So after looking at every episode and every season, what is there to say about the whole series? What made Chuck something special that so many of us are still unwilling to let it pass two and half years after it went off the air? And how do the five seasons measure against each other in a full series context?
After the jump we’ll discuss our favorite show in the “big picture”.
Just to be clear as I dive into this, I’m writing an opinion piece. I’m sure you all realize by now I’m pretty free with those. I just want to be clear that I don’t speak for any of the other authors at this site. This is all just Dave.
We’ve talked a few times about the elements that made Chuck what it was. We can call it a spy themed action/comedy/drama/romance. The balance of those elements that made this show special may vary for all of us. And I think as those elements varied over the life of the show affects how popular different periods are with different fans. I think it was impossible to keep that balance exactly the same for five seasons.
But I think those elements only scratch the surface for defining Chuck. The show was also a hybrid in terms of episodic vs serialized. To be fair, most modern shows are hybrids to one degree or another. Very few shows will resist all serialized type change, even The Simpsons has killed off characters and changed focus as actors come and go. And even the most serialized shows will wrap up some stories on an episodic basis. But Chuck pretty clearly offered a mix of stand alone and arc episodes. My own bias will lead me to favor shorter stories and arcs, yet even I will admit the Orion/Fulcrum arc that ended Season Two was a masterpiece. But of course I feel strongly the Season Three front arc (“Misery Arc”) dragged on far too long.
We could also talk about mood and themes that made up Chuck. I’ll say family, friendship, good people battling long odds to do great things, duty, and a deep love that can triumph over any challenge are all favorite parts of the show for me. Likable main characters, especially the two leads, but extending to some secondary characters as well, was another characteristic strength. On the down side, ludicrous over use of the love triangle trope, the willingness to make the main character look like an idiot or buffoon on occasion, and an inattention to detail on certain mythology/back story issues all caused grief to different degrees.
For very many of us the central romance became a huge part of the show, that really dominated every other aspect. I can honestly say I was first drawn to the show by previews that looked both exciting and funny. Always an intoxicating mix for me. But the romance was incendiary. By the time the show was three episodes in I think there was no television couple I ever pulled for harder. And although the action and humor remained big to me to the end, seeing Chuck and Sarah together quickly became the emotional draw for this show.
I can’t believe I initially failed to mention the performances! Chuck is a perfectly cast show. Especially the leads; Zach is sincere and likable as Chuck. He also shifts easily from comedy to drama, while being the nerd we all often wish we were. Yvonne was sort of the show’s dramatic anchor as Sarah. On the Season One DVD extras the show runners discuss how hard it was to cast the part of Sarah with the requirement to be both sweet and tough. Well they succeeded and more! Yvonne brought Sarah to life in many ways. In the first 2+ seasons she was almost a wholly dramatic character on show that was more comedy, but from Honeymooners on it became clear she could do comedy as well as anyone.
But it doesn’t stop there. The whole regular cast was perfect. Obviously Adam Baldwin as Casey was wonderful. Sarah Lancaster was well cast as the loving, occasionally meddling big sister. I just loved Ryan McPartlin as Devon. He was the funniest of the supporting cast; and he pulled off a certain duality as disgustingly perfect, yet lovable, warm and sincere all at the same time.
I’m sure many viewers would come up with still other ways of defining the show. This is no easy thing! Especially since everyone reading here likely has many deeply held opinions about this show, and surely no two of us agree exactly on what works. Long time visitors here will know Thinkling and I often see to eye to eye. But often isn’t always. I could say the same for many regular visitors as well. Uplink and I share a similar strong feeling about Season Three, yet we don’t quite agree on why. There are plenty of viewers who love Chuck as passionately as I do, that I struggle to find any common ground with. How can that be? But its true.
A convention a few of us have played around with when discussing the show is to break it into several distinct phases, even calling them separate shows on occasion. Obviously that can’t be taken too literally, but I do see three strongly distinct periods of the show. The first period is the first two seasons. We have an information only model of the Intersect, a fake romance as Sarah needs to stay close to her asset and explain their many nights “out” on missions, Chuck is a non-agent asset, Sarah is Chuck’s handler and protector, Chuck and Sarah have a close bond and friendship that is threatening to boil over into something more, Sarah is struggling with duty versus love, the main villain is Fulcrum, and the government poses some threat to Chuck and Sarah both. I think this is an extremely strong period that really drew so many of us in, very deeply in. All the previously discussed elements that went in to this show quickly became secondary to seeing Chuck and Sarah on screen together. Even when we knew they were far from working things out, it was so much fun to watch two good, likable people work on overcoming the impossible obstacles keeping them apart. This first period is special.
The show’s second period, or first reinvention, is a little less special. This runs from the start of Season Three through Other Guy. At only thirteen episodes that makes it the shortest period. Good thing. Arguably the main theme is Chuck training to become a real agent. I think most viewers will agree this needed to happen. But other aspects of this period are troublesome. Most significantly, Chuck and Sarah giving up on each other. Perhaps if this had been a shorter arc, with less catastrophic fall out, this still could have worked. But suddenly that most appealing part of the show’s first period is simply gone. And this major failing is compounded by Chuck acting like a far less appealing character than he previously had; specifically as a chronic liar, a chronic liar to friends and family. Then we had a recurring guest character who was given a major, multi-faceted role in spite of having no chemistry with the cast. I should also mention the show had a major budget cut at this time; how big a role that may have played in various story issues is hard to say, but certainly Chuck looks less polished from here on out. To this day I mostly ignore this period of the show. I certainly don’t re-watch it.
