Friday, November 08, 2013

Better television through chemistry

As opposed to earlier in the week, here are some Friday Questions on Friday.

An (is my actual name) has this actual question:

How much do you think good actor chemistry impacts a show? Can a mediocre show coast on it? Can a lack of it kill an otherwise brilliant show? Would low-rated but genius first season Cheers have gotten a second season without it? Can you write chemistry to any degree? I'd be interested to know your thoughts, and maybe some examples of good/bad chemistry in action.

Chemistry is VITAL. Especially in a romantic comedy. Without it even the best writing will not save you. There’s a magic that is created when the two people are right for each other. You can’t manufacture it. That’s why when a screen couple has it, you tend to see them together in future projects. Clark Gable/Carole Lombard, Spencer Tracy/Kate Hepburn, Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan, Kermit the Frog/Ms. Piggy to name a few.

For all the great writing, ensemble acting, brilliant premise, and amazing opening titles and theme – without Ted Danson and Shelley Long I think CHEERS would have gone thirteen episodes and out. Again, not to minimize any of the other factors, but we struck lightening in a bottle with that pair.

You can’t write chemistry, but when it appears you can write to it. No one ever did that better in sitcoms than Glen & Les Charles.

On the flip side, yes, I do believe genuine chemistry can cover a multitude of sins. A mediocre script can occasionally slip by with the right people.

Bad chemistry? Dane Cook & Jessica Alba, Ellen DeGeneres & Bill Pullman, Woody Allen & Julia Roberts, Woody Allen & Elizabeth Shue, Woody Allen & Tea Leoni, Kelly Clarkson & Justin Guianini, and Diane Keaton & Keanu Reeves.

Feel free to add your own, dear reader. Good or bad.

Anonymous has a question about someone else who is anonymous:

Would it be a stretch to think that the boy with the fake ID in the first episode was the man who knocked on Cheers door at the end of the last episode?

Yes. The man who knocked on the Cheers door was Bob Broder, the agent who put the CHEERS deal together and represented most of us writers.

From David:

Tom Reeder commenting on Ken Levine's site? Wow, a mini-Cheers writers reunion! (A question, in fact: Do you writers from all those great shows ever get together to reminisce - all the camaraderie / frustration / elation?)

Uh, that’s pretty much all we do now. Here are some examples.
Me, Tom Reeder, David Isaacs

Me, Glen Charles, David Isaacs
David Isaacs, me, Russ Woody, Bob Ellison

And finally, Dan Ball wonders:

With production equipment and means of distribution (Youtube, Vimeo, etc.) becoming so accessible, why would someone still try to "make it" in Hollywood, rather than carve out this new frontier of entertainment right where they're at?

Honestly? Because that’s where the money still is. Most people who create web series hope they can ultimately sell them to networks. Will that change over the next few years? Who knows? It’s still the Wild West out there. But for the moment, the big conglomerates still hold the purse strings.

What’s your question? Happy to answer them.


Michael said...

An example of great chemistry is William Powell and Myrna Loy, who appeared in 14 films together, including 6 Thin Man's.

Mr First Nighter said...

I always find this jarring and annoying: a scene is taking place in the kitchen. A new character enters the scene through the house's back door. The character has arrived home and instead of entering through the front door, decides to walk around the house to enter through the back door.

Hamid said...

Terrible chemistry: Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. She was woefully, woefully, woefully miscast. She's a good actress but her Lois Lane was appalling and had ZERO chemistry with Brandon Routh.

By the way, Ken, ETA for the paperback?!

JdJdJd said...

@Mr First Nighter

You must live in an area where the driveway is in the front. I am in Texas and a large majority of neighborhoods have the driveway and/or car parking in the back of the house. So the nearest entry would be the back door.

Dan Ball said...

Thanks for taking the time to dispense wisdom and answer one of my many questions, Ken! I like that analogy...the Wild West. In some sense, I feel like I'm an old 49'er in the fold here. Thanks again!

Here's my addition to worse couple: Jennifer Anniston and Adam Sandler in JUST GO WITH IT. Which is ironic, because it was based off one of the most inspired match-ups ever: Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman in THE CACTUS FLOWER.

bj said...

I didn't want to post this on your blog, becuase I am concerned about spoliers, but I was a little confused about your novel. When Charles is in the water, Lucy is there to help him. She said she came as soon as he called - but when did he call? What am I missing?



Quiet Jim said...

Allison Janney and Anna Faris have great chemistry and are saving MOM which would be unwatchable with most other stars. Michael J Fox has no chemistry with his TV wife who used to be married to Hank from BREAKING BAD who she had great chemistry with.

Carol said...

