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The Will-They-or-Won’t-They Goldilocks Test

It’s one of the most common TV tropes of the century, but how much time did our greatest will-they-or-won’t-they couples actually spend together?

Alycea Tinoyan
Spoiler alert

The will-they/won’t-they relationship is a cornerstone of modern episodic television, and with good reason. If a show is locked into a static setting — a hospital, a bar, an apartment — a long-running, serialized romance (or, better yet, almost romance) provides an easy throughline for viewers to follow between different story arcs and seasons. And for those shows that truck mostly in comedy, these love stories provide just a teensy bit of drama.

Cheers, with its seasons-long simmer between Sam and Diane, is often credited with popularizing the device: “There’s a reason that the Cheers finale was about Diane coming back,” the writer Michael Schur told Vulture in 2011. “That was the central thing that happened in the show.”

Schur is something of an expert: He was a writer on The Office and the co-creator of Parks and Recreation, both shows that revolved, at least in part, around their own Sam-and-Diane pairings. The Office of course featured Jim and Pam, while Parks protagonist Leslie Knope romanced and no-manced Mark and Ben, respectively.

But there’s a problem baked into the construct: If will-they/won’t-they relationships are tempting for writers because they provide reliable sources of tension, then the emphasis must always be on won’t-they. Which is to say, the very thing that builds up viewer obsession — the near-misses, almost-confessions, surprise appearances from exes, and let’s-get-together-but-only-for-tonights — dooms the couples to discord. As Tolstoy once said: Happy TV couples are all alike; every unhappy TV couple is unhappy in its own way. Or something.

To obsess over a will-they/won’t-they couple is to obsess over the romance’s inevitable (at least until the series finale) demise. Do the lovebirds cycle endlessly through declarations of affection and breakups, until they finally end up happily ever after? Do they enter (gasp) a stable relationship? Do they — ahem — take a break? Does one of them just … die?

It’s worth comparing the fruits of all those seasons of sour grapes. So let’s set apart — for now, at least — the sentimental leanings of which character was perfect for which, and consider will-they/won’t-they relationships as what they really are: plot devices. How long after attraction is established can a show keep us guessing before the romantic hokey pokey gets too laborious to be believed? Did we end up with fine wine? Or were we led along for a whole lot of vinegar?

Let’s call it the Goldilocks Test of will-they/won’t they relationships. How much of a show, exactly, were the couples actually, you know, couples? Note that this is not the same as the number of occasions a couple smooched and then spent the next episode asking what it all meant — we’re talking serious, day-to-day, monogamous shacking up. An old-fashioned definition, maybe, but what are years-long courtships if not old-fashioned?

From this, we might approach something like the tortured pining quotient. Did the drama go on too long? Not long enough? Or did we get just the right amount?

Too Long

Friends (Ross and Rachel)

Duration of relationship uncertainty: 210 of 236 episodes through nine seasons (89 percent of show’s run)

What follows is a brief history of Ross and Rachel:

  1. Kiss
  2. Break up in the next episode
  3. Kiss
  4. Date for a whole season
  5. Break up, with attendant maybe-cheating/maybe-break incident (it was cheating)
  6. Get back together and break up again 11 episodes later
  7. Get (drunkenly!) married and sleep together nearly two seasons later
  8. Get divorced
  9. Kiss one season later
  10. Have sex that results in a pregnancy
  11. Kiss before the birth of said baby
  12. Sleep together two seasons later
  13. Proclaim mutual undying love and kiss once more in the series finale

About half of Friends’ run took place this century, so we’ll include it. We are obligated to, since Ross Geller and Rachel Green are this era’s archetypal will-they-or-won’t-they pair. Fun fact: Ross and Rachel were together, at least physically entangled, for just 34 of Friends’ 236 episodes (plus an offscreen one-night stand that produced their child, as described in a later episode). They dated for just one season — midway through Season 2 to midway through Season 3. Beyond that, they slept together a grand total of three times (one of which resulted in a pregnancy), with very occasional kisses in between. This is not a lot of dating! And this dragged on for a decade of television! A decade! Ten years of our impressionable lives!

New Girl (Jess and Nick)

Duration of relationship uncertainty: 112 of 146 episodes through seven seasons (77 percent of show’s run)

The early episodes of New Girl are a master classes in will-they/won’t-they flirtation, in part because the show seems to thumb its nose at many of the conventions. When Jess and Nick finally kiss for the first time, midway through the show’s second season, it’s genuinely shocking.

