Chuck Renewed Under Conditions

Filed under:Television — posted by Anwyn on May 18, 2009 @ 8:29 am

NBC has ordered 13 episodes, under the condition that they become cheaper per episode through budget cuts that include limited actor face time and writing staff:

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: The 13-episode pickup came after Warner Bros. agreed to make significant budget concessions, including scaling back the number of episodes several members of the show’s stellar supporting cast will appear in and, per one insider, possibly eliminating one actor altogether (R.I.P. Anna Wu?). The show is also expected to cut two of its staff writers.

The show has been set up to cut completely not only Anna Wu but also the entire Buy More team including Morgan–since Chuck quit the store and Morgan and Anna are moving to Hawaii, theoretically they could be dispensed with altogether. But if the Buy More angle is gone, what will replace it? This is part of the bigger question I have about Chuck: Can a parody show ever grow up? If not, I don’t see much future for the show despite the great characters. But if so, can it stay charming and funny?

Part of the show’s charm is the contrast between Chuck’s dull retail life, slumming out of his real element and surrounded by people who take the details of that life very seriously, and Chuck’s spy life, in which he is supposed to be out of his element and surrounded by people who take the details of that life very seriously. The play from one to the other constitutes a majority of the show’s humor. But it also leads to a rut. As season two went on, I found myself angry at Chuck for showing no growth whatsoever under the influence of his more “grown-up” life. When bullets have flown by your ears and people around you are giving and taking beatdowns for two years, you would generally tend to at least get hardened to those things if not actively involved and learning how to participate effectively, wouldn’t you? Yet Chuck kept cringing, yelping, rolling on the floor, and whining about how the government was ruining his life. I wanted him to grow up, and with his free choice to download Intersect 2.0 into his brain, based on the idea that he could make a real contribution to that grown-up life, I have some hope that he will. But Josh Schwartz seems to have a clear idea as to the next directions of the show, and I’m wondering how grown up either Chuck or the show itself will be: These new flashes that give Chuck an ability, how long will each one last? Like, could he “forget” kung fu in the middle of a fight?
Schwartz: What I will say is that people who are concerned that these new powers will somehow change the tone of the show or of our guy, don’t be. There is a plan in place, and the tone of the show and Chuck’s underdog quality will remain intact. Will he flash on, like, a foreign language one week? And then safecracking skills the next? That kind of a thing?
Schwartz: There are a lot of options, a lot of opportunities for us to go down different paths. Might this make Casey, who’s used to being the bacon-saver, a bit jealous?
Schwartz: Certainly we’re always, always looking for ways to heighten conflict between Chuck and Casey. That’s a really fun dynamic for the show. Will there be implications for Chuck and Sarah with this new development?
Schwartz: The most immediate way it impacts them is they can only be together if he is not the asset. That’s why they were able to move their relationship forward in the penultimate episode, because the Intersect was out of his head, and she was no longer going to need to protect him. But now…

So Chuck will remain an underdog even if he has phenomenal cosmic powers. It sounds like a bit of a tall order, but what concerns me more is the attitude towards the Chuck/Sarah relationship and the seeming marriage to the status quo. I know that older shows kept the leads apart for years and that the writers have probably not scratched the surface of what they can do to Chuck and Sarah, but Schwartz’s stated reasoning is a little bit tired at this point. The objection to Sarah being involved with the asset was that she would allow her personal feelings for Chuck to dictate her actions in missions, when the truth is those feelings already dictate her actions, as was acknowledged and embraced in the episode where Number Six almost became Chuck’s new handler. How could her feelings be any more influential if she were actually sleeping with Chuck as opposed to in love with him from two feet away?

The finale handled all this very poorly, as I remarked at Crosblog. In fact it appears that they had to engineer the finale very clumsily specifically to keep Chuck “the asset” without giving them any possible chance of being together in any other way. If Chuck wanted to be with Sarah so much, why would he turn down out of hand and without consideration, as he did in the finale, working as an analyst on the new Intersect project, of which Sarah was to be head? Are they seriously trying to tell us he had no idea what Sarah would do next until after he turned that down? Seriously trying to tell us that Sarah wouldn’t have said “Uh, Chuck, I’m actually going to be working on that project, and we can work together, wink-wink”? And what changed for Sarah in the sixteen TV minutes between when she told Chuck she was leaving and when she told Bryce she wasn’t going with him? And Bryce just runs happily away with his new “handler,” never having met this guy before, having no idea he could be a bad guy, and Beckman etc. don’t notice that Sarah’s not doing her job? The whole plot, and indeed a lot of the show itself, is premised on the idea that people don’t communicate properly, or at all, and that they will never notice certain obvious things right in front of them or draw any conclusions if they do.

But if the writers did manage to successfully pull off a more grown-up Chuck, where would the parody aspect go? Without the Buy More contrast, and with Chuck no longer able to whine that all this is happening to him against his will, where will the “nerd in an untenable situation” vibe that Schwartz seems determined to preserve even come from?

I’m concerned about the direction of the show, to say the least, and believe the writers are setting themselves firmly between a rock (keep the show’s jaunty, embarrassment-comedy vibe) and a hard place (do that while showing character growth). Judging by Schwartz’s comments it seems like they will continue the former at the expense of the latter, and given the budgetary constraints and the fact that shows produced by a company other than the parent network are tumbling like dominoes these days (Chuck is produced by Warner Brothers rather than anything owned by NBC), I’m concerned that these next 13 episodes will peter out in a confused tumble until NBC pulls the plug.

One of my childhood favorites, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, managed something of Chuck’s schtick for four seasons, but A) they didn’t proclaim up front that the leads were in love with each other, something we got to watch come about gradually, thus sparing us from the excuses that they couldn’t be together because they worked together and B) Amanda King was in her role because she had something to contribute that Scarecrow couldn’t easily get any other way. Her contributions were only partly an accident of timing and more largely turned on her personality and her willingness to step up out of her original comfort zone–and her character definitely grew along the way. The show ended when her character had grown to the point where she could no longer conceivably be painted as a bumbling housewife who might or might not have what it takes to be a spy. Chuck has now chosen of his own free will to be a spy and his character must grow through that or the show will die–but if he does grow, parts of the show will necessarily die and change the tone until the show either is cancelled or takes on a whole different vibe. Not an easy outlook either way. But don’t get me wrong: I definitely look forward to seeing how it will go, come what may. Josh’s final note of doom: More Jeffster. Help!

image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace