We were at a loose end my girlfriend and I. We always have at least one TV show on the go at any given moment, sometimes two (generally a 45min drama and a 22min comedy – a combination that allows for some flexibility in terms of what you fancy and how much time you have available).
This day however we had just plain run out. It was looking like time to re-watch an old favourite again, although even this option was looking a little less attractive since only a month or so earlier we had dug out the Frasier boxsets to re-visit Seattle’s favourite son, only to find that every episode seemed far too familiar. And not in a good way. The trick is to try not to over watch something and – in this case at least – although we hadn’t done that with Frasier yet, we could feel we were pushing our luck.
What to do… The next day, while out and about, I saw the first series of Chuck on DVD for the miniscule price of £8. Is that worth giving a go, I wondered to myself. It could be mildly diverting. The clincher was obvious: the mighty Adam Baldwin – Firefly’s Jayne Cobb himself – was a core member of the cast. That meant plenty of scowling. Here’s my £8, thank you. It went in the DVD player.
Warning sign number one was virtually instant. McG. The fucker’s name was all over it. Produced it and even directed the pilot. Oh dear. Then, warning sign number two: it was created by the “guys” that created The OC. I was beginning to think of all the things I could have done with that £8 that it was now too late for. But the first episode ended and we had another. And another. It was actually quite enjoyable.
For those who don’t know, it’s the story of (you guessed it) Chuck, a computer technician for the Buy More (a massive superstore that seems to sell everything from computers to musical instruments, top end AV gear to chocolate bars) who accidentally becomes the sole guardian of the combined intelligence gathered by both the CIA and the NSA when they are accidentally downloaded into his head. Both agencies assign him a handler; big, strong Reagan-loving John Casey (Alec Baldwin) from the NSA and beautiful, deadly Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) from the CIA. The fact that Chuck can use these secrets in his head to identify criminals, defuse bombs and the like soon gets him out in the field and the show quickly becomes a kind of modern day Get Smart.
While the show’s writing is pretty good, its principle joy is in its cast; Zachary Levi is a strong charismatic lead, with comedy chips aplenty but still good looking enough to play the hero. Baldwin and super-fox Strahovski (most recently seen in Statham /Owen movie The Killer Elite) are good too but the quality goes all the way down the line (with special mention to the Buy More’s resident freaks Jeff and Lester). The show’s real ace up its sleeve however is its guest stars. No other TV show in history has pulled together such a nerd’s wish-list of talent from TV and Movies gone by. From the iconic (Linda Hamilton – Sarah Freakin’ Connor herself! – and Timothy Dalton) to the culty (Carrie-Anne Moss and Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula, both in recurring roles) right down to the outright geek nirvana of Gary “I’m in everything” Cole and Harry Dean Stanton playing – yep – a Repo Man, there’s something for everyone. Dolph Lundgren not only gets to turn up and play a baddie, he gets to quote himself from Rocky IV (“I must destroy you….”). I mean, come on, Linda Hamilton even gets to say “Come with me if you want to live…” Good, clean, geeky fun. — Like Fringe (and, it seems, more and more shows every year) Chuck faced cancellation at the end of every season.
However, at the end of season two, fans mounted a campaign to get sandwich chain Subway to help cover the production costs of the third season. Cue what would, in most people’s hands, have been awkwardly elbowed in Subway product placement. Instead Chuck embraced their new financial commitments head on and staged some of the most bravura pieces of advertisement ever seen in a TV show.
Episodes stop for a whole minute at a time while someone reels off every ingredient of the sandwich they are eating as the camera pans slowly along side of it. Never a show to take itself seriously, these Subway “infomercials” became – for me – a ridiculous highlight, almost reaching in some weird inverted way a kind of punk rock fuck you. “We need to advertise? Then we gonna advertise BIG…” Ok, so it’s not as if they’ve broken down Citizen Kane into weekly chunks, but it’s pretty damn fun. It also gets props from me due to a few things that it does do differently from 99% of other the shows that just tread the same old well-worn paths.
First of all, although they do keep Chuck and Sarah in a “will they, won’t they” holding pattern for a while, a lot of the joy of the last two seasons comes from the fact that they are in love and happy. Their lives are dysfunctional but they aren’t and, like in The Office (with its central relationship of Jim and Pam), it becomes quite an unusual dynamic that’s fun to watch play out and just feels ever so slightly different to what we are normally offered.
The show did feel like it lagged a bit somewhere around the midpoint of season 4. You can almost sense the shows creators deciding that it was time to shake up the formula a bit but, perversely, after a stream of three or four below par episodes, you long for Chuck and the gang to crash a high society party to take down an arms dealer, just like in the old days. But even at its end it was unpredictable.
With less than a handful of episodes left, a plot twist at the end of season five turned everything on its head, threatening the very notion of a happy ending for Chuck. More surprising still, the last minute reversal of fortune necessary to put everything back as it was, doesn’t actually arrive, at least not as you’d expect. Though the show ends on a hopeful note, it isn’t the unequivocal happy ending that you’d expect and – my gooey heart tells me – that Chuck deserve
s. With the show now finished for good and the fifth and final season due out on DVD any day now and the first season uber cheap, it’s a good time to give Chuck a go.