Chuck Versus the Reset

This morning Ernie and I have added tons of pixels to the on-going discussion about the quality, status and import of Season 3 of Chuck. And just when you think you’ve read it all…

Liz James has been a favorite commenter of mine since those days when the NBC Boards seemed new. She’s been passionate and steadfast in her views and more than occasionally outspoken. Today she sent me this contribution, which I think deserves to be highlighted on our front page.

And as I give her my thanks, I now bring it to you.

– joe

Charles in Charge

Much as I didn’t want to, I rescreened Pink Slip in an attempt to try to fully understand what has changed about the show called Chuck. And with all of the fascinating discussion you’ve had about whether the episode was good or bad and the value of the Train Station scene, I think you’ve missed (and I missed while sitting on the blog’s sidelines) how dramatically and fundamentally Chuck has been recast.
Chuck is literally is not the same show anymore. Consider:


1) In the basic mythological sense, Chuck is now a superhero who adopts the alter ego of Buy More Nerd Herder. That is the Superman model, where a hero adopts the guise of a normal human. Most other characters who came after Superman were normal first and adopted the superhero alter ego later. The Pink Slip scene where Chuck adopts the Buy More identity and outfit with heroic music in the background is supposed to indicate the new Chuck-as-Hero construct to you. Unlike Seasons 1/2, when Chuck Bartowski was a nerd who was given powers, Season 3 is telling you that Chuck is a spy hero who adopts the nerd alter ego. And in case you missed the implication, the writers told you bluntly. After Beckman reactivates the team, Agent Bartowski leaps up and asks for a new cover, an exciting alter ego. That he’s given the Buy More identity is a joke and, I assume, a nod to the budget and structure of the show, which is invested heavily in the Buy More set and set of characters.

2) Chuck is now the eager spy and Sarah the reluctant one. In Seasons 1/2, Sarah was the eager spy and Chuck the reluctant one. You’re supposed to get the new fundamental switch from the Train Station scene, hence the awful spiel by Chuck that he could now have a life of adventure and the stilted lines from Sarah about her desire for “real life” and a “simple” choice. In Seasons 1/2 Chuck sometimes liked being a spy and Sarah sometimes expressed the desire to get out, but Season 3 is asking you to accept that Chuck is an enthusiastic full-time spy and Sarah is a reluctant one. It’s a stunning flip. Chuck as gung-ho agent, Sarah as unwilling victim. In Seasons 1/2, Chuck was trapped by circumstances into being a spy and wanted out. In Season 3, Sarah is trapped by circumstances into remaining a spy and wants out.

3) Shaw’s character is all about making Chuck fully functional on his own and thus, by season’s end, the UNDISPUTED LEADER of the spy part of the show. In Seasons 1/2, even though he occasionally had a flash of brilliance, Chuck needed protection from Sarah and Casey. And it meant that the star of the show was sometimes on the sidelines, albeit hilariously so as he was ordered to “wait in the car.” The Shaw character clearly will be used to make Chuck the leader and driver of future adventures and Sarah and Casey the helpers. And, if you missed it, TPTB spelled it out explicitly at the end of Pink Slip. Beckman says Chuck was the first one ever to capture a Ring phone. Chuck replies, “Good work, Team Bartowski.” And then Beckman reactivates “Operation Bartowski” and says: “Casey, Sarah you will work along side Agent Bartowski to bring down The Ring…” Chuck is now, or will soon be, uh, Charles in Charge.

4) It’s already obvious that the Seasons 1/2 who-loves-who angle has been replaced in Season 3 by they-know-they-love-each-other angle. The reluctance, roadblocks and PLIs in Season 3 is about Chuck replacing Sarah as the driving force in the relationship. In Seasons 1/2, Sarah was in charge. The relationship only went as far and as fast as she allowed. By the end of Season 3, Chuck will be in charge of where things are going. In fact, that’s probably what E13 is all about. Chuck will ask Sarah to be with him and live a life of adventure. He’ll say they are perfect together, will go on missions together and save the world. The pitch will echo what Chuck said to Sarah in the dance scene near the end of Ring. In Ring, of course, Chuck said it was what he thought Bryce and Sarah were destined to do. This time, it’ll be Chuck saying that’s what he wants for him and Sarah. And Sarah, of course, will go with Chuck, something she wasn’t going to do with Bryce.

