Chuck: Chuck versus the Balcony

“It’s time to come clean.”

A good TV show, just like a good public speech, a good book, a good poem, should create audience desire. We, as the audience, should be guided into knowing what to hope for—do we want the main character to be happy, or sad? Do we want the couple to stay a couple, or break up? Should the bad guy die, or be redeemed? A strong show creates these tensions for us by effectively creating characters we can actively love or hate, arcs that have pep, sub-plots that keep us interested.

(This is the great problem with the Lost finale, for many people: it manufactured the desire for “answers,” but the creators ultimately wanted us to desire character resolution. Oops!)

Does this mean that a good show will do exactly what I want it to? Absolutely not. To paraphrase Joss Whedon, a good show should give me what I need, not what I want. If Buffy had given me what I thought I wanted, it would have lasted 1.5 seasons and ended with a Bangel sex scene. Because it gave me what I needed, instead, it grew from a good show into a fabulous one. And as Joss masterfully shifted audience desire throughout the seasons, what I thought I’d wanted, at first, became something entirely different by the series end.

But Chuck has lost its sense of desire. Our Pinocchio has grown into a real boy with a real job and a real girlfriend. Along the way, he has revealed himself to be still funny, still befuddled, and insanely neurotic about his relationship. So neurotic, in fact, that it’s hard for me to sympathize, because Chuck—despite all his bluster about marriage—doesn’t seem to fully understand the give-and-take, mature, often-boring adult relationship. He still doesn’t seem fully comfortable as a boyfriend yet, let alone a husband.

Could be a character quirk, sure. But I don’t think it’s an intentional one. Chuck still has a fairy-tale vision of lifetime commitment that seems oddly related to a sense of having scored a fabulous girlfriend and very little to do with a life plan—is this a problem with Chuck the character, or with the way the relationship has been written? Would I feel differently if the show allowed us a few more glimpses into their non-spy life? If the show had allowed its format some deviation to develop the characters and their relationship to one another?

Because of outside pressures, Chuck, has been forced to negotiate character development with brand consistency, and the tension is starting to wear show. Chuck has new magical powers, but hasn’t changed much. Sarah continues to wiffle-waffle between commitment and the spy-life. They talk a big game about marriage, which is supposed to be (according to Vladimir Propp) the way all fairy tales end, but neither of them seems to actually be ready for it.

As for desire, Chuck doesn’t seem to want anything more than renewals. This isn’t the damning criticism that it could be: plenty of shows (Law and Order, for instance) desire nothing but the renewal of episodic satisfaction. Those just aren’t the shows that I particularly love to watch.

All of this is by way of introducing my main point: this episode of Chuck gave me everything I thought I wanted, and nothing that I needed. It was funny, peppy, lots of things happened, the clothes were pretty, Morgan was reasonably involved, Chuck finally got to propose, the spy mythos got more complex…

And I’m left feeling cold. So Chuck is just as neurotic about the proposal as he has been about every single other aspect of his relationship with Sarah? There’s a new reason that Chuck and Sarah can’t be happy—only now it’s Sarah’s fault, but not really, because Chuck understands that she’s doing this for him, even though it was horribly ill-timed? So it does all come back to Volkoff, sort of? And Lester is still creepy? (Were we supposed to be rooting for him?) It was pleasant in the short-term, but unsatisfying in the long-term.

I’ve read quite a few reviews online this week, which I don’t usually do. But I was trying to figure out if it’s just me. Is it? My in-depth statistical analysis says no: it’s me and about half of the fandom. The other half really liked this episode, probably because it did have everything we want from a Chuck episode. For me they didn’t add up to a satisfying whole, but for others, it did.

Is that significant? I’m not sure. But right now, I’m starting to think that if I weren’t reviewing this show, I wouldn’t bother watching any more episodes, but would just wait for the series finale.

Bytes:

• Sarah: “Besides, I’ve got such a bad history of proposals.” That is now on my list of first-date must-says, along with “I’m not sure how many cats I have; they breed so quickly,” and “Alliance or Horde?”