@Mr First Nighter - I know what you mean - it isn't so much 'they enter through the back door' as it is 'the scene is in the kitchen so people who normally would be going to the front door will now be entering through the back door.' Family Ties ALWAYS did that. It was one of those things that I understood, because, television, but it always sort of bugged me. That and when the doorbell rings, and then the characters spend another minute finishing their conversation. I'm like 'answer the damn door already!'

Good Chemistry: Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic in Castle. I personally think the writing of the show is top notch anyway, but the two of them are just perfect together.

Bad Chemistry: 'Emma' and 'Neal' on Once Upon A Time.

An (is my actual name) said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken. I'd love to know more about writing to chemistry. Maybe it's a matter of watching and learning what the pair plays best and tailoring interactions/situations to that, or maybe it's more character driven and the best actor chemistry can play anything. Does character drive chemistry or does chemistry drive character? And why the hell haven't we seen Shelley Long and Ted Danson in other stuff together? Gah! Anyway, thanks again for taking the time.

Michael said...

Great chemistry: Larry Linville and Loretta Swit. Think about it.

Jim said...

Sample: "It's SO much not what we're looking for that it might actually end up being what we're looking for." - Starz

Ben said...

"The Millers" is an current example of a cast with chemistry overcoming a mediocre premise. Will Arnett, Margo Martindale, Beau Bridges and the rest have created a somewhat watchable family comedy on CBS. I can actually sit down with my 11 year old and watch it. And this is the only way I can explain the involvement of Jim Burrows.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Dan Ball: Even better, I thought was Walter Matthau and Glenda jackson in HOPSCOTCH. Their opening scene over a restaurant meal is staggeringly wonderful.

I may be alone in this, but the couple I never bought was Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson in PRIZZI'S HONOR. There were many things I loved about the movie, but honestly I thought Anjelica Huston and Nicholson had much more chemistry. It actually screwed up the movie for me because throughout the first half I kept waiting for the plot twist in which Nicholson and Turner were just playing each other. Eventually I realized they really were supposed to be attracted to each other and I was completely baffled.


Jon88 said...

Bad chemistry (though this opinion may be unique to me): "Michael" and "Fiona" on "Burn Notice." I remain convinced that the actors simply hate each other.

Cap'n Bob said...

On the other hand, screen pairings like Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald hated each other, and the Powell/Loy tandem didn't get along, either. Even Ethel didn't like Fred (or Lucy). Sometimes chemistry is nothing more than good acting.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Great chemistry: Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul.

Yeah, that's an easy joke, but there's actually some truth to it.

Friday Breaking Bad piggyback question: In addition to chemistry on camera, isn't chemistry also important throughout the production? I hear interviews with BB's writing staff and they all seem to be in a polygamous love nest. And most of the Nerdist Writers Panels I've heard acknowledge that while many people can write, not so many can be tolerated in a room for hour after hour. And it really extends to producers, directors, DPs, costumers, etc, etc, doesn't it? And, dare I say it -- network and studio reps?

It's thinking about such things that makes me realize that a well done TV series is almost a miracle -- and that you've been part of several of them. Nice going! The next time you feel curmudgeonly, you can think "I've been damn lucky, but thankfully not Fuckin' Lucky."

Kellie Cieplinski said...

Random Friday question:
When a show goes into syndication or is released for DVD, what happens to the original versions of the episodes? My specific example is a classic Cheers episode, The Norm Who Came to Dinner. I just saw it recently on TV and they had removed the song Those Were The Days My Friend from the episode and deleted a classic scene. It left me disappointed but wondering if it is ever possible to obtain an original version somewhere. I am assuming that there is a financial reason for deleting that portion from the episode. Just a random thought on a Friday!

RCP said...

Cap'n Bob said...

"Even Ethel didn't like Fred (or Lucy)."

I also thought of William Frawley and Vivian Vance as an example of actors who apparently loathed each other yet had great onscreen chemistry. In professional terms of course, that's preferable to two actors who might adore each other but can't connect onscreen.

Then there are the 'odd' pairings that on paper look doubtful but which turn out successfully, like Bogart and Hepburn in "The African Queen." And they did like each other.

Canda said...

Bad chemistry is a romantic comedy with Julianne Moore and any male who plays opposite her. "Laws of Attraction" comes to mind. There's a reason she was great in "The Hours".

How about Mary Frann and Bob Newhart in " Newhart". Had Suzanne Pleshette been the wife in that, most of the stories would have been about her and Bob running the inn. You would never have needed to introduce all those wacky characters like the Brothers Daryl, and Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari.

An (is my actual name) said...


