Journey’s End?

Chuck’s “Hero’s Journey” is over.  Now what?

Edit:  Okay, it’s after the first episode of S5 now, and while not perfect it was actually pretty decent.  We’ll see how things go from here on in.

If ever a blog post needed an opening disclaimer, this is it.  For the record, I am not trying to convince people there’s isn’t any point to watching the show, or that it’s no longer fun or that there should be no fifth season.  Far from it.  I plan to watch Chuck faithfully every day it’s on, now and in the future, because I’ve invested so much in these characters and actors that I just can’t fathom doing anything else.  Regardless of what’s happened over the course of its run, the premise for the show was inspired and I still find entertaining moments in every episode.

But having said all of that, it’s impossible to ignore the changes in energy level amongst the fans last season.  Twitter traffic after episodes is down, posts on forums are down.  Fans’ collective response to a lot of Season Four’s episodes has been:  “Meh.”  While I have no numbers to back it up, it feels as if the internet fandom is losing interest and drifting away.

What’s going on?  I believe there are a couple of major factors in play.

Entropy.  Entities that aren’t vigorously evolving tend to bleed away energy over time.  Applied to a television show, this occurs as the best plots are expended, every major character is explored and the most intriguing relationships are played out.  As seasons pass the writers pluck less and less attractive fruit to meet the insatiable demand for new story.  The press of time strains creativity and soon episodes are being constructed that seem like pale iterations of their predecessors.  Characters experience relapses of their previous dysfunctions.  New guest stars follow the trajectories of previous guest stars.  It all happens again, but with palpably less energy than before.   At this point, without a significant change to a its formula, a show is just marking days until the end.

Fatigue.  Let’s face it, we’ve known these characters and this premise for four years now.  Each of the main characters has had their backstories delved into, we’ve met their families and previous acquaintances (both good and bad).  We’re familiar with the risks Chuck faces every day to protect his family, friends and even his own well-being.  We’ve played out the relationship drama, PLI’s and all.  In the spy world, we’ve experienced Fulcrum, the Ring and Alexei Volkoff.  It’s safe to say that at this point, most of us can predict with fair accuracy from which direction threats will likely appear and who will be at risk.  In short, the Chuck universe has become well-worn.  And as Season Five approaches, with each casting notice and web interview echoing a familiar refrain, it’s not hard to believe we’ve seen everything the show has to give.

But beyond those, I think there’s one other fundamental reason for fan dissatisfaction and restlessness:

Chuck’s epic tale is complete.

That’s right, it’s over.  As in, reached its end.  In fact, I would contend that, depending on how you attach weight to the various elements of the show, it ended no later than “Push Mix”.

Why?  Because this is where the show’s mythical story reached its natural conclusion. Each of the main characters had transcended, their individual journeys all but completed.

This is important, because I think a significant fraction of the Chuck story, the portion that let it penetrate our jaded defenses and attach itself lamprey-like to our collective subconscious was its foundation of monomythical underpinnings.  Mythical stories have had the innate power to capture imaginations since men were scratching on cave walls with burnt sticks.  If you look at Chuck as a modern variation of an age-old myth, it’s quite easy to understand why people might feel that something is “missing” once the mythological story ends and all that remains are the trappings and embellishments.

Before you feel obligated to protest, let me say right here that there’s a lot more to Chuck than just its mythological basis.  The creative team of actors, producers, writers, directors, musicians, and all the rest put the meat on the bones of the show.  I’m also definitely not saying that every story must be based on monomyths to be compelling.  Just that this one was, in part.

Let’s look a little closer.

In order to talk about the mythic elements in Chuck, I have to summarize the monomyth briefly here.  I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting, but the source material comes from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949.  The basic idea is that throughout recorded history, the most important myths carried on by each succeeding generation had a common premise:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Not really resonating with Chuck?  Try this:

The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).

Better?

It doesn’t take much analysis to equate the arrival of the Intersect with Chuck’s “call to adventure“: Sarah literally asks Chuck if he’s ready to be a hero in the second episode of the series!  The “road of trials” is Chuck’s struggle to survive being the Intersect and reclaim the life that the spy world derailed repeatedly (his parents absence, Bryce’s triple betrayal, Jill’s departure, compulsory service to the government).  The “assistance” is, of course, Sarah, Casey and to a lesser extent his circle of family and friends.

The “severe challenge“?  I’d argue that this is Chuck’s effort to find his father and get the Intersect out of his head in Season Two, a quest that almost costs him everything and culminates in “Ring” with a dying Bryce.  Chuck is faced with the most critical decision of his life:  Should he destroy the Intersect and return to the “normal” existence that now seemed eminently within his grasp?  Or should he re-implant it, letting go of his old dream but possibly becoming the hero that everyone else told him he could be?

Returning to normal was the single, unwavering goal that had kept Chuck going for two years.  It represented his retreat back into his comfort zone, the banality of the BuyMore, his family, friends and most critically, a life with more modest ambitions.  But with Bryce dead there was no one to carry on the fight against the Ring, and no super-spy he could entrust Sarah’s safety to.  In the end, it wasn’t much of a contest.

Chuck chooses to be a hero because it’s his destiny.  And in that moment, he receives “the boon” (the Intersect 2.0) and the “important self knowledge” that what mattered to him most wasn’t what he thought it was.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  When he tells Casey that yes, he does want to become a spy, he does it because he realizes, at last, that the great future he’d always felt lay ahead of him had snuck in unnoticed – he simply hadn’t recognized it in his zeal to escape.  Being the Intersect and a highly moral individual allows him to act as a force for good.  A force that could help others in a way few could match (the application of the boon).  And maybe he’s even learned a little bit from Sarah and Casey about sacrificing one’s own wants for the greater good.  It all pours out of him to Sarah through the locked vault door in “Three Words”.

