Why You Should Be Watching 'Chuck'
We’re returning to the TV category tonight, because I wanted to bring you a post about a show that deserves a bit more attention: NBC’s Chuck. I’ve watched quite a bit of this spy-themed action/comedy over the past year - read on to find out why it’s so awesome.
Chuck premiered in September 2007, and while it has a pretty strong fan following, there have been concerns in the past about its possible cancellation due to low ratings. I first started watching it when it was nearing the end of its third season, and then went back and watched my way through the first two seasons before the fourth one premiered last fall.
The show stars Zachary Levi as Chuck Bartowski, an employee at a Burbank, California “Buy More” store (a thinly-veiled facsimile of Best Buy). Chuck is a former student at Stanford University who works as a member of the Nerd Herd, the tech specialists of the Buy More (see: Best Buy’s Geek Squad). The plot of the show gets into gear when Chuck is sent a secret program on his computer called the Intersect, a massive CIA database that gets scanned directly into Chuck’s head. This gives him the ability to identify enemy spies or targets of interest by “flashing” on them.
The CIA and NSA dispatch two bodyguards, Sarah Walker and Col. John Casey, to protect Chuck and the computer in his head. The series progresses as Chuck is sent on missions by the CIA to use the Intersect in the field. Chuck is very much still an electronics store employee, and so the series derives a lot of laughs from Chuck’s inability to understand basic spy techniques or his paralyzing fear of enemy thugs. We also get frequent sub-plots that take place in the Buy More store, with Chuck trying to keep his new job secret from his fellow employees or hide his feelings for his handler, Agent Walker (Yvonne Strahovski).
I love this show because it sends up all the clichés of the spy genre, and savvy viewers can have a lot of fun comparing episodes to movies or more serious spy-themed TV series. In early episodes, Chuck is surprised at how life as a spy is unlike anything he's seen on a screen. Intriguingly, this joke feeds into a recurring philosophical question on the show: is it worth losing one's identity and morals to fight for one's country? Occasionally, the theme is awkwardly wedged into an episode, but I appreciate how a generally lighthearted series has sought to explore this issue.
Chuck also tries to be a love letter to geek culture. Chuck as a character is an initially hapless (but smart) geek, and the series is peppered with references to video games, movies and other aspects of pop culture (one of Chuck’s prized possessions is a framed TRON poster). The more "in tune" a viewer is with geekdom, the more entertaining the show becomes.
The show makes use of a revolving door of A-and-B-list celebrity guest stars, including actors like Linda Hamilton, Timothy Dalton and Christopher Lloyd. There was a great bit in season 3 where Lloyd appeared as a CIA psychiatrist who Chuck was always referring to as “Doc” (If you don’t get that Back To The Future reference, you have some serious pop-culture catch-up to do!). Not every guest appearance is used properly - some guests are too obvious - but when an actor like Isaiah Mustafa pops up as a CIA agent, it can give an episode a fun kick-start.
The season regulars shouldn't be overlooked, either – some of the biggest laughs for me have come from Adam Baldwin (of Firefly and Serenity) as John Casey, the growling, gun-loving NSA agent who is assigned to protect Chuck and must take on a cover as an employee at the Buy More.
Zachary Levi, who plays Chuck, has built quite a few layers into his character over time - we get a good sense of how Chuck thinks, and what matters to him. Yvonne Strahovski as Agent Walker has her moments, though I feel that she's often used too much as a spectacle - there are just a few too many extended, slow-motion sequences of Strahovski in revealing outfits. Not that I'm opposed to sex appeal in a spy show (and Strahovski is a perfect candidate) - it's just that these scenes can distract from the story. (It can also be difficult to explain to someone who walks in while you're watching this show that it is, in fact, a network comedy.)
One of the bigger parts to the Chuck story is its brushes with cancellation. This was due to poor official ratings in its second season, despite receiving lots of critical acclaim and establishing a wide fan base. The poor ratings are partially attributed to Chuck airing next to established series like House and Dancing With The Stars - a majority of viewers were committed to other networks in Chuck's time slot.
Each time the show has been up for renewal, industry observers and fans have worried that the show may be cancelled, but a strong fan response has helped it be renewed each year. And for good reason – Chuck is frequently hilarious, due mostly to its quick-witted dialogue and surprisingly competent action scenes.
I encourage everyone to download or rent a few episodes of Chuck, just to try it out. The show is entering its fifth and final season starting on October 21st, 2011, and I'll be sorry to see it go. Nevertheless, I'm glad we got five solid years out of this story, and I'm glad it's being given the chance to go out on a high note - a great accomplishment for all the fans who have campaigned for Chuck to stick around.
Are you a fan of Chuck? Will you check it out now that it's received my glowing praise? If you are a fan, what are your thoughts on it reaching five seasons? Sound off in the comments down below, or check out the archive of my TV commentary articles, or the archive for other editions of Why You Should Be Watching: