Chemistry 101

What is chemistry, and why is it important to a movie or TV show?

Chemistry is that mysterious thing that happens when the characters of a film interact like a fine Swiss timepiece. It isn’t necessarily the sexual tension between the leading man and woman in the story. Chemistry can (and should) happen between any characters.

It’s that magic moment when an onscreen relationship develops beyond the words that the actors speak. It’s the spark in their eyes. It’s the subtle timing that turns into a rhythm.

Chemistry may show through a romantic moment or a violent fistfight. It usually involves witty banter, but it may be accomplished in gesture and expression. Even a poorly written script gains credibility when the actors have chemistry.

Some say that either chemistry is there or it’s not, that it can’t be manufactured. I’m not sure I believe that, though I have seen several films in which there was absolutely no connection between the actors at all. If chemistry can be written into a book, which I have experienced many times, then I believe it can be affected between the players.

It lies within the actors to find the good and the bad of the characters they play, and then bring out hints of hidden traits for the audience to glimpse. When two or more characters have empathy for each other, even if it is just a suggestion of understanding, the audience connects with them and becomes a part of the story.

Ensemble television shows rely on chemistry to keep them on the air. A cast without it is quickly cast off. M*A*S*H* is a wonderful example of cast-wide chemistry. I remember spending many evenings laughing through episodes right up to the point when I would crumble into sobs. When Trapper John and Colonel Blake left the 4077th, I found myself inconsolable.

The most popular shows on TV today have amazing ensembles with chemistry oozing from every one-liner.

The cast of NCIS works together with the timing of a classic concerto. The audience knows that any gruesome morgue scenes will be tempered with a lesson from Ducky, an inappropriate comment from DiNozzo, or a well-placed Gibbs slap.

Castle features an ensemble of characters that love and hate each other with playful abandon and serious consequences. Even when Rick and Beckett are at odds, the audience pulls for them to work together—this is a key ingredient for a successful show. But the chemistry on Castle works beyond their relationship. Rick’s interactions with his mother and daughter are true to life and sincere. Beckett’s relationships with her peers and superior officers are deep and realistic as well. When guest stars make appearances, the cast incorporates them seamlessly into their magic. Last night Adam Baldwin, Nathan Fillion’s former Firefly costar, played Detective Slaughter. The instant chemistry created by these pals had me laughing out loud.

Chemistry makes a story real. It gives the audience cause to care. It offers something for which to cheer and to hiss, and the truly talented can stir the good and bad together at the same time.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.