a review by Nalini Haynes
Warning: there are spoilers in this essay. As it gets more spoilery, warnings will be posted.
Chuck is an action/comedy spy TV series: I think the best way to describe this series is it’s a lot like Get Smart for the 21st century, but it trades some of the comedy – especially the slapstick comedy – for a whole lot of heart. The central characters are Chuck (Zachary Levi), a geek working in a BuyMore store after being expelled from Stamford, and Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski), a spy who becomes Chuck’s handler then his love interest. Chuck, Sarah, co-spy Casey (Adam Baldwin), Chuck’s brother-in-law Devin (Ryan McPartlin), Chuck’s sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and Chuck’s best friend Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez) are all significant characters who develop during the course of the series.
In the beginning Chuck appears to be your average geek guy hanging out with Morgan outside of work playing computer games. Chuck received an email from a former friend; the email attachment downloads a supercomputer into Chuck’s brain, allowing him to ‘flash’ or recall and correlate facts, figures and images relating to visual stimuli. The CIA and NSA track the email, sending in a joint team (Casey and Sarah) to manage Chuck and keep him safe. Much of the humour in the series revolves around Chuck keeping his spy life a secret from his friends and family, the gradual reveal and the consequences. There is talk about ‘spying’ and ‘the spy life’ in extremely exaggerated dialogue, where you can almost see the comic-book-style glowy halo around this ‘spy’ thing.
Equality – or otherwise – of the sexes
Chuck is a genuinely nice guy whose native competency is as a computer geek with a superpower: ‘flashes’ (I know Kung-fu) from the Intersect computer in Chuck’s brain allow him to acquire important information each week alongside a temporary ability to fight or perform other spy-functions like defusing a bomb. Chuck’s incompetence relative to Sarah is played for laughs, a point that offends a certain local geek personality, but I felt that the relationship is fairly balanced in a post-feminist narrative. Sarah is more naturally gifted in physical combat with spy training but she has emotional development issues due to her upbringing and work history. Thus Sarah is the kick-ass protagonist with an Achilles Heel protecting the relatively helpless guy. Over the course of the series Chuck develops skills and matures, growing from a geeky manchild into a 30-something man who has earnt the love and respect of Chuck‘s audience.
The one aspect of their relationship I found problematic was the emphasis on Sarah’s sexuality: Sarah is not ‘merely’ a competent spy, the emphasis is on Sarah being sexy, mostly with long loose hair, wearing skin tight or moderately revealing outfits, usually in high heels (unless she has a stunt double for action shots), tight pants or very short skirts, often showing cleavage and even hanging around in her underwear – knickers and a lacy camisole/bra combo – in front of her ‘boss’, a man she believes to be her handler. It’s just not possible to be as flexible, fight as well or move as reliably and as fast in high heels and tight clothes. Flowing hair would get in the way as well as providing a vulnerability in a fight – just grab her hair and wrench her head around and she’s under control, she’ll be right mate! And wearing underwear in front of your boss – or a man you believe to be your boss – seriously? Unprofessional to say the least.
In terms of equality of the sexes, I would say that Chuck is not tailored purely for the male gaze as Chuck, Casey and Devon are definitely there for those whose gaze lingers on the mens, but there is proportionately less skin shown of the men and less screen time for objects of desire such as Devon’s abs. I don’t recall ever getting the full reveal of Casey shirtless although I know Casey has his own personal fans. Still, compared with many other programs I think Chuck is much more equitable than average.
Buy More employees
Chuck’s colleagues at the Buy More are played for laughs as losers, ‘typical’ geeks and WalMart-esque employees. Humour that relies on someone’s looks or race misses the mark for me, so I disliked this component of Chuck‘s humour. I particularly didn’t like the way the Buy More employees were called ‘Buy Morons’, however I could see the truth in the lack of service Buy More offered its customers. Also, the rivalry between different branches of the Buy More and between Buy More and Large Mart, a local rival store, are played for laughs successfully as well as exposing more than a little truth about workplace rivalry.
