Earlier this month, the major TV networks held their Upfronts presentations, where they paraded next season's big new shows in front of the press. I know this because I follow multiple cast members of the CW's Riverdale on Instagram, and I do that because I am emotionally invested in fictional characters kissing. Shipping, an abbreviated gerund version of "relationship," can make or break a TV show. At the height of Must See TV, whole seasons of Friends and Cheers relied on the sexual chemistry of their stars. Even today's quirky procedurals usually have a strong romantic component. Did you know Bones was on the air for six years before its leads got together? Did you know Bones was on the air for six more years after that?
Creators handle ship-teasing different ways. On The X Files, Scully and Mulder didn't even smooch until the seventh season. Perhaps the show waited so long because the "are they romantic partners or professional partners?" debate was one of the biggest arguments on the Internet at the time.
"The day Scully and Mulder kiss, or Scully has an on the screen romance or bedroom scene, is the day I stop watching X-files forever, burn every piece of x-files memorabilia I have, assassinate Christ Carter, bomb Fox studios, and drop a nuke on Vancouver," wrote one Usenet user. "If we want love, we can watch crap like Melrose Place or 90210." Newsradio went the other direction, and explicitly shirked a Will-They-Or-Won't-They romance by having the two romantic leads sleep together in the second episodes. According to Newsradio star Dave Foley, creator Paul Simms felt that "when two adults like each other, they fuck each other." There was no point in drawing it out for titillation or ratings.
Of course, both of these couples eventually broke up. Sam and Diane on Cheers, the Ur Example of drawn-out romantic comedy, also split. It's possible this is because writers think there are more stories to be wrung out of misery than happiness. Or it could be because relationships take more than just smoldering looks and witty banter. I spoke to sex therapists to find out if TV love is doomed and which fictional couples likely have the best sexual chemistry.
"There is a big difference between sexual compatibility and relationship compatibility," says Samantha Manewitz LICSW CST. Manewitz says there's nothing wrong with two people hooking up intensely without forming a long term relationship, "so long as the parties involved share compatible expectations," but actual fully formed relationships take work.
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"Anyone with natural biological chemistry will get nowhere long-term within their sexual compatibility without communication," says AASECT-certified sex therapist Amanda Pasciucco.
The everyday banalities of a real relationship probably would have broken up Buffy and Angel, even if they could have sex without him going all evil. "Buffy and Angel are both outcasts in their respective worlds. It makes sense that they would form an intense bond. That kind of intense bonding is something that can happen at the start of a relationship," says Manewitz.
"It can be hard to maintain an intimate connection when there are bills to be paid and dirty socks on the floor"
"Different hormones fire in your brain during the initial courtship phase." Your body is flush with dopamine and endorphins when you're crushing hard. The sensation is biochemically similar to cocaine. Once this feeling wears off, bonding hormones like oxytocin need to take their place or a couple will tire of each other. "It can be hard to maintain an intimate connection when there are bills to be paid and dirty socks on the floor," says Manewitz. "Maintaining an active sex life starts to require work where none was needed before."
What about pairings that start out antagonist, but eventually warm to something more, like your Your Buffy/Spike, Slater/Jesse, Captain America/Iron Man relationships? Manewitz says it's all about the feelings under the fighting: "Not all bickering is created equal. Sometimes an exchange that looks like an argument is actually a set of bids in disguise. Bids for intensity that take the form of verbal sparring. When bids for intensity are met in kind, intense and awesome sex is a natural byproduct." If the argument is actually about deep contempt, says Manewitz, couples "usually see their sex lives slip away into oblivion."
"Ultimately, from my perspective, the closest, most intimate, healthy couples are able to have fun, laugh, and most importantly stay curious," says Ashley Grinonneau-Denton of Cleveland Relationship Therapy. Who are the most innately curious members of our society if not detectives? No wonder so many cop shows churn out episode after episode on an engine of sexual tension. None of my interviewees would comment on the obviously perfect romantic pairing of Lenny Briscoe and Reynaldo Curtis from Law & Order, but Pasciucco felt that SVU's Benson and Stabler could have really popped off. "They are both passionate, intense, and drawn to excitement. I believe they would be an amazing sexual match," she says.
Pasciucco is less invested in the Scully/Mulder pairing. "The erotic undertone of Mulder's personality is a great match for anyone." According to her, it's not so much the couple's drawn-out flirtation as just David Duchovny being David Duchovny that kept the internet ablaze in the 90's. "I would add that the actor that plays Mulder is also in Californication and there he has the most intense and erotic connection between his ex-girlfriend, Karen."
"Ana and Christian's relationship is one of my go-to examples of what abuse in kink can look like."
When asking sex therapists about the fantasized off-screen sex lives of on-screen characters, I was surprised by which fictional couple's sexual chemistry appeared most controversial. It wasn't Ana and Christian from "50 Shades of Gray," who were panned by all I spoke to. "I give trainings to clinicians on how not only to differentiate between BDSM and abuse, but how to assess for abuse in BDSM dynamics," says Manewitz. "Ana and Christian's relationship is one of my go-to examples of what abuse in kink can look like."
TV's most controversial couple in the bedroom? Homer and Marge Simpson.
"Horrible," says Pasciucco. "Homer is in terrible shape and cares more about food and alcohol than he does his partner. It is incredibly sad to see how he prioritizes others above his wife." It's true that Homer has been known to put beer, bowling, scamming food from vending machines, becoming a country music svengali, and even pursuing a career in grease disposal ahead of his wife. But he always comes back to her in the end.
"The success of a long term relationship has as much to do with the ability to repair as anything else," says Manewitz. What's more, the Simpsons are unrelentingly horny for each other. Marge is always asking for more "snuggle time," as she calls it.
"At face value, I think mostly due to Homer's ever-present antics, that their relationship would not be healthy," says Grinonneau-Denton. "However, on second-thought, their complementary personalities suggest that their sex life together could very easily be fulfilling. Couples that are opposites in many ways are often quite compatible in the bedroom. Specifically, I often see that the more boisterous, extroverted partner in a couple like this swap sexual roles. In this case, utilizing this theory, Marge would trend toward dominant desires while Homer would trend toward submissive."
In the end, sex is an interplay of chemicals, emotions, and physics between two people—or however many people choose to be involved. The point is: It's personal. "They have to be into the same type of sex," says Pasciucco. Of course, this also means that different pairings would hit a nerve with different viewers.
When it comes to favorites, Pasciucco was particularly interested in Piper and Alex in season one of Orange is the New Black: "They have such authentic and raw sexual chemistry from the first episodes of the first season. This is probably why they have such conflict in the future. Their sex life is one to be envious of!"
Manewitz's favorite TV couple has been keeping it sexy for over 50 years. "Gomez and Morticia of the Addams Family," she says. It makes sense: They're into the same stuff, always respond favorably to each other's bids for intimacy, and definitely communicate well—even in French.