Chuck vs. The Trash


I found this interesting video-discussion the other day.  Roger Simon is an author and academy award winning screenwriter, most known for Bustin’ Loose, which starred Richard Pryor, and Scenes From a Mall with Woody Allen.  Lionel Chetwynd is an Oscar/Emmy-nominated filmmaker.  It’s about 10 minutes long, and worth the time, but be aware that the clip will be available for only a few days.

What caught my attention was Chetwynd’s statements.  He pointedly said that these days, television is better that the movies, which is contrary to a lot of received wisdom.  “Television has an interesting way of sorting out the garbage and getting rid of it,” he says.

I’ve often said that Chuck is pretty thoughtful and intelligent for TV.   But TV is better than movies?

Can TV do better adventure than, say, Indiana Jones, or better romance than Titanic (1997)?  Well, maybe.  Even those movies were made a long time ago now (believe it or not), and I can barely remember the last time I was actually moved to go to a theater to see a first-run movie (and I wonder why that is).

Americans love the people [that they see on screen]. They love the simple stories, and they love the truth. You see that on television. You don’t see that in films.

The sentiment shouldn’t be limited to Americans, of course.   But it’s an interesting reflection of the way I’ve been seeing Chuck.  It’s a simple story; boy and girl, good vs. evil, friends, family, loyalty, trust.  Technically, it’s a simple construct; romance, adventure, humor, mix well.  We love the characters.  With few exceptions (the sardonic Iron Man comes to mind), that’s not what we’re seeing in the theaters.

Chetwynd goes on to say that there are now only two kinds of movies being made; “kids” movies and “artsie” movies.  It’s fair to ask if these films have been successful – with summer blockbusters routinely pulling in 3-digit millions of dollars at the box office, they do seem to be successful.   But consider that a movie grossing $100-million has had about 8 million tickets sold.  There several shows on every evening that have more viewers.   Every evening. TV-1, Movies-0.

Ah, but that may just be a measure of popularity, not of quality or success.  Are the things we see on TV actually “better?”   When all is said and done, are they doing anything good for us?   Chetwynd contends that they are, because they inspire us in a way that movies do not.

My eyebrows did a dance at this point.  He went on to list a number of shows – Glee, Losing It With Jillian, Burn Notice, House – and noted that they have one thing in common.  They inspire us.  These shows all show people as a “good project” – they show us as a good project.  Burn Notice invites us to be the good guys.  Glee is the modern day equivalent of a Doris Day movie.   And haven’t I said pretty much the same about Chuck – that it invites us to see better in ourselves and in other people?

I just pulled a fast one.  By mentioning Iron Man, I sort of dismissed “kids movies” in a way I shouldn’t have.  Just because us old folks aren’t watching doesn’t mean that teens, ‘tweens and those newly introduced to the neighborhood bar scene aren’t seeing positive messages in the movies somewhere.   Include children in that list, too.

To address that, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite writers (Ernie’s too, I understand), James Lileks, who brings up a good point about the messages children receive.   This is what he had to say about a popular family movie, and it gave me pause.

Toy Story the narrative almost requires the absence of a male figure, because the story features two different role models, and there wouldn’t be a way to shoehorn in a Real Dad without making him marginal, or requiring him to be someone who embodied traits contrary to the characters of Buzz and Woody.

If you want to read much more into it – and why not? – then Buzz and Woody aren’t just toys, but objects into which the kid can project ideas of masculinity. One is about Law and Order and Justice, the things kids need to believe exists to make the world safe and rational and fair, and the other is the Soldier, unattached from domesticity, fighting existential perils. (Precisely the words kids would choose, you know.)

Ideas of masculinity?  Law and Order and Justice?  Existential perils?  I know where I’ve seen those things addressed.   Who doubted?   He goes on:

I gnash my teeth when I see weak silly dads on TV and in the movies, and think it’s slow poison to portray men as chinless tech-dorks or chestless domestic dullards, and it makes me wish there was a movie where a dad was a true hero, loved his wife, was big and strong and cheerful, doted on his kids, but still had his private doubts and angst. Hey, make him a superhero, too – with a family of superheroes! That would be awesome. That would be Incredible.

