If you traverse the wilds of the Internet as often or with as much ferocity as I do, you will know this: Chuck was saved. Rumours of the show’s cancellation prompted viewers (all of whom apparently use Twitter) to launch a massive Twitter appeal to save the show. Prior to this Tweetstorm, I had never watched an episode of Chuck. Wondering why people were so passionate, I tuned in for the first time two weeks ago. Twenty-five episodes (and fifteen days) later, I might as well face it. I’m addicted to Chuck
To celebrate my newfound addiction and Chuck‘s renewal, the Big Bad Blog hereby goes through what makes Chuck so fantastic, and what pitfalls it will need to navigate to avoid jumping the shark.
For those of you who have seen every episode of Chuck, please do not chime in with facts that occur at the end of season two. I would prefer to learn these the old-fashioned way.
For those of you who have not, but would like not to be spoiled, you may want to avoid the Pitfalls section at the bottom.
Chuck is the central character of the show. And he could be me in some extremely lucky/unlucky universe.
Back in University, I worked at a gas station. I was both happy and comfortable in the job, but it was not at all what I wanted to do. Which should be obvious, seeing as the University degree I was pursuing was in no way necessary for a gas-jockey career.
What if I had been kicked out of University, my wife had left me, and I just stayed there? I would be Chuck. Or at least I hope so.
Because Chuck — at least, at the start of episode one — is the person that most male geeks think that they are. Or would be, if they were stuck in a really crappy dead-end job. Smarter than his peers, still a kid at heart. Heck, most non-geeks can identify with Chuck in this sense.
The person and situation — which are easily imagined as being me — are flipped on their head by a daydream. Chuck essentially gets superpowers and becomes a spy, out of the blue.
Daydreaming geek concept? Check.
Because every lead needs a girl, we got one. Her name is Sarah. She’s hot. She kicks ass. Which is clearly a popular concept, since characters of this variety (The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Kill Bill, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) keep popping up. And, of course, she is Chuck’s love interest.
While the basic concept of kick-ass-hot-chick is clearly at work here, there’s more to it. Whether it’s the chemistry between the actors, the writing, the acting, or what … it’s hard not to fall in love with Sarah along with Chuck. She is a well-designed geek (or simply male? or fully generic?) fantasy.
The Supporting Cast
Surrounding Chuck are a group of extremely quirky, interesting characters. Nobody is normal. Awesome, frighteningly geeky, angry … well, all of them are bizarre. And they all (or almost all) work together, at the
Best Buy Buy More. This makes for never-ending zany subplots, which go a long way to making the show work.
Chuck has a formula. Every show has three pieces: The spy plot; The Buy More plot; The love plot.
The spy plot has its own breakdown — Discovery/Briefing/Something-goes-wrong/Resolution.
Buy More plots have several standard designs as well, and the love plots often play a similar course.
A standard formula might not sound like good TV, but it is. It allows for our expectations as viewers to be met. We know there will be three plots (even if you have not gone out and broken it down like a Big Bad Blogger might), we have a basic understanding of how the three plots will play out, and the writers provide the details, the action, and the jokes.
Without this, expecting a quality show every other week (on average) is ridiculous. In such a scenario, the actors, writers and directors can only succeed if there is a formula that everybody agrees on as being entertaining. Chuck has one nailed.
To be sure, the formula is not always perfectly executed — the three plots should link into a coherent whole. And the formula can be abandoned under special circumstances. But formula is paramount. Just look at Law and Order.
While I clearly love — and am addicted to — Chuck, there are a few things about the show that raise concerns about its long term viability.
First and foremost, there is the Sam/Diane dilemma. Much of the show is dedicated to the Chuck/Sarah dynamic. They love each other, but the nature of their professional relationship is such that they cannot act upon it. Invariably, they hurt each other, make each other sad, and so on.
How long can it go on? Eventually they need to hook up, or somebody needs to move on. The writers are too fond of having them fall out and come together. The dynamics of the situation are pretty simple: they need to get together, or somebody has to actually move on. At 1.5 seasons (for all I know, it happens before the end of season two), it is starting to become unbearable. It will become stale soon if something doesn’t happen … but if it does happen, the show’s dynamic changes.
One way to delay this is to focus the love stories on other couples in the cast. I have enjoyed every episode where this happens — not only because we get to learn about the other quirky characters, but because Chuck and Sarah enter this friendship-with-love-underneath mode, where the relationship is neither explored nor tested. They just visibly love one another while being resigned to their situation.
And those are fantastic moments.
The second issue is Chuck’s growth. The show’s concept is based upon this image of Chuck as a true geek — socially incompetent, lacking confidence, stuck in a job he’s way too smart for, and obsessing over his ex-girlfriend … who broke up with him five years earlier.
As the show goes on, Chuck grows — and it is one of the great things about the show. Falling in love with someone new. Having a job as a spy. Gaining confidence and an ability to deal with any situation he is confronted with.
Let’s face facts here: the show would suck if he remained the guy from episode one. It would get boring and we would all nod off.
But what happens when he starts to truly be mature, and leaves that episode one Chuck far behind? What happens when he accepts that he enjoys being a spy — that it’s his calling — and stops pining after a life that doesn’t (and never did) exist? These things are quite visibly coming. And the choice the writers need to make is to accept this and try to make something of it, or to have the show stagnate.
And either can kill it off.
Despite the renewal, it’s tough times ahead for Chuck. Barely renewed, the show can hardly risk alienating their rabid fanbase by changing the dynamics of the show too much, or too quickly. But neither can they rest on what they have done. Every episode of Chuck is self-contained, but the main characters evolve. It makes the show good.
But how long can it carry on?