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February 1, 2012

Charles in Charge

-- Goodbye dear friend

NBC's Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak's Chuck churned out its final episode last Friday, putting an end to a five season love affair that carried me through breakup (ex-girlfriend to Argentina), abandonment (Nathan to Idaho) and hair loss (follicles to the ground). I laughed, I cried but blah blah blah, if you know me at all you already know I loved this show from the moment Chuck woke up Morgan by waving a pizza slice in his general vicinity. And so as I reflect on the end of Chuck the topic of choice is this: in a different world, one where NBC wasn't foolish and people actually watched Chuck, how much better could this show have been? I don't mean to be greedy, the show gave everything I ever wanted, but two differences could've made this program all the greater.

Chuck ran for five glorious years. In 2007 the season was cut in half due to the writer strike; in 2009 and 2010 the show was initially told by NBC to produce 13-episodes, only to later be extended to 19- and 24-episodes during the middle of the seasons. At the end of seasons 2, 3 and 4 the program appeared doomed to cancellation before being saved by Subway-eaters nation-wide. Consider those facts and look at it like this: in three of Chuck's five years the production and writing team began the process of mapping out season story-lines without knowing exactly

1) how many episodes they would be contracted to make or even
2) if the show would be renewed for the following year.

How hard is it to create a coherent story when you've planned to weave 13 episodes of plot only to later learn you have to expand your arc for 9 additional episodes? How challenging would it be to write a season finale that can double as both a potential conclusion to the series while also serving as a bridge to a-maybe-if-Subway-sells-enough-sandwiches season renewal?

Imagine this scenario to get an idea of just how tricky it must have been for Schwartz and Co. to pull off what they did:  Let's say J.K. Rowling is writing the fourth Harry Potter with stipulations from her publisher that she have a cap of only 300 pages and that this fourth book be the last of the series. Around the time Rowling is half-way through the book, the editor sends an email: "Turns out people like your book. Make it 600 pages and let's extend the series to at least five books, maybe more." Sucks for Rowling, but at least in this fictional world she could go back and reform everything she had already written. Chuck had no such fortune, and was stuck to make do with the scenario provided them.

In seasons 3 and 4 the thirteenth episode (which served as the planned season finale) had already been outlined by the time the creators were told the season would be extended to 19 and 24 episodes! In both cases the writers had also framed these pseudo-finales as potential series finales in the case the show failed to be renewed. Juggling between season and series finales, resolving multiple story arcs in the middle of a season, all in all it makes me wonder: how much better could the stories/action sequences/jokes/cohesiveness unfolded had the creators been given stable parameters to work in?

And then there was money. Chuck didn't have it, which makes sense because Chuck did horrible in the ratings, which makes no sense because the show was good. In fact, so good that I feel the need for a lengthy sidenote rant.

(Sidenote: I will never be able to understand how Chuck failed to draw viewers. Compare it to a series like Alias which dominated television ratings for years. Chuck basically was Alias but with better lead actors, actual comedic elements and a soundtrack verified by in-the-know musician Caitlyn Ellis [find her on Twitter at SaitlynElvis]. How does that show succeed where Chuck so woefully failed? Time Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald and The New York Observer all considered Chuck a Top 10 program at one point.Yet no one watched it. Malcom Gladwell, you taught us how it was that Hush Puppies caught on, please tell me how this didn't. And for the record I enjoyed Alias but Jennifer Garner is no Yvonne Strahovski and Michael Vartan is no Zachary Levi).

Back to money. Chuck's funding was cut following season 2, which led to the death of beloved Buy More assistant manager Emmitt Milbarge and the disappearance of the not-as-beloved Anna Wu. And although the series continued to succeed in luring celebrities to make cameo appearances after the financial cut of season two, none going forward were as notable as season two's Chevy Chase. What additional greatness could've been garnered from another season of Milbarge antics? What other celebrities could have guest starred were the pocket books deeper? In an interview conducted by Alan Sepinwall, Chris Fedak revealed that the writers intended to bring Emmitt Milbarge's twin brother to the show but due to limited resources it never happened. Somewhere Nathan Ballard cries.

Season two was the only of the five to be strongly funded by NBC while also enjoying the assurance of a set number of episodes. Not coincidentally, critics universally proclaim the second season as the best of the five.

Still, Chuck ruled. Oh how it ruled. It knocked Buffy from the top spot of hour long programs and holds only Survivor and Uncharted 2 as rivals in terms of an overall provider of entertainment. So take all these ramblings for what they're worth: the wondering what-ifs of a devoted fanboy who, akin to those Yankee fans that are never satisfied regardless the number of titles their team wins, still reaches at the prospect of something greater. Considering how rarely my favorite teams have won championships -- once, in 1984, two years before I was born -- it's kind of fun to feel this way every now and again.


  1. Yeah, season 2 was pretty darn good...

  2. What?! You're telling me that if they had more money Emmitt would have stayed?!!! I greatly regret using my student loans to pay for school.