the redemption of sarah walker: in praise of chuck

Netflix is a wonderful, horrible thing.

It singlehandedly sent a wrecking ball through that strip mall staple, the video rental store. Then it unleashed all sorts of arcane, nerdy glory by streaming thousands of movie and television titles, allowing subscribers to revisit old favorite TV shows, catch up on series they might have missed, poke around series they didn’t get to see in the first run and, now, they’re jolting the TV industry again with their original programming. (House of Cards was excellent, even if I felt the need to take a shower after each episode, and the long-awaited return of Arrested Development was perfect for people like me, who didn’t get a chance to see it as it ran on FOX and could catch up on the series and then enjoy it with the rest of the long-suffering fanbase.)

So, about those series we might have missed…

Chuck.  The show that has helped make unemployment a bit more bearable.

It was the little show that could: five seasons, each one executed with a sense of spirited and self-aware urgency, mostly because they had to fight for their lives each season to avoid the Peacock’s indiscriminate, free-swinging axe. Chuck, an action-comedy about the adventures and misadventures of a computer nerd good guy and a femme fatale CIA agent, developed a cult following whose fervor almost singlehandedly kept the show going as long as it did. (There is inferential evidence to indicate that the show’s status was in doubt all the way back in the middle of the first season.) Of course, I wasn’t part of that cult then and, in later years, I preferred Castle on ABC to Chuck.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: This season of Castle thus far might be the strongest of the past three, and is already superior to last season’s mishmash. I digress.]

Now I know what I was missing out on at the time. Chuck was a great show that never took itself too seriously, but wasn’t downright absurd: striking that balance of being enjoyably plausible while being plausibly enjoyable is a rare thing. Part of the show’s never taking itself too seriously  was the fact that Chuck‘s writing never became a set of weekly, ham-handed thought experiments in the way that some other series try to be. The circumstances in each season betrayed a more organic thoughtfulness than the type that was, um, lost on some other serial dramas on around the same time. Add in the Easter eggs that were lobbed up on a weekly basis for a devoted audience of pop culture geeks and trivia mavens and other dork-types, and there is really no reason I shouldn’t have been watching when it was on the air. Mea culpa.

Chuck, the titular character played by Zachary Levi, is the everyman, the representation of innocence and freedom–in fact, the name Charles means ‘free man’. He is given knowledge and ability that threatens his innocence, the Intersect, and with it, like Spider-Man, he becomes a man divided between his personal moral code–no killing, telling the truth, being an all-around decent human being–and the interests of his government–killing, deceiving, doing whatever it takes to protect Americans, otherwise just like him, from harm.

Then there’s Sarah Walker–‘princess’–the jaded, hardened, cynical CIA handler, portrayed by Yvonne Strahovski, with a nom de guerre assigned to protect Chuck from harm. She is drawn to his innate goodness from the start of the series, but being raised in the shadows only to end up spending her adult life in another, not entirely different set of shadows keeps her separate. She even goes so far to say that what attracts her to Chuck is his decency, and that’s what keeps them apart (for most of the series, at least. Ummm, spoiler alert?)

The show, then, is not simply about geek and a girl who save the world and fall in love, but it’s something straight out of Milton: the attempt to redeem the irredeemable, the attempt to reunify a person whose life and profession are necessarily fragmented for the greater good. Chuck is not only about the ascent (or, depending on how you look at it, descent) of the everyman into the morass of international espionage and all the concupiscence that comes with it, but it’s about a person neck-deep in the mire being given a chance to climb out through friendship and love with an everyman. Chuck isn’t necessarily so much about Chuck as it is the ongoing redemption of Sarah Walker.

She’s often the one saving Chuck’s neck, but it’s Chuck who is saving what’s left of her soul.

These kinds of redemption stories are nothing new; I did invoke Milton, after all. Paradise Lost is the touchstone for almost all modern Western drama. It’s the reinterpretation and the unfolding of the overall story that becomes fascinating (to me, at least.) And it helps that the characters are so well written and acted. It’s not Mad Men or The Sopranos or any of these other series hoisted up onto the pedestal for television par excellence. It is, however, clearly a series for which cast and crew alike really, demonstrably cared. That goes a long way, and certainly makes it stand out from a lot of ultimately crappy TV, especially when it was saddled with some heartless, inane program offerings along the way by a feckless network. On its surface, it’s a fun and compelling show about the geek unwittingly saving the day and getting the girl at $12/hour. Just beneath the surface, there’s a reverence for the history of drama and pop culture, and even philosophical, literary and even theological undertones the creative minds behind the series, Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak and their stable of writers, apparently understood was better to leave for fans and critics alike to plumb.

I walked out of the local grocery store the other night, and there was a couple in front of me I overheard talking about their plans for the evening. They agreed that they were going to go home and resume watching Chuck on Netflix. I had to resist the temptation to ask where they were in the series or congratulate them on a good choice. Netflix is, indeed, a wonderful, horrible thing.

Thanks again, Chuck. Hope your Kickstarter movie becomes a reality someday.


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