Fri, 02/12/2016

Valentine’s Schmalentines: Television’s Volatile Relationships

Cheers' Sam and Diane

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I figured I’d write about some of television’s famous relationships. But let’s face it, happily ever after is not all that interesting, especially when it’s in a series that is running 100+ episodes. To make it compelling you need some acrimony, some yelling, some break ups. Let’s take a look at some of television’s more volatile relationships. 

Up until the ‘80s, most television love stories were about couples whose relationships had already been established off-screen. Couples like Lucy and Ricky, Ralph and Alice Kramden, or Thurston and Lovey Howell had already married years before we “met” them. Donald Hollinger and Ann Marie from That Girl dated for five years and became engaged but we never got to see them marry. Maxwell Smart and Agent 99, and Tony Nelson and Jeannie were married in their respective final seasons, but those seemed more like ratings ploys than something that occurred organically.

Then, in 1982, Sam Malone met Diane Chambers on Cheers. Diane was essentially left at the altar by her fiancée Sumner Sloan and started viewers on a five-year ride that included yelling, major break ups, slapping, and Sam falling off the wagon while Diane spent time in a mental hospital. Whew! Viewers seemed to agree that Sam and Diane were much more interesting “off again” than “on again.” Then, just when the relationship had seemingly played itself out, it was Diane’s turn to leave someone at the altar. In 1987 she left Sam, returning seven years later only to decide once and for all that they weren’t right for each other. Cheers writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs talked to us about how Sam and Diane keep audiences in their thrall.

 When one recalls the relationships on almost all of Norman Lear’s shows, one remembers quite a lot of yelling. George and Weezy Jefferson, Maude and Walter Findlay, and James and Florida Evans all seemed to be at odds most of the time. Lear’s most complex and interesting TV marriage was between Archie and Edith Bunker on All in the Family. Archie insulted Edith at every turn (“Dingbat”), made demands (“Gimme a beer, will ya”), and was basically unkind. As the series went on, Edith began to stand up for herself more and more, which culminated in an episode where Edith finally loudly told Archie to “STIFLE!” The studio audience gave Edith Bunker an extended round of applause that evening. In the remaining years of the series, Archie began to mellow, and his sorrow at Edith’s passing is one of the great moments of television. Norman Lear gave us a little background on his own family life, which helps clarify the worldview of the characters on his shows. 

Some television relationships we follow are not romantic in nature. Arthur Godfrey shocked the nation when he fired his protégé Julius La Rosa live on air in October of 1953 on Arthur Godfrey Time. Viewers had thought of them as family. Similarly, Johnny Carson took Joan Rivers under his wing. In 1965 Rivers was finally booked on The Tonight Show after seven auditions. “It was a mercy booking,” she later said. Rivers did so well that evening, so Carson booked her multiple times. “He believed in me more than I believed in me,” she recalled. Rivers eventually became the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Their “showbiz relationship” all came to a crashing halt in 1986 when Rivers announced her intention to launch a new late night talk show on the fledgling FOX network. The two sadly never spoke again. Joan Rivers talked to us about her experience with Carson.

So, here’s hoping that you have a better Valentine’s Day than some of these folks may have had!

For more stories about television’s most volatile relationships, search the Archive

 - by John Dalton