When it comes to good TV, it takes two to make a thing go right. Whether you’re talking about great comedy teams, hot romantic couples, unbreakable crimefighting partnerships, or unforgettable hero-villain rivalries, two is the magic number of countless television classics. With that in mind, we’ve compiled the following list of the 50 greatest duos ever to grace the small screen. Husbands and wives, cops and robbers, best friends forever — they’re all here, and they all demonstrate the power of the most elemental equation of all: one on one.
Sure, their partnership began with a kidnapping, ended with one of them leaving the other for dead, and only lasted for 10 episodes. So what? For the duration of Game of Thrones' fourth season, the unlikely team-up of feral Arya Stark and her much older mentor in murder Sandor "The Hound" Clegane made them the Bonnie and Clyde of Westeros — both ultraviolently badass and a challenge to the very concept of ultraviolent badasses in the first place.
He's a graduate of Saturday Night Live. She's an alum of … Sleater-Kinney? It looks odd on paper, but this chameleonic combination of a musician/sketch comedian and a punk-rock icon is somehow the perfect weapon when it comes to skewering the pretensions of Pacific Northwest hipsterdom. Their portrayal of Toni and Candace — the quarreling couple who maintain the probelmatically unproblematic feminist bookstore in the show's most famous recurring sketch — is enough to assure them immortality on its own.
The Ninties' answer to Abbot and Costello, Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell rode their combination of good-natured and dim-witted to the peak of preadolescent comedy superstardom — first on the Nickelodeon sketch show All That, then in its spinoff film Good Burger, and their two-man showcase Kenan and Kel. Thompson has gone on to a long, respected run on SNL, but his comedic chemistry with Mitchell’s mania helped get him there.
A shout-out, of course, to the titular duo played by a tough-talking Penny Marshall and a perpetually perky Cindy Williams — but Laverne & Shirley is one of many sitcoms in which the obnoxious neighbors stole the show. That would be Leonard Kosnowksi and Andrew Squiggman — known for their diminutive nicknames, trademark "Hello!" entrance, greaser aesthetic, and unrelenting idiocy. (Watching Michael McKean and David Lander inhabit these proto-Dumb & Dumber roles is a particular trip today if you've seen McKean kill it as a dramatic actor in Better Call Saul.)
As Kelly Robinson and Alexander "Scotty" Scott, globe-trotting espionage agents traveling undercover as louche tennis pros, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby embodied laconic late-Sixties cool. That Cosby squandered his pioneering work here — he was the first African-American man to win an Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama — with his loathsome behavior off screen is criminal in more ways than one. But for a while, these two were the hippest cats on TV.
A prime example of how a married couple can feel more like partners in crime, Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin were the bawdy beating heart of the smash-hit sitcom. Played by Judd Apatow repertory member Jason Segel and Buffy/American Pie alumna Alyson Hannigan, the pair were a model of romantic stability among the chaos of their friends — Lily’s barely sublimated lesbian lust for her best friend Robin notwithstanding.
Every Doctor in the history of Who has had a companion to give his far-out saga an earth-bound anchor, but none were as indispensable to the venerable British sci-fi franchise as Billie Piper's scene-stealing Rose Tyler. Whether paired with Christopher Eccleston's prickly Ninth Doctor or David Tennant's tweedy Tenth, Rose's enthusiasm for adventure helped showrunner Russel T. Davies' relaunch of the series hit the pop-culture stratosphere.
The gents already achieved stardom in the classic Britcom Blackadder as well their own sketch-comedy showcases; they'd eventually go on to second careers as an outspoken observer of culture and the lead of House, MD respectively. But in between, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie absolutely nailed the title roles in a hilarious adaptation of writer P.G. Wodehouse's comedic misadventures. It may have been set in the waning days of the British aristocracy, but Laurie's oblivious fop and Fry's unflappable valet are a class-system send-up for the ages.
A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll — and a whole lot corny — the talents of Donny and Marie should nevertheless not be underestimated. As the most famous members of the Osmond entertainment empire, they anchored their own TV variety show when they were just 18 and 16 years old. They were, in effect, the Mormon Kardashians — though the closest they’d come to Kim K Superstar would be the infamous SNL sketch in which Gary Kroeger and Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Hawaiian Punch-drunk brother-sister duo made out on camera.
The archetypal TV buddy cops, Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) was the street-smart Brooklyn hothead, while Hutchinson (David Soul) was the cool, reserved midwestern blond. Together they cruised the streets of "Bay City" in Starsky's Gran Torino, keeping its very, very 1970s streets safe with the unstoppable power of bromance.
