television / things I like

A spy not being spied

There are things that seem relatively simple for most people that I honestly don’t understand, like the popularity of bacon or what constitutes a reasonable lunch.  But more puzzling to me than those two things – and I think about both of them a lot – is the fact that sometimes on television there is a well-produced, clever, and fun show that seems to have a small audience a little support from its network.  While my description could apply to several shows that are currently on the air and many, many shows that are no longer running, the show that I’m currently most puzzled about is NBC’s Chuck,or for those less familiar with what I’m talking about, the show with the hot girl that’s on before Heroes.  

After being saved from near cancellation last spring by fan support, Chuck debuted last night with two back-to-back episodes, followed by another new episode tonight at the show’s regular time.  And they were good.  You should watch them.  But for those of us who like to count things, that’s three episodes in two days, and for those of you who occasionally watch network television, that’s practically unheard of*.  This move could make a viewer assume that NBC really, really wanted to push Chuck and give newcomers a healthy dose of the show so that they’ll tune in next week.  But here’s where things get problematic:  First, networks are never that nice.  They never, ever use a business model based on my wants and needs, and for good reason.  Secondly, for weeks, NBC told viewers that Chuck would return in January, but they waited until last week to say when in January, exactly.  Unless, of course, you were enterprising and went to NBC’s webiste to find out.  Easy enough, but you would think that the commercials for the new season would give viewers this information for obvious reasons, like ratings and whatnot.  I mean, they’d never do this to The Office.  

But enough about my confusion with the ways of the world and network tv.  Here’s why I like Chuck – and this probably also why NBC and a lot of potential viewers have trouble with the show – it’s hard to classify, so it makes it unlike anything else on television.  Which, for some of us is great, but for others, well, not so much.  So, here, in a convenient list, are my reasons why Chuck is a worthwhile program:

  1. It’s a comedy.  I think that’s the show’s official classification, but it’s not “ha-ha” funny.  Yes, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, some good slapstick, but 30 Rock Chuck is not.  The comedy it situational and depends entirely on the conceit that grounds the whole show: To sum up, Chuck Bartowski is a generally nice guy who’s sort of lost his direction and lives with his sister and her boyfriend (later husband) Devon, or Captain Awesome.  On his birthday, he gets an email from his former college roommate, Bryce Larkin, that downloads the CIA “Intersect” into Chuck’s head, requiring him to need protection from all the spies and bad guys who now want to kill him, or, at least, gain access to that information.  Chuck is assigned  two protectors, John Casey and Sarah Walker, who acts as his girlfriend, and the comedy sort of flows from there.
  2. Yes, it’s a spy show, but it’s also very aware of and willing to play with the conventions of the spy genre.  There are tuxedos and missions and bad guys galore, but the mission never, ever goes smoothly.  As you might have heard on the commercials for the Season 2 DVD, Chuck is often instructed to stay in the car, but “it’s never safe in the car.”
  3. The theme song is an instrumental version of Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket.” 
  4. While the show is set in real-world places and real-world time, just about everything else is well-written, enjoyable fiction. 
  5. The supporting characters are quirky and oblivious.
  6. The whole show is well-done and has the special effects budget that an over-the-top comedic spy show needs in order to succeed.
  7. It’s nerdy, but most of us are, whether we publickly acknowledge it or not.

Here’s a good example of how all the things I’m describing come together on a regular episode of Chuck.  This scene is from an episode at the end of season two, “Chuck Versus the Ring,” and it’s set at the wedding of Chuck’s sister Ellie and Captain Awesome.  Because nothing is simple in Chuck’s secret world, the most recent bad guy seeking The Intersect, Roarke, has crashed Ellie’s wedding.  Ellie’s great, but a bit of a perfectionist and is especially stressed about her wedding.  She also has no idea what her brother’s life is actually like or that her wedding is a hot spot for spies and bad guys.  Chuck has asked his best friend Morgan to stall until matters in the reception hall can be settled and so Morgan enlists two co-workers at the Buy More, Lester and Jeff, to entertain the guests in the church with their version of Sytx’s “Mr. Roboto.”  So here goes:

The interesting thing about a show like Chuck is that its one of those shows that people who are looking for clever television wish was on the air (if they’re not already watching it).  The Monday evening television line-up has grown increasingly crowded – has anyone else noticed that there’s nothing on on Tuesdays?** – since I’m assuming the networks bring out several quality shows on the night of the week that most people just want to sack out on the couch and forget that it’s a long way to Friday.  But – and I say this from a place of love (a very different, meaner kind of love) – Chuck is much better than The Bachelor.  And you have a lot fewer questions about how much chlorine needs to go into the hot tub to get it really, really clean afterwards.


*Except in the case of a network trying to dump all the final episodes of a cancelled show at once.  For a good example, see the example of the four-episode conclusion of Arrested Development aired opposite the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics on a Friday night.
**This, and the fact that there’s no footnote function in Blogger, bug me.


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