There’s a widespread belief in Korea that leaving a fan on all night in a room will suck the air out of the room and kill everyone. No, I’m not making this shit up. It’s referred to as “Fan Death”- which I think is such a fantastic name that I’m going to appropriate it for my own new little pet project: the things I UnFan.
These are the things (be they TV shows, movies, people, entire genres or what have you) that seem to contain the ingredients of an amazing recipe, on paper (unless it’s a book I’m UnFanning) they sound like something that I really ought to love, and yet they end up disappointing me.
Case in point: Chuck. It sounded like something I’d enjoy, but the reality turned out to be no, not so much. If you’ve got no idea about this show maybe you ought to count yourself lucky, but if you want the Cliff notes, Wikipedia describes it as an “action comedy-drama…about an “average computer-whiz-next-door” who receives an encoded e-mail from an old college friend now working in the CIA; the message embeds the only remaining copy of the world’s greatest spy secrets into Chuck’s brain”.
Chuck was recommended to/inflicted on me by my fellow PCP-er Miss Penn. She has rather questionable taste in most things (and I doubt that she’ll ever be removed from my YouTube blacklist) but our TV likes seem to almost always converge happily. As I’m an old grump with far too little time to play with she often has to put some hard work into successfully getting me to actually watch whatever it is she’s suggesting, but I’ve got her to thank for berating me into viewing some of my recent obsessions: Gossip Girl, True Blood, Glee, How I Met Your Mother, The Vampire Diaries and The Big Bang Theory. Squeeing with her over these shows, or perhaps complaining about their decline and designing fix-it kits for them, always adds another level of fun to the watching process.
So I was expecting to enjoy Chuck off the bat, even if it didn’t come across as the greatest thing ever from minute one. Plus it has other points in its favour: it was created by Gossip Girl‘s Josh Schwartz, stars Zachary Levi who has very nice teeth (David Duchovny’s being a large part of what I like about him in The X-Files and Californication) as the titular character, has a reputation for being gleefully geeky and comes complete with its own Firefly alum- Adam Baldwin as John Casey.
I set about watching. And wasn’t wowed. But I carried on watching. And still wasn’t too impressed. But dutifully continued watching. And made it all the way to the beginning of season four before throwing in the towel. It’s not the worst show ever, granted, but it seems like it’s chock full of squandered potential. So without further ado, some of my key gripes:
1. The premise
The idea of an action-comedy drama about an “average computer-whiz next door” sounds fine and dandy. My problem is more with the whole part where an e-mail of apparently innocuous looking pictures implants the Intersect- basically a database of the secret information held by the US government- into Chuck’s brain. At best it’s an incredibly flimsy, and stupid, premise.
At least the idea is fleshed out a little more at some point- and eventually there’s an explanation given for why Chuck would be particularly good at this- but just when I was getting used to the whole Intersect nonsense, the show upped and added an upgrade that doesn’t quite function properly- Deus ex machina plus an excuse for some impotent flailing when dramatic tension is needed- all in one neat little package.
I feel like the show could have had the average computer whiz embroiled in the spy game in a slightly less ridiculous way. In fact Chuck is shown to be incredibly intelligent, and to even be better at searching for Orion then the government is, so I feel like he could have come into contact with the government some other way.
Conversely a ridiculous premise can be sold if it’s done well. The science of Dollhouse was iffy at best- and in some ways the idea of implanting information into the brain shares some similarities with Chuck- but I was perfectly able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the show. Even something like Wonderfalls, a show about a woman who has toy animals talking to her and getting her to help people, which has a what-the-hell-were-they-smoking-when-they-came-up-with-that kind of premise can work.
2. The pacing
I expect exposition and set up in the first episode of a show. I expect it to an extent throughout the first season even. I expect a show to take some time to find its feet. Genre shows that go on to develop deep mythologies often start out very episodic and Monster of the Week-y, like Buffy, The X-Files and Supernatural. But it really did feel like the mythology took too long to be introduced in Chuck, and it carried on being too episodic.
Unlike many other genre shows an entire universe did not have to be introduced and explained. It’s essentially a real world spy show, the only slightly sci-fi elements are the supercomputer that can be shoved into someone’s brain (which makes it even more annoying that that wasn’t written very convincingly).
