Dynamic duos have a long history in narrative forms, likely making them second only to Campbell’s reluctant hero in terms of sheer volume of produced fiction. That descriptor is incredibly recent, only becoming prominent in the last century with the arrival of Detective Comics’ Batman and Robin team-up adventures, but the idea has been around forever. There’s Achilles and Patroclus, or Hector and Paris depending on your point of view; Macbeth and Banquo; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Watson and Holmes; Green Hornet and Kato; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (before they were dead); Harold and Maude, Harold and Kumar, etc., etc., ad infinitum.
Our recent televisual era has brought us partnerships from “Jake and the Fatman” to “Starsky & Hutch” to “Cagney & Lacey” to “Franklin & Bash” and/or “Rizzoli and Isles.” And those are just the duos in the title card, not to mention the non-titular couplings in, for examples, “The X-Files,” “Bones,” and “Psych.” There are often groups of four and five, as well, but those arrangements are rightly considered ensembles, with an individual or a pairing being the focus of any individual chapter, episode, or installment but the overall story focused on the collective rather than those highlighted elements. But there’s one type of partnership that isn’t explored quite as often as the rest, but tends to lead to some of the best actual character dynamics in fiction, especially modern and post-modern. Pairs can tend to “yes” each other to death if they aren’t careful and four or more people can debate endlessly, and uninterestingly, if there are no ring leaders. But triumverates can argue and reach consensus easily and very rarely will all three agree on the same thing all the time, simply making for better drama or comedy, depending on the stakes.
The terrific trio (as I’ve decided to dub it) isn’t unpopular, it just seems that creators tackle the dynamic less. Even great works like “Game of Thrones” focus the majority of their scenes on two people having a conversation, or larger groups navigating around one another, as opposed to three people interacting on the same level at the same time. This is unfortunate — besides being my favorite scene structure — because, as we’ll see below, when done right trios are almost always engaging and memorable. Before you start in, the Three Musketeers are out because, remember, Chris O’Donnell makes four. And while Luke, Leia, and Han from Star Wars can feel like a trio at times, Luke is always as the reluctant hero, Han and Chewie are always the dynamic duo, and Leia as the damsel in distress. Sorry Leia.
So, without further ado, here 13 of the Most Enduring Terrific Trios in Movies and TV:
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (“Star Trek”)
It’s terribly easy to say that, no, Kirk and Spock are the dynamic duo of the Trek universe, but that’s cruelly ignoring the gifts of Deforest Kelley and the curmudgeonly stability he brought to the Enterprise triptych. It could just as easily be Kirk and McCoy, or McCoy and Spock, which is why the three work best when they’re together. J.J. Abrams might be trying to squeeze Bones out in favor of Uhura, which makes a kind of sense, but an obtuse love triangle will never be as fun as an equilateral bromance.
Chase, Martin, and Short (Three Amigos)
Say what you will about their careers since the mid-90s — Chevy Chase = a disappointment, Steve Martin = super serious banjoist?, Martin Short = sticking with the schtick — but these three comedic legends were never better, or sillier, than when they were playing silent film era Hollywood stars kicked to the curb and left for dead careers in pre-industrial Mexico. Their inept discovery of an invisible swordsman is great fun, but their rendition of “My Little Buttercup” never gets old.
Hanks, Dern, and Ducommun (The ‘Burbs)
Growing up, it was easy to relate to the three leads of Joe Dante’s skewering of suburbia via horror movie tropes, because one of the running gags was that the adults were just as immature, perhaps even more immature, than the neighborhood kids. Watching it again as an adult and empthasizing with the need for adventure in everyday mundanity, Tom Hanks’ every man, Bruce Dern’s war vet, and Rick Ducommon’s bitter card are even more relatable. Seeing these not-so-hyperbolic traits in your own parents and their friends is just about as comical and horrifying as Dante suggests, too.
Buffy, Willow, and Xander (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”)
I hestitated including the original Scoobs because while they were together and mostly unified through all seven seasons of the Joss Whedon classic, there was also always Giles. And Ms. Calendar. And Cordelia. And… well, you get the idea. (It was also impossible to find a non-fan vid, if you’re wondering about the .gif below.) But Buffy and her two best friends were the only ones in almost every episode and, while only one had the titular role, together they were the fulcrum of the entire series. Whedon’s tried similar groupings in all of his other efforts, but these three will forever be his template.
