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Chuck Watch: Domo Arigato

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Spoilers for last night’s Chuck season finale coming up after the jump:

I should say up front that I am not entirely sure about the cliffhanger ending to season 2 of Chuck. The idea of giving Chuck kung-fu-grip action and the ability to put away a half-dozen armed men barehanded seems to defy the basic appeal of the first two seasons: watching a decent Everyman try to keep up in the world of spies, using only his decent heart and uncontrolled bursts of implanted information. With a new upgraded Intersect plus the strength of ten men, I worry not just that Chuck will become someone different but that—this being a common problem in superhero stories—he will just be too powerful. 

That said, I’m willing to let it go for now. If Chuck should get a third season, I trust that Josh Schwartz and company have read enough comic books to want to avoid the Superman Conundrum with their guy. So let’s let that lie and enjoy what was an appropriately fun, hilarious, weird and moving final episode of season 2. 

Finally, after all, what was (is! I meant is!) delightful about Chuck was not the hoo-hah about the Intersect but the funny and human moments, and the way the spy world and the non-spy world, well, intersected with each other. For which, two words: Mr. Roboto. The entire episode did a great job using the soundtrack to interweave scenes of action and comedy, suspense and emotion, and nothing did it better than Jeffster’s rendition of the entire Styx sci-fi-rock classic, melded with the showdown against Ted Roark. (Speaking of which, farewell, Chevy Chase. Who knew that he would make a better Dick Cheney than a Gerald Ford?)

It’s a hallmark of Chuck’s writing that the battle would feature—in both the wedding scene and the spy scene—two of the show’s funniest lines yet. (1) “Why are you letting Sam Kinison and an Indian lesbian wreck your wedding?” (2) “Shotgun wedding, Just think. That terrible pun will be the last thing you’ll ever hear.” Also: best use for a set of wedding steak knives ever. 

I’ve been reading that the show’s producers have said that, should Chuck not be renewed, the finale would leave fans apoplectic for lack of closure. I’m not sure that’s true. I mean, it would be disappointing for obvious reasons. But this season finale had a real ring of finality, as it closed the book on the show Chuck had been for two seasons and opened the door on quite a different series. For now, I’m thankful that I got to see that series, and hope we get to see the next one. 

On which note, I wanted to ask you all: why do you think Chuck hasn’t become more of a hit? Unlike your stereotypical brilliant-but-cancelled wonder, it’s not dark or rarefied or difficult—no offense, but it’s not exactly The Wire. It’s a funny spy show with a hot chick in it.

I’ve seen a lot of theories about the timeslot, but I think that can be only partly it, at best. Fans almost inevitably blame “scheduling” when a show does poorly (and its wicked cousin, “promotion”). But as a TV critic I’ve come to think that—even for shows I love—it usually comes down to content in some way.

Certainly some shows get screwed schedule-wise: Firefly had episodes air out of order, and Freaks and Geeks was moved around like lawn furniture. But though I loved them, I don’t think either was ever going to be a hit. And Chuck? Yeah, maybe being against Gossip Girl and Big Bang Theory is tough (Is Dancing with the Stars really siphoning off that many Chuck viewers?). But what good nights are there for it? Tuesday and Wednesday—American Idol. Thursday… running it in NBC’s comedy block may seem appealing, but it’s still the most competitive night of TV. Fans scream bloody murder when a show gets “stuck” on Fridays. Saturday is dead. And Sunday was not quite hospitable to Kings.

I think we have to at least ask why—if the rival programming is a problem—people are putting Chuck behind GG, BBT or DWTS, and not first. I don’t know the answer. But my guess is: it has something to do with the very reason fans love it. The oddball brilliance of Chuck, as dozens of tributes recently have said, is that it marries action and comedy, heart and geek appeal, in a way few shows do. But to people who never got into Chuck, that may be a liability. My guess is that people look at it and see a spy show that’s not hardcore enough to be impressive, a drama that’s too frothy to seem high-stakes, and a comedy that’s too dramatic to be a sitcom. 

Maybe it’s heresy, but I don’t think our hope is to convert these people, God bless them. It’s for Chuck to be able to survive without them. I think that’s possible, in a network world of smaller audiences, in which NBC has little to lose and more product placements to gain. (“I even had your Toyota washed for you.” So now I need to buy a Toyota RAV4, or whatever that was?) 

The show is a weird hybrid, a Mr. Roboto of television. (“I’ve got a secret I’ve been hiding under my skin / My heart is human, my blood is boiling, my brain IBM”) Mister Roboto itself was a kind of love-it-or-hate-it song. And yet, employed properly, it could be used to sell Volkswagens—in a commercial, because everything comes full circle, starring Tony Hale:

We’ll see if NBC can harness the show’s weird lovability well enough to return it to the air. In the meantime: domo arigato, Chuck.

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