Chuck has a new Intersect and has decided to become an agent. But after a misunderstanding with Sarah, and failing spy school due in part to a buggy 2.0 the new season gets off to a bleak start.
After the jump, we’ll discuss the third season of Chuck.
Season Three is a bit controversial; and to say I dislike the main arc is an epic understatement. But it didn’t have to be that way. There’s a few good ideas, and some important points on the journey to consider. Its made more interesting by a back order that fixed most, but not all of the issues with the front arc.
There’s just a couple of Season Three specific terms to be clear on. Many of us call the front arc of the season, from 3.01-3.12, the “Misery Arc”. No doubt, that name says a lot about where this is going! The last six episodes, 3-14-3.19, were ordered late and will often be referred to as the “back order” or S3.5.
I’ll start with setting the stage again. A big and successful “save the show” campaign after Season Two led to a wildly enthusiastic and united fandom until the bottom fell out at Comic Con 2009. We discussed this more in depth in “The Long Wait” and I won’t repeat it all here. But I think the operative word here is reinvention. After being a bubble show for two seasons the show runners tried to reinvent their product to increase its appeal. In short, to make Chuck look more like everything else on television with dark themes, a troubled protagonist and boatloads of angst. The problem is, the rabidly enthusiastic fandom that had just successfully saved the show, pointedly didn’t want it to be like everything else on television. Add to that CF comments about Colonel being a “complete game changer” and “building a new show on the skeleton of the old one”, and the gulf between expectations and reality was deep. I still believe this disconnect led to a permanent split among fans and a shortened total run for the series.
Shortly after the misery arc wrapped up back in April of 2010 we ran a poll on its appeal (“Was it Worth it?“) and it looks to me like it has to be called an entertainment failure. And yes I know such a poll has to be regarded carefully; it is the mood of this site only, it is a small sample set, and it consists entirely of viewers who were watching in “real” time back when the season first ran. But my own anecdotal research corroborates it (the casual viewers I know are very critical of the main arc) and I’m comfortable with the results.
I think most viewers agree it was time for some changes in the show, and growth for the characters. The biggest issue being to turn Chuck into an agent of some sort, and give him some “professional” standing. There’s a lot of obvious issues this will bring up, especially relating to Chuck’s attitudes on violence and lying. In short, how do we turn Chuck from the honest and decent ordinary guy into a professional spy without stripping him of those traits that made him so appealing?
Sadly, I don’t think they really tried. They pointedly robbed Chuck of his most appealing characteristics. I see this mostly as a cynical business decision that backfired. Its actually difficult for me to discuss story or character decisions because I think the whole creative process was corrupted by that bad business decision to make the show “darker” or “edgier”. But to try to get under the hood some, I think they initially over-played how much Chuck needed to change or grow. He had already done mission planning on occasion, and saved the day many times with his outside the box thinking. So I think what we mainly needed to see was Chuck getting in on planning from the beginning, and learning how to run a whole operation. I love the idea of Chuck as the mastermind, and we did see that on occasion, but the show runners vision was more “Chuck the superhero”. This is not a huge problem for me, but it may be some of the “ground zero” of my disconnect from the show runners.
The next issue had to do with Chuck lying. Against his better judgement, Chuck has had to lie since the start of the show to family and friends about what he was really doing with his life. But throughout Season Three Chuck became more comfortable with lying to everyone. To the point it became a character defining trait. I think this was just a horrible show runner decision. If it had come to a head in one or two episodes it might have been less of a problem, maybe even an interesting challenge for Chuck to face up to. But this was drawn out past the misery arc itself into the Season 3.5 episodes too. Although I like the way his lies to Ellie came back to bite him, lying to Sarah or his Dad was always unacceptable. Again, if this had been a small sub-arc it might have worked; but this was a very unappealing twist on the original character and I think it diminished both the character, and ultimately the entire show. It made Chuck less likable and less relatable; and since likable and relatable had been his defining traits in the first two seasons I think it was a very unwelcome change.
