Chuck: “Chuck vs. the American Hero”

Anticlimax, or How To Kill a Show

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. the American Hero”
Written by Matt Miller & Phil Klemmer
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik

“I love you, Sarah.” —Chuck

As long as I’ve waited to hear Chuck say this to Sarah Walker, it was not terribly exciting when it finally happened. It’s the usual story—the writers have strung the tension out too long, have teased the audience once too often, failed to follow through on their promises too many times. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s too little, too late. By now, I was hoping Chuck and Sarah would have gotten past all these artificial obstacles placed in their way and would be working together to keep Burbank safe. But in stretching this soap opera out interminably, the show has sucked all the funny out of it. So while I enjoyed last night’s episode, I didn’t laugh. Not even once. That’s ominous news for a comedy.

Having apparently passed his “red test” by killing a double agent, Chuck is now considered a full-fledged spy. He is offered every Bond fan’s wet dream of an assignment: Italy, complete with mansion, car, money, and arm candy of his choice. Naturally, he wants that to be Sarah, and he takes a week off to try to get her back. Sarah, however, is having none of it. Having successfully turned Chuck into a reflection of herself, naturally she now rejects him. While this says interesting things about Sarah Walker’s self-esteem and inner landscape, it rather frustrates the love affair. Sarah adds insult to injury by dating Daniel Shaw, who appears to be the target of a Ring squad. Casey, Awesome, and Morgan get involved in the effort to win Sarah back to Chuck, and by the time the story is over, Lester and Jeff have been roped in. Shaw discovers that Sarah was the spy who killed his wife, and kidnaps her for revenge. Will Chuck save the day next week? Probably. Will he tell Sarah he loves her, again? Most likely. Will they finally melt into one another’s arms? Not a chance.

Where is the Intersect in all this? The central MacGuffin of the show, the computer in Chuck’s head, has been pretty much MIA for the last couple of weeks. It only “flashes” now for Chuck to give him mad Chuck-fu skills, or to solve some personal problem for Chuck. It never flashes on matters of national security—so why on Earth is Chuck valuable to the CIA? If the Intersect in his head only works on his personal problems, Chuck is not worth all the time and money being spent on him. Rather than spend his time figuring out spy stuff, Chuck spends his days working on his relationship with Sarah Walker, at government expense.

“Contrived” hardly begins to describe this scenario any more. “Dull” is more like it. There is hardly an obstacle left to throw in the path of Chuck and Sarah (although I think the amnesia option has not yet been trotted out). The whole focus of the show has become Chuck’s need to get Sarah back. He’s put his whole life on the line—career, family, self-respect—in order to win her love, and she withholds it still. Why? Because he has become her. No wonder Sarah is ambivalent.

And frankly, I don’t know if I care any more. I’m so, so tired of this dance. I miss the spy antics. I miss the geek culture that the show once embraced so lovingly. I miss the buddy dynamic of Morgan and Chuck. I even miss Casey’s growls. All of this could come back, without distorting the show, so why doesn’t it? Why are the writers throwing away the funniest, hippest, most engaging parts of this show, only to focus on a “romance” that is persistently and obviously going nowhere? Have the writers not yet clued in that this is the Short Attention Span Generation, who want consummation yesterday? NBC has thrown away what was its best hook for the show: the nerd who overcomes his own shortcomings to win the girl. Here’s Chuck, having by his own admission gotten past that fear-driven geek of Season One, but at the moment of his triumph he is denied his reward: Sarah. For a nation bred to root only for gold medalists, not for the silver or bronze, this is a turnoff. Who wants to watch a guy fail at his ultimate goal? Sure, I understand that Chuck is supposed to earn his reward, he’s supposed to tilt at windmills and slay dragons to lay at his lady’s feet. But Chuck did that last year. He is doing it this year. And there’s no hint of a reward in sight. If the writers care so little for Chuck that they are happy to frustrate him and us week after week, why should we care?

There were a few high points in this episode: Jeff’s stalker skills, the van, Casey teaming up with Morgan and Awesome, and Morgan once again showing that he knows Chuck better than anyone else. It was fun to see Ellie finally give Chuck some good romance advice. But some of the bits in this show were ridiculous: a B-2 stealth bomber flying at rooftop height to drop a single bomb? And the awkward scene where Chuck interrupts Sarah’s date was just painfully obvious and overwrought. The last straw was when Sarah told Chuck she couldn’t be with him because he’d killed somebody. But she’s hooking up with Shaw, who’s probably killed more people than she and Chuck together? I can’t root for such a hypocrite. And my sympathies must go out to Brandon Routh, who has one of the most poorly written roles on TV. He only gets one authentic moment in the entire series: his grief-stricken, rage-filled expression when he sees the video of his wife’s death. There is no consistency in Shaw, however: one moment, Shaw is romancing Sarah with every appearance of sincerity. In the next, his memory of his wife is so strong, he sacrifices himself to avenge her murder. That’s not a man in conflict, that’s a character being manipulated by inconsistent writers.

After last week’s excellent show, we needed a wrapping-up, a resolution to this nonsense. I needed the funny back. I needed more adventure, less of a storyline that depended on having seen the last ten episodes. I needed comic relief. Instead, the writers have fallen back on angst and drama. Do any of them remember that this show is a comedy?

So here is my prediction, in which I hope I am wrong: Chuck will not be renewed. This is the last season. In their hubris, in an attempt to force the network’s hand, the staff will refuse to end this dance and put Sarah and Chuck together. They will craft some lame “cliffhanger” to tease us once again (are any of us going to be fooled by it? Didn’t think so). And the series will end unsatisfactorily, another fan favorite that just could not pull in the ratings because it never figured out who its audience was. As I said, I hope I’m wrong.

After two weeks of sub-2.0 ratings, this episode rose all the way to 2.1. That’s about 5.5 million viewers, which is nice, but I have to wonder how much of its bump has to do with the fact that two of Monday night’s more popular shows, House and How I Met Your Mother, were in repeats. That left Chuck up againstDancing with the Stars, which garnered 21 million viewers. In short, more than four times as many people would rather see Buzz Aldrin dance than watch Chuck dance around Sarah yet again. Last week, some reviewers were excusing Chuck‘s poor performance on the switch to Daylight Saving Time. This week, apologists are citing Passover as the force keeping audiences away. I say the fault lies with this endless, frustrating, maddening fake romance. There is only so much frustration I am willing to put up with, and I see the terminus ahead. Why is this message not getting through to NBC?