Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Chuck Versus The Goodbye"

I first started watching Chuck mainly because it was on before Heroes, and wasn't sure what to make of it at first. For one thing, the blend of atompunk spy games with post-cyberpunk technology didn't quite gel for me. (The Intersect seemed an especially hokey gimmick.) For another, the villains were bland and derivative. (Fulcrum is no S.P.E.C.T.R.E.)

But the Buymore was great, an interesting contrast with the secret agent doings in which Chuck got caught up – and Morgan and Lester and Jeff and Big Mike and the rest were the source of much of the fun from the first. There was also the writers' handling of Chuck's geekiness, and geek culture more generally, which unusually for American TV did not come off as a caricature in the mind of a schoolyard bully (unlike one Chuck Lorre sitcom I can think of), and which they also managed to cleverly work into many a plot. These two elements turned out to be just the things to breathe new life into the half-century old game of parodying James Bondian espionage, helping to produce some memorable gags and set pieces – and at the show's best, episodes like "Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer."

Alas, Chuck peaked early. As the show's main character became more self-assured, more at home in this element – as he went from Nerd Herder-in-over-his-head to genuine superspy - we lost the fish-out-of-water aspect of the story that was initially a source of much of the comedy. Bringing the other characters in on the craziness didn't compensate for it, the repetition producing diminishing returns, while also dispensing with much of the comic tension created by Chuck's keeping so much of his life secret from friends and family. And as the story of Chuck and Sara shifted from "angsty tale of a guy hopelessly in love with unattainable fantasy girl" to mundane boyfriend-girlfriend stuff one might see discussed with a therapist on a daytime talk show, this too lost interest. (To paraphrase George Costanza, "Relationship Chuck" was less entertaining than "Independent Chuck.")

Of course, such changes were inevitable (it's inconceivable that Chuck could have gone on reacting to things in exactly the same way, and TV show romances which just spin their wheels get tiresome fast), but along with them went much of what made the show distinctive and appealing. Meanwhile, really clever mixes of its diverse elements became rarer – the espionage and the BuyMore comedy and the geekiness happening alongside one another rather than coming together in a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Still, the show managed to be entertaining enough to keep me coming back, all the way through its five season run, which ends with the pair of episodes airing tonight.

Let's hope they make for a fitting finale.

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