Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review: Chuck Season 1

Though it first premiered in 2008, I’ve only just completed the first season of Chuck on DVD. It was given to me by a friend who claimed to love it, and having watched the full thirteen episodes, it’s easy to see why. Chuck is pure unadulterated escapism for the white twenty-something nerd, in which an average guy with an average job and an average life gets thrown into the exciting world of espionage through no effort or actions of his own (and which, as we learn later, all happens due to the fact that he’s just such a nice guy), given a super-hot bodyguard that poses as his girlfriend, and is generally considered one of the most important people in the entire world by the American government.

Here’s how it happens. Chuck Bartowski got kicked out of Stanford after being accused of cheating on an exam, though he believes he was framed by his then-bestie Bryce Larkin. Now he works in a soul-crushing job in the electronics department at the Buy More, and lives with his much-more-successful older sister Ellie and her boyfriend, both doctors. Still stewing over his expulsion and only occasionally distracted by the antics of his best friend and co-worker Morgan Grimes (considered even more of a loser than Chuck), he comes home one evening to find an unexpected e-mail from Bryce.


He opens it, and the cache of government secrets that it contains are instantly downloaded into his head. Somehow. Turns out that Bryce was a rogue CIA agent whose last act before his death was to steal the computer program and send it to Chuck.  Now every time Chuck sees or handles a random object that has ties to espionage, he has “flashes” in which his brain downloads pertinent information about various criminals, assassins and terrorists. Yeah, it’s pretty much exactly what happens to Phoebe Halliwell on Charmed, except with super-computer technology instead of witchcraft.

Enter Sarah Walker and John Casey. The former is CIA, the latter is NSA, and both have been sent to retrieve what’s been dubbed the Intercept. Once they find out that it’s permanently lodged in Chuck’s head, they become Chuck’s undercover bodyguards instead – Casey as a sales clerk at the Buy More, Sarah in the Wienerlicious across the road. And just to make things really interesting, Sarah poses as Chuck’s girlfriend to explain their frequent missions and near-constant togetherness.

Surviving the 2007/2008 Writer’s Strike as well as near-cancellation at the end of season two, Chuck managed to run for a healthy five seasons, proving that its blend of comedy and espionage was a successful combination. Airing between 2007 – 2012, Chuck came along at the tail-end of the early-to-mid 00’s obsession with spies and espionage, preceded by Alias (2001 – 2006), 24 (2001 – 2010), Kim Possible (2002 – 2007), and Spooks/MI5 (2002 – 2011). At the movies we had the two Mission Impossible sequels (2000, 2006), the Spy Kids trilogy (2001 – 2003), Johnny English (2003), Mr and Mrs Smith (2005), and those crappy Agent Cody Banks films (2003, 2004). Even the Alex Rider novels and its singular film adaptation started in 2001 and were wrapped up by 2011.

Chuck was clearly a late-comer to the bandwagon, but by doing so managed to outstay all its competition; ending as the entertainment world’s attention shifted fully to vampires and Sherlock Holmes.
Adam Baldwin plays a slightly less psychotic Jayne ... in a suit
But how much of its success had to do with the popularity of the genre? I have to admit, I was a little ho-hum about the show when watching through it for the first time, though it’s clear enough to see where its appeal – and its target audience – lies. Chuck is played with an “aww, shucks” likeability by Zachary Levi, embodying the Nice Guy and Hollywood Nerd tropes to a near-painful degree. He’s considered a loser in the world he inhabits, but is clearly meant to appear as attractive, witty, charming, intelligent and sweet to each and every member of the audience.

Though the show is intelligent enough to keep itself grounded by keeping Chuck a Non-Action Guy, there’s no way they can resist pairing him romantically to the beautiful Sarah Walker (Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski) or in stressing how nice he is to an unintentionally comical degree. As mentioned earlier, it transpires that the reason why the Intersect is sent to him is because he was the only one that Bryce trusted to do the right thing with it. And the only reason Bryce had him expelled from Stanford was because he was protecting him from being recruited into the CIA.  

Among the other cast members, Yvonne Strahovski pulls off the requisite combination of lethal efficiency and heart-broken vulnerability that seems to be the standard model of any fictional female spy, complete with stunning good-looks and plenty of wardrobe choices designed to show this off to best effect. Meanwhile, Adam Baldwin gets surprisingly little to do, especially for (arguably) the biggest-name actor in the cast, coming into the show on the heels of Firefly. I suspect that his time as Jayne had a lot to do not only with the casting, but the inspiration of the character itself, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Baldwin was not only cast first, but that co-creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak always had him in mind for the role.

A Nostalgia Critic quote on the writing of female characters springs to mind: “behind the strong independent wall that won't let anybody in is a sad little bunny rabbit that will eventually let down her defenses and reveal a tragic backstory.”  

The show manages to keep a fairly even balance between the espionage hijinks and Chuck’s interactions with his family and/or co-workers, though the difference in quality of these two latter components is astounding.

At home, Chuck interacts with his older sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and her boyfriend Devon (Ryan McPartlin), nicknamed Captain Awesome due to his career, athleticism and hobbies. The siblings are devoted to each other, but in an even better twist, Awesome’s role as a foil to Chuck is not exemplified by any rivalry or bullying, but as a genuinely nice older brother figure whose tendency to make Chuck feel inadequate is entirely unconscious on his part. Awesome and Ellie are the perfect supporting characters for the more comical spy-drama elements – decent people who not only represent what Sarah and Casey are trying to protect, but also the normality of life that Chuck can no longer have.

The show's best supporting character

But at work Chuck is surrounded by a bevy of unpleasant stereotypes posing as comic relief: brain-dead Jeff, lecherous Lester, oversexed Anna – they feel like they belong on a different show entirely, and most of their escapades are completely unrelated to whatever’s going on in the major plotlines. And here’s what will no doubt be my most unpopular opinion: I found Chuck’s best friend Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez) to be genuinely unpleasant. He’s obsessed with the minutia of his best friend’s life, he’s openly lustful toward Ellie, and he has no sense of boundaries or privacy, entering Ellie’s apartment at any time of the night or day without invitation or welcome. Most of the time he comes across as genuinely unsettling, and I'm struggling to think of any situation in which he wasn't a complete liability to Chuck or anyone else. (Maybe he was helpful at one point, but nothing's coming to mind).

Oh, and can we PLEASE stop using the “guy decides not to take advantage of a drunk girl” scene as an indicator that no matter how creepy a guy may seem, he’s actually a decent bloke underneath it all? Because it doesn’t make him "a good guy”, it simply makes him “not a rapist.”

Here’s the thing. I didn’t dislike Chuck. Most of the time I found it charming and funny, if not a bit uneven in its balance of espionage and comedy. But on mulling things over, I realized why it didn’t quite “click” with me. Simply put, it’s not FOR me. On watching the DVD’s supplementary material, co-creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak describe Chuck as someone who “guys find relatable, and girls find adorable.” There you have it. Chuck is tailor-made escapism for the directionless twenty-something male nerd. According to the creators, I'm supposed to find him cute, not a reflection of myself.

And he gets to be the hero by just being himself. As the result of absolutely nothing he’s achieved for himself, he becomes the most important man in the world with a superhot spy pining over him and a range of missions that are custom-made for his limited skill set. This is in sharp contrast to the female protagonists of Alias or Nikita, who are practically super-powered in their weaponized glamour, training and capabilities (and are STILL subjected to the male gaze), or the recent incarnation of James Bond, who is increasingly characterized as a man on the edge of a mental/physical breakdown.

Chuck is harmless escapism; it’s just not escapism that's for me.

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