It is hard for me to say this, but Chuck has been a disappointment. I’m well aware of the high expectations everyone had for the series after fans, critics and randos on Twitter decided that they wanted to spread the word and eat a bunch of Subway sandwiches. When you feel like you personally helped bring a series back from the dead, your expectations are bound to go up and you are likely to start judging more harshly. So with Chuck, I’ve randomly asked myself over the past two years: WHY DID YOU EAT ALL THOSE FOOTLONGS, YOU IDIOT?
But the thing is, Chuck created a situation where those expectations felt logical and more importantly, easily attainable. There was a lot great television on in 2009, but I’d be hard pressed to find something I enjoyed more than the second half of Chuck’s second season (and really the whole season, to be fair). The energy, the emotion and the propulsion of those episodes was simply tremendous and it seemed like every episode brought another string of fist-pumping, moving moments. At that point, Chuck was actually worth saving.
In the two seasons after the big save, the series has not only struggled to recapture the magic of that glorious second season, it has failed to come remotely close to those heights. Some of that is to be blamed on external factors, most notably NBC continuing to jerk the episode orders around and a number of the series’ best writers leaving for better gigs*, but those issues aren’t entirely to blame for some of the circular storytelling and poor plotting. I’ll just re-state what I said in my review of the season four finale right here:
The thing with Chuck is that nothing really ever changes. Season three had the most change with Chuck learning his new abilities, but that wasn’t explored as much as it could have and should have been. When Chuck wasn’t supposed to be a spy anymore at the beginning of season four, the series was exactly the same and then Chuck eventually just became a spy again. They’ve done similar things in the middle of seasons or arcs as well, like the 191 times Chuck has lost, damaged and then subsequently regained the Intersect. I understand the formula is the formula, but the regular suggestions that things will change only further reinforce that they actually don’t. At this point, whenever a character says “I know Kung-Fu,” I just want to bang my head against a wall. It’s supposed to signal some sort of game-change. It does not.
But despite all my disappointment and the negative connotations the first 440 words of this piece have suggested, I still like Chuck. In fact, I want to LOVE Chuck again and have some hope that this final string of 13 episodes might be the way the series gets back into my heart will full momentum. However, to do that, I think that Chuck has a few issues to handle first. Thus, here are the four things Chuck season five can do to rein it a bit and become a great series again:
1. Cut back on the melodrama: In the early going, I understood. Chuck and Sarah weren’t together and there was bound to be some gut-wrenching will-they-or-won’t they drama. It’s only natural and at times (like in the second season), Chris Fedak, Josh Schwartz and their team knew how to mine that kind of tension for quality scenes and episodes. But Chuck and Sarah are married now, they should be happy. Of course happy married couples get into fights and arguments and bicker every once and a while. But the series shouldn’t need to strain itself to put the two of them into antagonistic situations. Last season’s “First Fight” was a solid example of how the Chuck and Sarah drama should be done moving forward – without much drama. Make it light, make it funny and avoid many weighty, plodding discussions. This could also apply to any conversation with Chuck and Ellie as well.
2. Avoid mythology: Chuck is good and even great at many things, but developing and sustaining an overarching story within a season isn’t one of those. Even in season two, the story with Fulcrum, Chuck’s father and his family’s whole role it in all tended to seem too convoluted or convenient. The last two seasons have tried their best to go with the one “big bad” approach, but stumbled when asked to stretch the story into more episodes. Both Shaw and Volkav had their strengths and yet anytime the series tried to make bigger, sweeping reveals about them and their relationships to characters we already know (Sarah killing Shaw’s wife, Stephen’s work with Volkav), I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. At this point, Chuck is a much better, much more enjoyable series when it’s reveling in its goofiness and pop culture awareness amid a simple, completely unbelievable standalone case. With Morgan as the new Intersect, the series shouldn’t have any trouble going that route more often than not in season five.
3. Either embrace the supporting characters…or don’t: The episode order messes and chopped up budgets have created somewhat awkward circumstances over the last two seasons where Awesome, Ellie, Big Mike and the rest of the Buy More gang can disappear for episodes at time and then return at points when it doesn’t feel like they’re necessarily needed or useful additions to the story. I understand that some of this is contractually-based and not totally in the hands of the production team, but I would like for the series’ supporting characters to be better handled. Jeffster is relatively played out, but Intersect Morgan could make the Buy More a more engaging space. I’d like to see him bounce off Jeff, Lester and Big Mike with his current upgrades. Awesome and Ellie are less problematic, but I’d prefer to just see more of them. The spy stories are fine and fun, but I do like the Woodcomb/Bartowski apartment sequences just as much.
4. Wrap it up and earn it: As much as I think the series has devolved in recent seasons, I’ll be the first to admit that NBC’s constant last-minute desires for more episodes has caused a lot of the issues, particularly with plotting. In that regard, I don’t want any more than 13 episodes this season. Let the series go out the way that Fedak and Schwartz want it to this time and just move on. But at the same time, the season needs to be plotted out in such a way that whatever the final pay-offs and moments are, they have to feel real and earned. Last season, the series positioned “Versus the Push Mix” as this massive, important episode full of dramatic moments, but the previous 12 episodes were often so sloppy and disorganized that the conclusions weren’t as celebratory as Chuck wanted us to believe. I don’t want that to happen this year. Give me big, swelling sign-offs and make them count.
Thoughts? What do you think Chuck needs to do to have a great final season?