The rest of S3 was spent chronicling Chuck’s “return to the ordinary world”, his effort to find a new “normal”.  One that included Sarah, Casey and the spy world as well as his family and friends.  And once those elements reached a certain level of harmony, and all of the visible obstacles were overcome, you could say that his goal had been reached and his journey was, for all intents and purposes, over.

So guess what?  Yep.  It happened.  What, you missed it?  Here’s the manifest:

Chuck’s a spy.  He’s been a spy, arguably as early as “American Hero” (3.12) but certainly by “Role Models” (3.15).  This closes the circle.  He has accepted his official role as the operator of the Intersect and uses it to help make the world a better place.

Chuck’s spy and home lives have, with minor exception, been successfully integrated.  He’s marrying the love of his life who also happens to be his partner, his family both knows this and accepts it, and they’ve even pulled Casey into their orbit.  Beckman has ceased being the potentially devastating adversary she was in previous seasons, becoming more of a sympathetic – albeit firm – boss.  There are few clouds on this happy horizon.

Sarah’s story, which was arguably more fascinating than Chuck’s (thank you, Yvonne!) seems to be finding an equally rosy culmination.  The question was always whether she’d be able to leave behind the baggage in her life and grab hold of the opportunity that had presented itself.  Whether that choice was made during a tiny ballerina’s make-up recital, or with the slightest of head shakes to Bryce, or even in the wake of Casey’s reveal that he, not Chuck, had killed the mole makes little difference.  She’s said “yes” to it all (sometimes kicking and screaming, but nonetheless ultimately relenting) and we’ve seen a much happier woman as a result.

Casey?  He started the series embittered and seemingly soulless.  A man resigned to a solitary existence after events drove him to sever all ties with his past and trust no one but himself.  Ready to end Chuck’s life as late as the beginning of S2, a steady exposure to his partners, Chuck’s circle, as well as reconnection with his own family pulled him back from the brink.  Play “connect-the-dots” with scenes from the show and you can plot a clear trajectory from Casey’s Ilsa recounting (“Undercover Lover”) to regaining trust in others (“Sensei”) to arriving first at Doc Dreyfus’s house (“Tooth”) to revealing his true identity to Alex (“Subway”).  Unimaginable in Season One, it would now be unsurprising to witness a Season Five Casey bouncing a Bartowski offspring on one knee surrounded by a new (or reconstituted) family of his own.  Oh, and Morgan.  ;)

Speaking of, Morgan started out as an annoyingly juvenile, slacker friend of Chuck’s, an enabler of Chuck’s regressive state post-Jill and Stanford.  But no longer.  Remember his speech in “Other Guy”?  Morgan tells Casey to “wake up” lest he find himself becoming the man Morgan used to be, part of “Jeff and Lester’s crew, hanging out Friday nights in Woodland Hills.”  Do I even have to make an argument that since discovering Chuck’s secret identity Morgan has been reaching for every little bit he can be (and probably much more)?  He’s found his calling and is on his life course.

Seriously?

As for major plot constructs, those are pretty much resolved or have run out of gas as well.  Fulcrum?  Defeated.  The Ring?  Its remarkably uncharismatic leaders arrested.  Volkoff?  On permanent vacation with his daughter, his assets in the hands of Team B.  Chuck’s father?  Sadly, deceased (as far as we know) and the remaining “Origin of the Intersect” story of insufficient octane to provoke much interest.  Chuck’s mom?  Probably a recurring guest star for espionage gigs and babysitting duty.  New government Intersects?  Left languishing after S4’s “Chuck vs. the Murder”, possibly to be re-hashed in S5.  But, meh.

Let’s back up a moment.  I’ve been making the case that on the whole, the show ended in S3.  What about S4?  Did the show take a risk and make bold changes to breath new life into the show?  Were there new, mythological underpinnings to add gravitas to Chuck’s senior season?  In a word… no.  S4 was not the soul-rending succession of buzz-kills that, with few exceptions, the first dozen episodes of S3 were.  However, after starting strong (“Anniversary”, “Suitcase”) season four sank into a morass of trifling clichés and often wince-worthy farce.  In the midst of this came the sublime “Phase III” and the pleasantly amusing “Couch Lock”, “Seduction Impossible” and “Cat Squad”, so it wasn’t totally lackluster.

Uh... Wut?

But beyond those?  Well, for me at least, the show just seemed to be coasting and sputtering without coherency or sense of urgency.

Even the finale, which had the tremendous advantage of including Chuck and Sarah’s long-anticipated wedding, failed to land with the satisfying impact it was due.  Part of this should probably be blamed on the lack of buildup in the episodes that preceded it.  Neither Chuck’s quest to free his mother from Alexei Volkoff’s clutches and pull his family back together nor the succession of fixes for Chuck and Sarah’s relationship issues really set the table for the finale.

So what now?  Here comes S5.  Are we going to repeat the S4 pattern again?  Well, maybe.

Back in May, Melissa Lowery posted an article on the ChuckTV.net site where she revealed that the destruction of the BuyMore at the end of S3 was originally meant to be permanent.  However, contingent to the deal made to keep Chuck on the air for a fourth season, Warner Bros forced the production team to reconstitute the store in order to facilitate product placement as an additional revenue stream.  Why am I bringing this up?  Because this was the kind of bold change that was needed for S4.  The screen time wasted on the tired and often execrable humor coming out of the BuyMore could have been used to establish fresh locations and situations, bringing some novelty and uniqueness to the season.  The fact that creative initiatives like this are stifled or thwarted by bean counters is not new, but I wanted to mention this bit of trivia because in S5, the show has created for itself another, similar opportunity.

