What can be said about Season One overall? What are it’s strengths and weaknesses? How does it compare to other seasons? What episodes stand out as very good or very bad?
Join us after the jump as we start a new series of posts about the larger trends of Chuck.
We’ve mentioned this coming series a few times in the episode posts. So now its time to start with a look at the first season.
I’ll start be setting the stage a little. 2007 was kind of a tough year for me, it was the worst flair of my Crohn’s Disease I’ve ever had. I spent all summer keeping track of where the nearest bathroom was at all times! More to the point for Chuck, five shows I’d been watching had just ended that spring. So I was seeking new shows more aggressively than I often do. Burn Notice started in July and it was easily the most excited I’d been about a new show in quite some time. That one didn’t really hold up well for me. After the third season it seemed to get progressively darker, and not really to my taste. But a couple months after Burn Notice started, I was noticing previews for a new NBC show while watching football. Now I seem to have a minor domestic issue on this, my wife insists she had told me about Chuck as a promising new show from some news magazine or another that she’d read. But I just remember previews. It looked promising to me, so I looked forward to the Pilot.
Well I like to say Burn Notice was my favorite show for about eight weeks. Almost from the very start of the Pilot I knew Chuck was going to be something awesome. I think when we talk Chuck, Season One often gets overlooked. It is sort of a shame because there are some awesome things about it. I loved the combination of action and humor. That always plays well for me, and that alone could have kept me watching for many seasons. But right from the start Chuck was even better than that. We met great characters, a quirky/fun setting, and an entertaining basic scenario.
I think we often overstate “Chuck the loser”. He really never struck me that way, sure he was at a down and out period of his life, but he had good friendships and was a good brother. He was successful and respected at work, and looked to as a leader. It was a zero sort of job, but at least he was good at it! And I liked how the character was presented early on, we really never saw any of that buffoon humor that sometimes showed up later (in some ways, Chuck actually seemed more mature and steady in the first season than in anything later). I particularly liked how he learned and adapted to his scary new circumstance. He even took initiative on occasion, even as early as the Pilot, when he was needed to save the day. And yet he was sort of shy and reserved in a way I could completely relate to; he wasn’t comfortable with PDA, or lying. He even tried to be a friend to Sarah and Casey. No doubt Chuck had some serious growing up to do, and he had a lot to prove to himself and the world. But I was happy to see the world through his eyes from the very start. I just wish they’d kept some of the steadier aspects of Chuck’s character in the later seasons.
Which leads to Sarah. I think we often exaggerate her shortcomings at the start too. She was never completely cold or immoral. She took an immediate interest in protecting and guiding Chuck, and that alone is a major redeeming feature. We were informed as early as Wookiee that she was actually a bit different from many of her colleagues when Chuck simply challenges Carina with “Sarah’s not like that” and Carina concedes the point. Great moment. I never found Sarah relatable like Chuck was, but she was admirable. She was a hero we could root for and believe in without reservation. She had some very different growing to do than Chuck. Sarah was already a professional success, but she lacked a certain human touch. And watching Sarah struggle with her duty vs love issues, even if we would see no resolution in Season One, was possibly my favorite part of the show.
I loved Ellie and Devon right from the start. Ellie was occasionally too involved in her brother’s life in later seasons, but that was pretty understated in Season One. Ellie and Devon may have grown the least of any major characters; but they stood for normal, what Chuck, and later Sarah, were shooting for almost to the very end. And both of them loved Chuck, even when other parts of his life were pushed to the breaking point. Even later, when Chuck sometimes knuckled under to his sister’s strong personality, I somehow never blamed her (I blame him!). Ellie loved Chuck was a defining trait from the very start.
Morgan as Chuck’s loser best friend was funny, but sometimes too much. I think for many of us who were sometimes annoyed by Morgan, it all started right here. Morgan would later grow into a more mature individual, but there was hardly a shred of that in the first season. Perhaps if that growth had started sooner he would have annoyed fewer people later. I wonder if that would have happened if that original full Season One had ever been made? My guess is not, I think Morgan’s growth was among the things they re-tooled in the long off-season.
Casey was the dark spot among the major characters. And that’s exactly what he was meant to be. The government was a fairly malevolent presence in the first season, and John Casey personified that. He was Chuck’s protector because he was ordered to be. But there was the threat he could turn in an instant when so ordered. We may have suspected he’d softened some by the end of the season, but we couldn’t know he had until well into Season Two.
