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Going Down With the ‘Ship


 

You know why the Chucktroversy (“Oh, my God, they temporarily interrupted the Chuck/Sarah relationship!”) interests me more than it probably should? Because I have a certain fascination with watching a show being choked off by the need to put romance at the centre, even when it really needs to be about other stuff. Chuck is a show whose biggest need for improvement is in the spy stuff: it has been working toward this, but what it needs is better spy plots, smarter action, Chuck moving forward as a person and a spy. The creators know that what they want to make is a funny, exciting spy show as well as a show about a young slacker discovering his hidden abilities and working toward a sense of what he can contribute to the world.  But they’ve also got a will-they/won’t-they romance element, and this element is dominating the conversation about the show. And if history is any guide, it’s going to come to dominate the way the show is written.

The creators of the show, Schwartz and Fedak, addressed the controversy in an interview with Alan Sepinwall, and one thing that comes through is that they are trying to turn the conversation back to the spy stuff, but this fan explosion is dragging them — against their will — into making a show about who is sleeping with whom. Here’s Schwartz, acting a little astonished that his action-adventure show is turning into a romantic soap opera like The O.C.:

Having been raised in the slums of the teen drama – just kidding, it’s not a slum, it’s a beautiful part of the state – those kind of shows, they just exist on the relationships that people are invested in. It’s what they drive on week in and week out. As you stated yesterday in your blog, Chuck and Sarah is but an element of our show. There’s a lot of other storytelling imperatives that are driving how these episodes unfold. Chuck and Sarah is a critical element of the show – we have said before that it is the heart of the show, and we stand by that – but there are other factors that are driving the story here. Given time, I think you will see this is a story that’s unfolding not just on a romantic plane… There is an overarching design to the season, these stories are more than just romantic stories, and people have to trust that the journey we are taking them on is one that is designed to give audiences both what they want and what they need.

In other words, the romantic relationship that was meant to provide heart and character development to the show is becoming the entire focus of the show. And this isn’t entirely in the hands of the writers. If fan discussion and critical discussion focuses mostly on the romantic stuff, the writers start arguing about how to respond to that, and eventually, boom, the only thing people can think about is the relationship angle. This happened in the final seasons of Buffy: it wasn’t just the fans talking about the characters purely in terms of couples (should Buffy be with Spike, who’s next for Willow), the writers fed that desire, and everything else but the boring dating stuff seemed to become an afterthought.

I don’t want to blame fans for this, because everyone enjoys a show in his or her own way, and if the romance is what you like best about a show, that’s fine. I think it becomes a problem on shows that feed the ‘shippers when they really shouldn’t. If a show deliberately de-emphasizes romance, or clearly makes it a side part of the stories, then even ‘shippers will accept that this is not what the show is really about. (NewsRadio was a comedy that had an on-again, off-again romance element because NBC insisted on it, and eventually the creator reverted to his own preference and broke the couple up, permanently. I personally thought this was a mistake, and some fans were annoyed, but the show had always made it clear that the workplace-comedy element came first, so it didn’t spark any kind of fan revolt.) What makes a show like Chuck exceptionally vulnerable is that the writers deliberately played up the idea that the relationship of Chuck and Sarah was a defining part of the show, equal in importance to the spy hijinks. This even though their attraction seems primarily based on the fact that he’s the male lead and she’s the female lead.

This is a bit like trying to make the relationship of Max and 99 equal in importance to the comedy. It’s not that it can’t work. It’s just that when the writers need to throw a wrench in the romance in order to serve other elements of the show — which is what they claim they’re doing here, splitting up Chuck and Sarah in order to further the spy story — they discover that the fans get very angry. And they can’t really blame the fans, since they encouraged the fans to view Chuck and Sarah as “the heart of the show.” And that’s how they’ve wound up making a show about two mismatched people and their fairly uninteresting romance, no matter what they thought they were making about a week ago.

Which is a very long way of saying that my biggest problem with ‘shipping is not the people who do it. It’s the creators who let it take over their show. And Chuck, which has never been great at balancing the different things it’s trying to do, is giving the impression that it didn’t fully plan for how to keep the kissy stuff ™ from taking over the whole show.


