Chemistry. Ah, chemistry. That inscrutable thing that happens between two people that keeps us coming back for more. In real life, chemistry with another person causes a flood of dopamine in our brain parts that acts like Feelings Amphetamines, amping up our blood pressure and stimulating our nervous systems and always, always leaving us wanting (and wanting and wanting) more. But no matter how many studies psychologists and anthropologists and neurologists conduct, no one can come up with a definitive answer about what chemistry is. Sure, we know what chemistry does to us, physically and emotionally, but we don’t know what causes chemistry between two people in the first place.
The same is true for on-screen couples. Writers and directors and editors and networks don’t know what makes the spark that makes the magic between TV characters. Actors either have it together, or they don’t. Their relationship either ensnares the audience, or it doesn’t.
The only thing TV-makers really know about chemistry between actors is that it is a rarefied treasure, and it is not to be squandered—as long as the connection happens between a man and a woman.
It’s no surprise that the pleas were loud and long for Rizzoli & Isles when I asked what shows I should write about in my first Fandom Fixes column, but unlike so many of the other shows that require multi-faceted answers, the way to fix Rizzoli & Isles is actually pretty simple: The writers need to ask themselves what they’d do with Jane and Maura if they were Castle and Beckett, or Booth and Brennan, or Mulder and Scully, or any man and woman with that kind of chemistry.
To wit, here is a sampling of shows in which the writers trashed their planned romantic trajectories once they witnessed a different kind of chemistry between their actors: New Girl, The West Wing, Friends, and Dawson’s Creek.
During the first season of New Girl, showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether conceived a Schmidt/Jess/Nick love triangle, but that idea hit the rubbish bin almost as soon as Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel shared an on-screen conversation. Meriwether was so overwhelmed with their chemistry that she told them to tone down their physical interactions, and ultimately had to start writing Jess and Nick into separate scenes to keep their sizzle subdued until the writers were ready to explore what quickly became a necessary storyline.
A similar thing happened on The West Wing when Aaron Sorkin saw Janel Moloney and Bradley Whitford perform together as Josh and Donna in the show’s pilot episode. Sorkin had planned for Moira Kelly‘s Mandy Hampton to be Josh’s long term love interest, but Maloney and Whitford’s interpersonal dynamic produced so much tension that Mandy was written out by the end of the first season, and Donna was brought back as a series regular.
Friends‘ creative team only ever planned for Ross and Rachel to pair-up among the show’s core cast of characters, but the writers discovered a spark between Matthew Perry and Courteney Cox when Monica and Chandler became workout buddies during season two’s “The One Where Ross Finds Out.” Last year, Friends producer Scott Silveri even told New York Magazine: “If you didn’t have a Monica-and-Chandler relationship, if the center of Friends had remained Ross and Rachel, you would’ve seen a much shorter shelf life for the show. Without Monica and Chandler, it ends three years earlier.”
And, most famously, Dawson’s Creek boss Kevin Williamson — a repeatedly self-professed Dawson/Joey “purist” — found his vision for his characters at complete odds with the reality of the show once it was on TV. To him, Joey and Dawson were soul mates, but even he was ultimately forced to admit that he might be wrong. After agonizing for months over the Dawson’s Creek series finale, he confessed that he, personally, “wanted Dawson and Joey together till the end of time” but that Pacey’s character had grown into the man Joey deserved. And that’s how the show ended.
TV writers are faced with a couple of conundrums that don’t plague book writers: 1) Because TV characters’ stories take place in a serialized format, often over many years, they grow and change in ways their creators never expected. 2) Because TV is a visual storytelling medium, actors will — both knowingly and unknowingly — shape their characters’ arcs outside of their writers’ visions or intentions.
When it comes to straight characters/couples, it never appears to be an issue. Monica and Chandler get married, Joey and Pacey ride off into the sunset, Josh and Donna give in and get it on, and Nick and Jess get together (and break up, until they absolutely get back together again). In fact, finding chemistry and character growth where it wasn’t planned seems to be but a gift from the TV gods. But what happens when a character who was conceived as straight finds herself acting awfully queer? What happens when two characters with unexpected, crackling chemistry are both women? What happens when a character grows and changes and realizes she wants things a producer never imagined when he or she pitched the idea to the network?
The simple truth is this: They get together, and it happens on-screen, and it is epically satisfying. Writers, showrunners, producers, editors, actors, and most especially networks would never, ever ignore the kind of chemistry Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander have exhibited over the years—if they were a male/female pairing. Creatives would milk the tension, and stroke the interactions, and stoke the chemistry, and play them like a ballad on the strings of the audience’s heart.
If love is love and chemistry is chemistry and equality is now, what do you do when the leading characters in your by-the-book procedural are two women with crazy chemistry whose characters just make sense together?
Any answer besides “get them together” is disingenuous, at the very best, and mired in a harmful double standard, at worst.
Back in 2006, Joss Whedon laid down some writing laws for the UK film magazine, Hotdog, one of which was: Track the audience mood. Whedon told the interviewer:
You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, “This part confuses me” or whatever, and they’ll say, “What I’m intending to say is this,” and they’ll go on about their intentions. [But] none [of their intentions] has anything to do with my experience as an audience member.
Or, to draw from my analogy last week, you can tell us all day how the soup was meant to taste, but we know how it actually does taste; and we also know that if the main ingredients had different genitals they’d be well on their way to the noodle soup altar by now. In terms of tracking audience mood, when even the widely varying demographics of TV Guide and Tumblr find some common ground, you should probably listen.
Fixing Rizzoli & Isles is easy. All the writers have to do is ask themselves what they’d do if either Jane or Maura was a dude. And then they just have to write the truth.