I’ve talked about impossible and/or unhealthy relationships very frequently on this blog. With a few notable exceptions, it’s a shared theme among all my favorite stories, across every form of media. Humanity’s conflicting feelings of attraction, idealization, resentment, betrayal and jealousy with regard the opposite sex are perfect for creating interpersonal drama. No matter the age, geographical location, place in history or socio-economic class of the characters and audience members alike, the ups and downs of romance will always be a factor in all of our lives. In fact, for almost all of us, falling in love is both the best and worst feeling we’ve ever known. So in my opinion, the greatest works of art are those which explore this contradiction in-depth, what I call the “affectionate adversary” dynamic that persists between the sexes.
That being said, I thought it would be fun to mix things up for once and talk about some of my favorite balanced, happy couples in media. These are the pairings which serve as a positive model for the rest of us to aspire to in real life. They’re the relationships which are uplifting and adorable.
In no particular order…
Albert and Rosie from Bye Bye Birdie (1963)
Bye Bye Birdie is not a particularly good movie all things considered, but I love it anyway. The biggest criticisms levied at this adaptation are the various changes to the script made at the expense of Rosie’s character in favor of Kim’s. The studio wanted an excuse to show off their hot new star, Ann Margaret, and I’m sure they were looking for any reason not to release a major picture with a Hispanic lead, regardless. The subsequent elevation of Kim and Hugo’s relationship from “shallow high school romance” to “star-crossed soul mates” is typical Hollywood schmaltz. Hugo’s jealousy over Kim kissing Conrad Birdie is not worth devoting an entire 90 minute runtime to, and in the play, this plotline resolves itself in Act I. Probably the worst scene in the film is when Rosie randomly confides her intimate love life struggles to Kim–a 16 year old stranger–as she gets dressed in front of her. Rosie even tells Kim she’s going out to have wild sex! (In a PG rated manner, of course, but still.) As a kid I thought nothing of this scenario–they’re both main characters so of course they’d be friends–but as an adult it destroys my suspension of disbelief every time. Even beyond those detriments, Birdie is also cheesy, the dance choreography is lame, there’s some outdated Cold War posturing and many great songs were cut from the play.
All the same, I loved this when I was ten. I watched it a million times in the summer of 2003, much to the annoyance of my parents. I honestly can’t even explain why, I was just obsessed with it for some reason. There was a time, however brief, when this was my favorite movie in the world and that means it will always hold a special place in my heart. It reminds me of my favorite childhood summer, when our house was getting renovated so my mom had to take my sister and I out to do something fun every single day to get out of the construction crew’s hair. We’d get breakfast/lunch on the road, go to the community pool, the library, the park, the local creek, the mall, etc. and then I’d come home and watch our copy of Bye Bye Birdie before bedtime. Those are some of my favorite memories, and since Middle School and my experiences getting bullied started shortly thereafter, they represent the last time I was truly happy for many years.
Apart from the nostalgic time capsule this movie represents, the one thing which makes it worth watching for me as an adult is Albert and Rosie’s relationship. Their initial dynamic is not that of an ideal couple, mostly because of Albert’s refusal to stand up to his mother. Ultimately though, Albert does learn his lesson and prioritizes the woman he chose over his mom’s prejudicial dislike of her. In one of many alterations to the story, it turns out his mother is actually fine with them getting together and gives her blessing. While the writing may be inconsistent, the fact that Albert did stand up for Rosie against his family left a big impact on my younger-self. It’s a lesson to all of us that if you love someone, you owe it to them, as well as yourself, to go to bat on their behalf. That may be common sense to most adults, but this was the first story I can remember which forced me to process that concept. Beyond that, I love the things they do for each other throughout the story, like Rosie setting up the Ed Sullivan deal and Albert rescuing her from the Shriners. Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh have great chemistry and since Birdie revolves around them working together to pull off this scheme against every obstacle, the film invokes a strong feeling of “you and me against the world, baby!”
ASIDE: Since I’m probably never going to talk about Birdie again, I just want to say quickly that Paul Lynde does a great job playing off Dick Van Dyke too. Their buddy-buddy rapport, and promise of a future business partnership, was one of the most endearing qualities about this film. It’s one of the few changes from the original Broadway play I actually condone. Something about the way they call each other “partner” and walk off with their respective wives in that last scene always makes me smile. For me, this is still one of the best “feel good” movies ever made.