Heh.   James Lileks is being cute, bringing in The Incredibles like that, but the point is made.  He’s talking about Toy Story, but I hear “Chuck”. Well, okay, Chuck may have started out as a chinless tech-dork and chestless domestic dullard, but that’s not true any longer, not since Sarah recognized him as a hero.  We’ll let him keep his private doubts and angst  There was a message given, and it’s not a bad one for children of any age.

There’s still something missing, though.  There is something I very much want to see next in Chuck’s (the character) evolution precisely because it would be inspiring.  He’s coming into his own, and his next step is (as mundane as it sounds) fatherhood.    Is he ready?  I think yes, very soon now.  The only surprise is that I very much want to see it happen (well, sometime, if not next season).   Talk about changing everything!

Forget about spies, adventures, guns and mayhem.  That stuff will always be there, and you can count on excitement being in the show.  The real challenge is how we face the adversities that are always coming, and how we treat those who are important in our lives every day.  That’s the message in the show.  Chuck is about the good in us, and whether its biological or social, family is a major part of that.   Ellie and Morgan are Chuck’s extended family now.   Both Chuck and Sarah have a void to fill.

“Television has an interesting way of sorting out the garbage and getting rid of it,” Lionel Cheywynd said.   I think that’s why Chuck survives.

– joe


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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44 Responses to Chuck vs. The Trash

  1. jason says:

    joe – my son and I watched national treasure on Sunday. Thought I saw a great future way for chuck to go about spy work in the Dr Gates – Cage character. Unrelated, but a great moment, Cage and his LI – annabell and his sidekick riley must split up to avoid being caught, cage goes alone, as they part, he says to riley, take care of her, to which they both reply “i will”, thought of sarah and morgan right away.

    now that one can re-watch TV – it can be much more thoroughly examined for content, that used to be the domain of movies, in the old days, you might only see an episode once, now one can slow motion and see obscure photographs on nightstands looking for meaning – there is a drawback – i’ll bet fedak wishes 3.7/3.8/3.12 were not available for analysis – LOL

    • joe says:

      There’s a new Cage movie coming out soon too – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Same thing – Father figure and son figure. I’ll bet there’s a love interest in there somewhere, too.

      Heh – I wonder if CF isn’t hoping that we all watch 3.7, 3.8 and 3.12 again and “get it this time.” Well, get it from his POV… 😉

  2. ArticulateSchnook (aka lizjames) says:

    All you have to do is compare Chuck to Killers or Knight and Day, two big-budget movies in the spy-adventure-comedy drama that have been destroyed in the reviews. Chuck has a spy couple. Killers has a spy couple. Knight and Day has a spy couple (Diaz and Cruise no less).

    What’s the better product? Chuck in a walk over!

    • joe says:

      I’m total amused at the “Knight & Day” promos. They almost look like an attempt to clone Chuck, with the roles reversed.

      Another one I’m noticing is an upcoming TV show, Covert Affairs. My first impression was that it was going to be “Sarah Walker, the early years.” But apparently, I’m wrong. The director of the pilot has also done some Burn Notice episodes.

      Could be interesting, though.

      • sd says:

        Don’t you find it interesting…the copious number of spy guy/gal movies and tv shows that have sprung up after Chuck? Maybe coincidence…but perhaps Chuck has begun a genre?

      • OldDarth says:

        It does look interesting and being a big fan of Chris Gorham from Jake 2.0 – aha spy/Chuck connection – his blind character of Auggie intrigues me. I am looking forward to see him and Annie Walker- another Chuck connecton – in action.

        The concept for Covert Affairs has been around for a couple of years. According to on of the interviews CA was offered to NBC at the same time as – tada! – Chuck.

  3. Merve says:

    Interesting that you mention fatherhood:

    Right now, I’m firmly in the “a Chuck/Sarah baby would kill the show” camp, but I might feel differently after a couple of seasons.