There’s also the problem, not unique to Chuck, with spy shows of having unlimited twists and turns simply for the sake of misdirection. What I love about TV (as opposed to film) is the room for elaborate story arcs and deep character development, and when there’s constant stumbling blocks and misdirection which seem to serve no purpose other than to create a bit of tension it’s pretty frustrating.
3. The women
I probably shouldn’t even be surprised by this on network TV, and yet somehow it irks me more when I see it on ostensibly nerdy shows like Chuck, and even The Big Bang.
I heartily approve of half-nekkid sexy women, and men, parading across my screen (I mean, hello, Dollhouse fan) but I find the portrayal of women in Chuck really annoying. To start with the female agents- for example Yvonne Strahovski as Sarah Walker, Mini Anden as Carina Miller and Tricia Helfer as Alexandra Forrest are ridiculously over-sexualised (skimpy outfits for no reason, and weird weapon fondling), and although they trade on their sexuality in order to achieve their aims the show never seems to actually pay much attention to their sexuality as individuals, to top it all off women are only considered attractive if they fit a very narrow Hollywood ideal of beauty. This was irritatingly evidenced in the second season episode ‘Chuck versus the Broken Heart’ where the gaggle of men at the bachelor party of Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin), Chuck’s brother-in-law to be at that point, are horrified that the strippers actually have, like, breasts and hips.
Admittedly I could probably stand it a lot more if there was some equivalent male eye candy. Asides from Chuck as a cute nerd, Captain Awesome looking and acting like a Scrubs character and some of the male agents (Brandon Routh as Daniel Shaw and Matthew Bomer as Bryce Larkin), it’s a sadly lacking area. And even these guys are cute rather than hot- and certainly not sexualised in the same way as their female counterparts. Plus their reasonable faces are kind of obscured by the weird-looking Buy More employees.
This is hardly an anomaly in TV-land, you can’t watch a sitcom without your eyes being assaulted with a barrage of ugly men with hot girlfriends, but I find it sad that a show full of geeky guys doesn’t have space for at least a wider variety of female tropes.
I’m a little bored of the blah-ness all over. And to its credit Chuck at least has several non-white characters (Morgan Grimes, Big Mike, Lester Pate, Anna Wu) but the core characters are disappointingly all white. Also for some reason the incredibly camp Emmett Milbarge was revealed to be straight, and asides from a throwaway reference to Anna having slept with a girl and someone mistaking Lester for a lesbian it’s heteronormativity all around.
It’s probably a little sad that I’m so pleased by positive portrayals of, say, curvy women or gay black men in shows, but it’s a testament to how few and far between they are.
Sarah Walker is Chuck’s FBI handler, and one of the main characters of the show. And I can’t stand her. I was intrigued by her back story as the daughter of a con artist but apart from that I found her pretty unlikable, and the storyline where she learns to love, because of Chuck, unbelievable. I don’t see why she couldn’t have just been an uncaring badass.
Part of what sets my teeth on edge is Yvonne Strahovski bizarre American accent, I’d probably find her a lot less irritating if she never spoke. She kind of looks like a cross between Olivia Wilde and Kaley Cuoco, and I only wish that they could have somehow gotten one of them for the part.
The focus on Chuck and Sarah’s relationship also seems to be a flaw for the show. The inevitability of it detracted from the attempts at romantic tension, and took away from any potential investment in Chuck’s relationships with the various brunettes (guest spots from Rachel Bilson and Kristen Kreuk) that he briefly dated. Having the show put all its romantic eggs in one relationship basket seems to be a mistake, it removes a large chunk of potential from the show which can only be resolved by lots of tiresome one step forwards, two steps back dancing around the issue.
5. The competition
I’m watching a lot of stuff, and a show really has to grab and hold my attention for me to be committed to it. I don’t think that shows really have that luxury to grown an audience, and while that may be sad it is a fact. There have been other shows that have dealt with the ideas that Chuck has, and better- Jake 2.0 for example was about a wannabe spy who develops superpowers after an accident and becomes an NSA spy. Sadly Jake 2.0 was cancelled after 16 episodes.
In fact I find it a little ludicrous that Chuck fans complain quite so much about possible cancellation. It’s had a pretty good run already compared to plenty of other series and as the list of prematurely cancelled shows grows season by season, I find it hard to care about the fate of a show on a major network that’s scored sponsorship from Subway when there’s shows that I’ve been far more invested in that have been cancelled (say Dollhouse or Pushing Daisies for example) or have been under constant threat of cancellation (Supernatural springs to mind).