• Lester: “It’s like they’re stuck in the old country. With their dated traditions and obsolete dietary restrictions. I keep telling them: ‘I live in the United States of America now. I’m not in Canada anymore.”
Big Mike: “You mean India, right?”
Lester: “What? No. I’m a Saskatchewan, a Hinjew of Saskatchewan. Some believe that we were a cult. Of sorts.”

• Morgan: “Casey is your man servant. Let him man-serve you.”

• Morgan: “Tide to-go sticks. Left jacket pocket.”

And Pieces:

• Lester singing was horribly uncomfortable. I couldn’t root for him to score the hot chick. I just couldn’t.

• Sarah’s blue dress was an interesting choice for a day at the office.

• I did enjoy Morgan’s pronunciation of the Lu-wah valley. It just rolls off the tongue, like a pinot with a stable on the label and a stork on the cork.

• Did anyone else expect Chuck to put the ring in his ear and the earbud in the box?

Where do you stand? How many Danny Kayes out of four?

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

17 comments:

Mark Greig said...

I’d have to say one Danny Kaye out of four.

I hated this episode. I’ve never hated an episode of Chuck before but all the time I was watching I kept hoping that Mr. Fabulous (aka Timothy Dalton) would show up at some point and save it from being a complete disaster. Alas, that was not to be.

Cesar said...

Well, I didn't *completely hate* it, but it certainly had problems.

The timing of the proposal was completely off for their relationship, and there is a huge problem in why Sarah let the proposal go on when she knew what would happen (I'm guessing she didn't knew the arrest would happen at that particular moment, but she still knew it would happen soon, right?), but ignoring that, I thought it was an ok episode, and I really liked the Morgan scenes (cancelling the proposal at the start and being a double agent) I also had a good laugh when Casey just sat there and started helping with the mission.

As for Lester, I don't know if we were supposed to be rooting for him, but I certainly wasn't (come on, he's Lester!) and for me it was just one more good as usual Jeff/Lester subplot in connection with the theme of the week (marriage? proposals? yes, it wasn't the most developed theme, but still). The singing *was* uncomfortable, and I think that was the point (I think all Jeff/Lester scenes are uncomfortable)

I'd give it between one and a half and two Danny Kayes out of four

(I understand what you didn't like about this one and I agree, but I certainly wouldn't stop watching after this one, and I have hopes the deep undercover plot will be good)

Tom L said...

I'm surprised by the number of positive reviews this episode got. It was terrible.

Sure, Chuck wasn't the most confident guy in the universe, but he wasn't so freaking insecure! Now every episode is about his fears and his relationship with Sarah. Damn it, what about the other characters? Where has the depth of this show gone to?

And the plot... Will we ever know what Volkoff does? Because so far we've been told he is a bad guy, but we haven't seen it!

Oh well. The first half of season 3 left me angry and furious, but kept me watching. This arc is leaving me bored and cold. One can only hope the back 11 will be a improvement.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

I couldn't tell you how I feel about the episode because I didn't watch it. Something odd happen yesterday: I clicked on this week's recorded episode of Chuck on my DVR, listened for about two minutes while looking at something else on my computer, and then realised I'd rather watch/listen to something else (and always will), so I pressed delete.

How did Chuck, a show that I defended with all my might last year and of which I sung praises just this summer, get to this point? For me, it's exactly like Buffy season 7 (funny you should mention it then), which dropped the real-world analogy in favour of a stronger focus on the fantasy universe, and that's neither what I personally wanted nor needed from the series.

Just like I didn't care about the source of Buffy's power or the nameless Slayerettes, I don't care about Volkoff or his shenanigans. Not because it's badly plotted, but because it's not the sort of thing I've ever cared about. I've said it many times before, but Buffy was about a girl learning to be an adult (with monsters), and Chuck was about a man-child learning to be just a man (with spies). Both shows reached a point where they stopped being about that, and pretentious producers can claim all they want that it's because I don't know what I need, but I'm pretty sure I *need* a show to speak to me on a personal level in order to love it.

With that being said, this is me, and then there's everybody else. I hope folk who are into comedic spy stories without life metaphors continue finding what they want and need from the series.

Me? I'm out.

Jess Lynde said...