    • joe says:

      Well, it would have killed the show up to now, Merve. And S4 is still too early for that, I think. But afterwords? Clearly the idea has been growing on me. 😉

    • atcdave says:

      I do agree Merve its way too early for that now; but if the show runs a few more years it becomes an obvious way to go. As the article you linked mentions, Chuck seems like a natural for it, now Sarah on the other hand….

    • Waverly says:

      What would they name the child if it were a boy? Stephen Bartowski? Daniel Shaw Bartowski?

      And if it were a girl? Evelyn Bartowski? Sam Walker?

  4. atcdave says:

    You know this is a topic very near and dear to me. I love TV and movies (I still watch about a dozen a year in the theater), but I think comparisons between them are difficult. I guess I start with saying I’m an action-adventure-comedy sort of guy. I can occasionally appreciate more substantial material and documentaries, but that’s really not what I look for. So even within the fairly limited realm of looking at both mediums as entertainment I see such different strengths I bristle at the attempt to elevate one over the other. There is plenty of garbage in both; I’d say its just as hard to defend the value of “Wipe Out” (ABC water based game show) as it is “Grown Ups.” To enjoy either television or cinema you have to appreciate their differences.
    Obviously everyone here is in love with a television show. TV’s biggest strength is long term, often serialized story telling. We can get familiar with a setting and characters over the course of many years, and really come to see them as regular feature in our lives; almost like friends of a sort. We can look forward to something that’s new and familiar at the same time. But TV has a couple of big drawbacks too. That serialized storytelling is often obvious and manipulative. We know “big” story developments only occur during sweeps and finales. Loved characters come and go based on money and egos of actors, agents, producers, etc….. TV is also made “on the cheap”. Production values are significantly lower than on a major feature length movie. Think of all the logic and continuity problems we’ve noticed this season on Chuck; a well crafted movie would have avoided most (never all, but most) of those shortcomings. Cranking out 19 or 22 episodes in nine months at a million dollars a pop is different from a 2 hour movie that takes two years and 80 million dollars to make.

    Which leads to what’s different about movies. I already mentioned more time and money. A movie may reach a smaller audience in the theater, but that’s just the start of the revenue stream; between international screenings and disc/broadcast/PPV a movie will eventual reach a larger audience, and generate far more money doing it. The story telling is simply different as well. The entire tale is generally told in about two hours, which allows far less time for getting to know characters; but more time for the specific story. Its a different rhythm. A well crafted movie is far more likely to stand up to repeated viewings than a television show.

    Like everyone I’m here because I love Chuck. Its greatest strength, which only a TV show can do, is characters that I look forward to knowing better with every installment. But that doesn’t mean I think TV is in any way “superior” to cinema; they are simply different mediums.

    • aardvark7734 says:

      Dave, really enjoy your posts but for the love of all that’s holy, more paragraph breaks please! 🙂

      As to the content, I think you make a very good point about how television suffers from various business related phenomena that are intrinsic to the format. Your example of how serialized stories are often “timed” to deliver dramatic payoffs during sweeps is a great one.

      But what really drew me to your post was your mention of how lower production values can bring about the kind of logic and continuity errors we saw last season on “Chuck”. While no one has spoken candidly on this topic, it is not hard to imagine that S3’s budget pressure combined with writers working part time on “lifeboat” projects contributed greatly to the story dysfunction.

      Can anyone picture a film project soldiering on without delay while a key writer/producer leaves and two others are distracted with other projects? When these things happen, films usually halt production and regroup. Yet this is just what happened on “Chuck” in S3.

      After the S3 renewal was announced but before production began in earnest, Schwartz was asked in an interview if the reduced budget was going to impact the show in some fundamental way. He answered that if they (TPTB) did their job right, no one would notice.

      Well, I think we noticed.

      • OldDarth says:

        It is ironic that bottle episodes for shows often turn out to be the best ones. They are written with the express purpose of using standing sets ie Chuck Vs the Beard to reduce costs.

      • joe says:

        Often true, OD. I’ve noticed that effect on other shows too.

        When a show is put under enough pressure, it’s almost as if the staff is forced to get back to basics and get back to the core ideals of the show they started.