The third period starts with Honeymooners and continues to the end of the series. Although some of the second period’s failings continue until the start of Season Four. The most obvious characteristic of this period is Chuck and Sarah are now a couple. An immature couple at first, but they will grow fairly quickly, and long term relationship angst will never again be a feature of this show. I remain convinced this, the main emotional hook of the show, should have followed on directly after the second season without the previous period’s non-romance being used at all. Other significant changes being that Chuck is now an agent and Morgan becomes the newest member of the team. We also get to the “no secrets, no lies” pledge pretty quickly which fixes my second biggest gripe about the previous period. I would also add that the government itself becomes much less threatening at this time. Not that its ever completely benign on this show, we will still see stolen Orion computers, “wash” orders and a grand conspiracy; but Beckman has become a clear ally and the government will be less menacing, more background from here on out. Overall the mood of the show is lighter from here on out too; less angst and darkness, more romance and comedy. This suits my taste perfectly.
I should also point out, this period of the show brings us a new show runner. The lower budget of the previous period also remains a reality. Some viewers felt continuity and tightness of scripts/story suffered as well. I tend to think those complaints are exaggerated; between the natural sort of baggage a show accumulates four seasons in, and the budget cuts Chuck suffered, I think the failings of this third period are no greater than any show I’ve seen. Sure we’d all like better for our favorite show, but I see nothing here I’m terribly worried about.
The characters were always a strength of Chuck. That starts with the title character himself. I think especially at the very start of the series, in spite of starting at a low point in some ways, Chuck was easy to like, respect and root for. He took human relationships seriously, he was good at his job, and he was just generally a “good guy”. He couldn’t be called a professional success, but he was good at his job and was respected by his peers. Over the course of the series, Chuck found that professional success he was lacking. He also grew into a more complete partnership with Sarah that fulfilled him in more personal ways. Unfortunately, starting in mid-Season Two (Third Dimension in particular) they also chose to play Chuck as a buffoon. I’m sure this was an entertainment/comedy decision. But I don’t think it worked. I think Chuck being someone we could all want to be was a huge part of the show’s initial appeal. But making him occasionally play the fool diminished that aspect of his character. Fortunately this wasn’t a continuous problem, but I do think a number of episodes were severely undermined by this approach. And it reduced some of our affection for, and connection with, the title character.
Then this problem was compounded when much of the Season Three story hinged on Chuck being an unlikable ass. He treated Sarah very poorly, and lied all season long. I think this severely damaged the esteem and fondness I had for the character. They did fix both of these issues. But it made it hard to take seriously any idea of “growth” during the third season when Chuck struggled just to undo what he’d done. In the later part of the series Chuck’s behavior was better, but the occasional buffoonish moment still occured. I feel a little like Chuck was strongest in the ways that matter most to me in Season One. Although by the time we got to the finale arc he had matured into a pretty solid husband to his wife. I wish we’d seen more of this behavior, for longer. Its a shame Chuck and Sarah at their very best is such a short part of the late series.
Which leads us to Sarah. I think Sarah’s growth was more consistent and linear than Chuck’s. At the start of the series she was a strong, appealing heroic figure. But she was all business, and apparently made little priority of human relationships. Chuck immediately started big changes for her. We learned fairly quickly that Sarah was unlike other agents, certainly unlike Carina or Bryce. But it took Chuck for her to want to connect deeply with another person. To me, the most exciting and satisfying part of the show was watching this happen. At first it was little things. Through the first season she started wanting more from life. She was tortured when her duty conflicted with Chuck’s best interest. And over the first two seasons we saw her do more and more to help Chuck even when it wasn’t in her job description. Her job as an agent and handler was to get Chuck to do the government’s bidding. But by the end of Season One it was obvious she would choose Chuck’s interests over the government’s. She was truly Chuck’s agent. And we were all waiting to see what it would take to make that clear to her, to Chuck, to the government. This story played out, and payed off brilliantly, perfectly as Season Two ended.
The third season gave us a detour for Sarah that was disappointing and I think, a waste of time. After Chuck breaks her heart, she spends most of the season trying to hammer a Square Shaw peg into a Chuck shaped hole. Eventually things get back on course and I think Sarah’s growth resumes in spectacular fashion. I particularly enjoy early Season Four as the writers had some fun with the role reversal that lays at the heart of the Charah relationship. Sarah struggles to master communication and commitment issues. By the end of this season she has become a stronger, more mature and and even more appealing character. This continues into Season Five, until in her ultimate form Sarah is happily ready to find a safer occupation, more in keeping with raising a family. And although I’ll always say I wanted to see more, I wanted more surety at the very end; I am satisfied she was on pace for a rapid recovery. In the series’ final scene she was showing openness and maturity that we had only seen from a very late, very mature Sarah Bartowski. I think that is beautiful and inspiring. Still not quite complete enough for me, but I’m willing to say complete recovery was imminent and our main characters had their happy end.
