Review: Chuck vs. The Tease

Mild spoilers throughout here. Be warned.

Chuck (NBC, Mondays, 8PM) started out two seasons ago as one of my absolute favorite new shows. This was largely due to the show’s charming premise and lovable cast. Chuck Bartowski is a former Stanford student who, after being falsely accused of cheating, is expelled from the school. So, he returns home to live with his sister and her fiance and goes to work at the local Buy More (a thinly disguised Best Buy analog) as part of their computer tech Nerd Herd (again, the Geek Squad). Things seem to be going normally when his college roommate bursts back into his life… as a superspy on the run. He entrusts his old friend Chuck with the government technology he is trying to protect by anonymously sending his old friend an e-mail that, when opened, begins a visual download into Chuck’s brain of the Intersect computer, the United States government’s most powerful new intelligence tool. The Intersect has the ability to pull disparate information from all other available computers and piece items that might otherwise seem innocuous into groundbreaking intelligence findings. This means that Chuck is now a walking database of spy knowledge… and the only existing copy of the Intersect. Quickly, CIA handlers are assigned to his protection and Chuck finds himself trying to juggle his real life with this spy alter ego.

Zachary Levi as Chuck is 100% likable in this role. He’s Jim from The Office, but he works in a different office and he’s a spy. How can you not love him? Adam Baldwin’s Agent Casey plays the grizzled, patriotic, spy-for-life to the hilt—he’s basically Jayne from Firefly again, but instead of being a merc for hire, he’s a loyal government agent. Yvonne Strahovski plays Sarah, Chuck’s off and on love interest and the badass femme fatale to Baldwin’s meathead muscle.

In Chuck’s real life, Joshua Gomez as best friend Morgan is a perfect foil for Chuck. As Chuck is the bumbling heart and soul of his team of spies, Morgan is the bumbling heart and soul of the Buy More and Chuck’s chief anchor to the responsibilities of his life at home. Vik Sahay and Scott Krinsky (Jeff and Lester) are Chuck’s most notable co-workers outside of Morgan and their antics tend to be the highlight of many an episode.

Okay, a lengthy intro. Suffice it to say, the show has a fun and light concept, and it’s the cast that really sell the whole package. For a period, though, it was only the cast that was keeping me tuning in.

It was only 1.5 seasons in, and the show had already hit a rut. A prime focus in the first season was that Chuck had very real feelings for Sarah (whose cover was that she was, in fact, Chuck’s girlfriend), who had to deny her feelings for Chuck for the sake of her mission. This push and pull went back and forth and Chuck would relent and want to find a real girlfriend, and then would come back and want Sarah again—and for her part, Sarah would be devoted to the mission, and then want to confess her feelings, and then the mission, and then the feelings—both always in opposition of one another, so the two never connect. It’s a big tease for the audience. We know the game.

But this is the problem in and of itself. An audience will only play along for so long before they get frustrated. How many scenes do we need to watch where Chuck and Sarah almost kiss and get interrupted before that joke gets old? How many times can they each decide they want to make their feelings official just as the other decides now is not the best time for that? Apparently the answer is 1.5 seasons for me, because it was at this point that I decided I’d had quite enough of that tease and then I started to pay attention to the rest of the show, and that’s when the trouble really started.

Because the focus of the show is Chuck and Chuck is a regular guy, the show can’t really expand his world without making everyone in some way connected to the driving spy action of the show. So… every person Chuck has ever known in the past is a spy basically. His old roommate. His old girlfriend. His estranged father. His estranged father’s old roommate. It seems increasingly ridiculous the more you think about it, and the show is really designed to make you not think about that too hard as much as possible.

There’s also all the talk about making sure Chuck is not compromised and that his personal life be kept isolated from his spy life. And then there are episodes where someone decides that the ONLY way to get a keycard to a restricted area of a hospital (full of doctors and surgeons and techs and, by the way, not a frikkin’ spy-proof fortress) is to drug and steal it from Chuck’s soon-to-be brother-in-law. Really? I know you need to blend the two world’s somehow to heighten Chuck’s personal drama, but try and make things more plausible.

The show had lost me with a tease carried on too long. I was frustrated by the interaction of the two main characters, as they felt like they were growing increasingly distant in a fairly transparent plot to stretch out content for future episodes. This frustration with the main characters got me focusing very hard on the spy plots on the show, which are intended to be taken as light and fluffy vehicles for interaction for the main characters. But when that falls apart, the show’s conceits seem more and more ridiculous.

And then, like magic, the show broke the streak. The penultimate episode of season 2 I found myself enjoying immensely. Should I be surprised that this is the same episode that Chuck and Sarah finally express their feelings for one another mutually? The episode basically picked up the show and shook it like an Etch-A-Sketch. Chuck’s brother-in-law-to-be learns he’s a spy (and this kind of a simple plot adjustment could make for EPISODES of fun), he is purged of the Intersect (his pretty much constant wish on the show), and he gets the girl. Even if for no other reason than to learn how the show will get itself back on track, I am now totally hooked once again, and I can enjoy my main characters the way I like them: flirty, mismatched, always-in-distress spies.

So, my very short point in a very long review is to be careful of the tease. Don’t drag it out longer than is reasonable. The minute you start to question “Is this getting old?”, it’s probably been old for a week or two already and you need to course correct. Your trick shouldn’t be withholding from the audience what they want. The trick should be coming up with obstacles that it seems you are actively trying to overcome so that you can give them what they want. The audience is your friend, and you need to at least make it seem as if you’re on their side.

  1. #1 by Abby on September 30, 2009 - 8:15 PM

    Amen completely!!! Great review.

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