      • Merve says:

        @aardvark: With respect to production values and special effects, the drop in quality was sometimes quite noticeable. With respect to plot holes and incoherent storytelling, the show was as bad as it’s always been.

        @OD/Joe: IMO, “Beard” is an example of how not to do a bottle episode. The show shouldn’t overcompensate by making the episode more ridiculous, wacky, over-the-top, and in-your-face. When it comes to bottle episodes, “Angel de la Muerte” got it right. “Beard” didn’t.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Merve, Aardvark, I thought both production values and plot holes were noticably at their worst from First Class through Fake Name with the worst plot holes and just plain poor writing in Mask and Fake Name.

        Merve, I get your point about Beard, and for me the Jeffster sequence felt a bit forced even though I found the other parts of the Buymoria revolution kind of funny.

      • Merve says:

        I tend to think of plot holes as practical things that you have to fanwank to explain, in which case “First Class” and “Beard” were full of those. “Mask” was sloppy mainly with respect to character motivation and general stupidity. As for “Fake Name,” I don’t think it had many plot holes; it all made sense until “Must Kill Chuck” Shaw and Suicidal Sarah, but rehashing a scene that seemed to be constructed only to make fun of common TV drama plot devices is kind of pointless.

        If I had to make a guess (based on episode name changes and contract extensions), I’d say that “Mask” and “Fake Name” were the result of a hasty network-mandated rewrite. In the original scripts for those episodes, the Ring probably didn’t want to assassinate Shaw, and there might have been a spy plot revolving around the lockboxes and the intel on the discs. (Their presence in “Beard” and “Living Dead” seemed to be a half-hearted attempt to justify their existence.) It’s easy to say, “Oh my! What was the network thinking?” but I guess that at the time, all they had to go on was “Operation Awesome” and maybe “First Class.” IMO, Shaw was fine before he became a love interest, and the network might have thought the same, so it would have made sense to book the big guest star for more episodes. The problem is that shoehorning another element into a serialized dramedy that has already been plotted out is almost impossible. It requires a sacrifice of some degree of logic and consistency. We’ll probably never know the truth (and I might be way off base) because it’s not as if Schwartz or Fedak can come out and say, “The network made us do things that we didn’t want to do.” That’s just poor form.

        It’s kind of a shame that they introduced the plotline of the Ring trying to assassinate Shaw. If they hadn’t, then they wouldn’t have had to waste time confusing the viewers about why the Ring didn’t want Shaw dead in “Beard.” If you think about it, though the Ring might not have seemed particularly scary at the time (and certainly not even half as threatening as it did in the first three episodes of the season, when it looked like a formidable threat), they actually had a pretty decent plan from “Beard” to the finale (not counting “Tic Tac” or “Honeymooners,” since those episodes didn’t have anything to do with the plan). Infiltrate the CIA/NSA, turn a highly-respected agent and make him into a super-soldier, discredit top agents and their bosses, take over the American intelligence structure – sounds like a good plan to me. But it wasn’t well-explained. Part of that has to do with the three-week hiatus that made it look as if the spy stuff in the front 13 was unrelated to the spy stuff in the back 6. But part of it was poor setup. Trying to set up two spy plots at once in “Beard” – infiltrating Castle and turning Shaw – made it all very confusing. If they had set some of it up earlier, say in “Mask” or “Fake Name,” then the confusion wouldn’t have happened. (And, if I’m right about rewrites, they probably did set it up before they had to scrap it.)

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Merve, I think I’d have to agree with you that Fake Name was more sloppy writing and confusing character actions and motivations than plot holes, but I think Mask had plenty of each. I think it was confirmed that Routh’s role was extended some time around Fake Name, so a re-write wouldn’t surprise me.

      • OldDarth says:

        Merve wrote:

        “@OD/Joe: IMO, “Beard” is an example of how not to do a bottle episode. The show shouldn’t overcompensate by making the episode more ridiculous, wacky, over-the-top, and in-your-face. When it comes to bottle episodes, “Angel de la Muerte” got it right. “Beard” didn’t.”