Chuck and Sarah have formed their own spy agency with Volkoff’s money.  Casting off the BuyMore and the government’s leash is what should have happened in S4, right after Chuck discovered Orion’s secret lair and had access to his father’s files, spy gadgets and vast surveillance network.  Better late than never, I suppose.  In establishing this turn of events for S5, the show runners have given the show a chance to break the cycle of repetition.

How?  Well, I have some suggestions for Chris Fedak and the writing team:

  1. Bury the past.  Pretend this is the only season of Chuck that has ever existed.  Shaw who?  There’s a new agency to setup, contacts to establish, family members to recruit.  Spend the screen time there, in the unexplored territory, and dump any dangling plot lines that will just remind us of previous season lameness.  Yes, Clyde Decker and your “mu ha ha” conspiracy plot, I’m glaring at you.
  2. Reboot the characters.  Buried deep within each of the characters mangled by “game-changing” plots over the past couple of seasons are the ones we fell in love with.  Wouldn’t it be nice to see the earnest, considerate and selfless Chuck again?  What about the Sarah Walker whose fearsome reputation commanded instant respect?  Or even a Morgan whose pesky demeanor always gave way to unquestioned loyalty?
  3. Dial down the farce.  Chuck works best when the characters are playing it straight and the situations they’re put into drive the comedy and drama.  “Wookiee” and “Truth” from S1 are good examples of this.  Let the comedy flow from the naturally occurring clash between the spy world and the mundane world—there will be plenty of opportunities for that this season with Devon, Ellie and the BuyMore employees.
  4. Dial up the sense of peril.  The last time there was any palpable sense of peril was the end of S3, in the back of the armored car.  Best peril ever?  Mauser and Ned Rhyerson in ‘Santa Claus’.  Volkoff was just too cartoonish a personality to  engender dread.  It’s telling that the Volkoff that Mary was afraid of in “Anniversary” was scarier than the one that eventually appeared.
  5. Finally, and most importantly, remember why your fans are still here.  I think you already do, having seen the S5 Key Art.

Is it too late for Chuck?

Every Fall for the last three years, Chuck fans have read the web interviews, watched the sneak peek videos and prognosticated endlessly about the season to come.  This Fall?  Not so much.  As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this post, there’s been a significant softening of fan excitement about the upcoming season.  It isn’t hard to imagine that the people still devotedly watching are those that are invested the most.

The best that can probably be hoped for in this short season is that the show runners give us the gift of spending time with these characters in stories that remind us of why we became fans in the first place.

And then we can say goodbye.

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Orbiting Two Suns

Kayla Hart and the Chuck That Almost Was

(An updated revision of an article that originally ran on ChuckTV.net in September of 2009)

It is an unassailable fact that, in the “Chuckverse”, no topic generates more impassioned debate than the relationship between Chuck and Sarah.  This can be witnessed empirically by simply counting the number of posts in forum topics dedicated to alternate characters and their relationships.  Nothing else even comes close.

But many people have forgotten, or maybe never knew, that Sarah was only one of Chuck’s original love interests.  There was someone else, someone close by, that Chuck would be secretly pining for from day one.  That’s right, geometry haters – the show nearly launched with Chuck embroiled in a love triangle.  Who was the vixen who would further complicate the sweet but fragile dawning of affection between our star-crossed lovers?

Her name was Kayla Hart.

Kayla was Chuck’s next door neighbor.  Single, twenty-five and heavily into the indie music scene, Kayla worked at the ticket counter of Spaceland, the very same club Chuck took Sarah to in the pilot.  The original script for this episode describes Kayla as “…one of the world’s most beautiful fuckups…”, stylish but frugal by necessity.

Kayla was played by Natalie Martinez, a Cuban-American actress and model most famously known for her portrayal of Elizabeth Case in Paul W.S. Anderson’s big budget smash ‘em up, ‘Death Race.’  She brought a raw, visceral sex appeal to that role and judging from the publicity photos for the pilot, she would have evinced a similar quality in her Chuck character.

So what else can we learn from the pilot script?  Kayla likes Chuck, in a casually friendly way, but doesn’t really see him as boyfriend material.  She’s drawn to musicians, and due to her job she has ample opportunities to hook up with them – and demonstrates it, much to Chuck’s chagrin.  She’s a little flighty (“Who knew driving under the influence included pot?”), disorganized (she’s lost her keys) and desirous of opportunities in life that haven’t yet been opened for her (she’d like to travel ‘anywhere James Bond has been’).

Chuck, for his part, is clearly attracted to Kayla.  In a telling moment, he watches from the garbage cans as she returns home, oblivious to his attention.  His hesitant greeting is too late and too quiet to catch her, and the pitiable performance is witnessed and critiqued by Ellie and Morgan.  It’s yet another reminder of how far Chuck’s confidence has fallen after Jill.

Morgan has his back, however, and after Sarah invites Chuck to show her around Morgan calls Kayla to tell her Chuck’s coming to the club with a date.   As he advises Chuck, “nothing turns a girl on like jealousy.”  And while Chuck thinks it’s a bad idea, things go surprisingly well – Kayla is impressed by Chuck’s companion and secretly roots for him, while Sarah notices something between Kayla and Chuck that she files away for future reference.

So that’s what was going to happen.  But what happens next?  How might the first season have unfolded with Kayla in the mix?

First we have to consider what Kayla represents.  In some ways, she’s the antithesis of Sarah.  Where Sarah is disciplined and precise, Kayla is disorganized and informal.  Where Sarah is aloof and evasive, Kayla is open and unguarded.  But in one way, Sarah and Kayla are the same:  they both symbolize worlds that are alien to Chuck.