Now imagine Starsky and Hutch as a faded high-school football star and alcoholic philosophy grad student — that'd be leading men of Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga's zeitgeisty, occult-tinged murder mystery. The first season of HBO's art-pulpy anthology show stretched the TV-cop mold to the breaking point and gave Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey what's arguably the roles of their career. Though both were insanely macho (as was the show), Marty's he-man sarcasm was a perfect release valve for Rust's pitch-black nihilism.
If Gollum and the One Ring were somehow transformed into the managers of a regional paper manufacturers' office, the resulting relationship might be a lot like that of Steve Carrell and Rainn Wilson's starmaking characters here: To paraphrase Gandalf, they hate and love each other, as they hate and love themselves. Few shows, even Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's British original, have captured the peculiar dynamic between a white-collar blowhard and his obsequious underling in all its cartoonish complexity.
Take the rapid-fire dry-humor patter of an old-school screwball comedy, transfer it to the mouths of a single mom and her teenage kid, and you're on your way to conjuring the magic of the parent-child partnership that made Gilmore Girls run. Lorelai and Rory showed that when it comes to mother-daughter dynamics, learning from and leaning on each other need not be mutually exclusive. We can't wait for the Netflix reboot.
Despite being partners, Baltimore Detectives Jimmy McNulty and William "The Bunk" Moreland spent more time apart than together over the course of The Wire's five seasons, thanks to the Irish wildman's time in the special investigative detail (and the harbor unit). But their near-telepathic connection was unforgettably depicted in what’s colloquially known as "the fuck scene," in which the duo travels to a murder scene and cracks a homicide while communicating with nothing but variations of the f-bomb. Genius.
Name-dropping, pill-popping, coke-snorting, booze-swilling, chain-smoking, status-obsessing, high-spending, child-neglecting, personal-assistant-insulting nightmares? Yes, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Spinning out of their sketch-comedy show, Jennfier Saunders and Dawn French's failure-prone fashionistas Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone brutalized English bohemian excess in the early Nineties even as Britpop made it cool again. A reunion movie is on the way this year, to which we can only say cheers, thanks a lot.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's deductive detectives got a compellingly contemporary makeover in the BBC/PBS series co-created by Doctor Who veteran Steven Moffat and League of Gentlemen member Mark Gatiss. Set in the modern day (with the exception of one Victorian Era special) and featuring freshly minted Hollywood stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the show updates the eccentric crime-solver as an anti-social, OCD misanthrope and his loyal chronicler as an ex-soldier/enabler. The chemistry, however, is as old-fashioned as it comes.
The all-time great sitcom is best known for its four-person ensemble of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, a comedy quadrilateral that may never be topped. But Seinfeld and his still-inseparable childhood friend, played by Jason Alexander, are where the show's observational obsessions and New York neuroses can be found in their purest form — perhaps because the pair are based on the star stand-up comedian and his series co-creator Larry David.
Everyone knows misery loves company; misery's lust for company, however, receives comparatively little airtime. That's where the deep-cover KGB agents who pose as the couple next door in this riveting Cold War thriller come in: Their job of lying, killing, and potentially dying for their secret Soviet backers is made bearable only by their intense sexual connection. Actors Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, who kindled an IRL relationship while playing the roles, have given TV one of its saddest and sexiest couples of all time.
Where would the combustible counterterrorist Jack Bauer be without the cool-headed computer genius who's his closest ally and best friend? Dead, that's where. Actor Mary Lynn Rajskub's background as a comedian made her the perfect foil for Kiefer Sutherland's dead-serious man of action, ensuring that the emblematic War on Terror–era thriller always had a surprising and entertaining platonic partnership at its heart.
When merry prankster Trapper John McIntyre left the 4077th behind due to creative differences — sorry, a transfer back to the States — his longtime partner Hawkeye Pierce needed a new foil. Along came B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), a laid-back Californian who made an even better partner for Alan Alda's iconic Army surgeon. Their friendship formed the backbone of eight of the long-running Korean War comedy's 11 seasons, and their comedic and dramatic interplay was unmatched on the show.
The platonic ideal of a committed, happily married couple right in the middle of a complex and nuanced New Golden Age drama? How the hell did that happen? Don't second-guess it — just treasure every minute of shared screentime with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton's incredible couple, who proved that "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose" was a life-changing mantra both on and off the football field.
