Thursday, January 26, 2012

What We Lose When We Lose Chuck

Chuck is coming to a final end. In the largest sense, big deal—I’ve dealt with far more painful losses lately. In the TV sense, big deal—Chuck had one exceptional season, and thereafter was simply fun and pretty good. Furthermore, it was never a show that had very certain footing. It would get picked up for about half a season, with no promise of any more. So it was written with that in mind, with everything resolving in episode 13 or so, only to get picked up for the rest of the season, at which point the crew had to string together what they could into an ending, a second one, no less. At times, it was sloppy in narrative, and cheap in appearance and execution (I was particularly sensitive to some dreadful ADR), but it was always pretty fun. Still, this isn’t a magnificent culmination on the order of The Wire ending, nor the close of a cultural era on the order of Lost, nor a tragedy on the order of Farscape. Chuck is ending. Oh well.
            But it’s not like it goes away unmourned. There are plenty of things about Chuck that feel special or unique beyond a bunch of characters I like to see running around, and TV will be a poorer place when it goes, and as it does, it seems like a good time to highlight and remember them.

Style—The visual patois of Chuck is distinct from anything I’ve noticed on broadcast TV. It’s very fluid, sometimes solid and grounded, sometimes steadicamed and nervous, sometimes evoking Koyaanisqatsi, but mostly, it has a style that’s not particularly easy to nail down. Extreme POVs, actors staring directly into the camera, or an object of focus directly before the camera, freeze-frames, cut-aways, sweep transitions, captions, Chuck uses just enough stylistic flourish to feel silly, but not so much it drowns. Honestly, it seems most like a live-action cartoon.
            This is primarily fitting for the show’s universe, where the cartoonishly extraordinary clashes with the cartoonishly mundane in a sly parody of both spy thrillers and 21st century strip mall aesthetic, where our nation’s deadliest secret agents are forced into our tackiest retailers. The gleaming, ultra-tech spy world lurks beneath the garish, tacky retail world, but the line isn’t terribly distinct. Cool white, black, and steel dominate in spy land, where plain swaths of green and beige dominate retail, but there’s a definite bleed, best seen in John Casey, a ruthless monolith constrained into a cheap golf shirt and Dockers.
            The cartoon and contrast style also serves, at least early on, as an expression of Chuck’s jaundiced view of the world—when we meet him, his life seems stuck, and nothing is quite real, and his psychology expresses itself in the show’s style, which is pretty rare on TV. And that expression leads us straight to-

Shameless Self-Awareness—There is a scene, early in season 2, that has Sarah entering the Buy More, and even more than usual, we’re hilariously pulled into Chuck’s mind space:

It’s a funny sequence that says a lot about Chuck, and anyone who’s been infatuated with someone glorious and unattainable can sympathize with. The Buy More Strut sequence became a beloved tradition, with nearly every character getting one over the years. Also, it was immature and tawdry, and the show was clearly aware of that, just like they were aware of what it had in Yvonne Strahovski—an actress who could play the ruthless professional and wounded soul at the same time, looked credible in a wild melee, was funny being silly and funny being terrifying, wasn’t dwarfed by her freakishly tall co-stars, and also happened to be a woman of nigh impossible beauty. Well, why not exploit that? So Chuck did. If there was a chance to put Sarah or a guest star in a sleazy spy staple—cat suits, bikinis, high slit dresses, and once a belly dancer costume—Chuck was going to take it, and shoot it long, and in slow motion.
Exploitation is nothing new to TV, and even if it’s not really a good thing, it’s an understandable thing. We all need to feed our reptile brains on occasion. Now, though, I’ll be honest, I find a lot of the exploitive stuff I’ve run across is pretty alarming. I think you all know I can’t credibly be called weak of stomach. My tastes run pretty dark. Titillation on too many shows gets hidden, and wrapped up in ugliness—they’re viciously exploitive, with lab techs prodding the raped corpses of underwear models, dumped by serial killers in PG-13 versions of BSDM clubs. They’re not fun enough to be sexy, and they trivialize the themes they pretend to deal with. “Fukkit,” says Chuck, “enjoy this simple bit of cheesecake.” I admire the honesty, and the cheesecake. And if you were into beef, Chuck sometimes had that, too.
            I admit I’m surprised by just how much I admire that honesty. To wit: when Chuck’s future was uncertain, fans initiated one of the simplest and most successful campaigns to save it in the history of such campaigns—they frequented the advertisers, and wrote them explaining why, until one, Subway, effectively saved the show in exchange for some integrated advertising.
            Now, again, this isn’t nothing so strange, lots of shows have to do this sort of thing, and it nearly always sets my teeth on edge. Characters pause to spew a new car’s features as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, or the show winks and tries to play like it’s too cool. Chuck, again, doesn’t play coy, or cool. The over-the-top reverence on display for Subway—sandwiches passed like delicate swords, characters intoning fixings like catechism, choirs trilling the whole time—there’s no winking, just a brazen plea. So brazen, it becomes hilarious. You have to respect it.