Casey also grew quite a bit. From a cold burn out in the beginning; he found a partner he could trust and respect, he made friends, and he reconnected with family. And in the end, yet another spy found love, in a very disturbing Casey sort of way. From beginning to end he a sarcastic and insulting sense of humor, and was often quite a jerk. But over the course of the show we saw how much he came to care for friends and family, even if he was rarely the sort to admit it.
Ellie and Devon didn’t really grow. They progressed some; got married, started a family, and learned about Chuck’s double life. I think both characters added a lot to the show. Ellie always loved Chuck unconditionally, she believed in him, pushed him when he needed it. Devon was fun. I think Devon was actually my favorite of the secondary characters. He was funny, sweet and likable. But Ellie and Devon each had one story-line that I think was less than appealing. For Devon it was much of Season Three when he freaked out and over-reacted to Chuck’s lies. For Ellie, it was the silliness surrounding her attempt at forcing Chuck out of the spy life and the subsequent round of lying to her about Chuck’s job, when she already knew about Chuck’s job… But overall both characters added a lot to the mood of the show.
Morgan may have grown as much as anyone. From the annoying stunted man-child of Season One, he gained respect among co-workers, moved into a Buy More management job, made peace with Ellie, eventually even earned Ellie’s trust and friendship, became Team B’s supporting staff, and found love. Wow, that’s a lot of progress for a secondary comic character. I do think he was occasionally over used, but not horribly so. Even if I never quite had the emotional connection with this character the writers obviously meant for me to have, I didn’t dislike him either. And he often made me laugh.
The Buy More and Buy Morons were a signature element of Chuck. They were sort of Chuck’s ugly reality in those first two seasons. And more pure comic relief afterwards. I don’t think the Buy More always worked. I certainly felt no emotional connection to it. But occasionally, when it worked, it was very funny. I think Big Mike was particularly funny. Jeff and Lester were often too strange, too adolescent for my taste. And I think the last two seasons they should have made either more or less of Buy More. Either spend some time on how Chuck still has to work with the store (and Sarah, geez I wish the Buy Morons had found out she was their owner in S5) or make it an even smaller atmospheric sort of thing. As it was, it only occasionally delivered good laughs and often felt like a waste of time.
I’ve already described my Strong/Average/Weak choices in previous posts in this series. But in this final post for this series I did want to mention those episodes I consider very favorites. I’ll say Top Three, in no particular order:
- Phase Three
Notice those are all from the later period of the show, and they all contain a lot of Sarah. I often think I would have liked if Sarah was more co-equal lead from the very beginning. This is maybe not a huge thing, it was nearly true the last two seasons anyway. But I wish it had been foundational to the show from the very start.
I was going to add a second tier of honorable mention episodes, that might be my next favorites, or my top ten. But I think really that’s all my previously listed “Strong” episodes. That is 29 episodes (32 counting my Top Three). So about a third of the series I consider strong, or favorite episodes. If I were doing a top ten list, there would be 32 episodes on it. Sorry, that’s all you’re getting from me!
I don’t really want to rank order the seasons. There can be some variation with mood or day of the week. But what I can do is rate the seasons on a scale of 1 to 10.. For this purpose, I have to separate S3 from S3.5 (3.14-3.19). My reaction the front and back orders of that season are wholly different. And I don’t grade on a curve. If I loved them all equally, they’d all get 10s.
- Season 1 — 9. A very strong start, and a very strong finish. Good season.
- Season 2 — 10. Quintessential Chuck. This is when I got completely hooked.
- Season 3 — 3. A couple of fun episodes (Angel de la Muerte, Operation Awesome, Tic Tac) and a fun conclusion can’t really make up for a depressing overall situation that makes both protagonists look foolish, or worse.
- Season 3.5 — 7. Funny how fixing one little thing (like the romance!) can make everything so much better. Funny how not fixing one little thing (Chuck the liar) can keep this well short of the series’ best.
- Season 4 — 10. The show I’d been waiting for. And it didn’t disappoint. In spite of a few minor complaints this is as good as television ever gets.
- Season 5 — 9. The best background situation of the entire series. But a couple of clumsy episodes and an incomplete ending keep this from being the best of the best.
This concludes what we’ll call regularly scheduled programming. For me, this series of posts was the logical follow on to the series re-watch we just finished. So I feel like this is the real end of that project. For two years I’ve spent an hour or two (or more) every week putting something together for Sunday night. I sort of like the idea of having nothing hanging over me! I do have another post in progress (“Complete Alternatives“) I hope to put up Tuesday night. But after that…
We have talked BTS. None of us principals are ready for this site or community to fade away just yet. We have a few ideas for things to come, including a couple of series or themed posts. Even if new posts slow down we hope you all will continue the discussion here for years to come. Hopefully, we’ll all still be here when news breaks for “Chuck: The Movie” (or “Chuck: The Whole New Series”?). So don’t take us off your bookmark bar yet!