The Top Ten Things CHUCK Did Right
With the conclusion last night of its epic five-year run, Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak's romantic spy-drama comedy Chuck got as long a life as a strange, fun hybrid show without a major star could expect. That Zachary Levi, who plays the title character, has seemed to be on the road to becoming a major star in the final years of the show is really just frosting on the cake. Obviously not every show can connect with every segment of the audience, and Chuck has struggled for years to put together a group of viewers big enough to keep it from being in peril. The reasons for that are many, but riding high on the energy of a terrific finale, this seems like a good time to focus on what Chuck did right for the last five years. In no particular order:
- Geeks as Believable Heroes While The Big Bang Theory is an award-winning ratings juggernaut, its critics have derided it as "nerd blackface" for the way it laughs at, not with, the geek subculture. Chuck, meanwhile, is the geek with the heart of gold who kicks butt, gets the girl and saves the day—with a little help from social misfits like the Nerd Herd, Morgan and "Jeffster".
- Stunt Casting When Britney Spears appeared on How I Met Your Mother, it was blatant stunt casting and did nothing to further the narrative of the show. Was she terrible? Not at all—but she didn't bring anything to the show more than look-in audience who were there to see her and gone the next week. See also shows like The Big Bang Theory, where celebrities play themselves and the extent of their character is self-parody or something for the characters to worship with tongue in cheek. Compare that to Chuck, where geek culture icons like Timothy Dalton, Scott Bakula and Linda Hamilton got meaningful parts, good writing and season-long arcs. ...and then, of course, there's Bo Derek. And Stan Lee.
- Character Development Look at How I Met Your Mother again. Those characters are in an endless loop of arrested development and re-learning the same important lessons they learned last year. It happens so frequently that they occasionally lampshade it on their own show. But it isn't just their show--in the twenty years that he was on television, Frasier Crane learned basically nothing, and many fans actually get bent out of shape when a character starts to grow or change because they're afraid the person might lose what made them lovable to begin with. Maturing is a hard thing to do, but if there's one thing that this week's Chuck drove home it's that almost every character on screen had an arc.
- Supporting Cast Speaking of the show's characters, how about this? Chuck is arguably the gold standard on TV in the last five years in terms of elevating its secondary and tertiary characters. Not everyone is a star, but look at Awesome. Look at Jeffster. Look at Big Mike. Many of the things that fans loved the most about Chuck had nothing to do with the action-spy A-plot or even the central characters. And having a world where each character is given some breathing room to find his own personality gives their actions, reactions, triumphs and sacrifices meaning.
- Twist Endings Every ten or so episodes, Chuck would have an episode that ended with a "what the hell?" or "Oh, that's AWESOME" moment. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who watched the show and didn't think "I know kung-fu!" was arguably the best season finale moment of the last decade, and there's a dozen more great moments where that came from.
- Fight Scenes Whether it's ten-on-one or just a couple of guys with supercomputers in their brains, it's difficult to remember a TV series that has had more, better or more memorable fight scenes. Throw in the insane acrobatics and Sarah-Fu that made Yvonne Strahovski seem like the baddest badass in the room even on a team that featured a grumpy Adam Baldwin carrying a sniper rifle and you've got to give credit to the fight choreographers, stunt performers, actors and directors for creating on a week-to-week basis the kind of high production value action that big-budget theatrical releases could be jealous of.
- Fanservice Both Sarah and Chuck--as well as any number of guest stars from the C.A.T. Squadron to Matthew Bomer and Brandon Routh--gave us plenty to salivate over in the last five years, and managed to do most of it with tongue firmly in cheek. Remaining sexy while retaining a sense of humor about your sex appeal is kind of the Holy Grail in this kind of storytelling, and keeps you from falling back on sex as a crutch.
- Girl Power With her uncanny ability to go from kicking ass to fighting back tears and killer (no pun intended) comic timing, Yvonne Strahovski has exhibited more range and talent than just about any other lead on television in the last five years. Full stop. Sarah Walker is smart, strong, sexy and arguably the standout character on a show that has given us Zachary Levi and Ryan McPartlin. And the best part is that she's a fully-rounded character in the way that "the hero's girlfriend" almost never is. My wife and I are expecting a daughter in April, and I'd be flat-out proud if in ten or fifteen years she had an actor of that caliber playing a character that strong to look up to.
- Family When it was first revealed that Orion was Chuck's father, I can remember being somewhat let down. It seemed like cheap and easy storytelling, and the kind of twist you see on every show trying to be clever since the beginning of time. But in the way that the Bartowskis have been developed since, I'm glad they did it. The only other family in mainstream popular fiction who went from zero to hero so well and believably (within the reality of their universe, of course) is the Carters.
- The Unexpected As the finale demonstrated ably, just when you think you know exactly what's going to happen in Chuck it turns out you're wrong. Characters who double- and triple-cross one another is just the beginning, when you've got a writing staff that alternately knows when to give the fans what they want (Sarah and Chuck! More Jeffster! More Ellie and Awesome!), when to pull back on the elements that aren't working (Less Jeffster! Get Ellie and Awesome out of the spy life!) and when to pull the rug out completely for the sake of storytelling (Daniel Shaw, the Magical Kiss). Because of the lighthearted nature of the show, it often seemed like you knew how any given story was going to turn out--but then someone would pop up to put a bullet in a major character and remind you that in the best spy stories, nothing can be taken for granted and even the good guys sometimes take a bullet.