Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chucks Away

Continuing our irregular review catch-up, a few words on Chuck...

When I first discovered Chuck I thought of it as something like Alias, but fun. Now that it’s reached the end of its fourth season and is on the verge of its fifth, that comparison holds true, albeit with a shift of emphasis. I.e. it’s more like Alias, with increasingly convoluted made-up-as-they-go-along storylines, and not quite as much fun. The characters, the colour, the charm and the humour are all still there in the mix, and there’s plenty of its own-brand warm-hearted action, intrigue and spy-jinks with geekdom and electronic retail on the side... but the show has started to feel tired, with a few too many treadmill episodes in between the highlights.

It’s like your favourite six-inch sub that's been around for too long – has all the same great ingredients you love – but it’s gone a bit stale. This is, I guess, only to be expected when you muck the chefs about.

Because Chuck’s future has been firmly in doubt since series two, saved by a Subway product-placement deal, but only ever handed temporary stays of execution – 13 episodes here, another 9 episodes there, and so on. Frankly, it must be a nightmare having to work to that kind of stop-start framework, when they’re endeavouring to construct more than standalone episodes. And in defence of the writers and production team one thing they have actually been consistently great at is working towards a succession of potential series finales. Whenever interest has begun to wane, my attention has been grabbed again in the run-up to the key 13th and 22nd or 23rd episodes every time.

Somehow they manage to wheel in the crash cart and shock new life into proceedings at around the same points in the series every year. But against that, they’ve demonstrated a persistent reticence to shake things up or play too adventurously with their formula. And if you don’t play with the dynamic from time to time, your show will lose some of its dynamism.

On the other hand some shows may be like replicants and have a built-in limited lifespan by virtue of their format or central premise.

Chuck’s premise is a nifty little one. Nerd becomes hero thanks to a huge supercomputer downloaded into his brain. Totally far-fetched, of course - a computer system requiring no daily updates? - but from the get-go suspension of disbelief was not a problem, courtesy of the tone in which it was all delivered. Not just in the tongue-in-cheek department, but as I say, it brimmed with warmth and charisma. And in amongst all the nerdish humour and spydom, it forged unlikely bonds (unlikely Bonds?) into credible, touching human relationships. It had heart.

And even when the product placement came along it was cheekily blatant and embraced as a running gag. Which, if you really have to embed advertising in your entertainment, I guess is the way to go about it.

It also boasted a brilliant ensemble cast of characters. From the wonderfully gruff uber-Republican, gun-loving John Casey (Adam Baldwin), to the kooky sleazemeisters of Jeff and Lester (to say nothing of Jefster). Big Mike in charge of the Buy More. Ellie (the lovely Sarah Lancaster, who would've made a great Wonder Woman) and Awesome (the hilarious Ryan McPartlin, who would've made a great Captain America), Chuck (Zachary Levi)’s devoted (and gorgeous) sister and his (awesome) brother-in-law. Morgan (Joshua Gomez), Chuck’s even more nerdish sidekick. And of course, Sarah Walker (the inconceivably gorgeous Yvonne Strahovski), Beauty to Chuck’s Geek.

They even added to this from time to time with extended family – parents of some of these characters – every one of them an absolute gem of perfect casting and every dad a starship captain: Scott Bakula, Bruce Boxleitner and Gary Cole. The inclusion of Chuck’s dad, as the mysterious Orion, makes for an especially well-woven and involving story arc and – particularly in the context of what can often be a very cosy series – his ultimate fate is a genuine shock.

Where matters begin to gang aglay, for my money, is when they bring in Chuck’s mum. Although brilliantly cast again, in the shape of Linda Hamilton (and maintaining that principle of hiring from the kind of cult-SF stable that will have that added appeal for nerds everywhere), it’s not so much that they introduce the character as part of an arc, it’s that they then fail to do anything really different with it. There’s a whole is-she-bad, is-she-good question that they run with for a while, but the answer is ultimately that of course she did everything for the best reasons and has Chuck’s (and Ellie’s) interests at heart. Just like his dad. And that is ‘nice’, but boring. Oh how much more fascinating it might have been if she’d turned out to be a bitch.

Other plot opportunities are similarly blown later on down the road, with a clear chance for Ellie (and perhaps even Awesome as well) to be zapped full of the Intersect. Or even their baby - for god’s sake, anything that might have shaken up the status quo and got the show playing something other than the same three chords. Of course, it’s also often true that a hero is only ever as good as the villain he’s up against, and they’ve fielded a reasonably successful bunch of baddies through the various (but not too varied) story arcs, culminating in Timothy Dalton putting in an exceptional star-turn as the ‘misunderstood’ Volkoff. Replacing him with his daughter has yet to properly pay off – the female of the species is supposed to be deadlier, but Lauren Cohen has yet to fully convince.

Meanwhile, the Chuck family has possibly grown too large and a number of the previously terrific characters have had to take turns in being sidelined – Ellie and Awesome frequently, and even John Casey on occasion. Which is borderline criminal. It’s at least in part owing to the decision to reinvent Chuck as a bona fide superhero, rendering his special agent backup somewhat superfluous. And the small ways in which the producers did attempt to play with the format – like having Morgan follow in Chuck’s spy footsteps – haven’t really worked.

Now I gather that the makers have decided this (fifth) will be the last season and whereas earlier (premature) reports of its demise were met with a loud “Oh no!”, I greet this news with a bit of a “Phew” to be honest. Because finally the writers and producers get to work towards an end that is under their control and I can hope that at least they wrap things up spectacularly and satisfactorily. (Especially after the series four finale! Eek!)

At the end of the day, although there has been definite flagging, I do care about the characters and they deserve a proper bow at curtain close. I hope that the writers will use these final episodes to be brave and bold and pull off a few big surprises to make up for the missed opportunities of the past two seasons and, above all, not just throw them away. Go out with a bang and not with a whimper. In short, go out in style.

Because while I (wholeheartedly) appreciate the principle of having Yvonne Strahovski (pictured above) dress up in different outfits each week like a sort of sexy Mr Benn, I don’t believe you can build a forty-plus minute show around it (although by all means send me the rushes and I'll reappraise its viability) and ideally there has to be something more to command audience attention week after week.

So to finish off this particular TV dinner, I’ll settle for a 13-episode sub, as long as it’s fresh.


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