While Sarah is a poster child for the cold and ruthless spy world, a study in dispassionate, duplicitous lethality, Kayla represents the gritty, underground music scene  – cliquish, mysterious and gangland dangerous.  In both of these environments, Chuck is a ‘fish out of water’, ill at ease and conspicuously awkward.

It is around these two disparate stars that Chuck would be hurled in the first season, on a trajectory to orbit first one woman and then the other.  Just as viewers might begin to think he was captured irrevocably by one’s gravity, events would conspire to thrust him back towards the other.  Too close to Sarah?  There’s always Bryce or the “it wouldn’t be professional” rejection.  Too close to Kayla?  There could be a violent ex-boyfriend, or a criminal involvement conflict of interest.

A perfect, revolving angst generation machine.  Oh, joy.

Want a quick vision of what that might have been like?  Just replace ‘Lou/Deli’ with ‘Kayla/Spaceland’ and stir vigorously.  With every scene in that arc, you could make a few adjustments for character and location and have a plausible replacement.  But instead of two episodes, think thirteen.

How would it have worked out in the end?  Hard to say.  But I personally believe that the show would’ve been ultimately unsatisfying if Chuck and Sarah’s intertwined journeys hadn’t led them to a more committed future together.  And for them to have that future, Kayla would have to become a part of Chuck’s past, like Lou, Jill and Hannah.

When would that have happened?  By the end of the first season, I would hope.  One thing seems certain, though.  Kayla’s inclusion would have meant reduced time (or even exclusion) of other characters and possibly even the elimination of scenes that are now enshrined in our memories.  Going back through these in my mind, I’m having a hard time imagining that it would have been worth it.  So for this choice, I have to say to Josh and Chris:  Good call.

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USA Network’s “Blue Skies” Theme – Is it Right for Chuck?

USA Network LogoIt’s unlikely that anyone who’s watched any significant amount of television in the last five years could be unaware of USA Network.  It’s been the number one network in basic cable prime time for the past three years, surpassing it’s nearest competitor (TBS) by double-digit margins.

While USA bootstrapped itself from mediocrity by airing repeats “borrowed” from its parent, NBC Universal, it was the network’s development of original series during the past half decade that elevated it above its rivals.  These new, distinctive series have achieved such widespread popularity that, in some cases, their ratings have matched or surpassed NBC’s own broadcast shows.  In fact, it’s a fair bet that just about every current  Chuck viewer has, at one time or another, seen an episode of Burn Notice, White Collar, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs, In Plain Sight, Psych or Monk.

Yeah.  All of those shows are (or were) on the USA Network.

So what made them and their parent network so popular?  If you read what the network’s spokespeople have to say on the subject (references below), you’ll find they attribute their success to “finding a niche and exploiting it”, a business cliché so achingly trite that its mere mention can produce groans and rolled eyes.  But look a little deeper, at the brand at the heart of USA’s niche, and you begin to see substance behind the jargon.  There are two distinct paradigms, working together, that define the USA brand.  The network calls these paradigms “Characters Welcome” and “Blue Skies”.

“Characters Welcome” is the network’s marketing speak for “shows built around main characters who have identifiable flaws, but remain consistently likable”.  Their interest in these types of characters appears to have sprung from the network’s success with two mid-2000’s shows, Monk and Psych.  As Jeff Wachtel, Original Programming President for USA explained it, “What started to evolve out of that were flawed characters, where their weakness was also their strength.”1 It’s impossible nowadays to read those words and not think of Burn Notice’s Michael Weston, whose emotionally detached childhood paved the way for the dispassionate spy he would become, or In Plain Sight’s Mary Shannon, whose emergence as the family disciplinarian in her father’s absence fortified her for a future career in Witness Protection. Look around, and you will find characters in all of USA’s stable of shows whose backstories follow this pattern.

“Blue Skies” nearly explains itself.  It’s meant to be taken both figuratively and literally.  USA wants their shows set in places imbued with a pervasive aura of optimism.  Places where the good things in life are constantly on display.  Bright, sunny places where blue skies and puffy clouds are the norm and fun times are always on tap.  Any location that can be pictured that way can work, regardless of how many days of sun it actually gets.  So, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Santa Barbara, The Hamptons, New York City, all of these work.  Newark, NJ?  Uh, not so much.  That’s why, according to Bonnie Hammer, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment President, they weren’t too keen about Burn Notice until it moved to Miami.2

The interesting corollary to all of this focus on flawed characters navigating idealized landscapes is that, more than other shows, “Blue Skies” shows just spend a lot more time exploring their characters.  We end up being exposed to Neil Caffrey’s ongoing struggle to overcome his criminal urges in White Collar, or Evan R. Lawson’s halting journey to become the dependable business partner his brother needs him to be in Royal Pains.  Because the shows spend proportionately more time with their characters, we get to know them quicker; we identify with their struggles quicker.  We root for them quicker.  It’s a rapid cycle of endearment and what makes these shows so instantly ingratiating.  No matter how convoluted the plots get (and none could be too much more opaque than S3 of Burn Notice) USA never allows them to overshadow the characters and their journeys.  Why is that important to note?  Well, we’re about to talk about Chuck, and I’m going to do a callback to this point later.

So, the first thing we should probably be asking is, “Would Chuck fit in to the USA Networks brand?”  Let’s start by matching it up to Bonnie Hammer’s Five Basic Rules for a USA Show2:

Rule #1:  Create stars, don’t hire them – Bonnie describes the lead actors hired for their shows as, “one perfect role away from a hit series.”  Adam Baldwin was a supporting actor with a vocal but small fan base.  Zachary Levi had been on Less Than Perfect for four seasons but was still largely unknown.  Yvonne Strahovski hadn’t been seen out of her native Australia.

