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.
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.