Wow. I'm kind of surprised by the visceral negative reaction to this one. I went into it with my "I guess I better just get this over with" attitude towards watching Chuck of late, but then found the episode surprisingly entertaining. And I got quite caught up in the emotion of the proposal moment, especially Morgan's sheer joy at it finally happening. Of course, then they ripped it all away with the arrest ...

I don't believe Sarah knew anything about General Beckman's plan to put her undercover as a double with Volkoff. She simply thought she was completing the handoff as asked. Even though earlier she told Beckman she'd do whatever it took to find Volkoff (apparently giving the General the idea for this plan), she had absolutely no clue what was happening until Beckman explained it to her in her cell after the arrest. I think a lot in the fandom are just flat out wrong when they accuse her of letting Chuck propose when she knew she was about to go undercover. She didn't know.

I also think you all are being overly harsh on Chuck about his proposal neuroses. Yes, I usually get extremely irritated by him being a man-child about virtually every other aspect of their relationship, but a proposal can be a very high stress event for a guy. Society has built up this idea that women want a proposal to be the end-all, be-all ultimate romantic story of all time, that they can tell to their friends, neighbors, kids, grandkids, etc. forever and ever. Is it any wonder some guys get overly neurotic about creating the perfect moment? Sarah's not your typical woman, but maybe that's why Chuck got even crazier about wanting it to be perfect for her. To give her one "life moment" that resembled something supposedly normal women want.

That said, I do agree that the timing doesn't really seem right for these two to get married. We need to see a lot more of them being a functional, adult couple first.

I also totally agree that Lester was beyond creepy with his serenade, but I have a quote correction for you, Josie. He's not a "Hindu" of Saskatchewan, but a "Hinjew." The joke is that Lester is Jewish. That's why in the tent he had that crazy mash-up of Jewish stuff and Indian stuff. Creepy, but kind of funny, too.

Overall, I found myself pleasantly surprised by this one, even though it had a lot of the usual Chuck problems. Perhaps, given how disenchanted I've been with the show of late, it only takes a little emotional resonance to impress me.

Gus Brunetti said...

I could just copy what Jess said. It's like she read my mind! And while I also agree that it's too early for them to get married, I think the producers are leading up to a wedding at the (Series) finale. And they should. Renewing would be a mistake, but wrapping up the series before that would be strange.

Dimitri, S07 of Buffy is my favorite. I see it as the final movement of independence of a girl who's finally become an adult. And the writing is much, much tighter.

Josie Kafka said...

What great comments from everyone!

Dimitri, I'm so glad you posted your thoughts. I'd kept you in the back of my mind during this review, thinking "Okay, Dimitri could find something good, Dimitri could find something good..." and trying to see the show with the same enthusiasm that you bring to your S1 reviews.

And then, when I couldn't psychically steal positive thoughts from your brain, I just wrote my own review.

Only now it turns out that I was stealing thoughts from your brain, like a mild mind meld. Hmm...

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

Gustavo, oh, yeah, a lot of people love S7 of Buffy. In fact, it seems everybody here lists it as their favourite. Its first half had pretty solid writing too (the second half had some problems with internal logic and dialogue but whatever), but I just couldn't relate to having a whole bunch of teenage girls camping in my basement. I tried, but then my girlfriend thought it was weird, their parents started treating it as a free babysitting service, and I missed actually going to the bathroom in my own house.

I'm not suggesting Buffy S7 or even Chuck S4 is bad. It's just not for me.

Jess, "I guess I better just get this over with" describes perfectly how I've felt all season, and last night a question came to me: why? Not why I feel the show is a chore to watch, but why I feel compelled to execute that chore. No one's holding a gun to my head, you know?

I'm going to keep reading your reviews, though, Josie. Still a fan of those.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

Ooh, creepy. Josie, our mindmeld is so powerful we posted at the same time!

Jess Lynde said...

I definitely don't list S7 of Buffy as my favorite. I didn't care for it much overall. S2 and S3 are my favorites.

I've been pondering the "Why bother?" question, too, when watching Chuck has felt like such a chore for most of the season. And the answer for me is that I'm still hoping it will turn around and recapture some of that former greatness. I used to love it and look forward to it so much. I guess I just keeping hoping things will improve, and that I'll be there to see it. I've got too much invested to just throw in the towel now. But if the rest of this season largely sucks and they get renewed, I doubt I'll be watching Season 5.