Rule #2:  Quirk it up – Bonnie says, “We want our leading characters to be aspirational and great at what they do, but with a bit of quirky dysfunction that makes them relatable.”  Chuck is a Stanford-smart techie with low self-image but amazing potential.  Sarah is a kick-ass CIA operative deeply conflicted about her life choices.  Casey is a NSA assassin whose aversion to emotional intimacy manifests in comically aggressive fashion.

Rule #3:  Go blue – Skies, she means.  Chuck is set in southern California.  ‘Nuff said?

Rule #4:  Take a page from history – Bonnie relates that many of their shows mix in elements from hit shows of the past.  “If you take a close look at Burn Notice,” she notes, “it’s basically MacGyver with some fun sex and buddies involved.  Royal Pains is Marcus Welby, M.D. with McMansions and a bit of Robin Hood mixed in.  And White Collar is It Takes a Thief with an even better-looking and hipper cast.”  I would suggest that Chuck follows this same pattern.  It’s precursor?  A little show called Greatest American Hero.

Rule #5:  Keep it light – Argh.  Well, four out of five isn’t bad, right?  In actuality, until S3 sank into a dismal quagmire around mid-season, we were doing okay here.  And the back six episodes of S3 went a long way towards restoring the show’s balance, with ‘Honeymooners’ and ‘Role Models’ being perfect adherents to this rule.  So I’m going to put a tentative check mark here as well.  Consider it a vote of confidence for Chuck when it’s at its best.

Looks pretty good so far, doesn’t it?  Just for fun, let’s try it on for size:

Wow, I like the fit already.

Well, here’s where I make my big, brash statement and try to defend it.  Ready?

I believe that we’d have been better served had Chuck been picked up for its third season by USA Network rather than NBC.  It’s even arguable that, overall, we’d have been better off if Chuck had originated on USA Network.

Based solely on content, seasons one and two of Chuck could have run on USA virtually unaltered (Note: they actually did show season one re-runs on USA back in 2007 to try to attract new viewers).  I think Chuck’s first season scores a bulls-eye on the “Blue Skies” brand and the second season, while darker and heavier toward its end, stays well within the boundaries established by Burn Notice.

But that brings us to season three, and here’s where things run off the rails.  In my opinion, there’s no way any of the episodes from “First Class” through “American Hero” would have gotten into production in the form we saw them if USA had been involved.  It’s even possible that this entire middle arc of the season, where most of the ugliness resides, would have been shot dead during the planning process.  And that, my dear readers, would have been a good thing for the show and all of its fans.

Let me explain.

Sandra Berg’s excellent article in WrittenBy magazine1 visits with several of the creative minds behind the shows I’ve already mentioned.  In it, they describe the extensive partnership that USA maintains with each show’s creative team.  “Hands off”, they’re not.  It’s all done to preserve the brand.  Nothing gets approved that doesn’t first go through the “Blue Skies” filter.  While some might see this as invasive or even Draconian, there are some notable advantages to this approach.  One of them is that the application of this oversight helps safeguard each show’s implied contract with its viewers.  It does this by keeping the show runners from making ill-conceived choices that could turn away its audience.  Any of this striking a chord yet?

Had USA’s “Blue Skies” filter been applied to Chuck in its third season, it would likely have corrected the season’s most egregious issues.  First, the “epic” storyline Fedak and Schwartz designed to wrench Chuck & Sarah apart before reuniting them euphorically at the end would never have survived.  While the Chuck show runners might have convinced USA that keeping the two romantic leads separated for part of the season was necessary, the network would likely have balked at a story that sidelined Levi and Strahovski’s appealing chemistry for twelve and a half of the original thirteen episodes.  And they’d never have bought off on the dark, relentlessly depressing atmosphere that made watching Chuck a downer rather than a joy.  If “Blue Skies” has an anti-matter, this was it.  Fail.

Second, the tired and weak plot contrivances would have had to go.  It’s not that I think USA has any problem with reusing mechanics that work.  It’s just that the ones chosen for S3 were a poor fit for the characters as they had been left the last season.  The direct result of this mismatch was that fans became distraught when the characters they thought they knew began to act in irrational and confounding ways.  Eventually it reached the point of alienation, and there was a revolt.  Remember, above, when I said I’d be doing a callback later?  This is the place.  The Chuck show runners broke their most important asset – their fans identification with the show’s characters.  They devalued their characters’ individual journeys in deference to an arbitrary plot.  This directly undermines the “Characters Welcome” paradigm.  USA would have pitched a fit and they’d have been right to do so.  Fail.

What might Chuck season three have been like had USA sent Chris Fedak back to the drawing boards?  It’s impossible to say with any certainty.  I’d like to think that the dark and oppressive air would have been scaled back considerably and some lighter episodes inserted to change the pace.   And I have to believe that the irreconcilable character actions would have been removed or reworked.  Just think, no Chuck choosing the spy life over Sarah in Prague (maybe Honeymooners is episode 3.02?).  Or maybe, instead of leaving it hanging, Chuck and Sarah try to cleanup the mess that they made, as Sarah suggested in the courtyard.  Or maybe Shaw would remain Chuck’s mentor rather than Sarah’s love interest, since her falling for the oafish lunkhead was jaw-droppingly nonsensical.  Probably no Hannah as a love interest either, since that decision just made Chuck seem like a slow learner after Lou.  Heck, the list goes on and on.

