The Sarah On CHUCK He-Man Haters’ Club

There’s a new batch of “will Chuck be canceled?” talk because of NBC’s decision to pick up a similar lighthearted spy show from J.J. Abrams. Personally I don’t think this pickup will have much effect one way or the other, since NBC has known for some time that they were likely to buy the Abrams project. They have undoubtedly factored that into their decision making, and yet Chuck has continued to be, while on the bubble, at least a potential candidate for a pickup. All the Undercovers pickup means is that they now officially have another spy show, but that actually gives them more options for Chuck, not fewer — they can advertise the shows as cousins, or pair up the struggling Chuck with Undercovers, which may have more hit potential.

I figure that, being an Abrams production, Undercovers will make Chuck look like a model of good stand-alone storytelling by comparison; I’m not really looking forward to seeing this subject get smothered in conspiracies and ongoing double-crosses. Yet I still get the feeling that it may have a chance to be more satisfying than Chuck, if only because of the decision to build the show around a spy couple that actually has a relationship, and a reason for liking each other. That, along with the fact that she has actual family relationships and such, may give Gugu Mbatha-Raw the chance to apply a fake American accent to something resembling a real character. And that would be a big improvement over Sarah on Chuck, who increasingly seems to me like the show’s weak link.

Having said that, I’m not really blaming Yvonne Strahovski. Not much, anyway. I don’t find her very interesting, with her blank stare and voice; she doesn’t make a spectacular impression when Sarah masquerades as other people, and she’s repeatedly out-classed by the female guest stars on the show (and it’s not like Kristen Kreuk is some kind of amazing super-talent who blows everyone else off the screen). I think it’s fair to assume that the show could have built Sarah into a stronger character if Strahovski had added more in performance; lots of characters start out bland and get better as the writers see what the actor can do.

But there is simply no telling how good or bad of an actress she is, or how much she could have added to her character: she doesn’t have a character to play. As written, Sarah is Fantasy Girl, the projection of every nerd dream, whose personality (such as it is) exists only to place her where the plot needs her to be: she must be attracted to Chuck, so she is given certain traits and personal issues that make this halfway plausible. The biggest trap a show like this can fall into is to create a heroine who is defined solely by her relationship to the hero, and I think Chuck usually falls right into that trap.

This would not be a major problem if the show was totally focused on the hero, with everyone else playing second banana to him. But Chuck has chosen to make the romance, and the Chuck-Sarah relationship, a huge part of the show. She’s not 99 from the first three seasons of Get Smart, the klutzy hero’s beautiful Dr. Watson; the show really wants us to care about where they’re going as a couple. But I personally (it goes without saying that this is my personal reaction, not what anyone else needs to believe) can’t care about her, because I don’t think she emerges as a person with interests and motivations of her own. The way to make Nerd Fantasy Girl into a real person is, usually, to give her non-romantic relationships of interest (i.e. Penny’s relationship with Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, which almost single-handedly saved her from being an NFG), but I feel like Chuck has tried to do that and not really succeeded, particularly when it comes to her rather perfunctory relationship with Casey.

Update: Some plausible points from a Sarah-defender who argues that the character (and the performance) has depth that I have missed, just not obvious depth.

Yvonne shows more with a smile and glance than almost any actress I’ve seen on television. And if you were actually paying ATTENTION to that you’d realize this is a much more complex character than what she appears to be on the surface.

And it’s PRECISELY because of who Sarah is: She’s a woman who’s life was spent with no REAL identity of her own. She was a pawn in her father’s scams and almost her entire childhood was spent being other people. Then right away she’s thrust into the CIA, where once AGAIN her life is spent being other people. Sarah is NOT a character that’s accustomed to putting her feelings out there. We know it from dialogue from Bryce in Season 1 that she’s not good about being up front about herself, and the first time she DID take that chance and put her feelings all out on the line, Chuck burned her (3×01). Her behavior in Season 3 was a direct extension of that as she withdrew into herself.

I’m not personally sure that “subtle” is the appropriate mode for a show like this, but as I say, it’s a plausible point.




