It was only a matter of time before I would have to address a key aspect of any good sitcom: relationships. While types of couples such as “friends before lovers” (i.e. The Office’s Jim and Pam) and “the bickering yet lovable married couple” (i.e. Everybody Loves Raymond’s Ray and Debra) are undoubtedly common, one would be hard-pressed to find a trope more enduring and entertaining to watch than the “on-again/off-again” couple. This trope has become a part of nearly every sitcom and is often predictable to the point where it is usually easy to point out which two characters will engage in a series-long “will they/won’t they” dance as early on as the pilot episode. Nonetheless, two couples in particular stand head and shoulders above the rest as arguably the most famous (or infamous, as the case may be) to popularize this theme: Cheers’ Sam and Diane and Friends’ Ross and Rachel.
Both couples have reached such an iconic level that, not only is it hard to say one half of either couple’s name without immediately thinking of the other, but each pair are so well-known for particular lines and scenes that one does not even have to be overly familiar with either show to recognize them. For Sam and Diane, these include: the “slap fight” (“Are you as turned on as I am?” “More!”), their legendary banter and “have a good life.” For Ross and Rachel, these include: “lobsters”, Rachel getting off the plane and “WE WERE ON A BREAK!”
Despite some understandable similarities between these two couples, I have always found myself loving Sam and Diane, but not Ross and Rachel. This has definitely surprised quite a few people in my life. After all, any good Friends fan is supposed to love Ross and Rachel, right? When I first thought over why I preferred Sam and Diane, the first answer that came to mind seemed a bit obvious to me: Sam and Diane engage in witty repartee a lot more than Ross and Rachel (in both the shows I watch and in my everyday life, I am a huge fan of banter). Still, I decided there had to be something more to this. Turns out, I was right.
Sitcom Study: Sam and Diane (Cheers) VS Ross and Rachel (Friends)
1) The Banter and Understanding
But first, I simply cannot write a post about Sam and Diane without talking about the sizzling chemistry that exudes every time they speak to one another. Like Star Wars’ Han and Leia or That ‘70s Show’s Jackie and Hyde, theirs is a “love-hate relationship” consisting of a seemingly never-ending battle of verbal judo, forcing the viewer to wonder when they will finally kiss and admit that this banter is only a mask for deeper, more genuine feelings (which, of course, they do). Sam and Diane never make things too easy for each other during their courtship days, but not in a dragged out “too afraid to say anything” way (*cough* Ross *cough*) or a “rambling on for eighteen pages––front and back” way (*cough* Rachel *cough*). Instead, Sam and Diane were all too aware of the other person’s flaws. Diane knew Sam had a history of womanizing and could be cocky and a bit dim-witted; she also recognized his warm heart and believed in him. Sam knew Diane talked too much and could be pretentious and snobby; he also knew she was fun and deeply caring. They were constantly challenging each other and, boy, was it entertaining:
Diane: “Didn’t you ever fantasize about me?”
Sam: “Yeah, I guess I did.”
Diane: “And I you. What did you fantasize about?”
Sam: “Mostly you’d stop using phrases like, ‘and I you.’”
Sam: “At least my dates don’t count the number of letters in sentences.”
Diane: “Your dates can’t form sentences.”
As much as Sam and Diane are aware that the other is far from perfect, so too are they quick and able to recognize their own shortcomings when it matters most, such as the way Sam does here:
Sam: “Diane, please…maybe Frasier can give you an iron-clad guarantee of a lifetime of security, but with me it’s a day at a time. Now, if you can live with that…call.”
Due to Sam’s past, there are points in which he struggles with the idea of commitment and marriage––two things very important to Diane. As proven by the aforementioned quote, Sam understands that this has frustrated Diane. Not wanting to make her any empty promises he may not be able to keep (after all, there always is a drawback in thinking too ahead with, say, where you and your significant other’s currently non-existing children will grow up, right Ross?), he nonetheless lets her know he loves her.