Vinny and Lisa from My Cousin Vinny (1992)
My Cousin Vinny is arguably the best film in the courtroom genre: it’s a realistic depiction of the trial process warts and all. I love how there’s no cliche “villainous manipulator breaks down on the stand” scene and every individual in the court is genuinely seeking justice. There’s no bad guy, and the titular protagonist is just an average Joe rather than an exaggeratedly ethereal pillar of virtue like Atticus Finch. Yet somehow, that makes Vinny just as inspiring in his own way for dealing with the grueling procedural formalities which most courtroom dramas overlook or romanticize. I walked away from this film thinking that our adversarial, common law system is far from perfect but it’s the best we’ve got and when it works it’s a testament to the power of logic and rhetoric. I’d say anybody who saw To Kill a Mockingbird and said “I want to be a lawyer” ought to watch Vinny before they make up their mind to attend law school.
By far the most endearing part of the film is Vinny and Lisa’s relationship. The fact that she, on short notice, came down to live in an unfamiliar part of the country and stayed there for weeks if not months to support her man is amazing. I love how they teased each other and could give the other one a hard time, but when push comes to shove they had each others backs. I love how Vinny stood up for his woman against a jerk twice his size who cheated her out of money. I love how Lisa cared enough to take an interest in her man’s work, and read the books on trial procedure. I love the reaction shots of Lisa in the courtroom, proudly watching Vinny kick ass. I love how Vinny appreciated the magnitude of Lisa’s automotive knowledge, such that he knew she’d handle herself well on the stand. They may have their little spats here and there, but it’s hard for me to think of a more supportive couple in all of cinema. Everything between them, from the skirmishes to the sex, clearly derives from a deep passion.
Daria and Tom from Daria
The titular character of Daria is such a cultural icon that people know her shtick regardless of whether they ever saw the series or not. I recognized the name as shorthand for “cynical dejected Gen-Xer” before I got around to watching the show in college. Daria certainly lived up to her reputation, and while I agree with pretty much everything she says, I couldn’t help but want her to find happiness in this shitty world for her own sake if no one else’s. This is what made her crush on Trent in the early episodes so adorable: he was the one person who could make her blush, smile and reveal vulnerability. Ultimately though, Daria realizes that Trent is unreliable and her attraction to him is based on shallow infatuation rather than admiration of his personality. It was a realistic depiction of falling out of love, relatively drama free and a good example to set to young women. If you can’t see things working out long term, if a personality flaw reveals a fundamental incompatibility, it’s good to walk away sooner rather than later.
Daria is comfortable being single after Trent, and doesn’t immediately jump into any misadvised rebound. When she eventually meets Tom, they get off to a rocky start. Tom starts out as Jane’s boyfriend, and Daria is hostile towards the interloper cutting in on their girl time. Despite getting the brush off from Daria, Tom consistently goes out of his way to be nice to her for Jane’s sake. It took a few episodes for the two to realize how much they had in common with each other. This process led to some of my favorite moments in the series, like discussing their favorite dictators and “I Loathe a Parade.” (Which is arguably the best episode in the entire series.) Eventually, even Jane realized that Tom was a better fit for Daria and decided to stand aside. I always appreciated the fact that the two girls did not stand in each others way, nor did they let this situation destroy their friendship. They handled it with a maturity beyond their years.
Tom was objectively a good influence on Daria from the beginning. He called her out on her bullshit whenever she needed a reality check and forced her to be a better communicator as a result. He supported her interests and had his own unique spin on life. In the aforementioned parade episode, he redirects her hostility at the world into a more productive outlook. “You’ve got to embrace the nightmare.” Tom is like the fun cynic who knows our modern society is terrible, but since he can’t realistically change it, he enjoys the freak show for what it is. They complimented each other so well, and it’s my favorite relationship in any young adult media for that reason. While I was sad to see them break up in the finale, it was a realistic depiction of high school love. Sometimes, as circumstances change, you can’t keep in touch with people who mattered in the old chapter of your life. It’s bittersweet but it’s better to move on gracefully than try to force something that’s doomed and ruining it.
Ben and Leslie from Parks and Rec
I started watching Parks and Recreation midway through Season 2, just as The Office was becoming unbearable and I wanted another comedy to look forward to every week. It filled the void so nicely–in many ways it’s what The Office always should have been from the start. Very rarely do I laugh out loud watching this show, but like King of the Hill I adore the characters and their interactions with one another. So many other series drag out the “will they won’t they” couple to death, or get the characters together and shove their insufferably perfect relationship in the audience’s faces at every opportunity. But the relationships in Parks just seemed natural to me. I never felt like they were used for the sake of manufactured drama or forced “look how cute they are!!!1!” moments. Compare the way Parks handled the April/Andy/Anne situation to The Office with Dwight/Angela/Andy for example. One had just the right amount of drama and thrived because of the chemistry of its cast, the other had ridiculous fake weddings and other cartoon shenanigans. Alternatively, contrast April and Andy’s understated, unadvertised wedding to the over-hyped abomination that was Jim and Pam tying the knot in Niagara Falls. One feels warm and relatable, the other feels artificially saccharine and is full of ridiculous moments like the aisle dance or Andy tearing his scrotum.