But, alas, the two became a couple, and on a show about roommates and dating, that could never last. New Girl went for five more seasons after Jess and Nick first decided to give things a go; they broke up and flirted some more and, predictably if delightfully, got back together in the penultimate season’s finale, this time for good.

Sex and the City (Carrie and Big)

Duration of relationship uncertainty: 80 of 94 episodes through six seasons (85 percent of show’s run)

Fuck Big.

Too Quick

Better Call Saul (Jimmy and Kim)

Duration of relationship uncertainty: 10 of 30 episodes through three seasons (33 percent of show’s run)

A strange element of Better Call Saul, the fourth season of which will debut in August, has always been a pervasive air of futility. For the most part, that’s used to great effect: The Breaking Bad postscript that was Saul’s opening moments suggest that the main character ends up alone and destitute, jumpily staffing some anonymous shopping mall Cinnabon, but it’s still fascinating to see the young lawyer work toward that grim end.

The show’s central romance, however, with Saul/Jimmy’s fellow lawyer Kim, feels predestined in a different and sadder way. Viewers aren’t given a precise timeline for their relationship: We know that they were involved before the onscreen story picked up, and they’ve been steadily — if chastely; over the first three seasons, the pair kissed just seven times — together since early in Season 2. That the audience knows there’s no happily ever after in the wings doesn’t mean the show’s characters need to. But there’s something particularly grim — and maybe less than believable, on the side of Kim’s patience — in Jimmy’s efforts to make it all work. Saul gives us something of an inversion of the will-they/won’t-they format: A mostly-certain relationship feels uncertain because the audience knows that, one way or another, it — like so much else in Jimmy McGill’s life in his last days before becoming Saul Goodman — is going to end. Still: Uncertainty is precious in Better Call Saul, and we could have used some more here.

Just Right

The Office (Jim and Pam)

Duration of relationship uncertainty: 53 of 201 episodes through nine seasons (26 percent of show’s run)

They flirt. They lament that one or the other is in another relationship. They make themselves available. They date. They get married. They have a child. They — or, well, one of them — buy a house. It’s not till the fourth season that Jim and Pam are a sure thing, but once they are, they are.

In this, The Office shares something with Friendsother long-term relationship, Monica and Chandler. There were bumps along the way — should we tell our friends? Is marriage right for us? Kids?! — but they were pretty much … stable. Sort of like a normal relationship! And one that was maybe, just maybe, devised with an audience’s patience in mind.

Grey’s Anatomy (Meredith and Derek)

Duration of relationship uncertainty: 42 of 241 episodes over 11 seasons (17 percent of show’s run)

Note: Derek’s Patrick Dempsey exited the show after Season 11, Episode 21, “How to Save a Life,” so while the show has continued on without him, only the portion he was present for is counted.

You would have been forgiven for developing MerDer fatigue. In the space of the show’s first nine episodes, the pair (a) had a one-night stand, (b) discovered they worked together, © proceeded to get caught by a superior having sex in a car, and (d) fractured when it was revealed that — whoops! — Derek was in fact married. Their relationship had as much whiplash as just about any in TV history. To wit: MerDer were a (monogamous, anyway) thing for five episodes of Season 1, zero episodes of Season 2, 19 episodes of Season 3, and 17 episodes of Season 4. (Season 2’s prom might not constitute a relationship, but let’s enjoy it anyway.)

But, as my colleague Juliet Litman wrote in 2015, things settled down; by the end of Season 5, the two get engaged, and would eventually marry, and go on to have children and build a house. It was a rich portrait of domestic bliss.

Bliss, alas, is not a sustainable form of drama. “What were the options?” Grey’s showrunner Shonda Rhimes has explained of Derek’s sudden Season 11 death. “Either Der was going to walk out on Mer and leave her high and dry, and what was that going to mean?”

Give Shonda this: She packed in excitement, and then ended things instead of cycling back through the chaos.

SpongeBob SquarePants: SpongeBob and Sandy

Duration of relationship uncertainty: 232 of 232 episodes through 11 seasons (100 percent of show’s run)

It pains me to say it, but we probably didn’t need to see a sea sponge and a squirrel have sex. That will just have to live on in the more disturbed corners of the internet — ones that, speaking from recent and traumatic experience, I can only encourage you not to look up yourself.