Four years ago, Chuck, one of the funniest, smartest and slickest action-drama-comedies of the modern television era, wrapped up its fifth and final season. And whilst stars of the show, along with beloved fans including myself, are still hoping for a revival – big screen or small – Chuck’s unique blend of dramedy, action and subtle hints of sci-fi resonate to this day.
Chuck is definitely a precursor for the current wave of superhero television shows. It was cool, twisty, quirky yet oddly grand for a show about a nerd and a girl. Indeed, its use of action, comedy and familial moments feel emulated and honoured in shows like The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and even Agents of SHIELD. It is no wonder then that Chris Fedak, who created Chuck alongside Josh Schwartz, worked on the highly Chuck-like Legends of Tomorrow.
Whilst it’s relentless pop culture references and occasional reliance on slapstick humour will deter some viewers, Chuck operates on a special plain; it is a rare breed of show that manages to be utterly devastatingly sad but distractingly funny in a bid to paper over the sadness.
And whilst the show is called Chuck, putting Zachary Levi front and centre in a loveable performance, one of the show’s greatest strengths is the ensemble cast. For instance, Chuck would have been a very different show had it not been for some of the cast members. Ryan McPartlin aka Devon ‘Captain Awesome’ Woodcomb, was initially written as a covert and undercover enemy spy positioned next to Chuck. But the humour, the heart and the chemistry McPartlin brought to the role banished those twisty ideas for a more heart-warming one. And whilst the extremely good looking man got to play spy for a couple of episodes, the change in direction is but one example of Chuck’s artificial second family effect on its devoted audience.
We spend ages and ages with minor characters and minor details – owed to a procedural template – and in doing so, the show manufactures a sense of longevity. For instance, Jeff and Lester may have seemed like throwaway crazy kooks in the first few episodes but their continued, almost Scooby Doo-esque, antics ultimately pay off down the line. Watching Jeff (Scott Krinsky) play the straight man, after he is advised to leave his carbon monoxide-filled car/bed, was all that more gratifying, hilarious and, honestly, amazing because of season’s worth of stupidity verging on perversion.
Watching Morgan (Joshua Gomez) loiter in the shadow of his best friend, Chuck, for three seasons made it intriguing when he finally grabbed the Intersect for himself. And whilst some audiences prefer a Chuck where Chuck has the Intersect, the narrative thread allowed for Zachary Levi to play the bumbling buffoon for once whilst giving Joshua Gomez, a standout personality on the show, a lot more to chew on.
And whilst the established cast, from Levi all the way down to Big Mike (Mark Christopher Lawrence), felt comfortable to us each and every episode, Chuck’s success rests firmly on the outstanding guest stars the show offers.
Arrested Development’s Tony Hale continued his track record of being funny in every scene with the anal Emmett Milbarge, despite his untimely demise.
Brandon Routh was exceptionally smooth and deliciously evil as the always-surprising Shaw.
Linda Hamilton brought a motherly yet wholeheartedly intimidating presence when she returned as Chuck’s estranged mother.
Matt Bomer’s Bryce Larkin set up the show, in a way, by showing us the cool agent movies and shows choose to follow, only to usher in the geek that was Levi’s Chuck.
Scott Bakula, already sporting enormous geek cred for Quantum Leap and Star Trek: Enterprise, is fleetingly brilliant and bubbly as Chuck’s, you-guessed-it, estranged father.
Timothy Dalton, Kristen Kreuk, Carrie-Anne Moss, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Arnold Vosloo, Ray Wise, Chevy Chase (being Chevy Chase), Rachael Bilson, Gary Cole, Isaiah Mustafa, Bruce Boxleitner, Vinnie Jones, Michael Clarke Duncan, Tricia Helfer – take a breath – Dominic Monaghan, Michael Strahan, Rob Riggle, Eric Roberts, Mark Hamill, Dave Bautista, Freddy Wong (yes, of Rocket Jump), Robert Englund, Lou Ferrigno, Christopher Lloyd and of course Stan Lee. These guys all make appearances in Chuck making every episode – no matter how clichéd, trope-filled and procedural it may be – genuinely pop. Not only do you have the effervescent Zachary Levi as Chuck tugging you along but also each episode provides a sumptuous turn from the aforementioned guest talent.
And let us not forget about the heart of the show: the holy trifecta of Chuck, Sarah and Casey. It is, at its core, a typical leading triangle. Chuck is the bumbling idiot that the other two characters can put down and he also happens to be in love with the girl. Sarah is the beautiful yet dangerous pseudo-leader of the group who just so happens to be falling for Chuck whilst trying to escape her damaged past. And Casey is the straight man to end all straight men armed with jingoistic pride.
When the three come together they cease to be the typical characters every show appears to lead with. The nerd subsides, the beauty takes a back seat and the patriotism quells and the focus is firmly on the humour between Levi, Yvonne Strahovski (went a while before I had to spell that out) and Adam Baldwin. At times the three can appear like Father, Mother and Son whilst in other sequences it is very much a third-wheeling paradigm. It is this ever-shifting and adapting structure that allows Chuck to be constantly fresh.
And whilst Chuck’s showrunners will say, first and foremost, that Chuck would not be Chuck with its’ brand of comedy and laughs, it is also important to highlight the converse; Chuck would not be Chuck without its brand of drama and loss. Moments like Chuck losing his father, all but losing Sarah, any moment shared between Chuck and Ellie or even the heart-to-hearts between Chuck and Morgan, pop as much as when Chuck’s intersect kicks in and he side swipes a joking Lester, or when Jeffster break into horrendously glorious cover or even when Big Mike takes an internal investigation into his own hands. It is this perfect blend of comedy and drama, peppered with action and brief elements of sci-fi that really hammer home the entertainment value of Chuck.
There is also this odd sense of respect one can share with Chuck, its stars and its writers. Often, nerdy shows on television try to portray nerd/geek culture in a funny laugh-with-us sort of way. However, slowly but surely, most of these shows starts to laugh-at-us, the us being geeks/nerds, not realising that they have become the show they didn’t want to be. The Big Bang Theory is so hated amongst geek audiences, myself included, because it is a parody on the geek culture more than it is a reflection of it. Other shows like Scorpion, Heroes and Heroes Reborn even more so, take the geek culture, amplify and exaggerate it thinking they can tap into that audience by laughing at them. Chuck never does that. The show celebrates geek/nerd culture, sometimes too much and too on the nose, but it never disrespects the audience that got them a series in the first place. But make no mistake, Chuck does take moments to laugh at geek/nerd culture – you have to be able to laugh at yourself – and that only makes the portrayal that much more genuine.
And whilst its’ final season is seen as a lacklustre send off by some, and a cheap shot by others, there is no denying how influential, smart and well constructed Chuck was as a show. It operated under the mantle that all forms of entertainment should – leave the audience feeling something. Often shows, which are being greenlit each and every week, leave an empty feeling of dissatisfaction. That is a word that does not exist in the Intersect. Each and every episode of Chuck is entertaining, never mind this notion of filler, and its first three seasons are proof that you don’t need to have a big budget or a big audience to produce something so personal and so engrossing.
And let’s not forget, Chuck is the reason everyone loves Subway.