You really could pick any relationship from Parks and Rec to include in this list. April and Andy are probably the fan favorite and for good reason. Ron Swanson and Tammy are another cute couple, and I love how sweet he was with her daughters. Gary (Jerry) and Gayle are pretty much a perfect, loving marriage. My favorite duo has to be Ben and Leslie, though. Maybe it’s because I love political science and so the idea of a local politics power couple is one of my weird romantic fantasies. Maybe it’s because theirs was a gradual buildup, starting with Ben saving the Freddy Spaghetti concert and culminating with supporting Leslie’s campaign. They’re both awkward dorks but it’s always portrayed in an endearing light. They support each other’s aspirations and work towards a shared view of a better world, rather than stay in the same dreary office pulling pranks on a coworker. I just think that’s absolutely beautiful.
Pearl and Rose Quartz from Steven Universe (Sorta)
Steven Universe Spoilers!
I would love to have included Pearl and Rose Quartz from Steven Universe on this list before the Season 5 reveal that Rose and Pink Diamond are one and the same. I always assumed that Pearl loved Rose so much because she (Rose) had been the first person to see Pearl not as a disposable servant, but an equal. It was beautiful to consider that by showing a little kindness to her, Rose Quartz had inspired a far stronger devotion in a Pearl unit than any Diamond could have ever programmed. It was yet another instance of Steven Universe demonstrating that love and egalitarianism are superior to submission and conformity. Under that pretense, Pearl’s yearning for Rose all through the series was touching, because Rose had been the first one to believe in her true potential and help her achieve it. When I was introduced to this series by my friend Jove six years and four months ago, I was getting over a limerent crush who had made me feel the same way. It felt like I had no self-worth anymore since I’d derived whatever facsimile of confidence I had from this person for so long. So, unlike most people, Pearl was my favorite character in the show because I could understand the struggle of rebuilding self-esteem organically from within after losing someone like that.
When I watched the episode “That Will Be All” and noticed the subservient mannerisms of Yellow and Blue’s Pearls, I was horrified to think that our beloved Pearl was once forced to live out such a menial existence. I kept thinking “thank God Rose was able to free her from such debasing treatment.” And then “A Single Pale Rose” premiered…and it turns out that our Pearl was just as demure, repressed and traumatized in her own way this whole time. Pearl never loved “Rose” out of genuine, earned affection; there was no melding of compatible personalities or mutualistic growth between them. She was just a play-thing, almost like a dog, who never knew what love between equals even is. Apparently Pearl just slavishly devoted herself to a pre-determined master like all the other members of her lowly class, never really taking control of her own life. This revelation might have made Pearl another great addition to my list of fascinatingly broken lovers if it were handled correctly: someone in the company of Jay Gatsby, Lucius Pinarius, John Ferguson, and Dr. Sayer. However, the series frames Pearl’s misplaced feelings for her absent-minded, emotionally abusive keeper as a positive ideal, and Pink Diamond is never called out for being objectively terrible to her. This just shows me that the writers had no idea how fucked up this new dynamic really is.
Without weighing in on whether or not that twist was good for the overall plot, or my issues with the rest of the series, I will say that in my personal opinion the last season of Steven Universe ruined Pearl’s character as well as a previously inspirational relationship. It seems like a lot of media franchises nowadays feel the need to shoehorn these “deep” twists and expectation-subverting moments into their narratives, regardless of whether it makes sense to do so. I understand the temptation; after all, big shocking reveals drive headlines and discussion, which brings clicks and views. But I feel like sometimes writers miss the forest for the trees and sacrifice other aspects of their story, like great character development, for the sake of these “break the internet” moments. They beget short-term attention, but often at the expense of long-term legacy if they’re not planned and implemented perfectly. In this particular case, the twist (if it even should have happened at all–and I’m iffy on that,) ought to have come earlier in the story so we had time to focus more on Pearl’s true feelings and growth afterwards. We really needed a few episodes of her coming to terms with Pink Diamond’s flaws and how this trauma has affected her over the years. As is, the writers neutered one of our key protagonists at the 11th hour and never let Pearl rebuild herself or come to terms with her grief.
So why am I talking about this in a post about uplifting relationships? Because in my head-cannon the disappointing last season of Steven Universe never happened and Pearl/Rose as they existed before the reveal are still one of my favorite couples. I don’t have time to read fan-fiction as much as I would want to, but it’s on my to-do list to seek out a story which retcons the PD=RQ reveal. (Suggestions are welcome in the comments.)