Remember the endlessly quotable interplay of Monty Python's John Cleese and Michael Palin? Now mix it with the biting sociopolitical satire of Chapelle's Show. Boom: You have Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the greatest sketch-comedy duo since Bob Odenkirk met David Cross. Whether they're playing dozens of different ridiculous college athletes in their sketch-comedy show's highly viral East-West Bowl bits or celebrating the cinematic achievements of "Liam Neesons" and "the Batmans" as excitable hotel valets, the duo are just mercilessly funny to watch.
Okay, so perhaps the idea of lawmen as upstanding and self-sacrificing as Twin Peaks' central pair is as much of a fantasy as backward-speaking dwarves and demonic owls. But that's what made Kyle MacLachlan's zen FBI agent and Michael Ontkean's soft-spoken small-town sheriff so important. Both dogged and decent, their characters loved and respected one another and the people of the town they patrolled, providing David Lynch and Mark Frost's frequently frightening, occasionally devastating supernatural soap with a much-needed sliver of optimism.
He's lived in a pineapple under the sea for 17 years and counting, during which time he became Nickelodeon's highest-rated, most licensed (and lucrative) longest-running franchise. But the success of the squeaky-voiced, eternally optimistic sea sponge known as Spongebob Squarepants would be unimaginable without the support of his good-hearted, dim-witted starfish neighbor and best friend Patrick. Voiced by comedian Tom Kenny —a key player in cartoons from Powerpuff Girls to Adventure Time — and Coach's Bill Fagerbakke respectively, their (mostly) kid-friendly comedic chemistry proves you don't necessarily need brains to be brilliant.
When it comes to American sketch comedy, there's everything before Mr. Show and everything after. Bespectacled standup David Cross and future Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk's HBO vehicle paired their sardonic sensibilities to essentially create alternative comedy as we know it. And while their two-man tag-team dominated the show, they were more than willing to share the spotlight with a who's who of future stars, including Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, and fellow Greatest Duo luminaries Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (24).
Years before "strong female characters" became equal parts hot commodity and social-justice step forward, these two sword-wielding warrior women shattered stereotypes in syndication nationwide. Actors Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor had a master/student chemistry that saw this Hercules: The Legendary Journeys spin-off outshine its predecessor, as well as launching a thousand slashfics.
Television has seen plenty of memorable hero/villain matchups, but few if any found themselves on the kind of equal footing that Justified's resident lawman and ganglord took for granted. Played by Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, this duo from opposite sides of the law eventually existed in a sort of symbiosis, in which it became impossible to imagine one without the other. They're Harlan County, Kentucky's version of Batman and the Joker.
All hail the cartoon cat-and-mouse combo who've provided hours of violent amusement to Bart and Lisa over the course of The Simpsons' quarter-century-plus run. Originally a parody of cartoon antagonists like Tom & Jerry and Wile E. Coyote & the Road Runner, the endlessly creative, Grand Guignol carnage they've wreaked upon one another has elevated them to a whole new level of existential agony — it's Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit with sticks of dynamite and a cutesy theme song.
Holy pop-culture perfection! Actors Adam West and Burt Ward earned a lifetime pass as the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder on this pop-art-influenced adaptation of DC Comics' Dynamic Duo. They played their clean-cut, square-jawed heroics with a face so straight you couldn't help but laugh — if you were an adult, that is. For kids, their biff-bam-pow derring-do against the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin, and the rest of the rogues' gallery were the stuff that superhero dreams were made of.
Behold, the heroes who shattered the glass ceiling of stoner comedy. Playing characters loosely based on themselves (or sharing the same first names at any rate), Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have become a millennial Cheech & Chong, Brooklyn hipster division — but at the heart of their show is a friendship that feels real and relatable no matter how outlandish their antics get. Yaasss Queens!
"Heh heh heh. Mmm heh heh heh." The glory of MTV in its prime was that no one satirized the network better than the network itself — especially future Office Space/King of the Hill creator Mike Judge's teenage dirtbags. Between animated sketches, these two young neanderthals would comment on videos from every conceivable genre, evaluating them along a strict "rocks/sucks" binary. As an encapsulation of adolescent metalheads, they were both completely hilarious and surprisingly insightful.
Bryan Fuller's adaptation of Thomas Harris' series of serial-killer novels had an Anthony Hopkins/Jodie Foster–sized mountain to climb if it were to succeed. But succeed it did, thanks not only to its fever-dream visuals, but to the utterly unique relationship between its titular murderer and the man tasked with catching him. Their connection was deeper than love — a sociopath incapable of caring for other human beings, and an empath who was the only person capable of understanding him. Their delicate dance was performed perfectly by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy; you were never sure if they were going to kiss each other or kill each other.
