We’ve been deprived of new Chuck for just under 14 days. You weren’t afraid that we’d run out of things to say, now. Were you? With one week plus a few hours left before the next episode airs, we seem to have experienced absolutely no shortage of material!
With our thanks, and for your consideration, a guest post from Liz James.
Through a Glass, Darkly
I loved a television show once. You might know the one I mean.
It had a handsome star playing a character who’d been tripped up by life and worked at a job far below his station. It had a gorgeous blonde co-star whose character was strong, wise, out of place in the “real” world and a strangely compelling love interest. And there was a cast of misfits interacting in a dysfunctional workplace.
No, I’m not talking about Chuck. Right now, I’m talking about The John Larroquette Show, which ran for parts of four seasons on NBC between 1993 and 1996.
It its brilliant first season, The John Larroquette Show was as dark as Chuck was light in its first two seasons. Larroquette played a recovering alcoholic who worked as the night manager of a St. Louis bus station. His co-star, Gigi Rice, played a prostitute who worked the station’s bar. The bravura cast of supporting players included Liz Torres as the assistant manager; Daryl “Chill” Mitchell as the newsstand operator; Chi McBride as the janitor; and Lenny Clarke and Elizabeth Berridge as cops.
How dark was The John Larroquette Show? Every week was a fight for sobriety. The singer David Crosby was meta-cast as his AA sponsor. Larroquette’s John Hemingway character even hung a sign above his desk that said: It’s a Dark Ride. The show’s supporting cast was much like the Buy Moranians, except the reality of their hopeless situations was made plain. And in case you somehow missed the darkness of it all, they soon killed off Crosby’s Chester, leaving Hemingway morose and anchorless in a world that had passed him by.
In every way you could imagine, The John Larroquette Show was the reverse of Chuck in seasons 1 and 2. It was also brilliant, riveting television. For those few who found it, the dark ride was amazing and you doted on each week’s show much like we waited for new episodes of Chuck in season 2.
Then NBC screwed it up. For the show to continue, the network told TPTB, the show’s tone would have to be lightened. And lighten the tone they did.
Larroquette’s character moved out of a flop house and into a nice apartment. His fight for sobriety was all but forgotten. He got a mainstream girlfriend. Gigi Rice’s hooker went straight. Torres, Mitchell and McBride became comic foils who really, eventually, would come into their own. The reformed bus-station manager and the reformed hooker married in the final episode of the third season.
By then, of course, viewers didn’t care. The show lasted less than a month into its fourth season and was pulled off the schedule with at least a half-dozen episodes still in the can.
The John Larroquette Show has more in common with Chuck than Larroquette, who had a star turn as Roan Montgomery in Chuck Versus the Seduction. It is more than Chuck through a glass, darkly. It is, I think, an object lesson in playing with a show’s DNA.
The John Larroquette Show was meant to be dark, created to be sad, glad to be unhappy. When it was twisted into a standard sitcom because the network decided that is what viewers wanted, it quickly sank. The happy-talk episodes weren’t good enough to find new viewers and those episodes bored and dismayed the fans of the show’s original dark tinge.
No matter what happens during the remainder of season 3 of Chuck, I have a feeling it has become the mirror image of The John Larroquette Show.
Chuck’s first two seasons were brilliant because it was a clever action-adventure comedy with an occasional dramatic twist. Its unconventional leading characters, the emotional man who didn’t want to be the hero and the strong, silent woman who protected him, were refreshing. The hard realities of life in a time of terrorism were played lightly. The dead-end nature of the Buy More and its denizens was played for laughs. Chuck was fun, it was happy and we loved it.
When we get the full exposition after the backward reveals and non-linear storytelling, Chuck season 3 will end with Chuck and Sarah together in Episode 13. But I have news for those folks who say it’s the journey and not the destination: The journey hasn’t been fun. It’s been ponderous and joyless and filled with pain. It’s been dark–and Chuck when its dark isn’t that compelling a television show.
I didn’t need Chuck to tell me how tough the world is out there. I didn’t need the TPTB to tell me that love in the 21st Century isn’t easy. I read the papers. I got that it’s dark out there.
But for two seasons, Chuck was a refuge. It was full of people you rooted for and cared about. We fans didn’t feel “entitled,” a nasty slur invented by a sloppy NPR journalist who didn’t really have a clue about what some (not me, by the way) fans disliked about Chuck Versus the Mask. We were INVESTED in the characters. We wanted Chuck and Sarah together because we thought they’d earned their love already. We wanted love conquering all in these oh-so-perilous days.
Yes, it is a dark ride. Who could argue that? And when one television show tried to tell us that, the network said no one would watch. So then, years later, along comes Chuck and says: It’s a Happy Ride. And now the network says no one will watch unless Chuck becomes a dark ride.
We’ve got the dark ride and, for me, the thrill is gone. Neither the journey nor the destination, I fear, will have been worth the darkness.
— Liz James