Harry Tang was an interesting minor character. I wonder how Season Two might have been different if we’d had Harry instead of Emmett? Jeff and Lester took a little time to grow into the complete losers we later knew them to be; but not very much time! Anna was so funny and eccentric in this season. I always think of Nemesis as her best, funniest performance. The following season she will be much less interesting.
Given that nothing obvious or material changed from Season One to Season Two its interesting that there are some distinct differences in feel. Just for starters, Season One feels grittier, darker to me. Some of that is in the cinematography which noticeably changed to a brighter palate. And they obviously decided to push the government menace further to the background later. The stunts and effects this first season were awesome. That would continue for one more season before budget cuts took a heavy toll on what they could do.
Most of the episodes were stand alones. This seems like a perfectly reasonable way to introduce the world and characters. There was only the one arc; what I call the “Soap Opera Arc” from 1.08-1.11 (Truth to Crown Victoria). The arc is where we learn the most about big picture issues and Fulcrum is introduced. We also get our first round of love triangles, something our original show runner just couldn’t ever say no to. I really like how the season plays out, and I like that the missions are less personal here. To me it feels more like they’re doing something important in the world, not just chasing personal agendas but arresting real bad guys.
I think the basic balance of story, action, humor and drama was compelling. They may have tweaked the formula over the seasons, we’ll talk more about that as we get to each season in turn; but I think the basic elements were all in play from the start. If I could have changed anything from this first season, well, it wouldn’t have been very much. I might have made Morgan less eccentric, that might have helped him be more sympathetic, relatable and likable to more viewers over the life of the series. I might have added more screen time for Sarah (we could always have more screen time for Sarah); but maybe not much, I understand the idea of her part growing as she becomes a bigger real part of Chuck’s life over the course of the show. But she really was a great character from the start, and her part was often quite small in this first season. I would have particularly liked the idea of playing up the government as a threat to Chuck and making a big thing of Sarah as a buffer and as the only thing keeping Chuck safe and out of the bunker. Basically, I would have liked playing it more as a romance from the very start.
I often say that I hesitate to rank order my favorite episodes. My exact order really can change with my mood quite a bit. But I can categorize them as Strong, Average or Weak. Keep in mind I found plenty to enjoy in every Chuck episode. Only Season Three has any episodes I actually dislike.
- STRONG: Pilot, Tango, Marlin. I’m tempted to add a few more to this rank. But these three I always love, with no reservations.
- AVERAGE: Helicopter, Wookiee, Sizzling Shrimp, Sand Worm, Alma Mater, Truth, Nemesis, Undercover Lover. Yeah, most of the season. Helicopter and Undercover Lover I almost move up to strong, really good episodes. Wookiee, Truth and Nemesis have all gone up in my esteem since our most recent re-watch. Especially Wookiee which seems so important to me now for how it informs about Sarah pre-series. Truth may be the single funniest episode of the season; but I don’t like triangles and I don’t like how smutty much of it is, so this is as high as its ever likely to go! Nemesis is strong on re-watch; but there’s so much tension over everything, and that really bores me.
- WEAK: Imported Hard Salami, Crown Victoria. This list has shrunk! But I don’t see these two ever moving up. Crown Victoria may win the prize for most schizophrenic episode ever. I just can’t stand the beginning with cold Sarah and very annoying Morgan. But the last ten minutes or so, when Sarah jumps over the counter to help Chuck against orders; well the last ten minutes would be “strong”.
It seems like we almost forget the first season now. But this show was easily my favorite thing on television from September of 2007. So much fun, so many great moments. When I rank order the seasons I may rank this one “fourth”; but really, I love four seasons of the show. So fourth is no bad thing!
I’m not sure if this format will change some in the weeks ahead, but we will continue our way through the whole series, one season at a time, for the next four weeks. Then finish with a “whole series” perspective. Or, well, my attempt at perspective. We’d love to hear other viewer’s thoughts about that first season. Maybe things we missed, or just things that really strike you meaningful, fun or different about it. Don’t hesitate to mention your own “strong” to “weak” episodes too! I know many will disagree with how I ranked them. That’s fine,
you’re all allowed to be wrong, we all have different tastes and priorities.