(An aside: Dialogue from last season’s finale will probably also appear again when one of the characters asks the other “do me the honor of taking a vacation with me.” That’ll further bind E13, the originally planned S3 finale, to the S2 finale and probably explains why they’ll be on a train in Spain in episode 14.)

5) This one I think we’ve all figured out already: The constant chatter that spies and emotion can’t mix, a standard in Seasons 1/2, has been replaced in Season 3 by constantly mixing spies and emotion. In fact, the Intersect itself has been positioned as the, er, fulcrum of spying and emotions. Season 3, and whatever future the show has, will be all about calibrating emotions with the spy life and finding the right formula.

If the reworked Chuck sounds like a much more traditional spy show (man-on-top, spies who want to spy), it is. That is probably the show TPTB had to promise NBC to get even the original 13-episode Season 3. The original Chuck concept was a ratings failure, so the show is being recast as a more traditional spy-genre vehicle.

We may mourn the original Chuck concept of slacker a main character, a woman as protector and two reluctant spies, one obviously so and one subtextually so. I know I certainly do. But it was too radical an idea for TV. Untraditional shows don’t often work in the ratings. Spy dramas with heroic characters in charge of their work and their love lives often do.

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About joe

In my life I've been a professor, martial artist, rock 'n roller, rocket scientist, lover, poet and brain surgeon. I'm lying about the brain surgery.
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25 Responses to Chuck Versus the Reset

  1. AngelTwo says:

    Ohmigod, liz, I think you nailed it. Exactly. When you merge the business part of this with the story narrative, it absolutely makes complete sense. By the end of the year, Chuck will be (however flawed) the superhero at the center of the show instead of the nerd who wants out.

    And given how TPTB never throw anything away, I can see episode 13’s events transpiring largely as you suggest. It’ll be a year overdue for Chuck and Sarah and I absolutely think they could have reset the show with them together from the beginning, but I’ll now watch the episodes with your view of the journey in mind. It’s, well, awesome!

  2. atcdave says:

    Excellent take on the fundamental changes in the show. I’ll certainly miss the old power structure; Chuck was always fun as the ordinary guy, who could use his brains and heart to save the day on occasion, while Sarah was the atypical action hero and knight in shining armor. I think the new formula can work, and even still be a lot of fun. But Chuck is now a little less relateable, and the show is a little more conventional.
    I do wonder though, if this is really NBC’s doing. I kind of get the feeling JS and company may have decided the shake-up was in order; who knows, it might even be consistant with their version of the hero’s journey from the beginning.

  3. joe says:

    The reluctance, roadblocks and PLIs in Season 3 is about Chuck replacing Sarah as the driving force in the relationship.

    Believe it or not, this is a lot of what I was trying to express in my earlier post. Much like Newton and Leibniz, we’ve independently come to the same conclusion.

    • lizjames says:

      Newton and Leibniz are WAY above my pay grade, Joe. But I would accept Oreos and Hydrox 🙂

      The thing that I’ll never understand about TPTB is why they would torture the fans by implying they were essentially rerunning the Season 2 Jill/Cole arcs (I liked BOTH) with Hannah and Shaw. If they aren’t, why imply it. And if they ARE, well, the show is doomed so it won’t matter.

      I’m confident we’ll know about the show by the end of episode 8. I trust Ali Adler…a lot.

      • atcdave says:

        Liz, I think that is one of the great mysteries of the ages. Even professional critics were not pleased by their ill-advised words. Why brag about doing formula TV? Perhaps by setting the bar low, anything better than cliche will be a success. But for a show with marginal ratings, bragging about being slaves to the formula hardly seems like a wise choice.

  4. Ernie Davis says:

    Liz, always good to hear your take. I agree this is a total reset of the premise of the reluctant spy, and I wouldn’t doubt that it was needed to get the next season through a network that seems to be making all the wrong decisions.

