Revenge of the Nerd: Fetish, Fantasy and Chuck

I always wanted to be a spy. As a kid I would dive on the bonnet of the family station wagon, shooting at shadows with a potato gun. I guess I liked being the good guy, helping people and making a difference. And between you and me, I was a kick-ass secret agent.

I read Ian Fleming while my brother slept on the top bunk. I was secretly addicted to Murder She Wrote, which was not a spy series but did involve a particularly cool granny played by Angela Lansbury.

I’m telling you this because I have another guilty secret. For a long time, I hid my inner spy. I ignored Burn Notice and 24, feigning mild disinterest as Jack Bauer deactivated yet another bomb and again saved the world. But then, something happened. I can’t explain it. All I know is that I got home one day and headed to the couch, pausing only to turn on the television. Three months later I had grown a beard, put on fifteen kilos and watched every episode of Chuck.

Who is Chuck? Well, he’s Charles ‘Chuck’ Bartowski (Zachary Levi), a computer-nerd who works at the Buy More, a large computer-electronics retail chain in Burbank, California. He has been sent an email from old college friend Bryce Larkin (Matthew Bomer), who now works for the CIA. The email is encoded: it uploads a secret database into his brain. Agents Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and John Casey (Adam Baldwin) make contact, and from there Chuck enters the world of international espionage.

Chuck has led a chequered-life on Australian screens, its fate resting with the DVD market, and to date, it’s faring surprisingly well. But really, what is all the fuss about – haven’t we seen this before in shows like Get Smart and Mission: Impossible? The answer is no, there’s never been anything quite like Chuck,  and therein lies its inherent appeal.

 

In 2007, Chuck was well received during its first series in the US. It arrived at a time when reality shows American Idol and Dancing with the Stars topped the Nielsen ratings. Chuck tapped into an age group weaned on both the Jason Bourne and Austin Powers films and embraced the best of both. Smart, funny, and a little subversive, it showed intelligent, scripted action could still be just as compelling as any reality TV show.

In working with the spy genre, while adding a dash of humour and capitalising on the success of its co-creator Josh Schwartz (of The O.C. fame), Chuck created a compelling hybrid. It’s funnier than Spooks, and more accessible than its supermall competitor Reaper, which premiered in the same year. It’s a mostly original premise (at least according to the show’s fans, who obviously never saw Jake 2.0) and yet feels like a tighter, more culturally relevant Alias, with all of the original’s strengths but a greater emphasis on humour.

It’s also laden with references to popular culture. Among other films, it has referenced Back to the Future, Tron, Star Wars, and The Karate Kid.  Buy More employees Jeff and Lester sing Mr. Roboto by Styx, Toto’s Africa, and Peter, Paul and Mary’s Leaving on a Jet Plane in various episodes; season one episode Chuck Vs. The Crown Vic is peppered with numerous references to both Gilligan’s Island and The Love Boat.

Such a heady mix of action, humour, and pop-culture undoubtedly contributes to the show’s popularity, but at its heart Chuck boils down to a classic love story between Chuck and Sarah Walker, assigned as his handler. Chuck loves Agent Walker; she loves him, too. She’s smitten because she’s never come across anyone as unmistakably authentic as Chuck. It’s part wish-fulfillment and part soap opera and the latter element indeed plays a key role in keeping their relationship strictly professional.  In short, the show succeeds because the love affair rings true for the viewers; at some point, they have all loved someone in close proximity, hoping desperately for a shift from friendship to romance.

While it’s hard to ignore the directorial presence of Schwartz (who’s fast becoming the Aaron Spelling of his generation), it’s also worth acknowledging one other key figure in Chuck: executive producer Joseph McGinty Nichol, better known as McG.

McG began his career directing music videos before venturing into commercials, full-length features (Charlie’s Angels) and television (The O.C., Supernatural). At a press junket in 2007, he claimed that while attending high school, he had often dreamed of empowered girls giving him the time of day. And with Chuck, he had found a way to live that dream.

Unfortunately, his dream often veers dangerously close to parody. Long-time viewers of Chuck have noted the propensity for slow-motion reveals of female characters, and Agent Sarah Walker easily trumps other characters in terms of revealing outfits and omnipresent cleavage.

Walker is one of many conventionally attractive women in Chuck. All spy fraternities (the CIA and their fictional nemeses, Fulcrum and ‘The Ring’) are seemingly populated by ex-models and page-three girls, with Chuck’s more mature supervisor General Beckman being the sole exception to the rule. The men, on the other hand, are a mixture of dorks, geeks, and dweebs.