André said...

Have to agree with Josie. Chuck completely lost its way this season. It was fine to do some fan service in the "mini-season" last year, but this year every. damn. episode feels like fan fiction to me. And not particularly good fan fiction. It is approaching Lois & Clarke territory, which went from being a show about Superman to an annoying show about the sappiest couple on earth. All we're missing is the Alien Doppelgänger...

Josie Kafka said...

Thank you, Jess--I fixed the "Hinjew" comment. (Wow, it sounds vulgar, doesn't it?)

Dimitri, we'll have to be careful. As I understand it, mind melds either result in massive retconning of established mythologies (although I don't think JJ Abrams has masterminded ours) or the creation of a creepy third one-hearted being forced to live in an alternate dimension.

Perhaps that creepy third being can take over the Chuck reviews. That would be nice.

Gus Brunetti said...

Jess, you are reading my mind so accurately, it's getting weird. I feel the same way about being invested and hoping it improves. Damn, that's exactly why I couldn't stop myself from watching every single episode of Heroes.

And though S07 os my favorite of Buffy, S03 will always have a place in my heart because of its Big Bad. The Mayor is awesome, certainly one of my favorite villains of all time. When he died, I got very sad, even though the S03 finale is spectacular. I wish he hadn't died and instead become a recurring character or an asset, like Spike.

michem55 said...

The true reason that I watched this show was for the "laughing so hard that I have to pause the show and catch my breath" moments ... and the sad part is that it only seems to be Morgan who brings those for me any more. I always thought of the spy stories to be a backdrop to the funny shenanigans Chuck used to be in .... but those spy scenes seem to be more serious and less funny. I didn't dislike this episode as much as everyone else here did, as Morgan still made me laugh really hard a couple of times ... but I miss laughing at Chuck/ Casey scenes, or the Beckman scenes, or the Chuck/ Sarah spy scenes ... Still love the show though.

ChrisB said...

Very interesting series of comments. Although this show is hardly high literature, I am enjoying it. I do wish there had been more of a relationship before we got to the proposal part, but it doesn't seem to upset me as much as it does some of the rest of you. For me, this show is mindless fun -- perfect at the end of the day when my DVR is empty.

Jess Lynde said...

I've been enjoying seeing how your take changes (or doesn't) as you go through the series relatively quickly, Chris. I wonder if viewing it over a much shorter time frame makes the flow of the series go down easier. Most of us commenting (and sometimes bitterly complaining) had been watching the series unfold weekly over a number of years, so the flaws probably seemed a lot more significant to us. We had a week (or longer) to obsess over the developments and our disappointments, which likely made it harder to brush off the perceived downswing in quality.

I noticed a similar thing from the reverse perspective when I initially caught up with The Walking Dead. So many people complain about how awful the second season on the farm was. Too drawn out. No action. But when I watched the whole thing over a few days it flowed pretty well for me.

Binging seems to work in the favor of some series. Maybe Chuck is one of those!

ChrisB said...

Jess -- I was thinking something very similar as I watched the next episode. This show is certainly flawed, and this season is the weakest by a long way. For me, at least, the Buy More stuff has run its course and I tend to tune out any scene with Jeff and Lester. I was terribly disappointed when Chuck downloaded the Intersect 3.0 from his dad's laptop as I thought the idea of Chuck learning how to be a spy without it would have been a great storyline. This story of Sarah going undercover to rescue Mrs. B. is just wrong.

But, what does work well in a quick viewing like this are the relationships. I love Morgan and I love Casey and this season shows them at their best so far. Morgan is much less annoying and it's fun to watch him become the confidant and Casey's partner. Casey, as Josie pointed out in an earlier review, is becoming more "human" and his daughter is a wonderful addition. It was a genius idea to have Morgan and her become involved as it adds another layer to the Casey/Morgan dynamic.

The one advantage that coming to a series at the end has is that, as odd as this sounds, I know when it is going to end. So, I am not left wondering if each season's story is its last. I know I have two halves of a series to go before I hit the coda.

This is a long way of saying that I think you're right, Jess. There is a certain advantage in blowing through the series as it is easier to discount what doesn't work and just watch for what does.