    The thing that gets me is that everyone acts as if the relationship angst was the only, or even best way to do it. They could easily have skipped the “proposal” scene or had Sarah accept, skipped ahead to the gun battle and the second wedding, still put Chuck in the intersect room in pretty much the same way, then play a fountain or beach scene where Chuck, with the new intersect tells Sarah he’s going to become a spy. He found his calling in the intersect room when he watched Bryce die and couldn’t save the team without the intersect. Pretty much the vault scene mixed up with some breakup fountain elements. They would have knocked it out of the park.

    Since Sarah never talks she wouldn’t stop him, just internalize it, Chuck is gone for six months and comes back a changed man. Sarah sees this and wonders if he’s still the man she loves. Chuck sees Sarah’s uncertainty and they have another talk. Maybe we moved to quick. Boom, we’re right where we are now without one poor and one fair episode of burdensome angst.

    • lizjames says:

      Ernie, I was analyzing what they did and, frankly, working through the reset in my mind so I can at least continue to watch the show they are producing as opposed to the show I would have preferred them to produce. This is the show we have now.

      I didn’t say I agree with what TPTB did. I don’t. I dislike Pink Slip both for the decisions TPTB made about how to reset the show (although I accept they had to reset the show) and the subpar writing.

      As for the relationship, well, it always comes back to Colonel. The end of Colonel is unambiguous. Something would have happened between Chuck and Sarah at and after the rehersal dinner that would have changed the relationship forever. TPTB have chosen to make believe that didn’t happen and it is murderous on logic of things.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Liz, trust me I didn’t assume you agreed with the way it was done. I pretty much did the same thing you did to try to get the angst out of my head.

        To me they damaged those characters badly in Chuck vs. the Ring, damaged them further in Pink Slip and because of that and what they attempted I didn’t much enjoy Pink Slip at all and that feeling hung around until Angel of Death. I was close to not bothering to watch live Monday because very little of what I saw Sunday was enjoyable, character-wise.

        Hopefully most of the damage is past and we can enjoy, my point was that they could have done the reset mostly angst-free, so all those saying this was critical to the show going on are giving us a false choice.

  5. Lucian says:

    That is an outstanding analysis. My problem is, I really preferred Chuck 1.0. I hate to say it, but I really don’t care if Chuck and Sarah figure things out anymore (given that they aren’t particularly clear on what they want out of life). This version is okay, but it doesn’t push all the emotional buttons they did for two years. Chuck is losing his “chuckness”, no matter how often he screws up. The empathy factor is greatly reduced.

    I am hoping I’ll end up caring a little bit more down the road, but that old black magic aint what it used to be. Oh well.

  6. NoWayOut says:

    Yeoman work, Liz. As someone who misunderstood the pilot episode (I thought we were getting an offbeat, off-kilter spy-buddy comedy with a nerdy good guy and a hottie secret agent), I guess I’ve already lived through one reset of Chuck. Hanging in paid benefits.

    Pink Slip was a bitter pill to swallow for the second reset but I’ll hang with this show some more. I’ve come to like the characters (okay, Morgan not so much) and the writers have a pretty high batting average over the course of 39 episodes. Chuck and Sarah are great together and the Chuck-Sarah-Casey triangle remains fun.

    Thanks for laying out where we’re going.

  7. weaselone says:

    I agree completely with points 1, 2 and 5, but I think you’re going too far with points 3 and 4. Currently, despite whatever Beckman and Shaw have planned, Chuck remains the junior member of team Bartowski and Sarah has regained nearly absolute control of the relationship. I see that changing, although not to the point where Chuck is going to become Charles in Charge.

    Certainly nothing we’ve seen this season suggests that Sarah Walker is assuming a subservient role. She’s already asserted physical, emotional, and verbal dominance over Chuck in multiple scenes. Chuck will be hard pressed to fight to a position of parity with her in these areas over the course of the season, let alone assume a position of dominance.

    As several other esteemed commentators have noted, this show could just have easily been named Sarah. She’s on every bit as much of a journey as Chuck and she is arguably the more deeply developed character as her journey is far more emotionally nuanced than Chuck’s. This season, Sarah is going to have to learn the same lesson that Chuck learned over the first two seasons. Real and Normal are not similes. If she gets on a train with Chuck at the end of this season, it won’t be because she’s willing to give up normal in order to be with Chuck. It will be because it offers her the life that she wants with the man that she loves.