        Many of those points are why Beard worked so well for me. It was a nice change of pace.

        Josh Gomez was outstanding.

      • Merve says:

        I guess it’s just a matter of taste, OD. Sometimes I appreciate Chuck’s wackiness; “Tom Sawyer” is my favourite episode. Other times I don’t.

      • joe says:

        Merve, my gut says that what you said is true. And you’re quite right – we’ll never know what exactly what was borne out of necessity and routine business coercion, and what came out of the minds of the story-tellers. I tend to give them a lot of the benefit of my doubt – but that’s just me.

        I know it’s harder to take, and I don’t want this ever to seem to be a slam on anybody (because I’m guiltier than most). But surely some of that confusion you mentioned is still the desire we have to write our own stories and our own impatience to “get to the ending.”

        That’s not to justify the stuff that saw Neilsens drop from 3.0 to 1.9 in the “desired” demographic. I’m just sayin’ – I don’t ever recall fans so vehemently insisting that such-and-such *had* to occur, and this-and-that take place. It’s a bit of a testament to both the fans level of engagement and to the talent’s ability to take us there, but satisfying that has to come at a cost.

        Having said that, yeah. The stuff with the lockboxes/Intel was botched, even if our attention was focused on the Chuck/Sarah dynamic.

      • JC says:

        I’m curious into what went on behind scenes from First Class to Beard. That seems to be where everything fell apart in regards to the overall story. The Ring,Shaw and both romances, etc became so muddled.

    • atcdave says:

      Sorry about the paragraph thing Aardvark, but you know I get on a roll and just don’t know when to stop…

      I think you’re exactly right about the situation with the writers, although some of those problems have always been evident; they were just worse this season.
      To my mind, the first two seasons were so much better crafted its amazing. They hold up fairly well to repeat viewings (for a TV show) and have a lot of depth and nuance. The third season is sloppy and shallow by comparison. As we’ve discussed, there were still several very good episodes (especially late in the season, not that I’m biased mind you), but I think even then the quality of the effects, stunt work, editing, etc. all seem inferior to the first two seasons.

  5. Joseph (can't be Joe) says:

    “Television has an interesting way of sorting out the garbage and getting rid of it,”

    Yet there is still WAY too much “reality” TV on TV.

  6. kg says:

    I love going to the movie theater and routinely find myself “double-dipping.” Pay for one ticket and attend two movies in one session.

    Actually saw the aforementioned Knight and Day today. It was a wild ride full of action and plenty of suspended belief.

    You folks are pretty much correct in your analysis (reverse roles of Chuck and Sarah when we first meet them).

    Cruise is the tough and charming, super-spy who works alone and is usually several moves ahead of the competition, but is also made to look like he’s gone rogue and Diaz is the hot civilian blonde completely taken by surprise and shock at the realm she’s been thrust into. She doesn’t know who to believe and trust. Like Chuck, she initially wants to get off ASAP. She doesn’t listen well to the Cruise character and inadvertantly makes mistakes which put her and Cruise in additional danger.

    As the movie advances, the Diaz character starts to realize Cruise’s bizarre methods were designed to protect her and attempts to pull her out of the game.

    By the end, she actually displays some useful skills. She even finds Cruise’s real parents, who were led to believe their son had died (fake) in a terrible accident. The funny bit here is that the Cruise character has set them up with a lottery win and a Publisher’s Clearing House windfall.

    The two of them combine forces to save the day. Near the finish, Cruise is shot and taken to a hospital. A Beckman like character (also a woman) makes it chillingly clear to Cruise how her organization has invested millions in him and that he needs to maintain his focus (telling him to forget about Diaz.)

    The Diaz character returns a favor or two, so to speak, pretends to be a nurse, drugs him (like he did to her a couple of times) and sneaks him out of the hospital where they begin their run to South America.

    • joe says:

      Heh! Wow, this does sound familiar.

      Thanks for the write-up, kg!