And what of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship through the first thirteen episodes?  If you look at how Michael and Fiona’s relationship has been going on Burn Notice, or Hank and Jill on Royal Pains, or even Neil and Alex on White Collar, it might give you some idea.  In all of those cases, the relationships feel a little more mature, while retaining moments of levity.  I’d pick any of them in a heartbeat over the pointless angst we endured in S3.

So what if Chuck had originated on USA Network?  Well, let’s get the big one out of the way right up front.  The budget would have been tighter.  Much tighter.  That would have meant fewer location shoots, fewer sets, fewer and less expensive guest stars.  Fewer and cheesier special effects.  Reduced stunts.  Probably fewer songs.  Yvonne would have to cut one or two hairstyle changes per episode.  Okay, just kidding on that last one.  It’s no joke though that this would suck, but it wouldn’t be any worse than what you see on shows like Burn Notice and Covert Affairs.  And seriously, guys, the show doesn’t live or die on the quality of its FX work anyway.  It lives or dies on the strength of its series regulars.

And in that respect, at least, I’m convinced Chuck would be a better show today had it began on USA.  Stories would have stayed smaller and more fixed on the main ensemble.  More time would have been spent showing the repercussions of Chuck’s secret spy life on his friends and family.  We’d have gotten more episodes like ‘Best Friend’ and fewer like ‘Third Dimension’.  The “Blue Skies” filter would have ensured a steady supply of light, funny moments to complement the heavier drama we got towards the end of S2.  The show might even have retained that breezy balance it had in S1 and the beginning of S2.

Originating on USA would also have done away with the annual rush to jam every idea into each remaining episode before the season ends.  One of the things that Schwartz and Fedak seem to say every year is how they “threw everything including the kitchen sink” into the run-ups to season finales.  It’s not an unreasonable position, since not knowing whether they were even going to have a next season made them antsy about leaving anything on the table.  But what they don’t say is that this tactic steals time away from character development as those scenes make way for every sensational gimmick the two producers can think of.

This is something USA could fix.  As Jeff Eastin, the creative force behind White Collar recounts in Berg’s article, “Bonnie Hammer sat him down and said, ‘Relax. You’re not being canceled in three episodes. We don’t do numbers, don’t worry about it, we believe in the show, we’ll make it work.’ This was great news for Eastin, who no longer felt the pressure to cram every good thing in the first one or two episodes to avoid cancellation.”  I think this sounds like the perfect antidote for Schwartz and Fedak’s dilemma.

So, straight up, should Chuck be on USA Network?

I think, in the end, it comes down to what kind of stories work best to preserve what’s great about Chuck.  The show thrives on just the right blend of Action, Drama, Comedy, and Romance.  And if that blend is more likely to be achieved under “Blue Skies”, then the show would be better off, overall.

But would the show be gutted by its reduced budget?  Could it retain enough of the cast and crew to stay the show we love?  Without knowing the budgets in question it’s just not possible to predict the answers with any certainty.

One thing I am certain of, though, is that Chuck works best when its focus stays on its strong main cast.  As wonderful as the show has been at times, the painful truth is that its plots are often full of holes, its mythology is weak, and its canon inconsistent.  But we don’t care when the mood stays light and the characters and their relationships ring true.  If USA’s “Characters Welcome” emphasis keeps the show’s focus where it belongs, then all I have to say is…

Blue Skies, forever.


Addendum: My article apparently inspired Frea O’Scanlin, super-talented author and video auteur, to produce this superb little faux promotion video for Chuck as if it had, in fact, been picked up by USA Networks. Take a look, and dream a little dream.
  


References:
1 Quotes from the network and show runners: WrittenBy magazine, Sandra Berg.
2 Quotes from Bonnie Hammer, Reference: Entertainment Weekly, Dan Snierson
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Chuck S4: Echoes of an Agent and her Asset

It’s all happening now, but has it already happened once before?

Yesterday was the Chuck panel at the 2010 SDCC.  As most anyone reading this knows, producers Fedak and Schwartz revealed that Linda Hamilton, of Terminator and Terminator 2 fame, had been cast as Mary Elizabeth Bartowski, mother of Charles Irving and Eleanor Faye Bartowski and wife of the late Stephen J. Bartowski.  Or, as we’ve been calling her for years in the fandom, “Mama B”.

This is an interesting bit of casting, not only because Linda Hamilton probably isn’t the first person you’d think of when considering the physical characteristics of Chuck and Ellie (most bets were on  Mary McDonnell, Sela Ward or Lynda Carter) but because apparently Hamilton approached the Chuck producers, not the other way around.  I’m sure the story behind this strange reversal will be told repeatedly in the media blogs during premiere season so no need to explore it now.

But what’s really interesting about this casting is that it tells us a lot about how Schwartz and Fedak view the “Mama B” character.  See, the M.O. on these guys is that they dig back through pop culture and cast actors that bring with them iconic roles and personas.  They use the audience’s preconception of the actors as kind of meta-shortcut – a way to skip character development that would chew up script pages and air time.

When they cast Stephen Bartowski it wasn’t Scott Bakula they hired.  It was Quantum Leap’s Sam Beckett.  And when they went looking for an enigmatic super agent for the character of Shaw, they definitely did not hire Brandon Routh.  They hired Superman.  Whether it’s Dominic Monaghan (Lost’s rocker Charlie Pace) playing a rock star or Arnold Vosloo (The Mummy) channeling an unnaturally resilient agent, they’ve demonstrated time and time again that this pattern is no accident.  Which leads us back to the present:

Schwedak didn’t hire Linda Hamilton to play Mama B.  They hired frickin’ Sarah Connor.  And no, I don’t mean the physically average but mentally spunky Sarah Connor from the original Terminator.  They were after the hardened, guerrilla fighter that she’d become in Terminator 2.  A woman who was as agile of mind as she was lethal in close-quarters combat.  A woman that held off a liquid-metal T-1000 by pumping and firing a shotgun into it one-handed just to give her son John a few more precious seconds to escape and save humanity from the machines.

