Why would Chris Fedak let Chuck choose being a spy over Sarah?

(a reprint from a Google Group Post)

I think that to answer this question, you need to remember where CF’s predilections lie and how he views the “Chuck” story and its characters.

We’ve been around this subject many times, and in an attempt to figure out CF’s vision a lot of us have digested page after page of web interviews, seen many minutes of video interviews, listened intently to hours of podcasts and – of course – tried to puzzle out the answer from what CF has done with the show. There are also myriad little circumstantial clues sprinkled throughout the “Chuckverse”, like why Ali Adler was added to help write ‘Chuck vs. the Ring’, that help flavor the various theories. I have one of my own, of course, the caveat being that any or all of it could be totally wrong.

I think, in the beginning, all CF wanted was a comic book story based on fantasy wish fulfillment. That somehow, due to circumstances beyond his control, a super nerd gets thrust into a fantastical spy world, replete with beautiful, sexy assassins gruff, dispassionate military establishment types and nefarious villains. CF was probably aiming for an exaggerated, pseudo reality where he could have James Bond like escapades (falling out of planes without parachutes, fights inside Gravitrons, etc….) yet have consistent bits of irreverent comedy. Sort of a mix of Alias and Get Smart.

Had CF been able to realize his vision unimpeded, we’d have gotten a very shallow show, with two dimensional characters that existed for the sole purpose of driving Chuck through his hero’s journey from nerd to spy. Each of the other characters’ contributions would have been rigidly compartmentalized – Sarah to act as the tantalizingly sexy but lethal partner Chuck pines for but can never have, Casey as the uncompromisingly stern but fair tough guy who keeps Chuck humble, Morgan solely for when Chuck needs a ready confidante, Devon and Ellie dropped in ad-hoc for family stories and the Buy Morons even more randomly for pure comedy. I think these characters would have remained largely static for the entirety of the series’ run. Just imagine ‘Chuck vs. the Third Dimension” characters for every episode. IMHO, this show wouldn’t have made it past the first season.

What likely happened was that while Chris was pitching his spy comic to his USC film school buddy JS, Schwartz expressed his “twenty-something’s coming of age” story idea to CF, and like the Reese’s peanut butter and chocolate story, both of them realized the two premises could be fused into a symbiotic whole. Schwartz brought a focus on Chuck’s relationships with his various love interests, his family and – unavoidably – the other agents he was forced to interact with under dramatically charged circumstances. For these to work, those characters were going to have to be fleshed out considerably. This was the lever that initially moved CF off his original concept and started him on the road to trading compromise for advancement.

Once the pilot was green lit for development, McG probably came on board, possibly to mollify the studios concerns regarding Schwedak being able to pull off an action-adventure show. It’s hard to believe that someone of McG’s stature did not have a profound impact on the show’s balance and feel. I can only guess, based on McG’s other work, that he might have brought more relevancy and tension to the action elements of the show. Maybe a little more emotional grounding and poignancy to Chuck’s plight. Whatever he and (later) Norman Buckley added, it worked. The amalgam of all of these elements produced a nearly perfectly balanced pilot, and the unexpectedly strong enthusiasm for it at the 2007 SDCC foreshadowed a strong initial season run.

I’m guessing two other things happened during that period. First, it should have been instantly obvious that Levi and Strahovski had strong chemistry together. While Schwedak probably reveled in their luck, they might not have been fully cognizant of how this force would later yank and distort the original concept’s emphasis on Chuck, but that’s neither here nor there. Second, other writers were hired. And as tends to happen when a bunch of creative talents are brought together into a collective, they acted like a herd of cats. That is, to say, they each saw intriguing possibilities enhancing and expanding the characters in ways not anticipated by CF.

Having seen his fears of premise dilution assuaged by the pilot’s success, Fedak was already in a mode to accept the input of other creative minds. So, faced with tight schedules and little practical experience, he probably led the team with a very loose hand, letting them go where they would to enrich Chuck’s world. And where they went, like bugs to a porch light, was the Chuck and Sarah relationship. I think this is how the relationship initially got accelerated past the point of prudence – CF didn’t really have a feel for it and didn’t rein it in, and JS offered no resistance to a fast pace because he knew he could just reset the relationship as many times as he wanted, OC-style.