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The Sarah On CHUCK He-Man Haters’ Club

  1. Right up until the last sentence I was about to say, "What about her relationship with Casey?" But you sort of nipped that one in the bud… "rather perfunctory" seems a fair assessment! My problem with Chuck, as I've whined about elsewhere, is not the emphasis on the spy couple but the lazy way the "are they getting together, or not?" has been tugged around. I think it's detracted from the characters, and love triangle nonsense has occupied time that could have been better utilized on character development.

    Aside from that complaint, I like Chuck a lot and hope it gets a fun sendoff instead of being run into the ground (see Office, The). The supporting cast – Adam Baldwin in particular – guarantees that even the annoying episodes have their bright spots. I'm also more than a little in love with Yvonne Strahovski… but, I am in the target demographic for the Nerd Fantasy Girl approach to Sarah that you discussed…

  2. I guess "subtlety" isn't your strong suit, because you've probably missed about 95% of the characterization of Sarah Walker by just looking for big neon signs describing her personality. Yvonne shows more with a smile and glance than almost any actress I've seen on television. And if you were actually paying ATTENTION to that you'd realize this is a much more complex character than what she appears to be on the surface.

    And it's PRECISELY because of who Sarah is: She's a woman who's life was spent with no REAL identity of her own. She was a pawn in her father's scams and almost her entire childhood was spent being other people. Then right away she's thrust into the CIA, where once AGAIN her life is spent being other people. Sarah is NOT a character that's accustomed to putting her feelings out there. We know it from dialogue from Bryce in Season 1 that she's not good about being up front about herself, and the first time she DID take that chance and put her feelings all out on the line, Chuck burned her (3×01). Her behavior in Season 3 was a direct extension of that as she withdrew into herself.

    I'm sorry if it's two subtle for you to notice it all, but I find that approach far more appealing an interesting as we begin to see Sarah finally pull herself out from behind the armor she's built around herself than having her personality driven home with a sledgehammer.

  3. On the opposite end of the spectrum, her blankness has been driven home with a sledgehammer. Again. And again. And again. She has daddy issues. She has spy issues. She has issues trusting people. We know that because the show keeps, as you point out, making sure that we know that. That's not subtle either. It's one thing to reinforce Jeff or Lester as sleezy goofballs over and over again, it's another when it is characterization redundany for a major player in the show's narrative.

    As to Sarah being complex, I think you're reading a bit into the acting. There's not much complexity beyond what you've described, and while I think Strahovski struggles to do more (though I don't find her compelling as an actress) with glances and smile, those glances and smile are the extent of a changing inter-world the show allows Strahovski to work with, and it's not fair to the character when that's all she (and we) get.

  4. Finally, Weinman's point about Sarah not being a "person with interests and motivations of her own" is spot on. Sarah's development is in direct relation to Chuck's narrative, not one feels actively involved in. As a result, Sarah becomes something slightly better than a romantic MacGuffin for Chuck. She's something that's always at play in the narrative, but because she's not given a strong interior world, she's not really a developed character.

    (Sorry, I was told my comment was too long.)

  5. well ca't say I desagree with the article… you're right about sarah's character being way too link with chuck and not having a story of her own, but I desagree about sarah being a non-interesting character… Cougars and delorean were really good episodes and those were about sarah, I think she just needs more attention to her character.

    • I know right??!! She's awesome in the show

    • Not a very compelling argument in that article. The premise that a show should be cancelled if it isn't going to be a huge hit is a poor business model. I haven't heard if Chuck's mediocre audience makes or loses money for the network, which at least would be a plausible business argument, but logically not every show can be a smash, so there needs to be a place for these medium, niche-type shows. The music business has built itself around an all-or-nothing approach and it is going abysmally. Instead of developing (i.e. investing) in a solid foundation of quality product that can return a reasonable and reliable profit stream, fledgling acts are jettisoned the minute they fail to cash in big. I would think Chuck, with a loyal and albeit limited core audience, could find a home and live at least another couple of seasons so it can live out a decent lifespan.

  6. The problem with the show isn't particularly with the character Sarah. It's the premise. It's just a silly, silly show that tries to be everything but, and fell kinda short at everything. My husband still can't figure out why I watch Chuck; he thinks it's stupid. Well, you have your opinion, and here's mine: Strahovski's dramatic chop is what keeps me watching. Her Sarah brings in the hearts to the show's wacky-ness.

