspiration.

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From them we can learn to make small wins feel big, and that having minimal resources doesn’t matter as much as the lengths you’ll go to for someone you love. A scene of the two of them in bed from the episode ‘Friends with Burger-fits’ pleasingly illustrates this:

BOB: I’m killing Teddy!

LINDA: [waking up] You’re gonna kill Teddy? Alright. The car’s gassed up, that’s good. I guess I could homeschool the kids…

BOB: No, Lin, the burgers are killing him!

LINDA: Oh, gotcha. What? I’m just being supportive! Goodnight. [immediately falls back asleep]

Brad and Jane (Happy Endings)

Jane and Brad Kerkovich-Williams from the aggressively quippy three-season sitcom Happy Endings are young, married, and believably in love.

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The intense zaniness of the show requires them to have extreme personality traits which lead to occasional conflict. Sure, they have their problems, but they always work it out by the end of the episode.

Their strength lies in the way that these two type A’s are undoubtedly a team of equals: whether they’re fighting off terrifying suburban kids on Halloween while dressed respectively as bacon and eggs, preening together over their material goods, or working through the abject horror of losing a highly competitive game of How Well Do You Know Your Partner.

I enjoy how they make marriage look like fun, not a prison sentence – indeed, their lavish sex life is a running plot thread on the show.

Titus and Mikey (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)

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Titus and Mikey in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are a delight: Titus is sensitive, immensely talented, and prone to self-absorption and drama for drama’s sake. Mikey is an easy-going construction worker. Mikey celebrates Titus’s theatrical side while grounding him, and Titus brings Mikey out of his shell (and closet).

They are a great lesson in compromise – both learn to adjust their expectations of each other and to judge them on their own terms without changing anything fundamental about themselves.  As someone with an Eartha Kitt approach to compromise (essentially: “ha!”) there is plenty to learn from them.

DRAMA

Tami and Coach Taylor (Friday Night Lights)

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The necessary highs, lows, zigs and zags of the drama genre make it hard for any character to get by unscathed by life, especially a loving couple. Nevertheless, they are out there. Coach and Tami Taylor of Friday Night Lights are repeatedly held up as an example of the ideal couple. Having just started watching it, I agree.

After being married long enough to produce a teenage daughter, the characters still seem deeply, freshly in love and 100% united. Honestly, the chemistry between Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler is so lovely – every time they’re onscreen together it’s like being enveloped in a big hug.

Sandy and Kirsten Cohen (The OC)

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Sandy and Kirsten Cohen of The OC may slide soapily through some ridiculous storylines, but theirs is truly an inspirational relationship. They’re affectionate and supportive, they work hard through their myriad of problems – alcoholism, infidelity, grief, their son Seth being a monumental whiny dick – and they have a truly wonderfully welcoming attitude to taking troubled teens under their roof.

These two can teach us much about knowing the world is much bigger than just the two of you, the lasting effects of a little kindness, and the peacemaking power of bagels. Both the Taylors and the Cohens are the sort of couples that make getting old with someone seem not so horrifying.

Alas, being highly literal, my main takeaway remains that the key to long-lasting happiness is being a dude with thick, floppy dark hair married to a woman with big shiny hair.

REALITY

Cori and Kasey (The Real L Word)

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Reality television is so contrived and manipulated that it’s very impressive if a couple can make it through the editing process and still appear to be monumentally sweet and good-hearted. I inhaled The Real L Word during a particularly fraught stage of my life, which tends to make a show stick with you.

It follows the lives of a group of lesbians in LA and New York and can be hilarious, poignant, adorable and brimming with toxicity simultaneously. While I’m not sure if it’s very good quality, it’s never not completely addictive.

Within all the vying for attention, swift cohabitation, flat-top hats and cutting to the reaction of small pet dogs, there is an utterly beautiful young couple: Cori and Kasey. Their journey through pregnancy attempts is heartbreaking, but the bond between them is palpable. Their love and commitment practically leaps off the screen.

All of us can only hope to find a connection like that, but we can be inspired by the sheer effort and strength they put into their relationship.

Am I putting too much responsibility onto television for defining how I am? No! Only because I can’t really get away with it, admittedly. You may think you’re above it, but even if you’ve never watched TV in your life, you’re bound to be subtly influenced by someone who is.

Even if you live in the forest, I guarantee you’ll bump into an overbearing squirrel who picked up some bad habits from the TVs in the window of an electronics shop they ran past one time. For someone with fairly terrible instincts, it’s comforting to remind myself that even if I don’t know how to be, there are answers and clues right there on TV. As the evergreen Homer Simpson said, “Television: teacher, mother, secret lover.”


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