    There’s also nothing that suggests that Chuck’s desire to be a spy reflects any desire on his part to assume a position of dominance over the team or Sarah. In fact, Chuck continues to factor the team as a given in his plans, and as you noted shares credit. What we’ll eventually see is the establishment of an equal partnership, not Chuck as the Big Boss Man.

    • lizjames says:

      Weaselone: You analysis of the current state of Sarah is flawed because of one basic fact: Sarah has revealed her emotions to Chuck and admitted her feelings to Chuck to herself. From a storytelling point of view, Sarah is in a much weaker position now than in Seasons 1/2. Over those two years, she controlled the pacing.

      Now she is positioned as being in love and having no idea of how to act on it. Sarah the spy is always in control. Sarah the woman is NEVER in control because, well, because she’s never been one. Or as they had her say near the end of e4 in a slightly different context, she has something to lose now…

      As for her getting on a train with Chuck, but not giving up her desire for real and normal, I actually hope you’re right. The best part of the Sarah character was how they revealed over the first two years her reluctance to keep living the life she was living. We may know more about THAT aspect of things in E15, which features the two 50s spies who are a married couple. (And our Canadian frieds tell us there is some reveal in tonight’s episode about some parts of Sarah’s runaway plan. It will add to the database of the character…)

      As for points 3 and 4, you are absolutely correct that Chuck is not yet Charles in Charles. But he will be by the end of the original S3 finale (e13). That’s the show that Schwartz and Fedak promised to NBC to get a third season. The New York Times had a fairly good piece about a month ago talking to them about the changes they made to the show’s basic premise. NBC clearly wants a show with a star character in a more traditional dominant position. If he won’t exactly be The Man from UNCLE or Jason Bourne, he’ll be a far more advanced creature by the end of the year.

      As to the show being called “Sarah” instead of Chuck, I take your point, but disagree. I think it should have been called “Chuck and Sarah.” And it probably WOULD have been if Schwartz and Fedak had ANY idea that Strahovski was the actor she is becoming. Remember, she was unknown to them until well after Levi and Baldwin were cast.

      • weaselone says:

        That’s true, she is in a weaker position because she’s at least admitted to herself she’s in love and that makes her emotionally vulnerable. Still, even though Chuck has dedicated himself to becoming a spy, he is every bit as vulnerable as she, but still lacks parity on setting the terms of the relationship.

        Still, things could certainly turn out as you fear. I’m hoping the new show moves towards a more Mr. and Mrs. Smith dynamic with Sarah and Chuck as Coequals in both the relationship and the spy world. It certainly opens up more plot lines for the 4th season than Sarah the doting accessory and lesser spy to Charles Carmichael.

  8. Ernie Davis says:

    I find this interesting because they’ve done this before. If you recall First Date we were immediately introduced to a new Chuck. Imagine season 1 Chuck keeping relatively calm and negotiating while being hung out a window or over a ledge, or facing down Colt as agent Carmichael, or asking Sarah on a date, a real date? No way. But this new Chuck was not a problem, because they had laid the groundwork for a new maturity in season 1. We just assumed that he gradually gained experience and confidence and essentially “joined the team” as opposed to being the asset they used. This was perfectly highlighted with the exchange with Casey:

    Casey: “Well did you get it? Please tell me you got it?”

    Chuck: “Hey, it’s me…”

    Already you see that Casey has learned to expect more from Chuck and Chuck has a certain confidence that he can deliver something for the team other than flashes. It worked.

    This one didn’t. TPTB have said that S2 was boy to man, which we pretty much saw out of the starting blocks, and S3 was man to spy. Only one problem, for much of the S2 finale and S3 premier they stripped away the man and made Chuck back into that insecure, sometimes whiny boy who runs away when his feelings are hurt. Trying to maintain a season’s worth of growth that they wanted and needed to keep, yet dial back a great deal of that growth to reset the relationship didn’t work. In Pink Slip they completed the job. Chuck in Pink Slip and Three Words was NOT the man he’d developed into in season 2. This is what I mean when I say they damaged the characters. They did likewise with Sarah, turning her right back into the ice queen of Crown Vic. So the question is why?

