I was channel-surfing with my obnoxiously precocious six-year-old niece Gabby (her full name is Gabrielle Callisto Aphrodite Zimbelman; she was conceived at a Xena convention) when we stumbled upon a rerun of Blaster Patrol. “My favorite show! Did you write this one, Uncle Ricky?”
“No, Gabby, I never worked on Blaster Patrol, more’s the pity.”
On the tube, Sam and Janet, the series leads, were being chased by evil alien Greebs and were simultaneously firing blasters and exchanging witty yet affectionate banter. “Sigh,” Gabby sighed, “they’re soooooooo in love. Are they married?”
“Sam and Janet? No, they never got married, even though, much to everyone’s amazement, the show ran for six seasons…”
“Not the characters, silly. The actors.”
“Oh. Yeah, she’s married. Third or fourth time; I can’t keep track. Him, he’ll never get married unless the father of the bride owns a shotgun.”
Gabby couldn’t fathom it. “But… they love each other… don’t they?”
“You kidding? When the camera’s not rolling, they can’t stand one another.” I omitted mentioning that she thought he was a lecherous drunk who couldn’t remember his lines, and he thought she was a ruthless, upstaging diva who despised television in general and sci-fi in particular.
Gabby’s lower lip quivered. She indicated Sam and Janet, who were celebrating their escape from the Greebs with much kissing and fondling. “Look at them. You’re wrong.”
“Honey, it’s all make-believe. They’re actors. They’re faking it.”
Her Bambi eyes clouded with doubt—but as Sam and Janet exchanged perfect loving gazes, her conviction returned. “Nuh-uh. Nobody could fake that.”
And there, I reflected, was the biggest reason why that otherwise unmemorable show had run for six years. Separately, the actors playing Sam and Janet had been no more than competent—but together, they had the most elusive and valuable commodity in show business: chemistry.
When the Cast Clicks…
It’s never easy to cast a TV series. Acting talent alone is no guarantee of chemistry. (But it does increase the odds. Just as luck favors the prepared, chemistry favors the talented.) As we narrow our casting choices, we also begin auditioning them in pairs, mixing and matching to see who “clicks” with whom.
On Farscape, for example, Ben Browder and Claudia Black “clicked” immediately. And even though Claudia didn’t exactly match the image of the “Aeryn Sun” character that Rockne O’Bannon and David Kemper had in their minds, it didn’t matter. Rock and DK knew a good thing when they saw it, and Claudia promptly won the role of Aeryn.
Once we find chemistry, we fight to preserve it. The applicable showbiz buzzword is “UST”—Unresolved Sexual Tension—as in, “We don’t dare let Castle and Beckett sleep together; it’ll ruin that wonderful UST.” It’s an article of faith among many in television that one should never take the “U” out of UST; proponents of that doctrine point to both Moonlighting and Cheers as two classic examples of how series risk losing their spark once the main characters finally “do the deed.”
But the greater the UST, the harder the writers have to work to keep the characters apart—and the longer it drags out, the more artificial it feels. It’s a tough call: when do we let them get together? Episode 10? 50? 100? Never? How long before the audience gets bored with the seemingly endless tease and wanders off?
Of course, resolving the sexual tension doesn’t have to settle the characters into a calm, uninteresting relationship. Nonetheless, one of TV’s guiding principles is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”—and when UST’s nicely cooking along, who wants to risk it by tampering with it?
We’ve been speaking of chemistry in its commonest definition: a romantic and/or sexual attraction between two characters that’s palpable, believable, and fun to watch. But that definition’s far too narrow. Other forms of chemistry—between friends, enemies, colleagues, and family—are equally important.
Once again, you know it when you see it. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on the original Star Trek series had terrific chemistry of a completely non-romantic, non-sexual sort (and please do not send me any fanfic to the contrary). Even in Classic Trek‘s worst episodes, the interplay between those three characters—indeed, any two of them—was always worth watching.
In fact, stop and think for a moment: how often have you sat through a bad-to-mediocre episode of a favorite series for no other reason than to watch the characters interact? How many times have you said (or heard) something like “Last week’s episode was awful, but you have to catch it anyway—just for that one great scene between X and Y.” This is music to a TV producer’s ears; we know we can’t hit a home run with each and every episode, so we hope and pray that the audience’s love for the characters will keep them from tuning out during our inevitable clunkers.
And preservation of chemistry also applies to an ensemble cast. Once a series is comfortably underway and the characters are meshing well, making changes can be tricky. Adding a regular character always shakes things up—but will it be in a good way or a bad way?
On Farscape, when we introduced the character of Chiana (in the episode “Durka Returns”), we quite deliberately hedged our bet. At the end of the episode, Chiana took an enemy bullet that easily could’ve proved fatal. And the keen-eyed viewer will also note that Chiana only appears in a very few scenes of the following episode, “A Human Reaction”—again by design, so that it would have been easy to write her out of it entirely if she hadn’t survived that pulse blast.
We didn’t give ourselves the out because we were afraid Gigi Edgley couldn’t act; we knew darn well she could. What we didn’t know is how well the character of Chiana would work with Crichton, Aeryn, D’Argo, Zhaan, Rygel, and Pilot. But after a few days’ dailies, it was clear that Chiana was a “keeper”—even though we were fully aware that the fans were going to hate her.
Why? Because fans always hate new arrivals at first. That’s understandable; over time, they’ve bonded with a particular “family” of characters, and the new kid on the block is seen as a stranger, an intruder, even a threat. (“Those stupid producers better not even be thinking about making her a new love interest for Crichton…”)
But after a few episodes, if the chemistry’s right, the audience will grow to like and accept the new character as part of the family. (And when the next new character arrives, the cycle begins anew. “Who’s this Jool person? They’d better not be bringing her in to take Chiana’s place…”)
Equal and Opposite Reactions
Even villains need chemistry. The charismatic “villain you love to hate” is a television staple. Great heroes need equally great villains; it’s the worthiness of the foe that brings out the best efforts of the hero.
That was an early problem with Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Klingons were now our allies and the Romulans were being given a rest so the fledgling series could differentiate itself from Classic Trek. A new alien race of bad guys was needed—and the Ferengi were created.
Trouble was, the Ferengi didn’t come off as formidable villains, but as annoying leprechauns-gone-bad; you wanted to swat them, not shoot them. It didn’t take long for the Ferengi to be stripped of their warships and relegated to comic relief. (In contrast, the character of “Q” came back again and again to butt heads with Captain Picard because John de Lancie and Patrick Stewart had—you guessed it—chemistry.)
The quest for chemistry extends behind the scenes as well. Every good writing staff has its own peculiar chemistry, usually manifested in wildly disparate personalities who can yell and scream at each other all day long about trivial story points—and then all go out for beer afterward. Finding the right mix of people is vital for every department, because when creative people “click,” the whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts.
One might even say that TV producers are essentially chemists… that our main function is to assemble different elements into new, valuable compounds.
But in truth, chemistry isn’t the right word. Chemistry’s a science. Television isn’t; it has no infallible formulas, no hard-and-fast rules, no way to know in advance who’ll click on screen and who’ll clunk. We aren’t chemists, we’re alchemists—blindly casting spells and trying to transmute base metals into gold.
When it works—when the characters come to life and light up the screen—it’s not science at all.