Getting more spoilery
Jeff and Lester, Chuck’s colleagues in the Nerd Herd ad the Buy More really irritated me. They were a white guy and a Hindu/Jew, sleazy, revolting, the types who should have been sacked in first season but they’re supposed to be funny and lovable. In fifth season Jeff stops getting carbon-monoxide poisoning and suddenly develops investigative skills. He figured out that Chuck and Sarah were spies, eventually uncovering ‘Castle’, their spy headquarters underneath the Buy More. This sequence was entertaining, partly because of the Groundhog Day repetition and partly because Jeff and Lester were finally changing. I was very disappointed to hear in the extras that the creators had wanted to turn Jeff and Lester into Q-like characters through the series but hadn’t. I think one season of Jeff and Lester as losers was more than enough. Season two should have been the discovery process, season three they could have grown into a Q-type role. This could have been really beneficial to the series not only in reducing repetition but adding to the comedic value.
I was also very disappointed that Anna, a Buy More employee and sometime girlfriend of Morgan Grimes, left the series just when she could have been brought on board as a lethal weapon.
While early seasons episodes plots tended to be flawed, I’m sure this escalated through the series. In the last couple of seasons I’d watch while trying not to hyperventilate:
But it’s so –
THE PLOT IS SO –
Hubby: It’s a comedy. It’s a comedy. BREATHE.
Chuck‘s ratings started well then went into an overall slide over its five seasons. Wikipedia cites several reasons for this including the writer’s strike and competing programs. I felt the weekly repetition may also have been a factor: the core characters developed slowly over time, while the weekly – usually deeply flawed – plot felt quite repetitive. I suspect the loyal viewers stayed with the program more because of the comedic and romantic elements than the weekly spy plot. Second season may well have been Chuck‘s peak season, described on Wikipedia thus:
The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan wrote that “the show pays attention to the mechanics of storytelling and doesn’t just try to coast on the comedy.” She continued, “[Given] the level of attention paid to all those other things—emotion, suspense, plotting, character—Chuck ends up being one of the TV scene’s greatest pleasures at the moment.”Television Without Pity‘s Angel Cohn finds Chuck to be a well-written show, saying “it features some of the smartest and most quick-witted dialogue on TV”. She praises the ensemble cast and notes “while the first season was good, this show has really hit its stride in its second season.” James Poniewozik of Time magazine says the show is a “delight” and that with the second season the “new episodes quickly jump back in, with higher stakes and sharper jokes.” The Star-Ledger‘s Alan Sepinwall calls Chuck “the most purely entertaining show currently on television, whether you’re talking network or cable.” He states that “what makes Chuck so special … is that there’s a fundamental warmth and humanity underneath the jokes”, with “a cast of appealing characters played by very good actors.”
Cancellation and continuation
After being renewed promptly for a second season, NBC delayed making a decision on whether to renew Chuck for a third season due to declining ratings. Science fiction and geek fans have seen too many beloved series cancelled before they’ve run their course; this time social media and creativity helped extend the life of Chuck for three more seasons.
Fansite ChuckTV.net launched the first organized fan effort, the Watch/Buy/Share campaign (an idea thought up by “Chuck, vs the podcast” founder Gray Jones), on March 18, 2009; a letter writing campaign was later added to the effort…
One fan, Wendy Farrington, was inspired by a product placement in second season episodes to organize a campaign to purchase “Footlong” submarine sandwiches from Subway on the air date of the second season finale. This movement gained support from various cast and crew members, with actor Zachary Levi seen leading hundreds of fans to a Subway restaurant in Birmingham, England.
During the first two seasons Subway was evident in its product placement, but the tone of Subway’s product placement changed with season three. Subway was flaunted, emphasised; it became part of a running joke that was clearly a knowing wink at the audience.
Throughout its five year run, Chuck was nominated for many awards and won several. Awards include two Emmys for outstanding stunt co-ordination, TV Guide awards for favourite actress and favourite couple, TV Guide and IGN awards for favourite villain (Timothy Dalton and Brandon Routh respectively), and Teen Choice awards for favourite action actor and actress. These awards are a reflection of the popularity of the series with the audience, with critics and the industry in general.
Chuck is a much-loved action/comedy/romance TV series with a loyal following. Personally I think the first couple of seasons are the best, but if you’re the kind of person who wants to follow characters through to the conclusion you’re going to have to watch the entire series. I’d give Chuck 3 out of 5 stars, but I’d rate most TV shows at that level or lower; it seems to me that TV series striving to follow the US season formula struggle to maintain writing at a good standard.
The fan site for the TV series lives on, following the careers of the people involved. Vic Sahay (Lester) has made guest appearances on Bones and NCIS. Most recently Jesse Heiman starred in a commercial for GoDaddy screened at the Superbowl that managed to offend a lot of people (based on reactions on social media). You too can be offended. See below.