They want you to think of this woman when you see Linda Hamilton on Chuck as Mama B.  They want you to believe, in the back of your mind, that somewhere in her past, she was once a deadly operative that even Lynda Carter (of Wonder Woman fame) wasn’t “kick-ass” enough to play.  Because that’s the second big piece of news that came out of today.  It was an official press release from Warner Bros, and it contained language that was not released at the Chuck panel or – as far as I know – at the press event afterward.  Here’s the important part (emphasis mine):

Hamilton will appear throughout the season, leading Chuck to discover that her life was shrouded in secrets. She was a spy, a CIA agent … and that’s just the beginning. Who is she today? One thing is certain: She’s not the soccer mom who left her children so many years ago.

Let me repeat that.  Mama B was a spy, a CIA agent.

Why is that a big deal?  It has to do with a very old idea that fans have been ruminating over since the first and second seasons.  One that gained momentum towards the end of season two when Stephen Bartowski was revealed to be Orion, the exceptional man behind the Intersect itself.  A man who worked for the government to develop this critical technology for them.  A man who would need protection from forces who would want that technology for themselves.

Protection in the form of, oh I don’t know, a CIA agent?  Is any of this sounding familiar?

Was Mary Elizabeth a forerunner for Sarah Walker?  Did she occupy a slot in Orion’s protective detail, a vantage point from which she could not help but notice Stephen’s nerdy but genuine charm in stark contrast to Ted Roark’s narcissistic megalomania?  Was she part of a stone-age Chuck “love triangle” that saw her choose Stephen over Roark and her own career only to be pulled back in through Roark’s vengeful treachery?

We don’t know.  Yet.

But if they do decide to go this route, it would be unthinkable not to have Chuck and Sarah recognize the signs that they are, in fact, going down the same road and will encounter the same issues.  As they learned in ‘Role Models’, they aren’t the Turners, and they’ll discover in S4 that they aren’t Chuck’s parents, either.

Sarah Connor couldn’t have said it better:  “The future is not set.  There is no fate except the one we make for ourselves.”

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Chuck Season 3 Stole Your “Charah” Mojo?

Maybe A Fan-Vid Can Help You Get It Back

Sure, the back six episodes went a long way to heal the wounds inflicted on Chuck-Sarah fans during the first thirteen.  But as delightful as Honeymooners, Role Models, Tooth and even Living Dead were in bringing heightened levels of commitment to our favorite couple, they could not erase the scars we bear from those earlier episodes.  Nor could they bring back the sense of epic romance-in-the-making that often put goofy grins on our faces as we watched the first two seasons.

That ship sank in the mid-season maelstrom.  Our enchantment with their budding romance?  Lost to the depths.

While it’s very possible to recover a good portion of the charm and anticipation of those earlier seasons by simply re-watching them, that tends to be pretty time-consuming.  Not everyone can make that kind of commitment, however tempting it might be.  All they want is a little “fix” of that old feeling, maybe to get them through the mid-afternoon blahs.  So what to do?

Turns out, you can re-capture a lot of the magic in just a few minutes by watching some of the excellent fan videos available on YouTube and elsewhere.  These videos combine footage from the show in novel ways, often accompanied by new soundtrack music chosen by the video’s creator.  While the quality of these videos as a whole can most politely be described as “varying”, there are quite a few that are put together by truly talented individuals as labors of love  – inspired in their conception and deft in their execution.  In a word, they’re fantastic.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve seen every Chuck fan video produced, or that I’m an expert reviewer of such videos.  What I will do here, since it’s my blog (mu-ha-ha) is hand pick a few videos that I really liked and link them.  I think they’re well done, and they definitely remind me of what I loved dearly about the show (and Chuck & Sarah) before the first two-thirds of S3 put all of that in jeopardy.  How you feel about them may have as much to do with musical taste (you love or hate the soundtrack artist) as anything else, but I really can’t predict that from here, can I?

Anyway, here are a few that stood out for me:

Chris Payne’s “Chuck vs. Sarah the CIA Agent” – This is a stylistic powerhouse of a video, with animated slices, zooms, pushes, bumps, postcards and extensive tiling of multiple, concurrent scenes.  Chris is telling a story here – maybe not the story the show was trying to tell, but an effective story nonetheless.  I’ve always been impressed by his command of the techniques on display here.  Making this video must have been damned hard.

Crystal Elements’ “The Best of Chuck – A Tribute to the Series” – Crystal is just an amazingly creative person.  Not only does she make these professional quality videos, but she’s also got a flair for writing and art and who knows what else.  This video mashup of the first two seasons in 1 minute and 48 seconds nicely captures the feel of the show, at least the crazy action and comedy parts.  Every time I watch it I can’t help but grin.

Tess Brennan’s “Chuck & Sarah – You’re So Lovely” – Set to Scouting for Girl’s upbeat tune with its driving tempo, this video takes the viewer through the “Charah” romance at a breakneck pace.  Tess makes some really nice choices when timing scenes to the music (look for a particularly well done break with the tablecloth pull from Helicopter) that make the early parts of this video sing.  Another great mood setter.