During the first and second season runs, it started to become clear that CF’s episodes were a little, uh… ‘clunky’ in terms of the relationship stuff. He seemed to write action and comedy fairly well, as well as facile but serviceable spy mythos. I think he got better at it over time, but I don’t think he ever demonstrated a real command in setting up a romantic scene or exploiting it. When they brought in Adler for ‘Ring’, it just seemed to put a punctuation mark on this weakness. The good news seemed to be that he realized he had it.

So now let’s get back to the original question, “how could Fedak have thought it was okay to have Chuck choose the spy life over Sarah?”

I hope I’ve laid enough groundwork that you can visualize that it might always have been CF’s intent that Chuck would eventually choose the spy life over any and all obstacles. That the story in his head was always centered on Chuck’s life, his needs and his aspirations. And the only reason we even ask that question is that so many other cooks have stirred the kettle that CF’s original focus has been diminished. Today, a lot of fans think Sarah is the most compelling character on the show, and there are strong proponents of Casey, the family and even the Buy Morons.

I believe that during the pre-production of S3, two things were in play. First, TPTB came to a decision that it was time to consummate the Chuck Sarah relationship by the end of the season. Second, JS and several of the lead writers either left (Skeeter) or got involved with other pilot projects and weren’t able to devote their full attention to “Chuck”. In the resulting vacuum, CF stepped in and produced a season arc that mostly reflected his idea for how a season culminating in a Charah resolution should proceed. And with most of the seasoned heads preoccupied, it really didn’t get the benefit of review and discourse that previous seasons received. The writing team wrote the episodes they were assigned and the perfect storm of reduced budget and distractions squeezed out the opportunities for oversight that might have averted the plot and character dysfunctions which soured many fans on S3.

The short answer to the question? It was because Fedak saw nothing out of place with Chuck choosing his destiny over Sarah, and no one who could convince him otherwise did.

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Added a new Fanfic page…

…the “Charah” Snowglobe, a drabble previously only published on the ‘Chuck vs. the Google Group’ forum.

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The “Second Annual AWESOME Awards for Excellence in Chuck!Fic Writing” first phase of voting is going on right now over on FanFiction.net. I voted yesterday, and having nominated Ulstergirl for a category or two, it’s reasonable to assume I voted her way here or there. 🙂

Ulstergirl (or NDNickerson as her Live Journal account name identifies her) might not be one of the top names you’re familiar with if you’ve approached “Chuck” fanfic from FanFiction.net. In fact, the most reviews she’s ever got for a “Chuck” story was 20 (as of this writing), which is woefully low compared to the several hundred many of the more popular fics have attracted.

As she says herself, she doesn’t expect very much response from the FanFiction.net audience, although she continues to post there in the hopes that it will act as a loss-leader for her work at Live Journal and her own web site, Ivory-Charmed. And it is through one of these two latter venues that you should find her works.

Why not read her stories at FanFiction.net? Well, you can. In fact, I think most if not all of her “Chuck” fics are available there from her author’s page. But I don’t recommend it. Why? Because they’ve been edited to comply with the site’s position on “adult” content. And having read both the ‘NC-17’ versions on Live Journal and the ‘R’ versions on FF.net, I have to say with all candor that the full versions deliver a more searing, visceral impact that sets them apart from the mainstream fics.

I don’t want to get into a debate about conservative values, or whether writing explicit sex scenes is in poor taste, morally questionable or simply pornography. I do care that the stories get to draw from a full palette of human experience in order to engage the reader. And the powerful symbiosis of sexuality and emotion is only diminished when it has to be bisected in the interests of social conformity.

There are, no doubt, venues in which the overt display of sexually provocative material should be limited, if for no other reason than the desire to be accommodating to those who would find such material offensive. But I believe that fanfic, whose audience by and large considers it to be a secretive pleasure, should not be one of those venues.  FanFiction.net should consider it sufficient that the stories are marked with the appropriate rating, and that potential readers be presented with an age challenge as an unambiguous demarcation.  Maybe one day they will.

At this point, many of you (hah, as if there actually are a ‘many’ reading this blog) might be asking yourself, “why bother worrying about adult content when there’s lots of other authors who are practicing self-censorship?” That’s easy. Ulstergirl is a fantastic author. For those whose main joy in reading fanfic comes from vicariously experiencing the complex interactions of character relationships, her work is like catnip. She has a highly visual style, often using tell-tale character actions to inform their feelings. And every single one of her fics has, during its course, created scenes that are seared into my memory. Scenes that reading hundreds of fics since haven’t erased.

