The main narrative thrust of a television show is necessarily tied to its lead characters. The story you’ve showed up for is about those leads, and even in large ensembles, there is usually one pairing (or family) that is the focus. We’re talking about Lucy and Desi, Sam Malone and Diane Chambers (later Rebecca), Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper, Laverne and Shirley, Frasier and Niles Crane, and many others. These are the central relationships on their respective shows, and we show up each week because of the drive of their narratives.
That said, there are examples aplenty of secondary pairings that eventually overtook their leads in popularity. It’s worth noting that the work that the lead characters have to do for the story is substantial, and that load can sometimes weigh down our enjoyment of their stories. Supporting players have less narrative responsibility, and more freedom to develop tangent-y, loose, comically fresh lines of plot that have fewer stakes for the show as a whole. These secondary characters are often used as a seasoning on the main dish that is the show, and it’s the seasoning that gives the flavour we remember long after the meal. Below are just five examples of these Supporting Pairs that Outshine their Leads—I’d love to hear what some of your favourites are in the comments!
Olive Snook and Emerson Cod (Pushing Daisies)
While some fans enjoyed the main pair of Charlotte “Chuck” Charles and The Piemaker on the utterly delightful Pushing Daisies, others found flaws with how whiny Ned pined for Chuck, and how Chuck’s actions were so controlled by Ned “for her own safety”. And whether you are on team Ched (Nuck?) or not, you would be ill-advised to not invest in this show simply for the great relationship that develops between Olive Snook and Emerson Cod. The chemistry between Kristin Chenoweth and Chi McBride is palpable, and the series found increasing success by pairing them together as the short-lived show developed. Even if my words do not, this gif should convince you.
Walter Bishop and Astrid Farnsworth (Fringe)
The story told by the excellent sci-fi series Fringe is primarily about a son and his father, and the complicated relationship between a brilliant but exceedingly flawed scientist, Walter Bishop (played with so much heart by John Noble) and his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) who has come back into his life after a long absence. While the mythology of Fringe is built around those two and surrogate daughter Olivia (played by Anna Torv), the most rewarding relationship on the show comes between Walter and Astrid, his lab assistant and general handler. The great Jasika Nicole Brown brought Astrid’s sweet nature to the screen and the way she cares for Walter even while he repeatedly butchers her name (Ostrich, Agnes, and Aphid are just some examples) make the duo an undeniable favourite.
You should totally watch Fringe. It’s great. Some would say it’s a Must-Watch Series.
Ellie and Andy Torres (Cougar Town)
Cougar Town quickly shed its hacky premise to become the adult-friends-who-drink-wine-and-play-dumb-games show that was a damn delight to spend time with. The main pairing of the show swung between Jules Cobb (Courtney Cox) and her son Travis (Dan Byrd), and later Jules and her eventual partner Grayson Ellis (Josh Hopkins), but the standout supporting pair of Ellie and Andy Torres (Christa Miller and Ian Gomez) steals the show. The long-married couple were often pulled toward other pairings (Ellie is ready to run off with Jules at the drop of a hat and Andy truly loves Jules’s ex-husband Robert “Bobby” Cobb), but at the end of the day, they were the rock of a couple that Jules looked up to. Ellie’s severe meanness and Andy’s joyful exuberance balance each other out and make the couple always fun to watch.
Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin (How I Met Your Mother)
On a show that rather famously thrived in spite of its lead character’s utter lack of likability, How I Met Your Mother’s Marshall and Lily (Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan) soared above mopey Ted and the frustratingly convoluted search for the eponymous mother. The college sweethearts were lovable, goofy, kind, and supportive of one another, and represented our collective #relationshipgoals long before we knew we needed a hashtag for such things.
Jack McFarland and Karen Walker (Will and Grace)
Will and Grace was a groundbreaking show because of its depiction of an openly gay main character on network television. But the co-dependent relationship between the titular pair was never the most enticing part of the show. Instead, we were gifted with Jack and Karen, brought to life by two heavyweight actors in Sean Hayes and the delightful Megan Mullaly. If you look at the first season of that show compared to the later seasons, you can see how much work Mullaly and Hayes (along with their writing team) did with the material to elevate their characters out of staid tropes. If you need further convincing, watch this classic Jack and Karen interchange. Comic timing? On point.