The overlapping love triangles are sort of the 900 lb gorilla in the room. This has been written about at such length I’m tempted to just say “’nuff said”. But I can’t quite do that. This really is foundational to what I dislike about the misery arc. When Chuck worked best for me, it was Chuck and Sarah’s story. It was about their friendship, their partnership and their romance. I think for many of us, having Chuck and Sarah “together”, and trying to figure out how to be a couple and have a life together was the only completely acceptable way to start Season Three. We probably could have accepted some external obstacles, especially if they related to professional and security issues. Like say, if the Intersect was an important issue in the first two seasons, it’s priority is quadrupled with the 2.0. So now there are new agents and security people violating every corner of Chuck’s life, and the only way for Chuck and Sarah to be “alone” together is on a cover date with Ellie and Devon. Might have worked. But any decision that reduced their screen time together could not work. Period. Chuck and Sarah together was the number one selling point of this show from the start. Reducing that together time was a bad decision. And love triangles? Of all the bad decisions they could have made, this is the grand champion. After the way Season Two ended, there was no way to introduce new love interests without making the characters look like complete flakes. So what a shock, they did look like complete flakes.
Chuck’s behavior may be prize worthy all by itself. Our formerly likable protagonist goes from breaking Sarah’s heart in Pink Slip (mostly through poor communication), to telling her he loves her and having a “cleaning up messes” talk, to flirting with and quickly sleeping with the next pretty girl to come along. And he then has the nerve (in American Hero) to tell Sarah that him becoming an agent so they could be together was the plan all along. Uh?! This is character assassination plain and simple. Or are they thinking we’ve already forgotten about Hannah? I have never disliked a main character so much on a show I didn’t just immediately quit. If that actually had been a plan it might have been a good story. It might have even been a fun story if we’d seen Chuck and Sarah occasionally trying to remind themselves of what was on the line for both of them in Chuck’s training. Bonus points if they have to sneak around behind security to even steal a few moments together. Maybe a scare at some point that if Chuck can’t complete a difficult part of his training he could be bunkered and his “team” reassigned. But there was no plan. Suggesting there was one looks like sloppy writing and adds insult to injury.
This also leads to the problem of Shaw. He was never the biggest problem with the season, but for many of us, he is the symbol of all that went wrong. We were told Shaw was a great spy. But what we saw was an arrogant, condescending jerk. He had no charisma, and no chemistry with the cast. We never saw a plan of his work as advertised, yet he insulted Chuck’s plans and claimed his team was broken, even though we’d previously been told Team B was the government’s very best. And yet at different times first Chuck, then Sarah fell completely under his spell. Oh my. They simply tried to do too much with this character. Ultimately making him a romantic interest for Sarah is just a fatal decision. There’s two major problems with that; the first is he no longer is even a remotely sympathetic character. Most viewers are just wishing him dead. The second is it makes Sarah look very foolish. How she falls for a character who is already a smirking, superior acting jerk; and turns to him for sympathy and understanding over her concerns that Chuck is turning into a monster of Shaw’s making? That culminates in Shaw manipulating Sarah into ordering Chuck to kill someone, then Sarah turning back to Shaw for comfort and sympathy. This is “Stockholm Syndrome Sarah”, my least favorite phase of her character “growth”.
I’ve mentioned a few times how frustrating I find the Shaw part of the story. Especially when I can see two ways he could have worked much better; both are simpler and neither involves a romance. First; if he’d just been a mentor to Chuck. I like this option a lot. There could be a natural rivalry between Shaw and Sarah as Shaw is pushing Chuck to grow in directions Sarah isn’t sure she wants to see. We could see Chuck often torn between two major influences in his life; Shaw as a mentor and coach, Sarah as his moral guide and emotional support. This could have led to actual drama when Shaw turns traitor and tries to kill Sarah at the end of the arc, instead of viewers cheering with every bullet Chuck puts in him. Second possibility; play Shaw as a buffoon, of the Agent Rye variety. Casey already identified him as a moron in First Class. So go with it. Casey and Sarah should see right through him. Chuck is still a comedy, right? So play Shaw for laughs. Maybe Chuck is dazzled briefly by a big shot agent who seems to believe in Chuck and pushes him to do more. But quickly it should be obvious to everyone, except of course for Beckman, that Shaw is going to get them all killed if they aren’t very careful.
Last overall topic I’ll mention is the Red Test. The idea has some tradition in spy fiction of the last 70 years, and as such I hesitate to say they never should have gone there. But, it is usually reserved for an elite class of spy/assassin. Whether its “00” or Treadstone. It was generalized here like a rite of passage for every spy. And I find that sort of sloppiness with such an ugly trope to be insulting and disgraceful. It annoys me that they ever went there. Adding in the insult of Sarah abandoning Chuck in its aftermath, and I think was one of the ugliest and most embarrassing story-telling decisions ever made.
