I always wanted to be a spy. As a kid I would dive on the bonnet of the family station wagon, shooting at shadows with a potato gun. I guess I liked being the good guy, helping people and making a difference. And between you and me, I was a kick-ass secret agent.
I used to read Ian Fleming while my brother slept on the top bunk. I was secretly addicted to Murder She Wrote, which was not a spy series but did involve a particularly cool granny played by Angela Lansbury.
I’m telling you this because I have another guilty secret. As an adult, I’d hidden my inner spy. I ignored Burn Notice and 24, feigning disinterest as Jack Bauer deactivated yet another bomb and saved the world. But then something happened. I can’t explain it. All I know is that I got home one day and headed to the couch, pausing only to turn on the television. Three months later I’d grown a beard, put on 15 kilos and watched every episode of Chuck.
Who is Chuck? Well, he’s Charles ‘Chuck’ Bartowski (Zachary Levi), a computer nerd who works at Buy More, a large computerelectronics retail chain in Burbank, California. He has been sent an email from old college friend Bryce Larkin (Matthew Bomer), who now works for the CIA. The email is encoded: it uploads a secret database into his brain. Agents Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and John Casey (Adam Baldwin) make contact, and from there Chuck enters the world of international espionage.
Chuck has led a chequered-life on Australian screens, its fate resting with the DVD market, and to date, it’s fared surprisingly well. But really, what is all the fuss about – haven’t we seen this before in shows like Get Smart and Mission: Impossible? The answer is no; there’s never been anything quite like Chuck, and therein lies its inherent appeal.
Chuck was well received during its first series in the US in 2007. It arrived at a time when reality shows American Idol and Dancing with the Stars topped the Nielsen ratings. Chuck tapped into an age group weaned on the Jason Bourne and Austin Powers films, and embraced the best of both. Smart, funny and a little subversive, Chuck showed that intelligent, scripted action could still be as compelling as any reality-television show.
Chuck created a compelling hybrid by working within the spy genre, while adding a dash of humour and capitalising on the success of its co-creator Josh Schwartz (of The O.C. fame) and executive producer Joseph McGinty Nichol, better known as McG. It’s funnier than Spooks, and more accessible than its supermall competitor Reaper, which premiered in the same year. It’s mostly an original premise (at least according to the show’s fans, who obviously never saw Jake 2.0) and reads like a tighter, more politically savvy Alias, with all of the original’s strengths but a greater emphasis on humour.
It’s also laden with references to popular culture. Among other films, Chuck refers to Back to the Future, Tron, Star Wars and The Karate Kid. Buy More employees Jeff and Lester sing ‘Mr. Roboto’ by Styx, Toto’s ‘Africa’, and Peter, Paul and Mary’s ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ in various episodes; season one episode ‘Chuck Vs. The Crown Vic’ is peppered with numerous references to both Gilligan’s Island and The Love Boat.
Such a heady mix of action, humour and popular-culture undoubtedly contributes to the show’s popularity, but at its heart Chuck boils down to a classic love story between Chuck and Sarah Walker, who is assigned as his handler. Chuck loves Agent Walker; she loves him, too. She’s smitten because she’s never come across anyone as unmistakably authentic as Chuck. It’s part wish-fulfillment and part soap opera, and the latter element plays a key role in keeping their relationship strictly professional. In short, the show succeeds because the love affair rings true for the viewers; at some point, they have all loved someone in close proximity, hoping desperately for a shift from friendship to romance.
Chuck, unfortunately, veers dangerously close to parody in its portrayal of women. Long-time viewers of Chuck have noted the propensity for slow-motion reveals of female characters, and Agent Sarah Walker easily trumps other characters in terms of inappropriate outfits and omnipresent cleavage.
Walker is one of many conventionally attractive women in Chuck. All spy fraternities (the CIA and their fictional nemeses, Fulcrum and ‘The Ring’) are seemingly populated by ex-models and page-three girl (Chuck’s more mature supervisor General Beckman [Bonita Friedericy] the sole exception to this particular rule). In addition, women remain archetypes. They are portrayed either as cold and manipulative taskmasters or vulnerable and emotional homebodies. General Beckman is a fine example of the former: she’s blunt, often manipulates Chuck for the benefit of the agency, and is cold and emotionally unavailable. And for the most part, she appears only on the screen at base camp, as if boxed in by the gender expectations of the show’s male writers.
Chuck’s sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) is at the other extreme. She cooks for the entire family, lives to meet her husband’s emotional needs and worries about Chuck incessantly. She has no female friends but is adored by Chuck’s best friend Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez), who has loved her since they were kids. Ellie’s a likeable character – she’s reliable and conversational. But that is part of the problem: every part of Ellie is defined by her dependency on the various men in her life.
Somewhere between the iron will of General Beckman and Ellie’s people-pleaser is the more progressive female character, Sarah Walker. Sarah has long given up on trusting people; they tend to let her down. At the same time, she yearns for a soul mate and a life away from the spy game. Cursed with beauty, she is the unattainable ice queen, the eye candy and the dream girl all at the same time.
Perhaps Sarah illustrates the dichotomy faced by today’s modern woman, and the show is trying to make a valid point about their depiction in the mainstream media. But that’s a big assumption when the camera so often lingers lovingly on her semi-naked torso.
After an impressive first season (Time Magazine named it one of the top 10 television shows of 2008), Chuck’s ratings slumped in the second season, and a third season seemed unlikely. Fearing the show might be cancelled, fans launched a ‘Save Chuck’ campaign that gained momentum through Twitter and Facebook.
The series was saved, curiously, thanks to a multi-platform sponsorship deal with Subway restaurants. Subway agreed to cover partial costs for the third season in exchange for ‘significant integration into the show’. In layman’s terms, this meant plotlines specifically involving Subway restaurants. Indeed, in the episode ‘Chuck Versus the Final Exam’, Agent and Buy More employee John Casey first encounters manager Big Mike having lost weight, and holding a Subway sandwich. Casey then has to both buy and eat Subway sandwiches for his employees. As the series progressed, there were more and more in-show mentions of the sandwich chain.
I felt betrayed by the famed Subway product ‘placement’ in season two, where Morgan Grimes bribed manager Big Mike with a foot-long teriyaki Sub, and even sang the five-dollar foot-long promo from the US commercial. In a show that already featured Toyota as a major sponsor, as well as major product placement for Apple and Nintendo, any further corporate involvement breached that delicate line between product integration and transparent advertising.
Others were less disheartened. For them, commercial television was integrative by nature. If it meant more episodes of Chuck, then it was a sacrifice they were willing to make. Schwartz and his co-creator Chris Fedak both stated that the quality of the show would not be impacted, and for the most part it seems they kept their promise.
From a critical perspective, however, it has raised some interesting questions: namely, is it fair to praise a show that references popular culture, while at the same time condemning it for including consumer products? Where should the line be drawn and, more importantly, who should draw it?
For me, Chuck is a series that relies greatly on its cultural references. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. Amidst the increasingly prevalent product placement and dubious gender politics, it is a show that celebrates my generation. The other reason I like the show is less tangible; in Chuck, fantasies come true. Beautiful women love men for who they are, dead-end jobs lead to exciting new lives, and nerds get to act out every spy fantasy they have ever had.
It’s not a particularly realistic series, but I’ll take it if it means avoiding the spray-tanned, self-absorbed contestants on reality television. I’ll devour every episode if it means escaping the procedural cop dramas that bring gratuitous murder and catastrophe into my apartment. And I will dance around the living room, bopping to the theme tune, if it reminds me to stay true to myself.