Television in 2016 was filled with a variety of complex and compelling relationships—from family and friends to fairytale True Loves and teammates. These dynamic duos weathered professional and personal storms together, fought and made up in epic fashion, and provided plenty of reasons for us to cheer, cry, and swoon this year.
Today’s entry in NGN’s Best of 2016 series is focused on the best partnerships, parent/child pairs, and friendships on television this year. Don’t forget to share your choices in the comments to check out TVexamined and MGcircles for even more year-end fun!
1. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (The Americans)
The center around which the high-stakes world of The Americans orbits has always been this marriage and the family it created, and that center was shaken more forcefully than ever this season—from the strain of having a daughter who knows too much about their true identities as spies to jealousy over fake relationships that have more truth behind them than either wants to admit and, of course, the constant anxiety of living double lives across the street from an FBI agent (and throw in one major near-death experience via potential bioweapon for good measure). Just one of these things could have destroyed their partnership, but what was so beautiful about this season of The Americans was the way it allowed them to grow closer together, ending the season as a more united front than perhaps ever before. Each new challenge was met with a deepening sense of honesty, openness, and intimacy, which sometimes resulted in horrible fights but, more often, resulted in quiet moments of connection that reminded everyone watching that, as Philip said this season, “The Center made a good match.” The same could be said of the casting team, who found lightning in a bottle with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Their chemistry continues to shine through the smallest details, creating a marriage that feels believable and a partnership that you can’t help but root for—even when you feel like you should be rooting against them.
2. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden (The People vs. O.J. Simpson)
It’s not easy playing real people, and it’s especially challenging to play two real people whose relationship has been a source of speculation and conjecture for 20 years but who have never given a definitive answer to what the nature of their relationship was. Somehow, though, Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown—along with some wonderfully ambiguous writing—managed to turn what could have felt uncomfortable into a twist on the “Will they or won’t they?” (or maybe “Did they or didn’t they?”) dynamic that was at turns sexy, sweet, and sad. Paulson and Brown had the kind of chemistry directors and writers pray for—conveying so much in a look across a bar, a charged moment outside a hotel room, or a late-night dance. The show managed to walk the line between professional respect, deep friendship, and the continued undercurrent of romantic possibility so well, and it did this by focusing less on the question of what actually happened between them and more on the support system they created with each other, which—like many aspects of this show—took something that was often sensationalized and made us care about it on a deeply emotional level.
3. Ginny Baker and Mike Lawson (Pitch)
Sometimes the best TV relationships sneak up on you, and you find yourself caring about them more than you ever expected to. That was certainly the case with these two teammates. Part mentor-mentee relationship, part professional partnership, part reluctant friendship, and part slow-burn romance—Mike and Ginny’s relationship is a delicate balancing act between sharp banter, serious scenes, and sizzling chemistry. The writers did an admirable job of building this relationship with a solid foundation of respect—showing Mike take every opportunity to sing Ginny’s praises to anyone who would listen, including Ginny herself—so that when the “almost kiss” happened at the end of the season, it felt earned and believable instead of cliché and cheap. Kylie Bunbury and Mark-Paul Gosselaar became two of 2016’s most potent screen partners, creating an electrifying dynamic that felt completely effortless and natural. A freshman show (especially one with only 10 episodes) creating such a strong arc for its central relationship is something that should be commended. And beyond any serious analysis, this relationship made me smile more than any other on television this year, and if you need a reminder, just watch their phone call after the All-Star Game if you need a little year-end pick-me-up.
4. Riley Matthews and Maya Hart (Girl Meets World)
For as great as it is to watch TV romances develop, it’s just as wonderful to watch friendship take center stage, which is exactly what makes Girl Meets World so special. Yes, this show veered into some challenging territory in 2016 with the whole “triangle” storyline, but what emerged from that haze of young-love-induced confusion was a lesson that I hope everyone who watches the show (especially young women) takes to heart: Your friends can be your extraordinary relationships. Romance is great, dating is fun, and first love is special, but friendship should never be pushed aside in pursuit of those things. And Riley and Maya never lost sight of that—they never stopped putting their friendship first. In fact, when Lucas even suggested to Riley that their relationship might be more important now than her relationship with Maya, everyone treated it as a joke. That’s a critical point for a show written about and for young women to make: Friendship is not just something to occupy your time with until you form a romantic relationship; it can be the center of your life even after you start dating people. Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins may not be on our TV screens anymore, but Riley Matthews and Maya Hart are—and they’re filling that “female friendship void” in the television world quite nicely.