  7. “Subtle” isn’t something that generally applies to Chuck (there are moments of cleverly subtle writing, especially comedy-wise, but they’re not so typical).

    However, it definitely applies to Yvonne Strahovski’s performance on the show. Sarah’s character is largely defined, especially for the first two seasons, by her complete inability to express her feelings and her own tendency to try to pretend they aren’t even there. This isn’t for no reason, either. It’s entirely a function of her character’s past and the fact that she has literally never had a normal life, a family, or real friends. She hardly ever talks about herself or what she is feeling, and is accustomed to betrayal by everybody she’s ever tried to trust. In fact, usually, the only indication of her real feelings that you get is via Strahovski’s amazing portrayal of the character. Yvonne says more in a glance than most actors can in whole monologues. Most fans actually will regard her as the most talented actor on the show in a lot of ways, exactly because she can communicate so much about her character even when she doesn’t have lines at all!

    The third season is the best showcase for Yvonne in a lot of ways though because she has actually had her character open up a lot more. Sarah’s trying to hide behind her emotional walls more than ever, but because of how much she tried to open up to Chuck before getting rejected in the worst way possible, she really can’t anymore when he presses her – and Yvonne plays this change incredibly well. And now, in the second half of the third season, she’s finally getting the chance to play the character in a way that is much different than ever before – participating in the fun of the story, with a real relationship and finally knowing what it is to trust somebody, rather than playing an emotionally closed-off and damaged spy, which will be a joy to watch.

    There are frequently pages of analysis written for the slightest glance given by Sarah on this show, and it’s for a reason – Yvonne’s acting of this character really is that amazing, if you pay attention. Her arc and character development is almost entirely internal, but you can read it the whole way if you pay attention to the character dynamics on the show and how she’s being played.

    There are so many great examples that you can take almost any episode and, taken in context, see exactly what I mean. In fact I think Yvonne’s portrayal of Sarah is probably the single most natural element of the show, and frequently the most moving one as well, given time to understand her character.

  8. And actually, I think most fans regard Sarah as a more sympathetic character than Chuck. They're actually similar in a number of ways, but Sarah's story is harder and Yvonne really plays that well.

    Both of them grew up without real parents. Chuck's weren't there, and Sarah only had her father, who essentially abused her from childhood (which consisted of helping him con people). Sarah's father was thrown in jail for his own protection and she was forced into the CIA to survive. Chuck's life fell apart when Bryce framed him for cheating at university (ironically, to protect him from falling into the spy life!).

    Both of them are in crises at the beginning of the series – but either they don't know it yet (Sarah) or they're just stalling (Chuck).

    The difference is that Chuck still had support. He still had people he could trust – his sister, his best friend, and so on. Sarah didn't have anybody. At the start of the series, she doesn't trust anybody. She's a "good person" living a life that she was forced into.

    The series for the first two seasons is all about her opening up and finally being able to trust people around her (Chuck, and, eventually, Casey), and Chuck simultaneously figuring out who he is and what he wants to do. The third season (up to 3×13) is about the aftermath of her suffering another betrayal – after opening up for the first time. Like I said, it's an almost entirely internal arc through the whole thing, but the amazing thing is that you can actually follow it very well – almost entirely a result of Yvonne's amazing acting. It's one of the only subtle elements of the show, but it's very worth paying attention to, because it's what gives it true emotional resonance.

  9. I really don't know what you're talking about here. Actually, if anything, the problem identified in this article is that not enough about her character is apparent to the author to help him understand her role in the show.

    Two episodes in season 2 were devoted to Sarah's past, and if you watch them and try to put them in context, they actually reveal so much about her character that you don't really need more to understand where she's coming from and how she reacts to everything else. There's no sledgehammer here – if anything, the flaw is that her past has only had any exposure in a few episodes, so it might be hard for new viewers to understand where she's coming from.

    And "blank" is exactly what Yvonne Strahovski isn't. Sarah doesn't usually say very much (and when she does, up to 3×13, it's usually either a lie or not the whole truth – either intentionally, or as a result of Sarah just not knowing how to express herself properly), but Yvonne manages to communicate everything to the audience anyway via incredible acting.