No doubt sticky/expensive licensing issues necessitated the cut, along with some other key music cuts/substitutions in Cheers. I would love for Shout Factory to put together a definitive uncut box set of the series, with music intact, the best available prints of the episodes and excellent extra features. I find the currently available sets to be seriously lacking. Cheers deserves better.

Julie G. said...

Bad chemistry: Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson. Bad chemistry: Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones.

Good chemistry: Jeff Bridges and Glenn Close in Jagged Edge. Good chemistry: Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. Glenn does good chemistry, huh?

Mr First Nighter said...

Canda's comments about Mary Frann on "Newhart" are bizarre: "Had Suzanne Pleshette been the wife in that, most of the stories would have been about her and Bob running the inn. You would never have needed to introduce all those wacky characters like the Brothers Daryl, and Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari.."
Yep, on the Bob New hart Show, with Suzanne Pleshette, there were no wacky characters like, um, Howard the neighbor, Jerry the dentist, Carol the secretary, and the entire therapy group.

benson said...

A couple of more good chemistry examples...Cybil Shephard and Bruce Willis in Moonlighting..(and apparently that was good acting)

Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in Mad About You.

The Old Cowhand said...

Good Chemistry, Western Style:
Bret and Bart Maverick
Bad Chemistry, Western style:
Bart and Beau Maverick

Houston Mitchell said...

While you were doing it, did anyone on the show ever catch on that you were using the names of Dodgers players as the names of guest characters on MASH? If they didn't, do you think they would have made you stop if they had caught on?

As far as chemistry goes, a show that was ruined by bad chemistry this season was The Michael J. Fox show. My wife and I thought his wife was woefully miscast.

Thanks for the great site Ken!

Nelly Wilson said...

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald didn't hate each other, that's a myth, the opposite was true.

thesamechris said...

Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon are great together.

Covarr said...

Here's a Friday question for ya: What do you think of "Very special episodes"? Are they good or bad, or does it depend on the show?

LouOCNY said...

Chemistry is not confined to romantic couples. Star Trek is a great example of this. Since we have two pilots to show the development, we can see how there was very little chemistry with the cast of The Cage. It was better when they got Shatner for the second pilot, but in both cases, the network chosen actor for the doctor role were both almost superfluous. (John Hoyt was OK in The Cage, but Paul Fix was totally miscast.)Its only when Roddenberry finally got to cast Dee Kelley as the doctor, when the chemistry firmed up.

As far as Fred and Ethel is concerned, I thought Frawley and Vance's mutual antagonism made the Mertzes VERY believable. You know that the zingers they throw back and forth at each other have a little extra something behind them!

Michael said...

As for chemistry not necessarily involving romantic couples, I believe someone asked Aaron Sorkin how tough it was to do The West Wing without a romantic relationship at the center of it and he pointed to the president and Leo McGarry. Two men who truly loved each other and cared about each other. And both Martin Sheen and the late John Spencer were so wonderful.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Michael: and what about James Spader and William Shatner in BOSTON LEGAL? Fabulous.


Agent M said...

Dude... I LOVE your blog. LOVE! But you use the phrase "lightning in a bottle" quite a bit, and you misspell it every time. There's no E, bro. Otherwise, keep it up...always entertaining!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

As I mentioned before, the web has a lot of cons when it comes to sharing your work, namely in that 1.) Limited audience... 'cause, like, there's still a lot of people out there who don't have internet, let alone, have computers, whereas almost everyone at least has network TV. 2.) There's really no room for originality, unless you blatantly rip something off, or just are REALLY lucky, your work is going to go unnoticed. 3.) If you WANT to be successful on the internet, you have to PAY somebody to MAKE you successful. How do most of the YouTube celebrities get famous in the first place? They paid YouTube to make them famous.

As someone whose been using internet to put myself out there for the past six years, I can tell you, any following I have is ridiculously tiny, and it's almost kind of like a "cult" following if anything. Google's fascist and dictatorial business practices have caused me to really tank this past year... even free plugs for the likes of Doug Walker, Lindsey Stirling, or even Leif Garrett haven't helped me, and it, I confess, was more an act of desperation than an actual joke.

Anonymous said...

Terrible chemistry-Hayden Christenson and Natalie Portman in the Star Wars movies.

VP81955 said...

On the other hand, screen pairings like Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald hated each other, and the Powell/Loy tandem didn't get along, either.

Say what? In Loy's fine autobiography "Being And Becoming," she had nothing but nice things to say about Powell. There may have been times when each wanted to establish their own cinematic identity (just as Rogers and Astaire each did during the '30s), but if Bill and Myrna truly hadn't gotten along, they wouldn't have agreed to do all those non-"Nick And Nora" projects (such as "Love Crazy," coming up shortly on TCM).