5. Jane and Xiomara Villanueva (Jane the Virgin)
Jane and Xiomara’s relationship continually reminds me that you don’t have to be just like someone in order to love and support them. This year, these characters worked through a rough patch after Xo’s involvement in Jane’s bachelorette party highlighted the maturity gap between mother and daughter, and they were there for each other through challenges ranging from Michael’s shooting to Xo’s own unexpected pregnancy. And at the heart of all of these events was the honesty that makes their relationship so unique. That honesty was at times heartbreaking—like when Jane refused to accept Xo’s apology after her bachelorette party—and at times heartwarming. Watching Jane support her mother after her abortion (especially after Alba’s initial reaction) was so important, as was watching Xo offer Jane comfort and good advice after Jane’s not-so-stellar first time with Michael. And the warmth that radiates from this relationship continues to be such an important part of the Villanueva family dynamics that make this show so special.
6. Lorelai and Emily Gilmore (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life)
On the other end of the mother-daughter spectrum are these two Gilmore Girls, who would never be accused of having anything resembling warmth radiating from their interactions. Instead, Lorelai and Emily’s relationship is messy, complicated, and sometimes downright uncomfortable. But it’s never boring. In fact, it was the most interesting part of the Gilmore Girls revival. The way both women worked through their grief over Richard’s passing—together and alone—was the emotional core of those four episodes, and Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop brought so much depth, history, and weight to their scenes together. From their horrible fight in the kitchen in “Winter” to their beautiful phone conversation in “Fall,” the progression of their relationship from a place of hostility to one of connection was character-driven storytelling at its finest.
7. Emma Swan and Killian Jones (Once Upon a Time)
As Once Upon a Time has taught us, “True Love must be fought for.” And this was the year where Emma and Killian showed everyone what fighting for love really means. From walking into the Underworld to bring Killian back from the dead to standing by Emma’s side as she wrestled with the idea of having to sacrifice herself, these two characters fought for the love they have found with each other. And that love was proven to be True Love after what felt like an eternity waiting for that official, magical confirmation of what we already knew: They belong in the pantheon of legendary fairytale romances. But what has always been special about these two characters is that they are a new kind of fairytale, and, as such, it felt right that their True Love was sealed not with a kiss but with a choice—Emma choosing to leave her heart vulnerable to pain in order to help Killian. And even when it seemed like they would be separated by death—in the most painful parting scene the show has ever produced—their love survived and brought them back to each other—in the most adorable reunion the show has ever produced. In between epic, fairytale moments, they continued to lend realism to the fantasy around them, with conversations about moving in together, family breakfasts, and frustrations over interrupted intimacy. That ability to walk the line between fairytale romance and relatable love story has defined this couple from the start, and it continues to make them one of the best and most unique romances on television.
8. Peggy Carter and Daniel Sousa (Agent Carter)
If you would have told me a few years ago that I would have enjoyed watching Peggy Carter fall in love with anyone but Steve Rogers, I would have thought you were crazy. But that was all before Daniel Sousa and his steadfast sincerity walked into Peggy’s life and mine. Their relationship became a major part of Agent Carter’s second season, and the captivating moments it created helped make that second season even better than the first. Whether they were worrying about each other after near-death experiences, dancing together in dream worlds, or holding hands together in stolen moments during dangerous missions, they made me smile and swoon just like any good 1940s romance. And their first kiss—the best first kiss of 2016—was the perfect “Hollywood Ending.”
9. Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
These two women could not be more different, but that’s what makes their dynamic so fun—and so important. Strong relationships between female friends and coworkers are rare enough on television, and even more so between two Latinas who are treated as fully realized, real women and not as stereotypes or tropes. It was so much fun to watch Diaz and Santiago’s friendship develop this year, especially because Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero complement each other so well as actors. Their comedic energies are so different, but they work so well together—and it’s been fun to watch the show put them together more often. From bonding over Baby-Sitters Club plots to Diaz opening up to Santiago about missing Pimento and asking her to plan their wedding, these two emerged as one of my favorite duos in the entire 99th precinct.
10. Randall and Jack Pearson (This Is Us)
Families are not always connected by blood; they can be forged by choices to love someone as your own, and that is exactly what happened with Jack Pearson and the third member of the “Big Three” Pearson triplets. The unconditional love Jack feels for Randall comes through in every flashback, and I have been moved to tears more than once by the way Milo Ventimiglia interacts with young Lonnie Chavis. The two have created such a deep, believable connection, and it has created some truly moving moments. Jack’s love for his kids is nothing short of legendary in his family, and it’s in his scenes with Randall where I most believe it. If you didn’t tear up when Jack told Randall he was exceptional or when he did that extra pushup with his son on his back just to prove how much he would support him, then you weren’t paying attention.