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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (9/20/10) 11:43pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Chuck [2x21-2x22]
Books:  Snow

Chuck [2x21-2x22]
Season two of NBC's slacker-as-superspy action dramedy Chuck finishes off with the episodes "Chuck Versus the Colonel" and "Chuck Versus the Ring".

Season two of Chuck is one of the best seasons of television I've seen in a long time.  And to a certain extent, I have no idea why.  On the surface, it uses the same tools as your average syndicated action comedy:  the standard-order fight scenes, the bon mots, and the near-constant reminders that there are definite limits to the show's budget.[1]  The episodes are hammered together from the same old A-story/B-story/C-story (spy/Buy More/family) plots, week in, week out.  And the vaguely sci-fi technobabble of the spying parts of the show are nothing that original -- it's all just so much vague, technological plot-spackle.

So why were there parts of the finale that had me near tears?  Am I just a dumbass?

I suspect that what this show does very well is all under the surface -- beneath the standard-issue "James Bond lite" storylines, and the pretty actors delivering cute zingers, and the TV Drama 101 episode structures.  Underneath that glitz, they were brilliant at structuring the season.

I think the main thing that Chuck does well is something I'll call "feinting."  That's a made-up term.  Let me slowly work my way around to what I mean by that.

There's a fundamental tension in any TV show between moving a story forward and keeping it the same.  Stories want to move forward:  this happens, *then* this happens, *then* this happens.  A character progresses from being like A, to being like B.  The opening scenes of a movie raise a question ("Will Indy get the Ark before the Nazis do?") and the rest of the movies answers it ("Yes.  Kind of.").

TV is, of course, structured to oppose this.  TV audiences want episode three of a TV series to feel, fundamentally, like episode two of a TV series.  If you change too much stuff -- say, get rid of the entire cast and replace it with other people -- it's not the same show any more.  It no longer feels of a piece.  You might have a nice anthology program, but you don't have a TV series.

So these goals clash.  Story-wise, you want the events to have consequences.  Structure-wise, you want to keep everything pretty much the same.

Some shows just completely ditch one or the other.  Eighties sitcoms like Perfect Strangers just hit the reset button every night, and that was fine.  Slings and Arrows was willing to tell stories that were pretty much giant movies carved up into six-episode series.

Other shows find clever ways to compromise.  LOST and The Wire, for example[2], felt the same episode-to-episode, but would shift things significantly every season, dealing with a new arena and, in some cases, new storytelling structures.  Arrested Development would keep the same tone and the same characters, but find ways to *rearrange* those characters:  now GOB is in charge of the Bluth Company; now George is hiding in the attic; and so on.  Battlestar Galactica would throw in a crazy, this-changes-everything development at the end of one season, and then (typically) would spend the first few episodes of the next season finding a way to "snap back" to the status quo.

And that brings us to ChuckChuck solves this problem by "feinting":  that is, they give you the event that *feels* like the emotional resolution of a story -- like the beat that changes everything, and closes the book on a particular plotline -- but the event doesn't technically happen.

The finale has feinting in spades.  Chuck finally quits the spy business, and the Buy More, and sets off to do something with his life -- except, no, he technically wasn't quite done with his last anti-Fulcrum gig, and that found a way to reel him back in.  Chuck and Sarah finally decide, "Dammit, we are having sex, and it will be sexy and fabulous," except... no, Chuck can't find a condom, and there are enemy agents, and... nope, doesn't happen.  These are feints:  emotionally, you get scenes that *feel* like big changes and big resolutions, but in terms of the plot, they don't *function* like that.

It's kind of the flip side of how Chuck treats the Chuck/Sarah relationship:  "Sure, they're not an *actual* couple -- they're stuck perpetually in 'will they or won't they?' territory -- but screw it.  We're going to play like they have a real relationship, and run them through the sorts of conflicts that a real couple would have.

In this case, it's more like:  "What, we can't break the show?  We can't redefine all the relationships, send Chuck off  into the sunset, and come back with a show about Chuck happily running some Silicon-Valley startup?  Well, fine.  We'll just *feint* all those show-breaking beats *anyway*."

And by doing that, they pulled off a small miracle:  they made a season finale that *felt* like a series finale.  It *felt* like it had all the scenes that would wrap up the show.  But still, in terms of plot logistics, it left them in a place where they could start right up with season three with exactly the same sorts of episodes.  Meanwhile, the cute little shift of giving Chuck sporadic kung-fu skills (and a new, larger, even-shadowier adversary) should make season three feel different from season two.

So:  feinting.  Other shows should steal it as much as possible.

Meanwhile, the show continues to do well at the the things it did well before.  It's still good at creating episodes that have "what the story is about" and "what the story is *really* about".  On a broad scale, the story is about a slacker big-box employee who becomes a spy via a magic computer -- but it's *really* about a guy who feels like a defeated failure taking charge of his life and accomplishing something.

Then in the individual episodes, the B-stories (at Buy More) wind up reflecting the A-stories (in spy-land).  Sure, this makes the episode feel like it's all of a piece -- but it's perhaps just as important that the B-story hammers home what the A-story is *really* about, and how that's relevant to real life.  Again, you can dismiss the surface glitz pretty easily -- oh, it's a silly story about crazy sci-fi spy stuff -- but if, below the surface, it's about something real and relatable, then you can't just blow it off like that.

And even when the show keeps the central relationships the same, they make sure that other relationships actually progress:  Morgan and Anna drift towards moving in together; Ellie and Awesome get married; even Big Mike and Morgan's mother have a relationship that's percolating along in the background.

And finally, like I said, they move the Chuck/Sarah relationship along -- Chuck and Sarah hit all sorts of standard boyfriend/girlfriend problems -- even though they're in that arrested state of "will they or won't they?"

What's most interesting to me about this is that not a single thing this show is doing is groundbreaking.  Even the feinting, while clever, is not mind-blowingly original.  Chuck just uses all the standard tools in a really effective, heartfelt way.  They make it look easy, the bastards.

This is Ohram Pahuk's novel about a Turkish poet who returns from exile to the small Turkish city of Kars just in time to get trapped in a military coup.  (Yet again, I make I cursory effort at reading Real Fiction before going back to my easy-read nonfiction books.)

To some extent, the book felt like science fiction, or at least a reminder of how lazy most science fiction is.  I've read about countless alien civilizations on faraway planets that felt more everyday to me than this tiny, impoverished town in Turkey.  And in the end, I never quite felt like I "got" it.  The character motivations were always a bit opaque to me, and I never quite got a feel for the locations.

However, I strongly suspect this is a failure of my imagination, and not the author's.  It's obvious that Mr. Pahuk knows his subject matter.  Moreover, he combines his close observation of small-town life with a close observation of radical, militant Islam -- to the point that the novel sometimes feels like Lake Wobegon with occasional gunfire.

I guess it was worthwhile for me to give this book a shot, even though I could never quite connect with it. 

For next time:  I've actually already watched some more episodes of Doctor Who and Glee, so hopefully I'll write about those this coming week.  Also, I've started reading Footnotes in Gaza by the estimable reporter/graphic-novelist Joe Sacco.  I'm listening to an audiobook of American Psycho (yes, finally reading something by Bret Easton Ellis).  Currently I'm watching some more episodes of Burn Notice -- after that, who knows?

[1] Say, the heavy reliance on standing sets, the slight-but-perceptible cheapness to any constructed sets, the frequency of little two-hander conversations, and the careful claustrophobia to any scene that's supposed to have a ton of extras, as they try to make a smattering of people look like a zillion people.

[2] Never thought I'd cite both of those shows in the same sentence, but there you go.

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