(Not that this is altogether surprising – McG is also credited with producing The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search For the Next Doll, which also debuted in 2007 ).

More troubling is the lack of complex female characters in Chuck. Women are portrayed either as cold and manipulative taskmasters or vulnerable and emotional homebodies. General Beckman (Bonita Fredericy) is a fine example of the former: She’s blunt, often manipulates Chuck for the benefit of the agency, and is cold and emotionally unavailable. She’s strong and independent and yet, for the most part, only appears only on the screen at base camp, boxed in by the gender expectations of the show’s male writers.

  Chuck’s sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) is the other extreme. She cooks for the entire family, lives to meet her husband Devon’s emotional needs and incessantly worries about Chuck. She’s devoid of female friends but adored by Chuck’s best friend Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez), who has loved her since they were kids. Ellie’s a likeable character – she’s  reliable and easy to talk to. But that is part of the problem: every part of Ellie is defined by her dependency on the various men in her life.

Somewhere between the iron will of General Beckman and Ellie’s people pleaser is a more progressive female character in Sarah Walker. Sarah has long given up on trusting people; they tend to let her down. At the same time, she yearns for a soul mate, a life away from the spy game. Cursed to be unreasonably beautiful, she is the unattainable ice queen, the eye candy and the dream girl all at the same time. 

Perhaps Sarah illustrates the dichotomy faced by today’s modern woman, and the show is trying to make a valid point about their depiction in the mainstream media. But that’s a big assumption to make when the camera so lovingly lingers on her semi-naked torso.

In Chuck, I saw a young boy’s dreams of female complicity and a fawning adoration of the female form. As a thirty-four year old man, I found it strangely lacking in both depth and intimacy.

After an impressive first season (Time Magazine named it one of the top ten television shows of 2008), ratings slumped in the second season, and a third season seemed unlikely. Fearing the show might be cancelled, fans launched a ‘Save Chuck’ campaign that gained momentum through social networking sites Twitter and Facebook.

The series was saved, curiously, thanks to a multi-platform sponsorship deal with Subway restaurants. Subway agreed to cover partial costs for the third season in exchange for ‘significant integration into the show’. In layman’s terms, this meant plotlines specifically involving Subway restaurants. Indeed, in the episode Chuck Versus The Final Exam, Agent and Buy More employee John Casey first encounters manager Big Mike having lost weight, and holding a Subway sandwich. Casey then has to both buy and eat Subway sandwiches for his employees. As the series progressed, there were more and more in-show mentions of the sandwich chain.

Many fans already felt betrayed by the famed Subway product ‘placement’ in season two, where character Morgan Grimes bribed manager Big Mike (Mark Christopher Lawrence) with a foot long teriyaki Sub, and even sang the five dollar footlong promo from the US commercial. In a show that already featured Toyota as a major sponsor, plus major product placement for Apple and Nintendo, any further corporate involvement breached that delicate line between product integration and transparent advertising.

Others were less disheartened. For them, commercial television was integrative by its nature. If it meant more episodes of Chuck, then it was a sacrifice they were willing to make. Co-creators Schwartz and Chris Fedak both stated that the quality of the show would not be impacted and for the most part, it seems they kept their promise.

From a critical perspective, however, it raised some interesting questions: namely, is it fair to praise a show that references popular culture, while at the same time condemning it for including consumer products? Where should the line be drawn, and more importantly, who should draw it?

For me, Chuck is a series that relies greatly on its cultural references. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. Amidst the increasingly prevalent product placement and dubious gender politics is a show that celebrates my generation. While Star Wars, The Karate Kid and Back To The Future were all commercial products, their legacy is anything but. In these cultural artefacts we find memories, nostalgia, and a shared cultural experience – and no Subway sandwich could ever compare with that.

The other reason I like the show is less tangible; in Chuck, fantasies come true. Beautiful women love men for who they are, dead-end jobs lead to exciting new lives, and nerds get to act out every spy fantasy they have ever had.

It’s not a particularly realistic series, but I’ll take it if it means avoiding the spray-tanned, self-absorbed contestants on reality television. I’ll devour every episode if it means escaping the procedural cop dramas that bring murder and catastrophe into my apartment. And I will dance around the living room, bopping to the theme tune if it reminds me to stay true to myself.

'Revenge of the Nerd: Fetish, Fantasy and Chuck' was first published in Kill Your Darlings Issue six, sold out in print, but now available via online subscription. Head here for more details.  

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