 
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Going Down With the ‘Ship

  1. And had the showrunners had the common sense to make the friendship affection between Chuck and Sarah a continuing background theme it would have kept the show lighthearted and amusing. They could have then focussed on some decent storytelling (and you are absolutely right, they had some real work to do there). Instead, they are turning this into a darker version of a teenage soap – and I personally didn't like those as a teenager, and I've certainly not developed the taste since.

    Of course, they may have planned to be very clever, and next episode will spring a surprise: "look, it was all a trick, they were just playing along to fool the others, aren't you surprised!". The problem is, that is the language of teen drama too. The language of a caper movie is to give a nudge and a wink this week "see, there is a clever plan under way, and we and you are in on the secret!". They just don't seem to understand the language of the genre.

  2. Its not about what the show wants to do. Its about how. If they want to continue the WTWT and bring in new pairings, fine by me. I am all for it. But, in Chuckspeak, they have to sell these new pairings. That was what the latest furor was about.

  3. I disagree. The problem is with a) the main PLI of Routh (who is a terrible, wooden actor), and b) interfering with the chemistry between the leads. The Spy Stuff in the age of Bush/Cheney is comedic because it is ridiculous. What's funny is the clash of the "normal" world and the national security state. Where they meet for laughs and romance is with Charah. But, let's acknowledge that Yvonne and Zach have this incredible chemistry, which is far more interesting than all and any of the other elements of the show. So, the producers could have courage and decide to make a national security "Thin Man" and exploit the amazing thing that has evolved. Oh, and also, what the show had in S1 and S2, but not so far in S3, was a great showcase for indie music.

    I agree in part with OD that the execution is the main problem this year. Part of that is due to introducing characters and actors that are not up to the show's snuff, mainly because they can't do "light." So, they have sucked all of the air out of the room.

  4. Wow. I could not disagree with your conclusion more. This was not an attempt to minimize the relationship. It was a calculated move to emphasize it. It's all they have talked about all summer. This was totally planned.

    If they wanted to concentrate on the spy story, they would put them together and the relationship story would quickly fade. They don't want that.

  5. interesting, hope u don't mind a different comparison, in everwood, when the WTWT went sour season 4 for ephram / Amy, the show fell apart, because ALL of the heartwarming subplots revolved around those two, with them apart, there was no reason for the other characters to either interact, or to enjoy themselves – same show, doc brown and nina, they sort of had an subplot or two, but those two could have WTWT'd for fifteen years, and been more funny than anything. Everwood got cancelled after season 4, the fans went up in arms, if you follow my train of thought, the fans felt robbed of a whole season, not due to the story or the romance, due to what the angst did to the entire show. Don't know if you follow chuck, but without sarah and chuck to bounce all the lame spy and techno / geek comedy, as well as a funny home base at ellie's house, the joy has just been sucked away. Once you afix a chuck / sarah relationship, the other subplots shine, then you need to write a decent spy story every week, it is not that hard.

  6. I have to agree with the other comments here. This season has the characters acting completely out of character. It also has been a downer of a season, lacking the humor and light elements that we have come to love in seasons 1 and 2. They have two amazing actors (Levi and Strahovski) who's chemistry is unbelievable yet they are rarely together this season (thus far). Even if they decided the two characters were just going to work together, so be it it, but get back to the team and the spy stories and the FUN. If they are finally going to get around to letting them be together, then do it and put it in the background and get on to telling the spy story. It's all in the execution.

  7. I want to echo a lot the previous comments. I think the romance part of the show has become dominant because they use it in the negative sense. The first two season were far more enjoyable; Chuck and Sarah mostly had fun, and the contrast between the spy life and the (ab)normal world was often played for fun. But this year, in making the romance a negative, a huge part of the fan base is just annoyed and asking, "how long?" If they would simply let Chuck and Sarah be the "happy" spot at the center of the show, fans would be far more interested in the spy stories, Buy More humor, and Bartowski family malfunctions. It wouldn't even hurt to let Sarah be funny and have fun in some of those situations.

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