In a world of kids all hopped up on goofballs, two men stood against the dying of the light: Sgt. Joe Friday and Ofc. Bill Gannon. Jack Webb and Harry Morgan's plainclothes cops presided over the late-Sixties revival of Webb's seminal Los Angeles cop show like dual Nixons in miniature, and their embodiment of square values was so square it somehow traveled around 180 degrees to become camp. But their completely unironic partnership was weirdly endearing no matter what level of snark you operate on.
One was the keeper of the cheese. The other was the lemon merchant. Together, they were the weirdest thing children's television had ever seen. Created by mercurial animation genius John Kricfalusi, rageaholic chihuahua Ren Hoëk and simpleminded Stimpson J. Cat were far more than a "remember the Nineties" footnote — their show's blend of Fifties stock music, gross-out visuals, disturbingly adult humor, and a seemingly very thorough acquaintance with mental illness made it appointment viewing for weirdos of all ages.
Move over, Noel and Liam Gallagher: The Crane boys were the Nineties greatest brother act. It took a stroke of mad brilliance to take the fuddy-duddy punchline of a thousand Cheers jokes and pair him with an even fussier, prissier culturati for his spinoff series. But that's the dynamic between the iconic Kelsey Grammer character and his baby bro, played by David Hyde Pierce. Whether trading barbs that required an Ivy League education to decipher or engaging in slapstick farce that put the Three Stooges to shame, Frasier and Niles were one of of Must-See TV's best double acts.
Piper and Alex, Schmiper and Schmalex: For our money, Taystee and Poussey are Litchfield Penitentiary's premiere power couple. Indeed, this former Army brat and her boisterous BFF drive many of OITNB's best (and most heartbreaking) scenes — and that's not even taking into account "Amanda" and "Mackenzie," their parodic white-people alter egos who offer up a critique of the show's presumably privileged politics from within. No matter form it takes, Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley sell every second of their friendship.
How can a 60-year-old sitcom still feel so fresh and funny today? Age ain't nothin' but a number, especially if said sitcom is centered on the friendship between Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, the immortal creations of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. The combination of Gleason's wild-eyed, hot-tempered, bus-driving schemer and Carney's relatively dim-witted sanitation worker who could nonetheless give as good as he got defined buddy comedy for decades. Without them, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, another iconic TV duo, would never have left the Stone Age.
With sexual chemistry so combustible it's a surprise TV screens didn’t explode, Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd took the Sam & Diane dynamic of Cheers to the next level in a 1980s comedy that gave both actors one of their most memorable turns in the spotlight. Inspired by The Taming of the Shrew, the screwball private-eye show helped launch Willis into superstardom and revived Shepherd's career years after The Last Picture Show kickstarted it. Watch this odd couple interact and their subsequent success is no secret.
At first, Matthew Weiner's instant-classic prestige-drama period piece seemed like the story of the tall, dark, and handsome mystery man whose silhouette appeared in the credits. As time passed, however, both Don Draper and his protégé Peggy Olson emerged as co-protagonists, with his downward spiral and her tortuous upward climb past the glass ceiling given more or less equal time. Their final phone call is the show's most moving moment; when you go back and watch the series' best episode "The Suitcase," you realize there was a great two-hander embedded in Mad Men just dying to get out.
Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. David Letterman and Paul Shaffer. Conan O'Brien and Andy Richter. These were the duos that defined late-night televison — but the late, great Garry Shandling's groundbreaking sitcom took them one step further. Played by Shandling and Jeffrey Tambor, the obnoxious talk-show host Larry Sanders and obsequious henchman Hank Kingsley at the heart of HBO's seminal showbiz parody sent up Hollywood narcissism, back-scratching, and ass-kissing better than any real-world equivalent could. At the same time, the duo served up a demented celebration of the showman-and-sidekick relationship around which the entire after-hours TV landscape is patterned. No flipping.
"Troyandabedinthemorrrrrnin'!" At first glance, Danny Pudi's spectrumy cinephile and Donald "Childish Gambino" Glover's washed-up jock have little to nothing in common. But by the time their run together on this deconstructionist sitcom was over, their characters had formed a sui generis friendship. The relationship between these two young men was based entirely in the acceptance of one another's eccentricities — much like our own bonds with our favorite TV characters. Eventually Glover's career as a musician carried him away from the perpetually dysfunctional show, but by then it didn't matter: These two idiot savants (one more an idiot, the other more a savant) had already crafted a bromance for the ages.
