I’d like to preface this by noting that I’m a big fan of Chuck. Big fan. I love that show. It speaks to me.
And that’s exactly why I have some concerns.
As has been widely reported, Chuck returns on January 10, and the promotional blitz for that is starting out. Here’s a six minute preview of the new season:
Exciting, no? Well… yes. But it also reinforces the concerns I had at the end of the last season.
So, what’s the problem? Well, to explain that, let’s take a quick look at a premise. Computer geek working a dead-end retail job has magic government intelligence agency supercomputer downloaded into his head, meaning he can randomly access top secret classified information that even the agencies themselves don’t necessarily know about or have on hand. (There’s a reason I put ‘magic’ first.) It’s called the Intersect, the process by which he acquires his random information is called flashing. We’re all fans of Chuck, we all know this.
Now, as mentioned in the video, he has the Intersect 2.0, which involves knowing kung fu and how to play the guitar. From the way it’s presented, he still only knows these things when he’s flashed on them, and presumably not at any time. This fact, along with the idea that he cannot reliably cause himself to flash — as shown in the video with his trousers falling down, that’s… real subtle work, guys — has been presented as the reasoning behind Chuck not losing his appeal as the everyman main character, the relatable guy in extreme circumstances, the one who is entertaining because he believes himself to be over his head while being more capable than he gives himself credit for.
The problem is this: it’s not enough. That’s not what I was worried about. Superpowers that don’t work reliably are still superpowers. But what’s more important is what it does to Chuck’s problem solving, to the way he resolves problems. The way he saves the day.
In the original two seasons, the Intersect serves as a device for starting plots, or an excuse to drag Chuck into them. It’s a MacGuffin, pure and simple. The important thing to note about it is that the Intersect could never get Chuck out of trouble. It could only ever get him into trouble. What got him out of trouble were two things: his handlers, Sarah and Casey, and his own intelligence. Chuck’s only option was to think his way out of trouble, to prove that sometimes smarts trumps fists.
So, now, of course, as their exciting gamechanger, Chuck can solve problems with his fists. Oh, but only sometimes, only when they don’t need him to be the comic relief. That’s what makes it okay, see, the fact that it’s unreliable.
Well, that doesn’t actually fix it. All that does is make it unoriginal. How many shows have there been about someone given ass-kicking skills, only they don’t know how to use them, they lost the manual, they’re inconstant, all that? It’s not an uncommon trope. And it means that it’s entirely possible we’ll see more moments like that in the trailer, where Chuck is willing a flash to happen and give him the skills to save the day and it doesn’t… up until the last moment, up until the very end of each episode, where in desperation it will kick in and he will save the day.
Woo. That’s my issue with it: it puts Chuck’s fate not in the hands of his own intelligence, his own acquired skills and natural abilities, but in abilities handed out when the writers need him to have them, so that instead of episodes where Chuck has to think his way out of a dangerous situation, we could have episodes where we wait around to see when a new Intersect power is going to Deus Ex Machina him to safety. Because now the Intersect doesn’t just get him into trouble and then leave him to his own devices to get out of it, it’s both problem and solution.
I won’t deny there’s a certain appeal to seeing Chuck do kung fu, and be a badass, to seeing the geek get the opportunity to be a superspy in the traditional sense of the word, and I’ll watch, and I’ll enjoy, but if it does go down like this — and I certainly hope they surprise me; even if the current promotional materials seem to confirm my fears, it’s entirely possible they will — I’ll always feel a little sad. I’ll miss the days when we had a show about a geek solving problems by being smarter than the other people, rather than having magical face-kicking abilities.