  10. Another thing that nobody has mentioned but that plays into understanding Sarah is looking at how she actually interacts with people outside her spy circle.

    Look at how uncomfortable she is dealing with Ellie alone in episodes like "the Undercover Lover" or "Tom Sawyer," and look at the end sequence to "Best Friend." The reason they haven't expanded her character via non-spy friendships is that that'd be completely out of character for her. She doesn't know how to handle those at all. Look at her attitude towards her own father in "DeLorean." That's not flat writing, it's showing you exactly how separated from the real world her character actually is. It just takes some careful attention to understand her.

    But if you pay attention to those things and realize why fans care about Sarah so much, you'll see why a lot of people think it's such an incredible show. She's more important to it than Chuck's character is in a lot of ways, and she's definitely the most subtle, unusual, and well-acted character on the show (and Yvonne's consistent portrayal as such a complex character, if you pay attention, is quite amazing, really).

  11. great article mate!

  12. Oh, finally, another very important element that you may not have considered, is the contrast between Sarah and Casey:

    Sarah really was forced into her CIA life. She's never known anything else, and she couldn't have gone on otherwise. Watch "vs. the Cougars" (season 2, episode 4), if you haven't in a while. It's a silly episode, but watch it end-to-end. That episode alone, put in context, should give you a very good idea of why Sarah is the way she is for most of the series.

    Casey, on the other hand, chose his path. And whenever Sarah actually asks him things like "have you ever thought about having a real life?" (see "vs. the Crown Vic," from season 1, for the earliest example), he replies specifically on the terms that "the choice we made is the right one" (re: spy life vs. personal life). Replies like that don't help Sarah at all, because she never had a choice in the first place. The first two seasons of her arc (well, mostly season 2, because season 1 really doesn't get that far) are about her finally being able to make a choice about her own life for the first time.

  13. This all seems more than a little apologist. Most of the analysis I've seen in this thread has less to do with Sarah's actual narrative arc, as presented by the show, and more of a deep reading into the show's themes. Let's face it; I can take a deep analytical dive into "Cougar Town" if I want to, but that doesn't make the show itself any more complex or deep. The only thing that separates Chuck is its ambition. Like "Heroes," it wants to be more, but can't always provide the character heft to sustain it (unlike Heroes, at least Chuck keeps something resembling a coherent arc).

    So here's what I'm driving at: Would we be seeing so many stalwart defenses of Strahovski's acting if she weren't (a) hot and (b) playing a total male gaze character? The show has had every opportunity to give her an arc that lets her become less of a blank slate, but I think the show prefers to keep her there just because it then becomes so easy for viewers and fans to project ANYTHING they want onto her character. This is how Chuck (both the character and the show) sees Sarah… as a blank object of lust and the male gaze. And thus we can even project "brilliant acting" onto Strahovski's merely adequate performance. The fact that the show has fans so conditioned to think that Sarah shouldn't have outside relationships or a real personality of her own just hammers home to me how barren of depth and complexity that show is.

  14. Wow, you got a real dislike for the Sarah character that plainly I don't see. As one of the previous writers stated, Yvonne (AKA Sarah) shows more talent than any other actress in TV just by smiling or giving one of her many facial expressions. Yes I'm a fan of Chuck and an even bigger fan of Sarah. I don't understand why people watch crap like Dancing With The Stars or even House. Chuck has both action and comedy and is a program that a family can sit down and watch and enjoy. Obviously you guys who are looking for Oscar award winning peformances from TV actors are out to lunch. Don't take Chuck so seriously, the writers and producers don't. Chuck is fun, its funny and its a good time. There aren't many shows like that on TV any more. Leave Ms Yvonne Strahovski alone, yes she is easy on the eyes and yes she is a good TV actor. If you didn't know that she was Australian you would never guess that she was non-American. She has real talent in that she can sound American and yes she get involved and does alot of her own stunts. Give her a break, give Chuck a break!