    • 904 says:

      Saw Knight and Day with the fiancee, and we both kept making connections to “Chuck.” A lot of what I assume is derivative spy stuff, but not executed as endearingly as “Chuck.”

      Chase scenes were pretty good, and production values were obviously better, but lacked the heart and humor of “Chuck.”

      But back to the connections, it was like this film was written or produced by “Chucksters.”

      The “assett” (not Diaz) was a Hall & Oates fan. His hideout was blaring “Private Eyes.” I thought, ‘stakeout!’

      A portion of the movie was set on a Euro Alpine train, and all I could think was ‘Honeymooners!’ The dining car was rustic, almost a doppelganger of the ‘Chuck’ set.

      Diaz straddling cruise on a motorbike and working in tandem.

      iphone’s with abilities not inherent (tracking, for instance) were prominent.

      Off-beat ring tone plays role in the film, a la “Mexican Hat Dance.”

      Use of words “spy,” “rogue,” “off the grid.”

      SPOILER: a fall into a European River without a body recovered and a later resurrection. ‘Other Guy!’

      Oh, and Cruise’s character was like a capable Shaw, creepy smile, creepily touchy, dry sense of humor, perfectly quaffed black hair.

      • joe says:

        Ohhhh! That’s quite a list, 904. If I may ask, how much of that do you think is influenced by Chuck, and how much do you think in endemic to the genre? I’m not up on enough on spy-flicks as a group (James Bond excepted) to really know myself.

      • atcdave says:

        Thanks for the review 904, there seems to be a lot of borrowing from Chuck going on right now. Funny for a show that’s only marginally successful. But as you said, a lot of it may just be coincident to the genre. Spy themes seem to have become very popular again when Alias and 24 debuted the same season.

      • 904 says:

        I honestly guess that it’s mostly just the basic spy premises being rehashed. The format is thus accessible to the average viewer by using those buzzwords. I’m not well versed in the spy genre either, though.

        If I had to guess, it’s mostly coincidence. I’m sure the movie was in production and post before Season 3 started production.

        Though, the use of “Private Eyes” seems almost too coincidental, but with the song title and the humor of using campy ’80s adult contemporary lite rock, I guess it lends itself to wide usage.

      • joe says:

        Wasn’t “Private Eyes” used on the promos for “Psyche” too? – A take-off of the video I recall from the days when MTV actually had something to do with music and videos…

        It’s always been a bit arcane to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the song is available for use at a reasonable price.

  7. OldDarth says:

    Knight and Day holds no interest for me.

    • joe says:

      Tom Cruise has about 25 cents that used to be in my pocket. That’s his share of one ticket to “Risky Business” decades ago. Not a bad flick, btw. I’m pretty sure he’s not getting another cent of mine, though.

      • sd says:

        I really wanted to like Tom Cruise the actor but the only movie he has been in that I actually believed was Jerry Maguire.

      • OldDarth says:

        Ah yes Risky Business. I saw that at Graumans Chinese Theater in LA while on a vacation. Man that is a looooooong time ago.

        I enjoyed Cruise in Born on the 4th of July. That’s about it though.

    • atcdave says:

      The previews look fun, but I’m not giving my money to a nut job like Cruise.

    • aardvark7734 says:

      Okay, just ran across this on HitFix, and had to put it up rigghhhht here:

      Truthfully, doesn’t that perfectly accurateinsane caricature of a studio executive look and sound like Cruise? I think he could have “Jerry Maguire’d” his way through it without much of a sweat. 🙂

      • joe says:

        OMG that’s hilarious! You just gave the title of this post a new, ironic twist too, AA. 😉

      • aardvark7734 says:

        My favorite part was right at the end of the “Pinkberry – The Movie” teaser trailer, when the exec’s voice can be heard in the background exclaiming his approval.


  8. OldDarth says:

    Awesome del Toro interview – – and Chuck fans take note of whom is in the background!

    • joe says:

      Holy cow! Zac runs away with the interview at about the 4:40 mark!

      But I keep shouting “Where is my blonde?!” ala Honey Woodcomb.

  9. OldDarth says:

    That’s Zac for ya. 😀

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