Pop culture and romance tend not to mix for me. Nothing can take me out of a story faster than a shallow or unrealistic romance shoehorned into a character dynamic in the service of ratings. A good relationship, though? One that’s thoughtful and textured and plausible and challenges characters and their fans? I love those. I love those relationships so much that I’m breaking my usual embargo on Valentine’s Day to tell you about my ten favorite TV romances.
Caution: Spoilers below for Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
10. Willow & Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Oh, my heart: Willow and Tara’s story was lovely, tender and unexpected – as much for the characters as for 90s network TV. Everything about this coupling – from its poetic beginnings to its difficult confrontations to (spoiler alert) Tara’s sudden and senseless death – was rich and real and moving. Seeing Willow honor Tara’s trust, abuse it, and regain it only to lose its bearer is one of my most vivid and gutting memories of Buffy. The story of Willow & Tara is the story of all the things that can go wrong in a relationship, and all the things that can go right, about the ways we fall in love and fuck up and forgive. It’s a beautiful story I may never be able to bring myself to watch again.
9. Rogue & Gambit, X-Men: The Animated Series
Rogue and Gambit were my first encounter with a love story about two people forced by circumstance to dance around their intense mutual attraction. The way the electricity between them flitted between flirtation and frustration was a hundred times more interesting than the Scott-Jean-Logan not-quite-love-triangle or whatever was supposed to have happened between Professor X and Moira McTaggart. I still haven’t finished the series (thanks for nothing, Fox Kids and Netflix), so I don’t know whether these two crazy kids ever managed to get together, but in a way, it doesn’t matter: There was an entire love story in the way Gambit called Rogue chère.
8. Daria & Tom, Daria
If you were a disaffected kid watching MTV in the late 90s/early 00s, you probably have a strong opinion about this one. When it aired, I was scandalized by the suggestion that Daria could be so interested in a boy that (spoiler alert) she’d steal him away from her best friend. Arguably, I was scandalized by the notion that Daria could be interested in a boy at all. Years later, this arc grew on me: It captured the awkwardness and angst of adolescent romance, it modeled the value of connecting with someone who understood and respected you on a previously unexperienced level, and it admitted (spoiler alert) that just because an experience has value doesn’t mean it will last forever.
7. Detective Casey Shraeger & Davis Nixon, The Unusuals
If you haven’t seen this show (and you probably haven’t, because ABC made some lousy decisions that year), this pairing takes more time to explain than to appreciate. It’s enjoyable primarily because of how obvious it isn’t. A lazier show would have shoehorned some cheap sexual tension in between newly assigned precinct partners Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn) and Jason Walsh (Jeremy Renner). But The Unusuals – the series on which Noah Hawley cut his show running teeth before being tapped for Fargo and Legion – was anything but lazy. Instead, Shraeger finds herself drawn to the financial adviser who climbed into her world just as she was jumping out of it. Both she and Davis move between diametrically opposed worlds, and that tension of class and purpose informs and enriches their brief time together. These two would probably rank higher on the list if the series had gotten more than ten episodes to showcase their lively and unexpected chemistry.
6. Brock Samson & Warriana, The Venture Bros.
I shouldn’t like Brock and Warriana as much as I do. On paper, each is a walking case study in toxic tropes: Brock’s a beefy jock with anger management problems and Warriana is an uncharitable take on Wonder Woman. But they work so well together. In spite of his tendency to murder scores of unfortunate henchmen, Brock seems disinclined to hurt people outside of combat and very inclined to fall for women who can kick his ass. And Warriana, who clearly has no time for drama, appreciates that Brock’s a basically decent guy who can hold his own against her and finds her sexy as hell. Even though these things tend not to end well in the Venture Universe, I really want this pairing to live up to its early promise, and for these two to live happily ever after.
5. Sisko & Kassidy, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
DS9 did not pull its punches. The show opened by widowing Commander Ben Sisko in the Battle of Wolf-359, leaving him to raise their young son Jake alone. So it’s heartwarming when, several years later, Jake sets his dad up with a freighter captain delivering cargo to the station. Much to their shared surprise, Kassidy and Sisko bond over their love of baseball (at this point an antique sport without many fans). Each appreciates the other’s intelligence and command, and neither hesitates to call out the other’s bullshit. It was the sort of mature, adult relationship that was rare before peak TV; even now, watching these two support and negotiate with each other like, well, actual human adults retains all of its refreshing charm.
4. Hank & Gretchen, Terriers
By the time Terriers begins, Hank and Gretchen are no longer a couple. Hank is sober now, but he wasn’t at the end of their marriage, and even though he still loves Gretchen he accepts that she’s never coming back. For her part, Gretchen still cares about Hank, and she still wants him to be well and safe, to learn how to be something like whole in the wake of all the things he lost to his alcoholism. I love Hank and Gretchen for what they try to be to each other, navigating the broken promise of their former marriage, more than friends but less than lovers. Their relationship is a study in aftermath, in the pieces that are left after two people who loved each other break each other’s hearts.
3. Odo & Kira, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
I didn’t see this coming; it’s a testament to the writing and to Rene Auberjonois and Nana Vistor’s performances that I was all in by the time it finally happened. The way Odo and Kira’s mutual respect evolves into friendship, then, love, and finally (spoiler alert) separation feels so awkward and organic and wonderful. I love the way they work at being strong for each other and then just as hard at being vulnerable to each other. As bittersweet as their final parting is, it’s also an affirmation of the strength of their love: They love each other enough to let go.
2. Goliath & Elisa Maza, Gargoyles
Gargoyles is my favorite childhood cartoon, and Goliath and Elisa are my favorite cartoon couple. Both characters are tough, smart, loyal, and honorable, and are so busy taking turns saving each other (and each other’s friends and family) that their affection sneaks up on them and spirits us all away. These two see each other through enough family drama, crazy exes, gunfights, and magic journeys to put the solidest marriage to shame. Like Rogue and Gambit, they can never be together, but like Odo and Kira, they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they can live up to their highest ideals.
1. Zoe & Wash, Firefly
I love everything about Wash and Zoe’s marriage: I love how their personalities complemented each other. I love how impressed Wash was with Zoe’s gunslinging badassery and how impressed Zoe was with Wash’s crack piloting. I love all the ways they knew and honored and teased each other’s idiosyncrasies. I love that at any given moment, each knew what the other was thinking even if they didn’t necessarily agree with it. As much as it kills me to remember, even now, I even love that (spoiler alert!) losing Wash was the only thing that could make Zoe lose control. I even love the way they fought, because how you fight is a more reliable indicator of the health of your relationship than whether you fight at all. The honesty at the core of their marriage – sometimes raw, sometimes tender, but always loving – made their love a force to reckon with, and Zoe’s loss that much more devastating. It’s fine, though – as long as I don’t rewatch Serenity, Zoe and Wash fly off into the sunset together, every time.