Love is on the air: Who is the greatest TV couple of all time? The Final Four

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The Doctor and Rose, Doctor Who vs. Lucy and Ricky, I Love Lucy

Doctor Who runs on miracles. It’s a miracle that the British TV series is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It’s a miracle that the show came back in 2005 after over a decade in the wilderness, and it’s a miracle that every week the show freely resets itself — new time, new place, new supporting cast, new genre — without ever losing its essential compass. It’s a miracle that the show mixes together deep-think sci-fi with silly fantasy and light comedy, and it’s a miracle that, sometimes, it can break your heart. But no miracle was ever more miraculous than Rose Tyler, the working-class shop assistant who was simultaneously a plucky everygal and the most important woman in the universe.

The Doctor has had many companions over the years. But Rose was always unique. She was the lead protagonist when Doctor Who premiered in 2005 (with an episode titled “Rose.”) She played the role of audience surrogate, slowly learning more about the mysterious man with the time-traveling blue box. In the process, she learned that the Doctor’s chipper exterior hid untold layers of courage, sadness… and anger. The last survivor of his kind, the Doctor she met was a lonely god who stayed on the move because he was scared what would happen if he ever stopped.

In a weird way, though, traveling with Rose grounded the Doctor. As played by Billie Piper, Rose was a helplessly average person who turned out to be extraordinary — a local girl at home in the furthest reaches of time and space, capable of hobnobbing with royalty, someone generously trying to understand even the most terrifying alien monsters. Rose saved the Doctor’s life, and the Doctor saved hers. Rose only traveled with the Doctor for 26 episodes plus one Christmas special — one of the shortest TV romances in this bracket, particularly considering how little actual explicit “romance” there was. But their relationship had layers. It was all a great game between them — until sometimes it wasn’t, and they had to tear apart space and time to save each other. They were lovers on the run who wouldn’t even acknowledge they were lovers until it was too late.

When we talk about the Doctor and Rose, we’re really talking about three people. In Rose’s first season, she traveled with the Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston with a memorable mix of brooding PTSD and goofball charm. In her second season, the Doctor was incarnated by David Tennant, who was cerebral, zany, and genuinely dashing. You could argue that this is unfair; to me, this just speaks to what a wonderful connection the two characters had, that it managed to survive and deepen with a recasting. (It does mean that this single relationship had two separate tearful goodbyes. Actually, maybe that’s three. More on that later.)

It might be surprising to see how far The Doctor and Rose have come in this bracket. But it makes sense — their relationship feels a little bit like a patchwork combination of every TV couple. In some ways, they’re like two cops in a long-running procedural, Mulder and Scully, Castle and Beckett, Booth and Bones — slowly moving together as they explore different cases. In other ways, they’re like two coworkers who only gradually realize they’re meant to be together: Jim and Pam, Josh and Donna, Andy and April. There are elements of fantasy that make their connection feel epic — like Buffy and Angel, or Desmond and Penny from Lost, one of many high-powered couples that they upset on the way to their Final Four perch. They even feel a little bit like Lucy and Ricky — although they switched off who was who. And there’s a slight unmistakable quality of a fairy tale to their whole interaction: The Girl Next Door and the Lonely God, who saved each other and could never be together.

Because, in the end, they couldn’t — add “unrequited love” to the pile of phrases we can use to describe this indescribable couple. The Doctor must always stay on the move: He has to keep starring in Doctor Who. After her time with the Doctor, Rose got a happy ending — the family she had never had, a better job, a better world — but her time with the show ended with a goodbye on a distant shore, and with words left unspoken. Rose did return a long time later, reimagined as a full-on action heroine, and the show bent over backwards to grant her a happy ending with someone who was almost the Doctor. You can imagine that Rose lived a happy life forever-after with her almost-Doctor. But part of what made The Actual Doctor and Rose’s relationship on the TARDIS so special was that it could never last. It was an affair and a first love, and they were like an old married couple who kept on going on a different first date. – Darren Franich

After barely squeaking past The Addams Family‘s Gomez and Morticia in the Round of 16, Lucy and Ricky clobbered Bewitched‘s Samantha and Darrin in the Elite 8 by a 38-percent margin. They’re peaking at the right time! The housewife with showbiz dreams and her bandleader husband with the funny accent may be the oldest couple in the Final Four, but their staying power is legendary — 62 years after the show debuted on CBS and became the first sitcom filmed before a live audience, you can watch 10 episodes a day, Monday through Friday (six on Hallmark and four on TV Land). Why? They’re still funny. It’s as simple as that.

“[T]here was no feeling that the audience was watching her act,” wrote I Love Lucy producer-cowriter Jess Oppenheimer, in his memoir. “She simply was Lucy Ricardo. And if you looked carefully, you would marvel that every fiber in the woman’s body was contributing to the illusion. Did Ricky catch her in a lie? She wouldn’t be just a voice denying it. Her stance would be a liar’s stance…. There would be a telltale picking at a cuticle, or a finger brushed against her upper lip…. Her hands, her feet, her knees — every cell — would be doing the right thing.”

But there are reasons why the real-life couple endure beyond the timeless slapstick, which usually resulted in Lucy having some “‘splaining” to do, why this couple — a mixed marriage, in primetime, in the 1950s — is deserving of the crown. In 1999, when EW named the 100 Greatest Moments in Television, the birth of their son came in at No. 5. Times being what they were in 1952, Arnaz was actually worried that Ball’s pregnancy might offend viewers… since there was really only one way for a woman to get pregnant in those days, and those ways did not have a place on respectable network television (even in inference). Instead, viewers were enthralled with the “stunt” of a pregnant actress playing a pregnant woman on TV. Forty-four million viewers tuned in on Jan. 19, 1953, for “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” the same day Ball gave birth to her real son via Caesarean section.

As EW wrote in 1999, “Little Ricky’s birth was a groundbreaker, not only in paving the way for a legion of Very Special Episodes, but in allowing the first hint of sex to slip onto the air.” – Mandi Bierly

The Greatest TV Romance Tournament:
Round 1, part 1
Round 1, part 2
Round 1, part 3
Round 1, part 4
Round 2, part 1
Round 2, part 2
Round 2, part 3
Round 2, part 4
Sweet 16 round
Elite 8 round

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