The concept of a “will they or won’t they” romantic relationship within a television show is a standard trope that all viewers recognize. In our pop culture memories probably the single most recognizable example is Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on Friends. If this were a list of the top 10 “will-they or won’t-they” couples they would definitely be on it. However, this is not a list of the best couples – it’s a list of the top 10 “Will They or Won’t They” TV shows.
What’s the difference? A true “Will They or Won’t They” TV show is built around two people and that relationship’s journey. Everything else that happens revolves around bringing together the two that are “meant to be” – and dealing with whatever character baggage each brings along. While this concept had been around in movies since the 1930’s it’s fair to say that the jump to having this kind of story play out on television exploded on the television scene in the early 1980’s. (Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1986 ).
Once you understand the difference between a show that has a couple like this and one where the couple is the core concept, shows like Friends, Lost, and Grey’s Anatomy all drop out of the running because they feature a group of people affected by a single circumstance. Friends was about the group, but within that group Ross and Rachel were the couple giving viewers agita around their relationship. Lost is about the passengers on an airplane that crashed.
Grey’s Anatomy is about the doctors and interns at Seattle Grace Hospital with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) as the central protagonist. However, the show was never just about her, or about her and Dr. Derek Shepherd – aka McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey). One only has to go back to the early reviews like this one from The Hollywood Reporter to see that Grey’s Anatomy was not structured as a “will they or won’t they” type of show.
Although Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) is the first of four surgical interns introduced in the premiere, the focus is diffused roughly equally in this and subsequent episodes. She shares the stage with ambitious, self-reliant Cristina (Sandra Oh), former model Izzy (Katherine Heigl) and socially awkward George (T.R. Knight).
(If you have a moment, that first Grey’s Anatomy review is a fun read. They didn’t think the show was going to last!)
The Top 10 “Will They or Won’t They” TV Shows of All Time!
Some of these shows I actually watched when they were on – like The X-Files and Castle. For the ones I didn’t watch live or only caught pieces of, yes, I went back and went through them. (It’s been quite the project!) The thing to remember is that despite some of these shows not having perfect execution they represent the best of the genre. Now, without further ado: the top 10 “Will They or Won’t They TV Shows of all time (so far)!
10. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
09. The Nanny
07. The X-Files
02. Scarecrow and Mrs. King
01. Remington Steele
More Defining of a “Will They or Won’t They” Show: Burn Notice & Rookie Blue
There are probably some shows that aren’t on the list that you might find surprising. It could be that your favorite couple isn’t technically on a “will they or won’t they” show. Here are a couple of examples of shows that didn’t make it the top 10 “Will They or Won’t They” TV Shows because of that very reason.
Some might argue that Burn Notice was a “will they or won’t they” show because the relationship between Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) and love interest Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) was such a central component of Burn Notice. On the surface this seems similar to Chuck – but it’s not. Being a component is not the same as being the show’s engine and core story. It’s true that Burn Notice would not have had the same kind of success it did without the Michael & Fiona component, but Chuck wouldn’t even be the same show.
Structurally the circumstances Chuck faces serve as the shell that brings him and Sarah together. This is not the case with Burn Notice and Michael Weston. That show worked as an ensemble with Michael, Fiona, and his best friend Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) focused on the issue of Michael trying to make a living helping people – despite being burned – and figuring out who burned Michael. In season four the character of Jesse Porter (Cody Bell) was added as well.
On Burn Notice everything else is secondary to the central focus of Michael trying to survive while figuring out who burned him. The relationship with Fiona – as unconventional as she is – serves as a point of having something “normal” in his life, as did the relationship with his mother, played by Sharon Gless. On Chuck everything serves as either a way to bring Chuck closer to Sarah or as an obstacle to that relationship. Take out the romance and Chuck is just another spy story – and Chuck becomes a lot less interesting as a character.
Could Burn Notice have worked without the character of Fiona and been essentially the same show? If it had started without Fiona as a character, yes. This is because Michael’s primary goal is to find out who burned him, not his relationship with Fiona. On Chuck, Chuck’s primary goal is Sarah. If you’re wondering if something you’re watching is a “Will They or Won’t They” show just find the main character’s primary objective. If it’s not the relationship the couple may be will they or won’t they – but it’s not a “Will They or Won’t They” TV show.
A Will They or Won’t They Component Still Needs to Wrap
Note that I said if Burn Notice had started without Fiona being in place the show could have still worked – not that they could have pulled her out. Once you have that kind of relationship as a show’s component, it’s difficult to remove it without upsetting the workings of the show – or its fans. Grey’s Anatomy managed it because it has a huge cast with many romantic relationships in play.
Burn Notice, where the only romantic storyline was Fiona and Michael, would have imploded from fan backlash had they killed Fiona. It’s a question of finishing what you start. The relationship with Fiona grew into something for Michael to have once he discovered who burned him. Had Fiona died in the show, viewers would have felt cheated – and felt that Michael was cheated.
Many shows use a relationship plot within its story structure to attract more viewers to a genre. That’s why there are so many, “will they/won’t they” couples that one can think of. What’s not great is when they abruptly end them or decide on a “twist” where they destroy the relationship. Those kind of endings tarnish a show’s legacy, and may even make it less valuable for syndication in its later years.
(Burn Notice Spoiler Alert!) Burn Notice wrapped with Michael and Fiona assumed dead to that world – but they’re not. Viewers got to see them tucked away in a sweet little cottage somewhere raising his brother’s son. It was a perfect ending.
Rookie Blue is similar to Grey’s Anatomy in that the show followed a group of rookies and officers with a primary focus on Andrea “Andy” Grace McNally (Missy Peregrym). On Grey’s Anatomy the primary character is Meredith and she’d been paired with Derek. Despite these primary characters both shows are complete ensemble casts that have a number of romances going on. Some think of this as “soap-opera” – but it depends on how it’s done. Abrupt changes in character traits usually signal a soap-opera. With a straight drama you can follow the logic in character’s development and growth.
On Rookie Blue the main, “will they or won’t they” couple was Andy and Detective Sam Swarek (Ben Bass). However, the show was a true ensemble with strong three-dimensional characters all around. There was never a sense that the other relationships were secondary to Sam and Andy, or that those characters were less important. Furthermore, like Burn Notice and Grey’s, if Sam hadn’t been introduced as the love interest for Andy Rookie Blue wouldn’t have to fundamentally change its structure.
In general Rookie Blue is one of the best written procedural dramas and it handled the romantic entanglements well. It’s a show that could have gone more than six seasons, but chose to go out on a high. It ends with Sam and Andy getting married, but with complications of his first child being with his ex-girlfriend, and several other couples and relationships still in flux.
If this were a chart of the best constructed, “Will They or Won’t They” TV relationships both of the above couples would be in my top choices based on the way their shows stayed true to the characters all the way through to the end. Were I trying to make a list of shows with the best couples Burn Notice and Rookie Blue would be on it. However, such a list would be way too long!
The Wrap Up
Well, that’s the top 10 “Will They or Won’t They” TV Shows – at least to date. Over time each show on this list will get a special look at what they did right – and for some, where they also screwed up. However, if you want to know how I arrived at this list, or perhaps haven’t ever heard of some of this shows and would like a little background, check out part two: The Top Ten, “Will They or Won’t They” TV Shows – A Closer Look!