Callie1327’s “I Want To Love You Madly”Cake’s jazzy tune from their 2001 album “Comfort Eagle” sets up a nicely offbeat syncopation to this video, and its theme of putting aside convention and embracing the passion in the moment really goes well with what we imagine Chuck would be feeling towards Sarah through most of S1 and S2.  An interesting stylistic choice was the static overlay of a beer bottle label to give the background texture (and, perhaps, distract from the somewhat less than pristine quality of the source footage).  Still, one of my favorite vids ever.

and finally, for what is quite possibly my favorite Chuck fan video, there’s this:

“Chuck & Sarah – Accidentally In Love” – Yes, it’s the Counting Crows song made famous in the movie Shrek 2.  I think this is a really well made video, well-timed, nice scene choices, great sense of story, synced well with the music, just overall a great job.  The problem?  Apparently, whichever company owns the publishing rights to the Crows’ performance of this song objected and YouTube pulled it.  So, basically, I don’t know who to credit for it’s creation.  Today, if you do a search on YouTube you’ll still find the video under this name, but the soundtrack has been switched to something really obnoxious (on purpose).  If you read the comments, someone switched the soundtrack on the video and re-uploaded it as a placeholder for a link pointing to the actual video, which is here (click the pic):

So, at least for the time being, you can still view it in it’s original (well, slightly degraded due to generation loss) form.  If you really love this video (like I do) and would like your own, slightly crisper copy, drop me a note and maybe we can come up with something.

So, there you go.

That’s five videos that will hopefully put a smile on your face and get your toe a’ tappin.  And maybe even remind you why you got obsessed with this show in the first place.


Addendum:

This video appeared in the last month or so, and it’s brilliant. It might be the single most inspired, most creative Chuck fan video I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched it more than a dozen times and I’ve yet to get tired of it. As far as I’m concerned, it totally nails everything that makes Chuck the fun, engaging show it is. If you’re a serious fan you’ve probably already seen it, but take the opportunity to watch it again – it’s totally worth it.

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Editing Your Stories on Paper? Not if I can help it.

(A reprint from 'Chuck vs. the Google Group', 7/2/2010).

Referencing this article in Slate:

There’s always a contrarian in every bunch, and I guess I have to stand up and admit that, for this article, it’s going to be me.

I certainly understand how McLuhan’s vision of people switching modes of perception based solely on the individual medium’s characteristics could lead them to commit different mistakes in their writing.  A person who learned how to text or email their friends informally may never develop habits vital to learning more formal writing later.  Conversely, someone who learned how to write critically using longhand and later learns electronic correspondence may see these as fundamentally different pursuits and never adapt their processes across that boundary.

It might even be that the very advantages of the different mediums themselves are the culprit.  For instance, I type because I can enter and edit words far faster than I can write and edit longhand.  Maybe it’s this speed and convenience that seduces me into moving on rather than paying more attention to the quality of what I just wrote (more on that in a couple of paragraphs).

But even with all of that, I can’t accept the premise that I must print something out in order to perceive it properly.  Doing so makes the, IMO, preposterous assumption that we’re simply unable to see the same mistakes on a computer screen that we can see on paper, rather than the more reasonable assumption that we are not conditioned to see those mistakes that way.  And before I would subject myself to the tediousness of dealing with paper trays and ink cartridges I think it would be worth exploring a few more tolerable alternatives.

For instance, if the issue of seeing “better” on paper is simply that the text changes appearance, either in its arrangement or physical form, one easy trick is to make a PDF out of it.  I do this all the time, and I can attest to seeing my work differently when it’s committed to a form more closely resembling a printed work.  From Word, I can just use “Save as PDF” from the “Save” menu and there it is.  It takes five seconds and doesn’t require wood pulp.  Is this roughly akin to printing it?  I would suggest it is.  If you can live without the feel of paper in your hands and the smell of the pulp and ink in your nostrils, then this might be enough for you.

But getting back to what I referred to earlier, I would like to suggest another possibility.  Our habit of writing casually online makes us sloppy.  And these habits are hard to break.  I make many of the same mistakes Jan Swafford ascribes to her students.  I leave out punctuation, use words and phrases redundantly, forget to delete revisions, etc…  But I fix these problems when I re-read my own work, and I don’t mean just “skimming back over”.  Sure, I don’t catch everything, but I didn’t when I used a typewriter and paper, either.  I think many of Jan’s students just didn’t bother to edit effectively and the only blame to lay on using a computer is that its ease-of-use made them lazy.

Want to write something solid?  Read the whole thing again when you think you’re done.  Then, go back to the top and read it again.  And then do it again.  And repeat this until you stop finding things that you obviously need to change and you’re only finding things that you might want to change.  Reading your own work repeatedly gets you used to the cadence of your speech, the rhythm of the beats in your story.  It helps you tune your timing.

A simple trick?  Read your fic out loud during your final edits, as if you’re telling your story to someone else.  It forces you to read what’s on the page instead of what your brain is filling in for you.  And it’s my experience that you will trip yourself over those ugly errors when you hear them come out of your mouth.

And speaking of “coming out of your mouth”, this is what goes through my head when the very suggestion of writing anything out longhand comes up:

‘Nuff said.  :)

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Has it been six months already?

Okay, this isn’t a “Chuck” themed post, but hey – check out the category tag, it’s one of my extremely rare Real Life posts. So, you know, be satisfied that you managed to catch this before it flew by.

It was tooth cleaning day. You know, dentist chair, oral hygienist, yada, yada…

And normally, it wouldn’t even be worth blogging about. I mean, sure, my hygienist is nice and easy on the eyes, blonde and her name is Sarah, but no, there’s no identity confusion going on. Really.

The whole reason this post exists is because while I was sitting there, sometime after she used that nifty ultrasonic water-pick thing to blast off my plaque but before she flossed my teeth with the same aggressive motions as a violinist playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Summer, I got this image in my head that wouldn’t go away even after I left.

Here it is:

Yeah, I know.

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