Captain Awesome—It’s kind of shocking how beloved a character Devon turned out to be. Among the archetypes the characters started as (Hapless Protagonist, Dream Girl, Best Friend, Caring Sister), Devon “Captain Awesome” Woodcombe would have been the easiest to hate. Chuck's sister’s fiancé, he was Chuck’s contrast, the perfect guy, though the appellation (short-hand for “Giant Douche”) suggested otherwise—we just had to wait to see how otherwise. But that never happened. Awesome, it turned out, utterly deserved the name Awesome, which in turn became one of the show’s best jokes. How often are we asked to laugh at a character’s strengths rather than their failings?
            There are a lot of tricks, on both a writing and performance level, that went into Awesome’s awesomeness. He was never written or played as particularly smug or judgemental, rather his beatific grace suggested he sincerely believed his magnificence could be achieved quite easily by others. Early on, he felt most sympathetic towards Chuck, seeming to recognize…well, something we’ll get to later. Applications of Awesome’s awesomeness ran the gamut from comforting to unexpected. His two tragic flaws, for example, are also predicated on his splendiforousness—he’s such a perfect man he can’t bear to lie to Ellie (thus he is awful at keeping Chuck’s secrets once learned), and to the nefarious interests looking from the outside for the spy, Awesome was the obvious choice. It’s a strange way to spin a character, but it worked.
            Lester, Jeff, Big Mike, their ends are tragic, but there are plenty of Amoral Idiots, Druggie Space Heads, and Blustery Bosses to imperfectly fill the void. But what could fill the void left by Captain Awesome? What could? He’s like a unicorn. There’s simply no substitute.

Music—Music, such a key component of the cinematic experience, often feels like an afterthought on TV, limited in use and variety. At worst, music is just there to lazily establish the past: “It’s 1969! How can you tell? Jefferson Airplane is playing constantly!” There are oddballs—Breaking Bad loves an ironic montage—but most of the time, it’s either underpinning a scene, or the spine of a montage, fine and effective uses both, unless we're talking some insanity like Glee. Licensing music is a tricky endeavor, too. Often there’s some cross-promotion involved, and, of course, a show-runners tastes.
            Chuck stands out to me in the variety, prominence, ubiquity, and uses of music. Chuck the character is a big music geek after all, and if the show visually reflects his worldview, it should auditorially as well. There’s a care in the way the show deploys a song, even when it is, as is common, underpinning an emotional scene. Note, (when you follow the link, alas, embedding disabled) in the scene below, the fade transitions at the start, the rapid edits matching the crescendo bridge near the end:
Chuck almost seems as if he’s making a music video of his life, an impulse that members  in my generation, the dawn of the iPod years, equipped with encyclopedic knowledge of music and armed with the ability to summon a tune at will, should recognize instantly. Maybe that’s over-reaching, but it sure seems the show, like its protagonist, always has a song that was unexpected, and yet somehow perfect for the mood or moods at hand, ready to be deployed to lovely effect:
Chuck’s use of music gave the show a cinematic touch, and not just in the artistry of a given sequence. It sometimes was strung throughout an episode to create symmetry, contrast, or unity, give a character an emotional throughline, or maybe just tell a great joke, or maybe all of the above. Consider this bit:
The song, a worthy strutting song, is “Dropped” by Phantom Planet, and it returns two more times over the course of the episode, both times when Chuck has been remarkably clever. And given the name to boot, I hope you can guess what the bad guy does to Chuck at the end.
            And on occasion, it was strictly about kicking some fucking ass:
            But for all my analytics, there are still music beats on Chuck that delight even as they confound. What is going on here?
            Yes, that is a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory”, prime cut from the Young Guns II soundtrack, about as far from a definition of “cool” as anyone could hope to achieve (though Mac and Charlie on It’s Always Sunny are fond of it). The song’s environmental source, the video featuring Jeffster at their deluded finest, certainly speaks to ironic usage, with its overwrought, overblown, silly inauthenticity. But in the actual scene, the stakes have never been higher—and that’s not a glib assessment. It’s is the climax of the 3rd season finale. The bad guy, Shaw, has been foiled and is on a kamikaze run, rigging the Buy More to explode. He’s killed Chuck’s dad, and has reason to kill Sarah, which he tried to do before. Furthermore, Chuck’s abilities are killing him. So, legitimately, the stakes are really, really high, and yet “Blaze of Glory”. Irony? Or not? Or perhaps both at the same time? Perhaps an acknowledgement that it’s lame, but seemed awesome when we were eleven? Hard to say, but it wasn’t the first time the show spun a joke of a song into genius:
            Now, I just shamelessly post a few favorite clips:
Such as Chuck and Casey quitting:
Still more ass kicking: 
And this quintessential sequence:

Sympathy—We’re a decade into geek cultural dominance, an era when fantasy trilogies and superhero adaptations tentpole our summers. And yet they remain an easy, and often contemptuous punchline. Some call certain programs that purport to be about the nerds and the like “Geek Minstrel Shows”. That’s certainly not to imply equivalent oppression, but it does get the point across—a lazy reference about Star Wars, pause to laugh at the freaks. Those nerds sure do love to obsess about their Stars, be they Wars or Trek, don’t they?
            On such a show, I can easily imagine Captain Awesome being driven down the obvious path—as the sneering bully who ruthlessly mocks our weird hero and the weird things he does, booed and hissed by the audience for refusing to let that fascinating weirdo do his weirdness in peace. But like I said, Captain Awesome seemed most sympathetic to Chuck (letting hyper-violent murder-machine Casey handle the scorn)—perhaps a touch condescending at times, but always ready with good advice, and seeing Chuck’s love of video games and sci-fi movies as important, valuable and worthy of respect (naturally, because he’s so Awesome).
            Chuck understood and sympathized with geek obsessions, and the comforting value of comics and video games and nerdy ephemera. It recognized the damage often at the heart of the geek experience. The frustration with a world that seems steadfastly committed to remaining unfair, the dispiriting sense of being alone while surrounded by smiling faces, the self-loathing of watching others so effortlessly do what seems impossible, and the alienation of struggling to communicate and failing to be known. Understanding this, the show never laughed at its nerds and geeks because they were nerds and geeks, and at the same time it didn't approach these themes with any bitterness--just a simple acknowledgement that these pains were as real as love of Star Wars. Maybe, Chuck often seemed to say, the problem really is everyone else, but it isn't insurmountable:

            I’ll miss that when it’s gone.

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