  15. Your suggestions andopinion regarding Yvonnne/Sarah being a problem for Chuck seems to me to be off target. Yvonne has a difficult character to play…Chuck expresses his emotions verbally at the drop of a hat. Sarah is, for the reasons stated very well above, a very closed character. Much of what fans see in Sarah comes from their understanding of where she has come from, and why it causes her to act as she does. Often a glance, a smile ,or a wistful look speak volumes. In this I think Yvonne does an excellent job of portraying a truely complex character.
    I agree that I would not be upset if there were fewer lingerie scenes,
    Finally, Chuck as a series has some great acting overall and remain funny, and truely entertaining. I think we are seeing the start of some great episodes.

  16. I wonder sometimes if all the emotional complexity people claim they see portrayed in Sarah's gazes isn't just what people … project onto the character. Cause lets not kid ourselves here, pining isn't really emotional complexity. But anyways

  17. Contrary to your impression one of my questions for Yvonne Strahovski, should I ever meet her, is how she manages to present such complex emotional states non-verbally. This is primarily what attracted me to Chuck. With a few seconds of subtle expression, Yvonne can present the equivalent of pages of dialog, and do so in a way that ties the viewer's emotional state to that of the character. Your characterization is like someone tasting a fine Port wine for the first time, and saying that it tastes like Ripple

    • The character of Sarah is not the problem w/ Chuck. The 3rd season saw character arc involving Brandon Roth. It was uniteresting and should have been shorter to progress this show in other areas
      Her character has not been used enough this season. Chuck is still a viable series & maybe this arc will wake up the powers that are in control.

  18. Do we actually see the same show?? Sarah it´s the most sweet and beatiful character than i´ve ever seen and it´s thanks to Yvonne!!

    • True!! Really True!! She is the very important to the show. It makes chuck (the character) interesting and have alot of emotion

  19. Wow dude what have you been watching? She can cry on cue so easily with real tears… Yvonne is one of the most talented actresses I have ever seen on a TV show.

    Did you ever see her on headland in Australia? ( you can see it on youtube ) She is also amazing in that…

  20. Wow – Did you step in It! I'd have to side along with all those others… and I'm wondering what show you've been watching?
    I don't think we've ever seen a " Sarah Walker" character on TV before.
    She's certainly not your typical poofy hair and makeup starlet that's emotional or even relational. She's been completely driven by duty and obligation…. Rules, Regulations, Protcols and Procedures .
    If you've watched the show – she doesn't even seem to have any friends… until now. Part of her character development has been this strange attraction with living/wanting a normal life… but she has no idea how exactly that will happen.
    What you have mistakenly called blank – is actually a person struggling to understand relationships and situations that are completely foreign. Have you ever spent time in a foreign country?
    I'd bet you'd walk around with a blank stare too…
    I know you're entitled to your opinion – but like anything else – perceptions can be wrong. Cheers

  21. I can't stand when people who don't take the time to watch Chuck write articles about why they don't like the show. It's the only show on TV that both me and my children look forward to on a weekly basis.

  22. I have to comment on your observations of Yvonne/Sarah, because I totally disagree. The show for me has always been a bit like a live comic book, and Sarah's character has fit that picture perfectly. And I have really enjoyed watching the two sides of her develop throughout the seasons. It has been interesting to see how her cold, hard CIA shell has had to deal with falling in love with the person she is protecting. It has also been wonderful to see her reflecting on her own personal life and slowly coming to terms with who she is. Now that she has allowed herself to love Chuck, I see all kinds of potential for those tender moments of discovery that we as human beings experience in a secure relationship. I love it that Chuck now may have to protect her emotions in the same way that she has always had to protect his physical body. Too sappy? Maybe, but I'm enjoying it all the same.

    I also disagree about Yvonne's acting not being up to snuff. I grant you that she is young, and deeper acting comes with life experience, but I think she has terrific talent and potential as an actress, and I am loving the work she does on Chuck. She wears a variety of looks easily, she is expressive, and she does great action scenes, all while maintaining a perfect American accent. Also, the love scene at the end of Chuck vs The Honeymooners was absolutely natural and sweet, and I thought it was exquisite.

  23. Sarah's fine, she's pretty, all the nerds fantasize they could get her and she's "mysterious" so all the nerds can make up all those sappy stories about how deep she is and how that millisecond look is proof she wants to find a nerd and make babies while serving him breakfast and vacuuming his apartment … naked.

  24. Jaime Weinman, suicide yourself!!

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