Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chuck vs. Prime Time

My favorite TV show comes back with a bang

NBC is making big news lately – almost all of it having to do with Jay Leno’s show (which everybody pretty much predicted was going to fail) and their generally lousy prime time ratings. And they’re expected to lose something like $200 million on the Winter Olympics, which apparently nobody in the U.S. has any interest in watching. You may recall that the US Olympic Team was actually dropped by their main sponsor and had to be rescued by Stephen Colbert. Also, their upcoming show Day One, about life after a nuclear war, has been further demoted from a full series to a 4-hour miniseries to a 2-hour miniseries. Oh yes, and Heroes continues to bleed viewers with each passing week. NBC needs a hero.

Enter Chuck Bartowski – an MIT drop-out who lives with his sister and works at a retail electronics store. He’s also a reluctant secret agent because his old room-mate, an actual spy for the US government, sent him an email secretly encoded with a massive database that uploaded itself directly into Chuck’s brain. Now, whenever he sees certain individuals or hears codenames out of that unique database, his brain is able to call up detailed information about them. Hilarity ensues when Chuck’s government handlers have to sneak him – a socially inept civilian – into all sorts of high-risk situations in order to get him close enough to people and items for his ability to work. I’ve written about the show quite a bit before, so I won’t spend a lot of time on the premise.

But Chuck should be a hero at NBC right now, both in his show and in reality. You see, last May Chuck was very nearly canceled. The ratings weren’t terrible, but they were borderline and NBC had just cut 5 hours of programming out of their prime-time schedule in order to air the Jay Leno show. Look how that turned out, right? Nobody saw that coming. Anyway, Chuck was saved by an intensive fan-support campaign that included a tie-in with one of the show’s sponsors, Subway. During one of the show’s final episodes of the season, fans went to Subway in droves and bought a particular sandwich that had been featured on a previous episode. NBC apparently got the message that fans, critics and sponsors alike wanted the show to come back, so it did (albeit reduced to a 13-episode order, or approximately a half-season).

Then things started to get bleak for NBC. Southland tanked, and some of their other shows weren’t doing so hot either. Even Heroes is starting to face cancellation rumors (though what NBC has cooking that could be better than even a crummy season of Heroes I can’t imagine at this point. They seem to be out of ammo, as it were). Suddenly Chuck’s debut is being moved up from March (after the Winter Olympics) to January. THAT’s a good sign for a show that was nearly canceled.

NBC did right by the show, too – they promoted it fairly aggressively over the last few weeks, then gave it a 2-hour season premiere on Sunday night, followed by its first regular-season episode on Monday. And Chuck came through, getting outstanding ratings (outstanding for Chuck, anyway) on both nights. I mean, it didn’t pull in NFL-type ratings or anything, but it had over 7 million viewers which is pretty respectable and, I believe, makes it one of NBC’s highest scripted prime-time shows (behind Law & Order: SVU and I’m not sure what else). Again, these aren’t numbers that single-handedly rocket NBC to the top of the charts or anything. I’m not sure a number’s been invented that’s high enough to do that. But they show that Chuck has broad appeal and has more than held onto its audience despite a 7-month hiatus since the season finale. It actually gained viewers.

I liked the Sunday double-feature quite a bit, but I might have enjoyed Monday’s episode even more. For one thing, it maintained the show’s history of featuring well-known guest stars, this time Armand Assante playing a military dictator for a fictional South American country. It also involved a lot of Chuck’s brother-in-law, the guy who’s so wonderful at everything that he’s dubbed “Captain Awesome” and with good reason. Still likeable despite his charm, good looks and infinite skill, Dr. Awesome got a little taste of the secret agent life on Monday which was fun and exciting right up until the cliff-hanger ending. Guest stars for upcoming episodes include Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kristin Kreuk, plus the return of Scott Bakula as Chuck’s father.

This season brings a new edge to the show, as Chuck’s mental enhancements in the season finale means that in addition to raw data, Chuck can now retrieve actual physical abilities from his top-secret onboard database, which so far this season have included ballroom dancing, acrobatics, kung fu and, my personal favorite, mariachi guitar. But far from making him a superman, these new abilities usually cause him nothing but trouble and are unreliable at best.

But the show’s not really about these abilities, anyway. It’s about lovable Chuck and his star-crossed love affair with Sarah, the super-hot secret agent whose cover story is to be Chuck’s girlfriend, but whose professional code of conduct keeps her from ever showing her true feelings for him. It’s about John Casey, Chuck’s other handler, and his love of duty, honor, and really big high-powered weaponry (like the excellent mini-gun he got to use on Sunday’s episode to shoot up a Mexican prison). And it’s about terrific pop-culture references that you’ll miss if you don’t watch carefully. For instance, in one upcoming episode, Chuck has a big kung-fu fight in the middle of a room filled with exotic weapons including, hanging on one wall, a Klingon Bat’leth sword from Star Trek (which, obviously, is a fictional prop weapon that you wouldn’t actually find in a room full of samurai swords). Or like in one of Sunday’s episodes, where Chuck tries out his ability to call on the skills of a heavyweight boxer, which lead to him and John Casey perfectly re-creating the final moments of the movie Rocky III. The references are never distracting, but always tasteful homages to the movies and shows that nerds like me remember and appreciate. Last season, Chuck kept a secret scrapbook of clues which he taped to the back of a TRON poster hanging on his bedroom wall. That’s the way to win my loyalty!

If you’ve missed the first few episodes and are now convinced that Chuck is a now not to be missed, you can catch up online at And if you’re already a Chuck disciple, join me in celebrating the triumphant return of this excellent series and in hoping that the 2010 season will be filled with the magic, mystery and pure Awesomeness (pun intended) that the show is known for and which should ensure continued success for Chuck and hours of spy action, comic hijinks and nerd love for us.

No comments:

Post a Comment