This week's How I Met Your Mother had a gooey sweet surprise at the core of its customary hilarity. Neil Patrick Harris' he-whore with a heart of silver Barney shared a kiss with Cobie Smulders' gun-toting, cigar-smoking, former '80s popstar Robin. A passionate kiss. A kiss that was kind of a total shock (as in, when it happened I gasped, "Oh!") but kind of expected--the characters have been sharing minor shadows of flirtations for the past few weeks.
Anyone else remember that season-one episode in which Robin "suited up" and went "bro-ing" around town with Barney? They played laser tag and drank Johnny Walker Blue (that's grade-A foreplay in my book) and Barney tried to sleep with Robin. He tries to sleep with every woman, but still. We saw how the two might work as a duo, but were quickly routed back to the main action of protagonist Ted's romantic dalliances.
Ted's trysts have always been and will always be dull, even when he's courting stellar guest stars like Mandy Moore and Sarah Chalke. But he's the central character, the narrator, so we watch. Sure, it's an ensemble cast, but the show isn't called How We Met Your Mother. There's a first-person pronoun there, folks. So even though he's a cad, Ted's the main dude, and Barney, Robin, Lily and Marshall are his supporting players.
But it's their relationships that are most exciting.
If, for instance, it turns out the Barney/Robin smooch is more than a one-time thing, we could have my new favorite TV couple on our hands. Because it's secondary romances that continually outshine the lead counterparts. I have no patience for whiney, self-obsessed protags and their over-wrought relationship woes that are supposed to keep us tuning in week after week. Who has the energy to deal with Ross and Rachel? Buffy and Angel? Meredith and McDreamy? Dawson and Joey? I mean, you know what's going to happen with these center-stage romances. They'll have "feelings" for each other and angst over those feelings, then get together, then break up, then have angst over breaking up. Then they'll probably get back together and have angst over how much they missed each other when they were apart. I mean, c'mon! I get enough of that in my own life. I don't need that kind of messy narcissist uncertainty in my entertainment.
Which is why peripheral romances are the best.
Supporting characters, as far as I can tell, squeeze by with some of the most captivating relationships on television. While the central characters' heartache provides the story arch structure, it's behind and underneath and around that structure that some of the best intimacies are given space to flourish.
Like, if Gilmore Girls' Lorelai and Luke hadn't been so hot and cold for seven seasons, Sookie and Jackson, Paris and Doyle, and Lane and Zack never would've happened. And those couples were so cute, such the perfect comedic antidote to Stars Hollow's most hesitant star-crossed lovers.
Sure, there were the occasional riffs--like when Jackson didn't get that vasectomy even though he swore he did, or when Paris broke up with Doyle for all of a day because she was convinced you can't meet the love of your life in college--but mostly there was organic produce and type-A PDAs and rock 'n' roll. All good things.
And on Lost we're supposed to be wrapped up in this Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle that's now expanded to include Juliet, but you know which couple I'm totally head-over-heels obsessed with? Rose and Bernard.
They've got their issues--like, isn't it just infuriating Bernard won't accept his wife's cancer as terminal? Actually, no, it's not infuriating at all. It's endearing. Because everything about Rose and Bernard is endearing, and whenever they get their few minutes of obligatory "hey, they still exist" screentime, I swoon.
Everyone knows Jessie and Slater were the real draw to Saved by the Bell (Zack and Kelly were too squeaky clean); and Chandler and Monica made Friends palatable when Ross and Rachel were having cringe-worthy breaks and one-night stands; and Willow and Tara were so amazingly cute and well matched to each other, where Buffy and whichever vampire-with-a-soul were just all wallowy and sucky with each other.
Maybe peripheral TV romances are so appealing because they're not given the same priority in screentime as their central counterparts. The supporting love lives become the principal focus only when it's convenient for the progression of the lead lothario's narrative. So we get to see some cracks in the facade, but only the most engaging ones--the excruciatingly dull brooding happens off-screen or in the margins of the camera's lens.
There's something appealing about Kimmy Gibbler and Duane canoodling around San Fran while Jesse and Rebecca babysit the Olsen twins, about Barney and Robin playing Battleship and making out while Ted's still on the prowl for his future kids' mother. About skipping the monotonous mope and going straight for the passion, and staying there.