Chemistry – everyone talks about it, no one defines it.
I started thinking about this when I saw a debate on a message board a few months back about Daniel and Nicole. Since Ari and Shawn are dating, one person speculated the show wanted to capitalize on that, that it would be cute to pair them onscreen too. Another countered with the Joey Tribianni rule of chemistry: you only have chemistry if you are NOT doing it offscreen.
Casey Moss (JJ) and True O’Brien (Paige), a couple in real life, are an example of the Joey Tribianni rule. But then there’s Bill and Susan Hayes, Doug and Julie, married off screen and on. The first supercouple! — could anyone say they don’t have chemistry? Stephen and Mary Beth are great friends; Peter Reckell and Kristian Alfonso have a prickly relationship. Both couples have loads of chemistry on screen.
My opinion: it has nothing to do with real life. And when you think about it, that makes sense. Chemistry is a screen phenomenon. When was the last time I said to my husband, “Let’s not invite that couple over – they have no chemistry”?
Chemistry is subjective. Let’s get that out of the way first. There are oddballs out there right now who prefer Nicole with Daniel, Abby with Ben. But it’s not wholly subjective. It’s not just who you like. Ten years ago, when the Shawn/Belle/Phillip triangle was dragging on endlessly, I grew to hate the character of Belle. I loved Jay Kenneth Johnson’s Phillip and wanted him in a better pairing. But, I completely agreed that Belle had much more chemistry with Phillip than she did with Brandon Beemer’s Shawn. That seems to be the consensus on the boards, too, and I heard Martha Madison reference it when she interviewed Brandon Beemer on SoapBox, so it seemed to be the opinion of TPTB as well. The only reasonably popular Days couple where I genuinely saw no chemistry between them are Abe and Lexie. I thought he seemed more like her father than her husband. The show can go on detours pursuing pairings that don’t work, but over the long haul, the couples that the show commits to are the ones that I perceive as having the most chemistry.
So, let’s try to define the undefinable. I think there are two things that factor into two actors/characters having “chemistry.”
Responsiveness. This is primarily an acting phenomenon. When actors talk about chemistry, I think this is what they are talking about. One actor throws out an emotion through a line reading, look, or touch, and the other actor can catch it and throw it right back.
Tension. This, on the other hand, is more a phenomenon due to the writing, how the characters have been created or what they are doing in the scene. One example is the “opposites attract” situation, two people who are so different they should have nothing in common. Or there is a barrier that separates them: one is committed to another person. Or one is a priest. Or one or both of them are convinced they are all wrong for each other. That’s at the level of the characters, the story. At the level of the scene, there’s argument scenes, one or both fighting their feelings, and my favorite — longing looks across the room.
I think a lot of what we call “chemistry” is the interplay between these two factors. The inherent responsiveness of the actors breaking through the tension of barriers keeping the characters apart. The spark of a heated argument igniting that responsiveness into a flame.
Tension can also stem from the differences in acting style. Personally, I tend to like couples where where one person is a “big” actor, and the other is quieter and more subtle. This works particularly well in the “opposites attract” type of couple. Stephen and Mary Beth are a perfect example. Stephen can overact with lesser actors, whereas Mary Beth’s subtlety can fade into the background. I think Arianne Zucker and Greg Vaughan, and Patsy Pease and Charles Shaughnessy, are also good examples of this phenomenon. One reason, aside from anything else, Shayla were not supercouple material is that Mary Beth and Charles are both quieter actors, and together they were too quiet. Having one bigger, showier actor brings zip and sizzle to the pairing – but two can lead to chewing up the scenery.
(Of course, we all know that Mary Beth can bring the intensity and take center stage sometimes — like the drunk Kayla scenes, like when she tells Steve Jack raped her. That’s true of Greg and Charles as well. But the default style for these three actors seems to be a quieter, more responsive one.)
Chemistry is multifaceted. We can talk about friend chemistry and sibling chemistry, too. The connection and responsiveness between actors isn’t a singular phenomenon. It’s as unique as individuals can be. Even couple chemistry, which I am mainly talking about here, comes in many flavors. I would sort couple chemistry into roughly four different types.
Bantery: Examples include Jack and Jennifer, and Sami and Lucas when they were at their best. My beloved Chick – Chelsea and Nick – were in this group. These couples tend to be less sexy and more friendly. They are fun to watch when they are arguing and talking over each other like a 30’s romantic comedy. These couples depend on good writing, at least good dialogue writing.
Angsty: These couples are often at their best when they are apart, or working their way back to each other. I would put most of the love stories that are wedded to a redemption story in this group. Kim and Shane are the ultimate angst couple. Steve and Kayla. I would also put Eric and Nicole here, and Chad and Abby. These couples are most dependent on being written well, to keep the angst believable, and not have it slide into meanness or dysfunction.
Romantic: Or maybe “sweet” is a better word. It’s not an opposites attract situation, both parties are “good” characters. The angst usually comes from external factors, mostly scheming third parties. There is a Prince and Princess Charming aspect to a couple like this. Shawn and Belle, and Carrie and Austin, are examples of this type. These are the couples that are hardest to write for after they are finally together.
Sexy: These couples can work even with fairly poor writing – Sami and EJ being the ultimate example. You could say that this category is for couples who could go into one of the other categories but don’t get good enough writing for it, but I would argue it is more than that. They rank high on the “responsiveness” end of the equation, and generate a raw energy that leaps off the screen, but the “tension” side can sometimes throw them out of whack. These couples are great when they are together, or falling in love, but not as interesting when they are apart. For instance, I would actually put Bo and Hope here. For all that they are the iconic supercouple, I never root for them when they are broken up. I always feel like I hate one or the other. (This was true in the 80’s too, so it’s not just the bad writing of more recent years.) But when they are together, they work so well that I love them again. But, I fully admit this might be just my opinion.
John and Marlena are hard for me to characterize, but I think I would put them in the “romantic” category, because their appeal seems to rest, largely, on John seeing Marlena as his anchor, the only thing he’s sure of when he doesn’t even know his own identity. That’s high fairy-tale type stuff. His memory and identity issues create angst, but it’s not angst that drives them apart. Their big stories, the 90’s stories, seem to rest mostly on external obstacles – crazy obstacles, admittedly! – even, I would argue, their famous affair. But they are definitely more, and bigger, than a couple like Shawn and Belle. Maybe a good way to think of them is as the ultimate example of the romantic type, that the Carrie and Austins on the canvas are aspiring to.
When you get down to it, all the best couples resist categorization. Jack and Jennifer, despite being the ultimate bantery couple, had major angst stemming from Jack’s redemption story. Bo and Hope and Steve and Kayla are great at banter when they get the chance. Just about every couple (but not all) can be sexy. Doug and Julie were angst piled upon angst in the 70’s and early 80’s, but now they are bantery and sweet, and I love them that way.
I do think fans tend to underestimate the “happy couple” problem, how difficult it is to write a story with a happy couple at its center. But, I also think the show has, in recent years, been afraid to let a couple be happy for even five minutes. They underestimate the appeal, and chemistry, of their couple – how fun it can be to watch two actors play off of one another, even when the plot, and the tension, has died down for awhile.