There’s the beer-soaked PDA in a Mexican karaoke bar (“all the proof you need”) and Chuck’s defiance of inevitability through a deliberately provocative whisper (in “Restless”) or my favorite, the unexpected authenticity of a mission moment (in “to keep the sky from falling”). These scenes are delivered with power and with passion, and I can’t imagine anyone coming away from them unaffected.

I don’t know whether Ulstergirl will win any of the awards this year. I certainly hope she does, and I’ve done what I can to help. If any of what I’ve written here makes you more interested, I suggest that you give some of her stories a try. And if you like them, don’t be shy about reviewing – it’s such a small price to pay for what she’s sharing with us.

Ulstergirl’s Fics can be found here.

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The Light, The Dark and Everything In-Between

Just as “Chuck” is often a varied blend of comedy, drama, action, romance and adventure, its fans can be a diverse mix of tastes and temperaments. As I’ve witnessed from participating in various forums and blogs around the ‘net, it’s possible to encounter people whose desires for the series are so askew from your own you start to wonder if you’re even watching the same show.

One fan, who I’ll call ‘X’ is clearly quite intelligent, crisp of wit and able to put his thoughts into engaging prose. I read his posts diligently and consider each of his points carefully, weighing them against my own beliefs. His arguments are routinely succinct and convincing. They always make sense. But I almost always disagree with him.

See, he’s just wired differently. He laughs at BuyMore stuff that I don’t think is the least bit funny. He likes characters that I find so undistinguished that I almost forgot they existed. And he seems innately less disturbed by plot turns and character mutations that make me want to hurl epithets (and sometimes objects) at my TV screen. I consider him my anti-matter adversary. If I like something, he’s almost certain to like the opposite. He means no malice, nor is he deliberately being a contrarian. He’s just genuinely attracted to things that repulse me (well, except for Yvonne, who’s like a universal constant or something but that’s a topic for a different post).

Then there’s fan ‘Y’. He’s been given divine guidance from above and the stone tablets depict Chuck’s “Hero’s Journey”. This journey must be dark, dramatic and woven with intriguing mythology. The other characters are only relevant in how they service Chuck in his journey, and are otherwise superfluous. BuyMore? Waste of screen time. Romance? Fine, as the ‘E’ subplot, once important things are taken care of. Villains? Yes! The more powerful and effective the better, so as to emphasize Chuck’s heroism in the face of said villainy.

Woe onto you if your own beliefs advocate a different character or story emphasis. Heretics must be indoctrinated or discredited. Suggest that you’d like to see the show return to its lighter, season one roots and you get the (metaphorically speaking) cold, unblinking fish eye of death. Accompanied, of course, with a treatise on why you’re completely, utterly, inescapably… wrong. As if anyone’s opinion could actually be “wrong”, as opposed to differing.

I’m going to omit talking about fan ‘Z’. He runs his own blog where he attracts certain types of personalities to his cult using the politics of hate speech. He’s completely reprehensible as a human being and I don’t want to even give him anonymous attention. But it is worth noting that there’s a tentpole out there in the fandom with his name on it, for considerations of fan diversity if nothing else.

As for me, I belong to the “Light” camp. That’s not “light” as in “forces of light” or any type of moral superiority. It’s light as in “lighter tone” for the show. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I loved season one. It was not without its flaws, mind you. Certainly, neither ‘Helicopter’, ‘Sizzling Shrimp’ nor ‘Sandworm’ is going to win any poll for favorite Chuck episode. But the lighter, more comedic tone of S1, as contrasted with mid-to-late season S2 and certainly the first baker’s dozen of S3, was a lot more fun for me. I like romps and hijinks. I liked that the villains were a little silly sometimes or could be redeemed by the end of the episode. I liked that Chuck surviving despite his lack of training was somehow made more credible by the relative ineptitude of the bad guys. All of this stuff is tolerable when things stay just shy of tongue-in-cheek.

And being an agent of “light”, I can also lay claim to the fun parts of the Chuck-Sarah romance. You know, the “forced to kiss you goodnight” scene in ‘Tango’, or the “pizza, no olives” scene in ‘Wookie’ or the “God, you’re so pretty” scene in ‘Truth’. These worked best in the light tone of S1; it’s hard to imagine them delivering the same hopeful charm embedded within the darker arcs of later seasons.

