Welcome to the first in an ongoing, and in theory infinite series of obviously named articles evaluating whether That Show You’ve Heard Of or That DVD Everyone’s On About is worth your time. We will cut through the ‘if you like this’ and ‘my friend told me it’s good’ bollocks to determine the answer to that sage, undying question… “Should I Bother?”
Granted, this is also only one opinion, but I shall strive to give a well-rounded overview of the thingy in question and a firm sense of whether it’s worth your hard-earned time and money. Or it will be an excuse for a rant. You’ve been warned.
First up, one of the many Little Shows That Could that are around at the moment. Every American TV season produces a new show that cult TV fans and broadsheet critics rally around as a quality program that not enough people are watching. Their emergence is joining death and taxes as one of life’s constants. But that’s not to say that these shows aren’t worth the effort, rather that the divide between viewers of reality TV and crime procedurals and fans of less conventional drama and offbeat comedy is not shrinking, but is instead a binary that seems to define TV.
However, this month has proven that these shows don’t have to wither on the vine. Both Chuck and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (next up on Should I Bother) were granted extraordinary last-minute reprieves last week despite poor (and in the latter’s case, abysmal) ratings, thanks to budgetary trims, shorter episode orders, and the wonderful statistical ambiguities raised by the diversification of viewership in the 21st century brought about by DVRs, DVDs, iTunes, Hulu, and more. We may finally be seeing the emergence of economic models that make niche shows viable on major networks, not just cable. Few thought we would ever see the day.
Chuck has just been renewed for a 13-episode third season, partly thanks to a vigourous fan campaign and the vocal support of critics. From the outside though, I didn’t get the appeal. The concept – an affable computer store employee inadvertently has America’s secrets downloaded into his brain – seemed contrived and nonsensical. Plus, it appeared to be yet another iteration of ‘charming slacker gets thrown into exciting life with resident Hot Chick and kooky friends’ – disposable but harmless.
Eleven episodes in, I can’t completely disagree with my initial, unreasonably kneejerk assessment. Chuck doesn’t offer anything particularly new. There’s nothing to compare with Buffy’s new vernacular, or Arrested Development’s intricacy of wit. Chuck is a composite of many other shows that were either better or similarly average. What is does have is a charmingly demented premise and a very enjoyable cast. As Chuck, Zachary Levi is a truly bizarre biological hybrid of Jerry Seinfeld, Zach Braff, and The Office’s John Krasinski, as if he were bred in a lab to be the ultimate dramedy leading man. But thankfully that’s superficial – he has his own style and anchors the show exceptionally well, helping us to accept the forced premise. Yvonne Strahovski is decent in a Jennifer Garner-mode as Chuck’s CIA handler/protector Sarah, but while the show is fairly self-effacing in many respects, it still uses Strahovski as the ass-kicking dream girl without much irony. Perhaps they do something more with her character soon, but we’re not seeing it yet. She seems to be there to appease those viewers who find eccentricity in their characters a bit too much.
As Chuck’s NSA handler, Adam Baldwin is much more entertaining, almost reprising his Firefly role with the irascible and trigger-happy John Casey. It’s a shame that the male supports in so many American shows are allowed to be very or at least a little deranged while the women aren’t. Sarah is beautiful but otherwise bland (the writing’s fault, not Strahovski’s), as is the other main female character: Chuck’s sister Ellie, played by Sarah Lancaster. Both stand in stark contrast to Casey and to Chuck’s disturbingly doting best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez). A less gender-specific vitality of character, Whedon-style, would be welcome and much fairer. Even Ellie’s husband, in a recurring role, is allowed more fun (Chuck nicknames him Captain Awesome). It doesn’t even have to be humourous – just give us some spice, writers! Women can be multifaceted too! It won’t undermine your emotional song montages at the end of the episode (Chuck sadly has these each week. I’m trying not to hold them against it).
The vanilla flavouring also tarnishes the generic spy plots of the first few episodes. They’re nothing new, and they rely on the entertainment of seeing a genuine everyman thrust into this high-powered, dangerous spotlight to power them through to the end. But that will get very old, very fast. Fortunately, a number of unanswered questions surrounding how and why Chuck was given the Intersect (the name for the massive database in his mind, details of which he recalls on seeing visual cues that cause him to ‘flash’) are giving rise to a more substantial ‘mythology’ (The X-Files has a lot to answer for…) As we’ll see with Dollhouse, the missions are far from the most interesting part of Chuck, and if they recede into the background, all the better.
It’s not a show that breaks new ground, or makes you love the medium even more. It’s not cinematic or literary; it’s television at its most televisual. But Chuck is an entertaining hour that won’t make you wish for it back, with a fun cast and some funny moments. The critical love seemed to kick in during season two, so I’ll stick with it for now.
SHOULD I BOTHER? Yes, if you need something light, but don’t break down someone’s door to get to it.