Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Return of Chuck!

So Chuck came back to the airwaves last week (and again on Monday of this week), and is larger and more in charge than ever. This wonderful show was on the bubble at the end of the Spring season, and was initially picked up for 13 episodes, which was later expanded during production 6 more eps for a full 19 episode season.

For as much as I championed Chuck at the end of its second season, at the beginning of its first season I thought of it as merely "something to watch" before Heroes came on, and being technologically-minded, the first five or six episodes were met with some eyerolling on my part because it seemed like it might turn out like every other show attempting to intertwine its storyline with technology it purports to understand but doesn't. After some initial jitters, however, it came across as pretty genuine - far-fetched and implausible at times - but in a self-realizing way that acknowledges it has to be a little bit implausible to make things move along entertainingly. And it did so without losing a beat, losing the story or losing my viewership - and I'm a harsh critic, lulz. I warmed up to it fast, but the reason I'm making these comments is because right before the new season premiered I went back and watched season 1 for the first time since season 1 was on TV. I had watched season 2 a few times because they put it - and kept it - on Hulu a lot. Season 1? Not so much. Somehow the pilot was on Hulu and a few other eps were on the WB's site, and well, I filled in the blanks in a secret fashion.

Rewatching season 1 now, I realized that the series picked up a lot of steam once it hit episode 7. When I first began watching Chuck, I had a chip on my shoulder for series like this, sci-fi/tech stuff that was always improperly discussed or used, because most shows always did such a bad job of it. And the amazing thing is that, the more involved with technology the show is, the worse they tend to be at explaining/utilizing the tech. A good example of this is 24, "uploading" and "downloading" and how much time something would take in the real world, versus in a show where you need suspense and last-minute cliffhangers. Or if we want to talk about movies, Live Free, Die Hard, where, from Kevin Smith's (aka War1ock) computer we're able to access or shut down a whole power grid, etc etc. And that movie was made in 2007. I mean, at least in 1996, a movie like Independence Day had the excuse of PCs not being that widespread yet, to make some cockamamie scheme to invade alien technology with a Mac and a "Jolly Roger Virus" to save Earth plot, work. And the first few episodes of Chuck, aside from the larger plot point of the Intersect, kinda made me cringe at Chuck and Morgan's banter about, "Playing Call of Duty tonight!" or whatever, as well as a few other specific technological things that escape my memory at the moment. Because at first, I thought that mentioning "XBox" or whatever, was going to be some disingenuous attempt at "befriending" the geek demographic to watch this show. I actually couldn't have been more wrong. It was actually very genuine, down to changing the boxes, displays and paraphernalia in the Buy More to reflect recent gaming and tech releases for when that episode is produced/released. And I also understand that Zach Levi is actually a really big gamer/geek so and so in his personal life.

And without going too much further in that aspect, I think that is what made the show a success, but also what put it on the bubble. People claim they want "smart" entertainment, but that doesn't explain how wrestlemania was celebrating its 25th anniversary last year. I think a lot of people enjoy the flashy action and some of the humor Chuck has to offer - and god knows you don't have to be smart per se, to be a geek, so you've got the gamer/sci-fi demo there - but a good bit of what I find to be droll or witty I can imagine being over a good many people's heads. The "genuine" factor seems like it might hinder as well. I believe a good comparison to Chuck is another show in the spy genre that also debuted in 2007 - Burn Notice. Although there are many more geeks out there watching TV than actual, real life spies, both shows try to be genuine about their tech, the way things are put together, and having a smart, often non-linear (at least in TV terms) approach to problems. Both shows also offer escapism in an almost implausible, over-the-top way at times, but the way their characters relate to one another is kinda heart-warming in a completely opposite, real world way. It's in this that people seem to have a problem, seeing as one half of the people on one side want a violent conclusion to a problem so they can feel the main character's vindication in a self-righteous sort of way, and the other half on the other side want characters to relate in a catty, (melo)dramatic way like a soap opera.

What I think makes the show work - and has done so since the beginning - is how the show works in mini-arcs that are clearly under a bigger arc, like filling in pieces of a puzzle. It never lets itself get stale lingering in one plot circle for too long, but it isn't exactly like, oh, say, Heroes, where things jump around so much that we get lost in new plot threads and are left to wonder what the hell is going on. Speaking of, Chuck has also managed an ensemble cast, and meshing what essentially amounts to two casts (and stories) at times in interesting and often hilarious ways.

I feel that Chuck hit its stride in season 2, which a lot of shows do, and I think that perhaps it's going to find itself hard to top. Season 2's plot was pretty great, it had a lot of laughs and the Buy More stuff was just as interesting to watch as the CIA/NSA/spy/asset/action elements. So far, season 3 seems to be off to a good start, with the writers not relying heavily on the Intersect 2.0, which enables Chuck to pull things from the Intersect in his head into some sort of muscle memory/mind interaction. We saw this demonstrated at the end of last season to "know kung fu", and it was used twice or three times for this in Sunday's premiere (and I foresee that being used a lot more in the future, as Chuck refuses to use firearms), but they've already used it creatively, too. Once to enable Chuck to perform covertly in a mariachi band, and once to play doctor, so to speak.

The one and only real problem I have with Chuck is something they've seemed to have semi-cleared up. Chuck and Sarah's back and forth, on and off again relationship kinda had plot relevancy at first because of the whole "cover relationship" thing. But from the middle of season 1 up through the end of last season it just kept yo-yoing for various reasons. I understood the Bryce coming back thing, and they did sort of attach good reasons (mixed with bad timing) to the rest of the times Chuck wanted with Sarah or Sarah wanted with Chuck but one or the other wasn't ready, but it just happened way too often. There weren't even cooling off episodes, it was always one pining for the other, then the other pining for the one right after they realized, "Uh oh, I made the wrong decision, I am in love!" Hopefully something will give here, Kristin Kreuk is supposed to be Chuck's new love interest this season, and the previews at the end of this week's episodes indicated that Sarah will be getting a new interestee as well.

So I guess we'll see how things play out in these remaining 16 episodes. I'm totally pleased so far, even eschewing a new House to watch all three hours of new episodes this week.

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