Television marriages are largely terrible.
For the most part, they feature either bumbling husbands who are always put in their place by bizarrely patient wives (Family Guy) or flighty women always being put in their place by competent men (I Love Lucy). It’s rare to find a televised marriage in which the show creators seem to have any idea how a real relationship ought to work, and the toll that’s taken on society has, perhaps, yet to be fully understood.
And yet, in every decade, certain shows have broken with the mainstream to portray marriage as not only desirable, but admirable. These shows are rare, but they’re wonderful, and they can act as small, half-hour lessons in our weeks of what we ought to aspire toward. And so, we bring you RELEVANT’s top televised marriages of the past 50 years, one from each decade, and what it teaches us about having and holding, for as long as you both shall be syndicated.
Rob and Laura Petrie: The Dick Van Dyke Show
These days, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore’s fictional marriage is more likely to be mocked for its separate beds than heralded for its portrait of a progressive marriage in the 1960s. Separate beds on TV may be quaint, but in its heyday, the show was pushing the envelope in ways few television shows ever have. Show creator Carl Reiner was hard at work delivering an interesting, nuanced portrayal of a marriage when most television shows were still asking viewers to laugh at smart, long-suffering husbands putting up with their silly, accident-prone wives. Rob and Laura’s relationship was a spirited one, in which Rob never had to resort to instructing Laura that she “had some ‘splaining to do.” They explained things to each other, respected each other’s mutual roles and seemed to have a marriage that involved friendship and patience. It was as much a revelation in the ’60s as it would be today.
Bob and Emily Hartley: The Bob Newhart Show
The Bob Newhart Show was neither a workplace comedy nor a home life comedy but straddled both, showing both Bob’s work and home in equal measure. Yet the show’s theme song, “Home to My Emily,” probably sums up what the show was really about: Bob’s marriage to Emily (Suzanne Pleshette). As a neurologist, Newhart spends most of his time surrounded by oddballs and neurotics. He can work with them, even help heal them, but he can’t be fulfilled by his work with them. For that, he needs his wife, who was able to nurture him, encourage him or, when needed, correct him (often with a wit that surpassed his own). The 60s was the era of the self-made man, defined by his job. The Bob Newhart Show turned that idea on its head, showing a man who was only good at his job because of the support and wisdom he got from his marriage.
Cliff and Clair Huxtable: The Cosby Show
Of course, Bill Cosby has spent most of his life quietly tearing down stereotypes, and his television marriage was no exception. Cliff and Clair’s marriage was one of equals in every way. Both had demanding careers in lucrative fields, and both still find time to invest in each other and their ever-blooming family. While other shows might have found humor in pitting the two against each other like competitors, The Cosby Show made Cliff and Clair each other’s teammates, even cheerleaders. They listened to each other (and when one didn’t, the other would call them out on it). The Cosby Show was also unique for portraying the Huxtables as not just career equals but family equals, too. The Cosby Show has weathered criticism from people who say the Huxtable marriage is too idealistic. Those critics missed just how hard Cliff and Clair had to work at it.
Homer and Marge Simpson: The Simpsons
The Simpsons is many things, but a portrait of a perfect marriage it is not. Homer and Marge are an ill-matched couple. Marge towers over Homer in every way: She’s smarter, wiser and more aware. While Homer occasionally ends up saving the day, there’s no doubt Marge saves Homer in quite literally every episode. And yet—and yet—they make it work. They’ve got a spark of love, a mutual understanding and that crucial desire to push through. They work to overcome their differences and address each other honestly about their feelings instead of burying their arguments and resentment. The Simpsons’ marriage isn’t perfect but, when marital cynicism reached its peak in the ’90s, it continued to be happy—in spite of its obstacles. In that way, it gave everyone else a marriage to aspire to. Because if the longest running marriage on television can make it work, maybe we can too.
Eric and Tami Taylor: Friday Night Lights
It’s always difficult to explain Friday Night Lights to someone who hasn’t seen it. Ostensibly, Friday Night Lights is “the football show,” and that chases away everyone except for football fans with a taste for homespun drama. But Friday Night Lights fans know that all the football is really just a backdrop to the show’s main focus: the relationship between head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton). Novels could (and should) be written about what this show got right about marriage, but it’s enough to say here that their partnership and love is arguably the finest portrayal of marriage in television today. Even so, Eric and Tami’s relationship is never idealized. They bicker, parse the truth and occasionally brawl. But you never doubted their deep, abiding love for each other. They cooperated and compromised on each other’s dreams, remaining flexible with their individual aspirations for the greater good of the Taylor household and, as we saw in episode after episode, the ripple effect of one honest committed couple extended far past the bounds of just their household. More than any show before or since, Friday Night Lights showed the power of a strong marriage in its ability to better and benefit society as a whole. And the Taylors kept their marriage strong the Dillon way: with clear eyes and full hearts.
Adam and Kristina Braverman: Parenthood
It’s early, but it’s hard to imagine any other show this decade transcending to the heights attained by Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina Braverman (Monica Potter) on Parenthood. In four seasons, they’ve weathered unemployment, infidelity and disease with an emotional resonance that is almost life-affirming and elicits sobs as surely as if it were your own family on screen. Adam and Kristina’s good marriage stems from them being, first and foremost, good people. Adam can be naive and Kristina can be neurotic, but both believe that there is an objectively “right” thing to do, and they put aside their own failings in pursuit of it. They’ve fallen on hard times and made mistakes, but neither have used those as an excuse. The way they endure the trials fate (and their own family) puts them through gives us courage that our relationships can be as dependable.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.