"Norm!" "It's a little-known fact …" Played by George Wendt, Norm Peterson was an alcohol-soaked accountant perpetually avoiding his unseen wife Vera; actor John Ratzenberger's Cliff Clavin was a know-it-all mama's-boy postal worker. But even as Sam and Diane stole the spotlight, these two served as a sort of Greek chorus at the corner of Cheers' titular bar, dispensing demented wisdom from half-drained mugs of beer. They proved that deeply flawed people deserved a seat at the Must-See-TV table.
Among all the pairings on this list, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman embodied the widest variety of archetypes. Student and teacher, master and servant, father and son, hero and villain — over the course of Breaking Bad's five-plus seasons, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were tasked with playing all these relationships and more. Not bad, considering that Jesse wasn't intended to last longer than the first season. Instead, his increasingly warped connection to mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned mass-murdering meth kingpin called "Heisenberg" drove one of the greatest drams of all time, from start to finish.
We're not entirely sure it's possible to capture the partnership at the center of the venerable Law & Order spin-off on paper unless you watched it unfold in real time. In that case, you saw Christopher Meloni's bullet-headed Irish-Catholic detective lock horns, and hearts, with Mariska Hargitay's sensitive but street-tough counterpart, until their antagonistic professional dynamic slowly gave way to something way deeper (and sexier). Suffice it to say, the ability to turn a show with a subject matter this disturbing into a vehicle for forbidden, unspoken romance is magic of the darkest sort.
Ideally, the Odd Couple theme song is playing in your head the entire time you were reading this article. Regardless, it's hard to imagine very many of the entries on this list without first establishing Tony Randall's fastidious Felix Unger and Jack Klugman's slovenly Oscar Madison as the basis for the format. Springing from the equally iconic duo of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in playwright Neil Simon's Broadway original, Randall and Klugman parlayed their clashing sensibilities into comedy gold, giving rise to a phrase used to described mismatched yet utterly perfect pairings to this day.
The hot-headed, hot-blooded human, the cold, emotionless Vulcan — it was the brotherhood that transcended personalities, cultures, even species. Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Mister Spock (son of Sarek) embodied the dueling tendencies of the Cold War liberalism that informed Gene Roddenberry's seminal sci-fi series: One was impulsive and emotional, the other scientific and logical. The roles launched actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy into immortality, and the contours of their relationship can be seen everywhere from Obi-Wan and Anakin to Iron Man and Captain America today.
These two characters taught generations of children what friendship was. Such was the singular genius of Muppets creator Jim Henson that the personalities of Sesame Street's BFFs could be determined through phrenology alone: Round-headed Ernie was exuberant and humorous, while pointy-noggined Bert was buttoned-up and serious. Henson's TV creations did not suffer from a shortage of memorable duos — Kermit and Piggy, Statler and Waldorf, Big Bird and Mister Snuffleupagus — but the orange and yellow roommates at the center of his long-running show were his yin and yang par excellence.
Today "Weekend Update," tomorrow the world. These women paired with future late-night titans Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers on either side of their fake-newscaster reign together — and with all due respect to Jane Curtain and Dan Aykroyd, Colin Jost and Michael Che, etc., no duo has occupied that desk better. (Their recent joint return as dual SNL hosts has been the highlight of this season; see that "Meet Your Second Wife" sketch.) Fey and Poehler parlayed their time on Saturday Night Live into careers as comedy moguls, movie stars and Golden Globe co-hosts, but they're the most powerful power couple in TV history, full stop.
A great comedy duo is like a well-oiled machine, even when the machine is spinning out of control. So look no further for evidence of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance's factory-precision teamwork than the legendary I Love Lucy episode where they become workers on chocolate-factory assembly line, keeping the candy moving by any means necessary. That was the secret to Lucy and Ethel's relationship: No matter what hijinks they got into, they truly felt like friends who'd do whatever it took to get each other out of it again.
Can professional ethics, intellectual antagonism, unyielding loyalty, platonic friendship, and raw sexual tension all get along? I want to believe. Put simply, Dana Scully and Fox "Spooky" Mulder were, and are, the most complex and compelling male-female partnership ever to be put on the small screen. Mulder's fanaticism and Scully's skepticism, her cool and his heat, David Duchovny's irresistible sex appeal and, uh, Gillian Anderson's irresistible sex appeal — X-Files creator Chris Carter could not have created a better pair of FBI agents to embody his series' pre-millennium paranoia, nor cast two better actors to play them. Friends, rivals, partners, lovers — they're every great TV duo all at once, which makes them the greatest of all.