    OK, OK, the reset, but because they did it that way they now need to move both Chuck and Sarah BACK through 20-ish episodes of character development in 5 or 6 episodes to get Chuck back to being enough of a man to be a spy and Sarah being able to open up and love Chuck again. I think it is going to be a big stretch, and bringing in Shaw to solve their self created problems may do more damage than it fixes. I’m hopeful, but frankly skeptical at this point.

  9. lizjames says:

    By the way, if I may, an alternate approach to how they will handle E13 occurs to me. I work on the assumption that at least one of the meanings of “The Other Guy” in the title is the Chuck of old from Season 1/2. I have assumed that Chuck will pitch Sarah on a life together as spies because he’s not the other Chuck anymore and they can have the life together he once imagined for Bryce and Sarah and verbalized in Ring.

    But what if Chuck tells Sarah in E13 that she was right and that he doesn’t want to be a spy after all and that they should run away together? It flips Pink Slip AND firmly puts Charles in Charge because he’s controlling the timing. (Hence the network is happy.) In this scenario, it could be revealed that the stop Sarah made in Lisbon en route to Prague (referenced tonight) was to consult with Orion about how to get Intersect 2.0 out of Chuck’s head. E14 is Chuck and Sarah on a train in Spain going to Lisbon (these guys need to get a better travel agent), but they get into some spy adventure on the train (hence Sarah’s need to relieve a Polish passenger of his handcuffs). E15 shows Chuck and Sarah the lives they could have as master spies together, which of course gives them pause and reminds them of the higher calling Sarah mentioned in Helicopter and Chuck referenced in Three Words. The rest of the arc is catching up with Papa B/Orion. Rather than take the intersect out, however, Papa B makes it work specifically for Chuck–and he specifically gives Chuck his blessing to be a spy. (Remember, Papa B has been against Chuck being a spy all along.). Then Chuck and Sarah are the super spy couple pursuing their relationship and the higher calling beginning with Season 4.

    It’s hard trying to figure out where TPTB are taking this because, well, they are TPTB and we’re guesstimating with incomplete information. But I’m fairly confident E13, regardless of where they take it, couples Chuck and Sarah and puts Charles in Charge.

    (And an aside to Weaselone and Ernie Davis: A Lisbon stop to consult Orion would, at least canonically, soften the otherwise valid criticism that Sarah was in a mindless panic for three weeks and she had some solid strategy. It would also explain the Sarah line in Pink Slip that she and Casey were going to Lisbon because of rumor of a Ring cell. The Ring might be after Orion, too…)

  10. Ernie Davis says:

    It’s hard trying to figure out where TPTB are taking this because, well, they are TPTB and we’re guesstimating with incomplete information.

    Liz, again I’ve written about this a bit, and I think it is another example of sloppiness. On the one hand they want us to take what is onscreen as cannon and swallow nearly incomprehensible character changes and omissions, like your favorite example of the end of Colonel or mine in the Ring, and we’re constantly told not to speculate or try to read too deeply, yet they seem to feel it is then no problem or contradiction to re-define the context of the entire season with something we had no way whatsoever of knowing so that what, we can enjoy the season retroactively?

    I fully expect them to pull this at least once if not more this season, and then predictably some of a certain disposition will shake their heads at the silly shippers and scold us for not understanding that we were really watching good episodes, we just didn’t know it yet. (Not referring to anyone who posts here regularly.)

    Sorry, it doesn’t work that way if you live or die by weekly numbers. We are on a week to week contract. Disappoint me too often, I’ll wait to rent the DVD from Netflix.