2) Proving the Love
One of my favorite things about Sam and Diane is that, amidst all the banter, they have several beautifully sincere moments that prove just how much they care and understand what is important to each other. In “Sumner’s Return” (2×05), Diane’s ex-fiancé Sumner comes back and makes Sam uncomfortable since Sumner is more academically smart than he is. But whereas Sumner may be more able to hold a conversation about literature or art, Sam’s actions are more sincere; Diane knows this, as exemplified by one of my favorite moments:
Sam: “Why did you pick me [over Sumner]?”
Diane: “You read War and Peace.”
Sam: “So did he.”
Diane: “You did it for me.”
So, while Ross may have been willing to “drink the fat” (“The One Where No One’s Ready, 3×02), neither Ross nor Rachel show an interest in the other’s primary interests in the way that Sam and Diane aim to do for each other. Instead, Rachel frequently joins in on jokes about Ross’ job, while Ross mocks Rachel’s first real step into the world of fashion as “just a job.”
As I have mentioned earlier, one of the most infamous aspects of Ross and Rachel’s relationship is undoubtedly when they went “on a break.” What is a comparably lesser-known fact is that there is an episode of Cheers in which Sam and Diane also take a “break.” Both “breaks” inspire anxiety for both couples but in very different ways that lead to drastically different results for each pair.
In the case of Ross and Rachel, Ross immediately leaves upon hearing Rachel suggest maybe they should take “a break from [each other]”, not bothering to take the time to sit down with Rachel and maturely discuss if this is really the best course of action for them. Rachel quickly realizes she does not want to take a break, and calls Ross only for him to jump to the incorrect conclusion that she is cheating on him with her co-worker Mark (Rachel should have been more adamant about Mark not coming over to talk, but still) and proceeds to sleep with Chloe the Copy Girl. This ultimately leads them to break up for good.
In the case of Sam and Diane, Diane proposes that the pair take a one-day “break” so that the two may have “One Last Fling” (5×18) if they so desire. Similar to Ross, Sam becomes anxious over the idea of Diane being with another man. Unlike Ross, Sam chooses to not have a fling (and neither does Diane).
3) They Knew When to Let Go
Each couple ends differently by their respective show’s series finale: Ross and Rachel end up together (after six years of not being a couple), and Sam and Diane do not (after six years of being apart).
In Cheers’ season five finale, Sam and Diane are planning on marrying when Diane learns that she has the opportunity to achieve her dream of finishing one of her novels and having it published. Diane does not want to leave Sam, but he selflessly encourages her to live her dream in this heartbreaking moment:
Sam: “Hey, have a good life.”
Diane: “Have a good life?”
Diane: “Well, that’s something you say when something’s over. Sam, I’m going away for six months. That’s all. So no more of this ‘Have a good life’ stuff.”
Sam: “You never know. You could die, I could die, the world could end. One of us could bump our heads and wander the streets the rest of our lives with amnesia. Or maybe, one of us will decide we want something else.”
Diane: “None of those things will happen. I’ll be back here. I will. I’ll see you in six months, OK?”
Sam: “Have a good life….”
Ultimately, Diane does not return in six months. She returns in six years for the series finale where, after a brief engagement, she and Sam ultimately decide that too much time has passed for them to truly be together.
While I of course wanted to see Sam and Diane end up together, I applaud the strength and maturity it took them to let each other go––something Ross and Rachel never seemed to do. Ross usually receives more criticism for his jealousy throughout season three and the fact that in season ten (aka six years after they have broken up) Ross still cannot bring himself to be comfortable over the idea of Rachel kissing someone else (even though he himself has a girlfriend at the time), Rachel is not without blame. At the beginning of season five, Rachel decides it is a good idea to tell Ross she still loves him even though he is married and everyone has advised her why this is a horrible idea; she realizes this is a horrible idea herself, laughing at herself for telling him. And do I really have to address what is problematic about Rachel giving up her dream to go to Paris to stay with a guy she has not been with in six years (and with whom problems have not been fully resolved) or how Ross has never really supported Rachel’s career aspirations in the first place?
While Sam and Diane are certainly not without their flaws as a couple, when compared to Ross and Rachel I ultimately find them to be the far more entertaining, enduring pair––and did I mention their banter?