The season does end on a much better note. Especially with Honeymooners, which may be my very favorite episode of the series. Putting Chuck and Sarah together fixes the most glaring deficiencies of the front arc. I still found the back episodes darker than I prefer; with both Chuck’s health issues and his chronic lying. But it was still a vast improvement. Overall, no surprise, I rank Season Three dead last among the seasons. If S3.5 is judged separately it is much better, really as good as the other four seasons that I love.
Well obviously I’ve already said a lot about our characters. As season three unfolded the story telling decisions just ravaged the characters in a way that makes it difficult to separate the two. But I can still sum up a little. For Chuck, this season was nominally about professional growth, and a belated realization it all meant nothing without Sarah. Unfortunately the telling of it was not remotely entertaining. And I’d argue he already knew he wanted Sarah by his side at the end of Season Two. So the misery arc is a frustrating journey to get back to where we should have started the season. The back episodes lift the mood enough to be a lot more fun. But Chuck’s lying remains a problem to the end, and quitting the CIA at Ellie’s urging is just wrong. Chuck is an adult and needs to be making big decisions with Sarah not Ellie; if anyone following along at home is confused by this, I urge you to stay single until you understand. This is clear retrograde movement. Whatever spy skills Chuck has learned, he is a lesser man at the end of S3 than he was at the start of the series.
For Sarah the growth is a little more promising. Although Shaw turned her into a zombie for several episodes and she ended the misery arc exactly where she started it. Okay not quite “exactly”; she started by wanting to run away with Chuck from Prague, while she ended up actually running away with Chuck from Paris. Obviously a meaningful distinction. But apart from the zombie phase, Sarah actually did grow quite nicely in the back arc. And we saw the beginnings of the mature and steady woman she would become in the following seasons.
Season Three was actually very good for Casey and Morgan. Both characters grew up a lot over the course of all 19 episodes. Casey has clearly become a good friend to Chuck. And Morgan has shown significant growth first in his day job, then later as the new chief peon on Team B. I particularly liked how Morgan could make himself useful in eccentric ways, and making him Casey’s spy partner was comic genius. Very well done.
Ellie and Devon were both mostly well used, but with a few fumbles. I loved how Devon was used early in the season, and his mini-arc (3.03 and 3.04) was one of the few highlights of the misery arc. But his worries over lying were a bit overplayed. I liked how Chuck’s lies caught up with him were Ellie was concerned. I really wish Chuck had actually learned a more lasting lesson about lies and secrets, but it will take Sarah calling him on it in Season Four before he shapes up. I also loved how Ellie found out about Chuck and their Dad’s double life, terrific scene.
Sadly, for ranking Season Three episodes, I need to add a fourth rank; bad. This is unique to this season, but these are episodes I would never choose to watch again. Many of the other episodes measure worse than they otherwise would because the situation is so bleak. Misery arc episodes would place one rank higher in any other season.
- STRONG: Honeymooners
- AVERAGE: Angel De La Muerte, Operation Awesome, Tic Tac, Other Guy, Role Models, Subway, Ring II. Every one of these episodes except Role Models is almost strong. But there’s some aspect of the situation or Chuck’s poor behavior that leaves me gnashing teeth.
- WEAK: Beard, American Hero, Tooth, Living Dead. Ditto what I said above. Chuck lying to Sarah and his Dad really irks me.
- BAD: Pink Slip, Three Words, First Class, Nacho Sampler, Mask, Fake Name, Final Exam. The Ring of Dishonor. Three Words could have been an average, maybe even strong episode if Chuck and Sarah had actually acted on “cleaning up their mess.” But the lie of that makes this episode insulting.
This season was really disappointing. Both serious and less serious story telling flaws leave much of it unwatchable to me. I can honestly think of no other show I would have stuck with so long, through so much disappointment. But after the first two terrific seasons my investment level was very high. Don’t let those rankings fool you, once we got to American Hero I enjoyed every remaining episode. And Honeymooners is really beyond strong, more like extraordinary. It almost washed away all the tears and frustration in 43 perfect minutes, and the most perfect ending, the most perfect moment I’ve ever seen on television.
This Tuesday night I should have a “Season One and Two: Alternatives” post up. This should be fun as we look at a number of hooks and hints that could have been more thoroughly explored, or different directions the show could have gone. I expect to have another fairly lengthy fan fiction list too, as those early seasons continue to inspire the imaginations of many amatuer writers. Next week’s “Overview” post will get to Season Four, which should be more fun and less frustrating for all of us!