Anyway, between all of these divergent fan personalities lies the bulk of the fan base. We’re all arguably unique in our proportions of what interests and moves us, what we’ll put up with and what will make us leave. And we all, as part of a tiny sample set of the viewing public, represent the likes and dislikes of that larger, less vocal majority.

But what use is all of this?

For the fans, is there any sense of community to be gained from our (forgive me) “intersection” of interests? Or is the mosaic of appeal so granular and overlaps so narrow that they’re just as likely to lead to fractious infighting as common understanding?

For the show runners, can recognizing how widely disparate their show’s fans are be helpful? Or are they trapped by the limited number of stories they can tell while retaining widespread appeal?

Well, there’s no comprehensive answer to these questions. But some small amount of enlightenment might be gained here:

Chuck Fan Survey 2.0

What is this? It’s the unofficial survey that the good folks at ChuckTV.net put together recently. About 2500 people took the poll, voting on what they thought the most important elements of the show were over the course of S3. The results are very interesting. I recommend looking through the results yourself, to see Mel’s caveats about the data and how to interpret it. But here’s one interesting bit of data:

When asked to rank their most favorite to least favorite elements of the show, 39% felt the Chuck-Sarah relationship was the most important element of the show, while 35% of those polled thought it was Team Bartowski. Only 14% felt the Comedy was the most important, and a dwindling 11% voted for ‘The Hero’s Journey’.

I think this means that 74%, nearly three-quarters of those polled, thought the interaction of the three principals, now six principals post-S3, was the most important part of the show. Whether they were in comedic situations or whether they followed the hero’s story template was less critical.

For fans, I think this says clearly that what almost everyone cares about, what unifies the fan base unequivocally, are the main characters. Not a surprise, I grant you, but it’s good to see it quantified. So if you want to get traction with a current or prospective fan, starting with your feelings towards one of the principals is a good way to break the ice.

For the show runners, this should be telling you strongly that story lines that split up or reduce screen time for the Team Bartowski members should be terminated with extreme prejudice. People want to see them working together, and that should comprise the bulk of the plot. Despite facile evidence to the contrary, they don’t care as much about Jeffster. Or the BuyMore. Or the spy world or the hero’s journey or the mythology or the guest stars. They definitely do not care about the Gravitron.

The show exists in your main characters. People are devoted to them, how they relate to each other and what happens to them during the story. Pay keen attention to getting that right and you might find a back nine under your Christmas tree.

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As you can probably surmise from the header art and the name of this blog, I’m a fan of the TV show “Chuck”.  You may or may not already be aware that the fandom I belong to is not a passive fandom, having staged two, successive, successful campaigns to have the show renewed for a following season.  Due to all of this fan dedication, there are countless sites across the web with forums and discussion groups available to share our passion for the show.

So why make another one?

I guess it all boils down to sustaining a viewpoint.  Let me explain:

I’ve already been on a lot of other forums.  Hell, I don’t intend to stop visiting them or posting on them.  But when you’re a guest on someone else’s forum, there are certain  implied obligations you’re supposed to take on.  Like being coherent.  Or not contradicting yourself.  Or not making everyone else insane trying to follow your logic.  Most importantly, however, is the obligation to not sabotage the very position your espousing by using such weak or fragile arguments that those with opposing viewpoints can knock it down with no effort.

Because when you do this, whether you hear them or not, the silent readers who agree with your position are quietly asking you to stop speaking for them.

On this blog, however, I don’t have to take on any of those obligations.  No, really!  I make no promises that what I write here will be easy to read, equivocal, profound or even sane.  Just that it will be, as close as I can make it, what I really think.  And if it’s not the best argument that could be made, I invite you to make a better one.  But I won’t feel bad since it’s my own blog!  (Okay, I still will but I’m hoping it’ll be less)

I’ve set my expectations fairly low in terms of viewership.  I think it’s healthier that way – framing what you say based on attracting more readers can lead you astray.  So if that means a few people drop in from Google Search and leave after a head-scratch and “WTF?”, so be it.

And finally, just so I don’t have to say it later, let me issue a blanket apology for any excess of boring introspection or incidental narcissism that might appear here.  I’m only human and some of this is bound to leak out if I write long enough.

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