The Dude, Walter, and Donny (The Big Lebowski)
Once again, the Dude and Walter could be a dynamic duo, and by the end of the film that’s probably the direction their relationship is headed, but they’re on a bowling league team of three, and that third member is Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos. Who else would ask Walter reverent questions? Where would the Dude have ended up, indeed, where would any of us be now, if not for Donny constantly explicating that the phone was ringing? They might be f*ck ups, but that’s what makes them special.
Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
There is, of course, a fan theory here that suggests Cameron is imagining Ferris ala the plot of Fight Club, so Cam and Sloane could just be a dynamic duo, but the movie goes to great lengths that they don’t really make sense without Ferris bringing them together. The adventure they have is the one I always tried to replicate when I skipped school, because the most fantastical element is the matter of breaking Sloane out. Everything else is exactly what three somewhat hip, somewhat nerdy kids would do on their best day.
Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell (Death Proof)
Even though Zoe Bell is the only credited as “Herself,” I like to imagine that Dawson and Thoms were actually playing themselves, as well. Because that is a threesome I’d like to see in the real world. That isn’t supposed to be innuendo, seriously. These three ladies just have the best time hanging out, defying death, before they have the worst time on the road facing off against Stuntman Mike (who, I like to imagine is Mike Russell, Kurt’s non-famous older brother), before they have an even better best time taking their revenge. What I’m saying ids, who wouldn’t want to go on their joyride?
The Workaholics (“Workaholics”)
Originally, this was slotted for the Wolf Pack from the Hangover, but, frankly, the mere fact there will exist a “trilogy” in a matter of days and I have Roger Ebert levels of hate for the second installment, I couldn’t in conscience include them here. My love for Zach Galifianakis is strong, but my loathing for the Hangover series is stronger. Besides, Blake
Henderson Anderson, Adam DeMamp DeVine, and Anders Holm vik are the three best friends anyone could have… in college. Any other time in your life and it’s just sad, which, of course, is what makes them so damned funny.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione (the J.K. Rowling novels and Warner Bros. movie series)
But, naturally, the three best friends anyone could actually ever have at any point in their lives would be the in-famous wizard world saviors. Well, really, most of that credit goes to Hermione, but I guess the “chosen one” had something to do with Voldemort’s downfall, as well. And every group needs a Xander, right, Ron?
Joel/Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo (“Mystery Science Theater 3000”)
No, this isn’t a cheat. Joel and Mike were only in one episode together as the characters of “Joel” and “Mike” (see below), so this isn’t a foursome. It’s just that, as I’ve written before, I can’t in good conscience pick one of the experimental humans over the other because each made their particular triumverate something special. While the voices of Crow and Servo may have changed, their gentle absurdity was steadfast and true. Until something catastrophic happened on the Satellite of Love, but that was only a weekly occurrence.
The Order of the Triad (“The Venture Bros.”)
This brilliant show is lousy with dynamic duos — Hank and Dean, Brock and the Doc, the Monarch and Dr. Mrs. the Monarch, Billy Quizboy and Pete, and the Henchmen just to name the big ones — so maybe that’s why the team-up of Dr. Orpheus, Jefferson Twilight, and the Alchemist is a welcome addition to every episode and story arc they get to lend not-so-helping hands. It probably doesn’t hurt that two of the three members of the Triad are also two of the three members of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Or, whatever it’s called now.
Sam, Neal, and Bill (“Freaks and Geeks”)
No doubt every fan of this cancelled-before-its-time series has their favorite geek (Neal, a.k.a. Li’l Wolverine) and freak (Nick), but like Kick, Spock, and McCoy the nerdier group’s sum is greater than their parts. We might connect to their individual dramatic plights, but it’s their deep friendship that we truly love to watch. When you have friends like these, sometimes you feel like you can do anything. Like talking to the pretty new girl isn’t even a challenge.
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright (“Spaced” and The Cornetto Trilogy)
Okay, now here I am cheating. For one, these aren’t characters (or “characters”) in a movie. Secondly, when they work on a movie together, only two of them are ever actually in front of the camera. No, these are just three real life pals who really, really like working and spending time together. Let’s be real here: As much as we might enjoy watching Simon Pegg beam people up and Nick Frost trying his level best against alien invaders with some plucky kids, or drooling over the visuals for Scott Pilgrim’s fight against the whole world, we really, really love them when they work and spend time together. The end of the world can’t get here fast enough.
Obviously, this list isn’t exhaustive. I nixed several myself just to have the baker’s dozen repetition in the title, so feel free to share your not-ignored favorites in the comments. Teamwork makes the dream work, after all.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He really hopes the Doug Loves Movies episode with Pegg, Frost, and Wright happens this summer.