And Ken, while everyone thinks of Gable and Lombard has having great chemistry, that was true for their personal lives, not their ones on screen. Clark and Carole made only one film together, "No Man Of Her Own" in 1932, when Gable was gradually refining his initial tough-guy persona and Lombard was then an all-purpose player for Paramount with little distinctiveness. Who were better examples of chemistry for each? I'd say for Gable, it was Jean Harlow (their eroticism sizzles, though in real life they were dear friends and never lovers), and for Lombard it was, of all people, Fred MacMurray (they made four films together, topped by "Hands Across The Table"; Fred complemented many of the greats, including Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck -- they co-starred four times, in genres ranging from romantic comedy to film noir to western and Douglas Sirk melodrama).

ChicagoJohn said...

I can't believe that no one mentioned Lauren Becall and Humphrey Bogart.

Dale said...

Outstanding! :-D

Dale said...

I thought Hayden was a standee???

Dale said...

And I can't believe nobody mentioned R2D2 and C3PO!

Bec said...

Great chemistry - Janel Maloney & Bradley Whitford on the West Wing. Turned a one episode role for her into one that lasted seven seasons.

fred said...

Doris Day - Rock Hudson = GOOD!

Anonymous said...

Some of us old farts remember a show called Alias Smith and Jones, which serves as a perfect illustration of a show that coasted on the chemistry of its main actors. It was a ... well, an undistinguished western conceived as a thinly veiled ripoff of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Surprising most industry observers, the show became somewhat of a hit in its first season. After the first season, one of the two leads died, and in the second season that second lead re-cast. The viewership gradually drifted away,and I think the show didn't last through the season. I re-watched this series a couple of years ago and it's easy to see that the first season shines solely because of the chemistry between the actors. Back then, when the FCC limited the amount of time networks could use up during an hour for commercials, the show even had episodes with many minutes of the main characters pointlessly meandering, and yet the show holds the viewers attention. The next season, the only thing changed was one of the two leading cast members, and it became a different and a much much more boring show. The contrast between the two seasons is striking, and a nearly perfect example of what Mr. Levine is talking about. (Alias Smith and Jones is available on DVD, and the first season is, as I said, surprisingly interesting, while the second season isn't worth it even for free.)

Cap'n Bob said...

The Eddy/MacDonald relationship was mercurial to say the least. Lovers, then ex-lovers who hated each other, then lovers again and so on. As for Loy/Powell, I wouldn't trust a Hollywood bio for the facts. People on the scene at the time referred to an iciness between them, which I find more compelling than something written years later that attempts to put a bright spin on the matter. But in my heart I hope they got along because Nick and Nora are my all time favorite movie couple.

And if you want an unchallengable example, Lucy and Desi fit the bill.

Anonymous said...

Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring had blazing chemistry in Veronica Mars. Spike and Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a wildly implausible coupling, but they pulled it off because of the chemistry between Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters. The leads in Supernatural, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, have fantastic chemistry. It's hard to think of shows that are successful despite not having chemistry; I think the Blacklist and Agents of Shield this year are hard to watch because there's no chemistry, especially among the younger actors.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I don't think anyone liked anyone else on the set of Laverne and Shirley, yet the proof that the chemistry was strong nevertheless came in the season, in which the characters moved to California and suddenly had very little chemistry with their new cast members, or even each other because the characters were so strangely altered.

Great chemistry: Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee, who liked each other.

Weak Chemistry: Don Adams and Rupert Crosse on The Partners, who did not like each other.

Cast chemistry: The Dick Van Dyke Show, who all liked each other except maybe for Rose Marie and MTM.

Jeff said...

Do you think it's easier to write for network shows or cable shows? It seems to me writing for network shows is more about planning for commercial breaks (i.e. moments that will keep the viewer tuned in), whereas for cable shows it seems more so planning for a big ending (i.e. a moment that will make you tune in next week).

Anonymous said...

Jack Black and Kate Winselt had terrible chemistry in that Holiday movie, while Cameron Diaz and Jude Law had great chemistry, although I suspect Jude Law could have chemistry with a cardboard box.

XJill said...

Amazing actor chemistry for friendships on TV:
Gus & Shawn on Psych
Seth & Ryan on The O.C.
House & Wilson on House
Holmes & Watson on Sherlock & Elementary
Brienne & Jamie on Game of Thrones
Nick & Schmidt on New Girl
Meredith & Cristina on Grey's Anatomy
Chuck & Morgan on Chuck
Don & Peggy on Mad Men
Turk & J.D. on Scrubs
Veronica & Wallace on Veronica Mars