    • atcdave says:

      I think the week to week contract is very important. Those of us here, are more aware of long term trends, and are more likely to think its worth riding out a bad episode or arc. But at least two of the more casual fans I know put off watching 3.03 and 3.04 for almost a week because the show wasn’t as fun, or as compelling to them as it used to be. I think the damage done to the central relationship (and both characters at the same time) is where that all starts. I think the future of the show hangs on what happens in 3.08 and how its promoted. We have reason to believe that’s the episode with the Shaw/Sarah kiss, and the ILY moment. Both of these could make or break the show. If Sarah straying from Chuck is promoted heavily during the Olympics (surely they aren’t THAT stupid) we will likely loose the interest of a large block of casual viewers. And obviously, no matter how its promoted, if we see Sarah straying through all or most of the episode, all the promotion in the world can’t save it, and I’m sure ratings will plumit afterwards.
      On the other hand, if Sarah’s involvement with Shaw is shown to be cover/mission oriented; or even better, part of some plan make things better for her and Chuck, I think ratings will do fine.
      We’ve all seen enough reviews to know a majority of media types (Ryan, Sepinwall, Ausiello) want TPTB to move things along already for Chuck and Sarah; and of course a major part of the fan base would explode with enthusiasm. And I really think the majority of the viewership (i.e. casual viewers) will respond well to positive growth.

  11. Lucian says:

    I’m still hoping for a conversation between two adults about all the issues related to love and being a hero. I don’t think tv is ready for that.

    • AngelTwo says:

      Giving the Sarah character four lines in a row about ANYTHING would be progress. I know the powers that be intentionally underwrite her character for dramatic (some would now say melodramtic) effect, but it’s hard to see how they can plausibly couple Chuck and Sarah without giving Sarah SOME realistic-sounding dialogue. “Chuck, I love you but I’m scared” would be a smashing start…

  12. Lucian says:

    They’ll need to bring Carina back to translate for her. She and Chuck haven’t mastered that language yet.

  13. Lucian says:

    I’m hoping at some point the intersect gets removed and Chuck’s intelligence and fundamental humanity is what makes him effective. Probably not likely to happen.

    • atcdave says:

      Yeah, I doubt they’ll ever go that way. Maybe he could get a 1.0 downgrade! One thing I am glad for; for the longest time many of us were speculating Chuck might get a little cocky with his new abilities. But we’ve now seen most of the scenes where he looked that way, and they were always in a character or context that made them fairly acceptable (telling Sydney he was in charge being the most blatant example). His character does shift a little when he is directly under the influence of a flash, but he isn’t otherwise too proud. At some point, I still hope he and Sarah have a talk about how the job changes you; but to date hubris doesn’t seem to be among his issues.

  14. Rick Holy says:

    Well, they basically said at the end of S2 that this would be a “relaunch” with S3 – so that reality that it’s turning out to be something different from S1/S2 isn’t exactly shocking.

    I can handle the direction the show is going. There are plenty of interesting things that can be explored – if done right.

    I’m jumping ahead a little and being a little spoilerish, but I did “take a peak” on youtube at some of the segments of tonight’s episode courtesty of our Canadian friends who get to view the show on Monday nights.

    What I saw was entertaining. But….. and if you don’t want to know about this ahead of time,then stop reading here – but the Chuck/Hannah thing is giving me a little big of a knot in my stomach. He obviously has a “moment/connection” with her on the plane. Then to see him sitting in the BuyMore holding the little model of the Eifel tower while daydreaming – only then to see Hannah walk into the BuyMore – and to see him get this smile on his face as he sees her (“rewind” – can anybody say LOU?) just made me think: PLEASE don’t let this be what I hoped it wouldn’t be but am now thinking/fearing it might possibly be.

    We just got “I LOVE YOU SARAH” an episode or two ago – and now he’s “lighting up” over Hannah showing up at the BuyMore?

    THAT to me would be far worse of a “character development (or non-development)” for Chuck than the possibility of him becoming in S3 “The Spy On Top.”

    If he truly is smitten with Hannah – and that’s at least what it looked like, esp. at the end of the episode – then Intersect 2.0 must have within it the “skill” of being a shallow person.

    I only hope I’m wrong. I really do. Watch for yourself and see what you think.

    On the other hand, I thought there was a very strong moment between Sarah and Shaw involving a wedding ring.

    Well, that’s it from me.

  15. Lucian says:

    Chuck as newbie spy is okay; Chuck as adolescent, not so good.

  16. Pingback: Episode of the Week: Chuck vs The Pink Slip (3.01) | Chuck This

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