Chuck's Play III: Slide of Chucky

The New York Times has an article today on the new approach of the almost-didn’t-happen third season of Chuck. Despite being a longish and good piece, it’s a bit vague on what exactly the producers are trying to do with the new season, apart from what we already knew: Chuck is no longer the bumbling amateur he was, and the show will sell itself more as a spy show with comic elements, downplaying the nerdy stuff:

Having secured a 19-episode order from NBC, the “Chuck” producers plan to play up the more heroic elements of the show and its title character, adding guest stars like Brandon Routh (of “Superman Returns”) and the World Wrestling Entertainment star Stone Cold Steve Austin. Mr. Schwartz also vowed that the coming season would resolve a romantic subplot between Chuck and his comely C.I.A. chaperone, played by Yvonne Strahovski.

A new NBC marketing campaign built around the tag line “No More Mr. Nice Spy” will also seek to convince viewers that Chuck is a new man. “We’re trying to veer away from some of the goofball antics that we may have focused on in seasons past,” said Adam Stotsky, NBC Entertainment’s president for marketing. “We try to focus on the smart, and the smart-funny — never the silly.”

The article doesn’t attempt to report on how a guest appearance by Stone Cold Steve Austin will make the show less goofy.

If next Sunday’s Chuck season premiere has less of the nerd subculture and Buy More bits, that’s probably all to the good, because they’ve been the weakest part of the show. (I don’t know if, as a commenter suggested, they’re purely there so that other characters can have subplots and Zachary Levi won’t have to be in every scene — but it sure seems that way, and if he were in almost every scene, it would probably be a stronger, tighter show.) Since we like Chuck for reasons that are basically unrelated to his nerdiness or ineptitude (his crush on Sarah and Levi’s general likability mean that we’ll always go easy on the guy), the show probably has quite a lot of leeway in how competent it can make him. Because Levi projects everyman affability, they can afford to — and probably should — make the character more heroic without losing that everyman quality. It’s built into the actor.

My feeling as always is that Chuck up to this point has been a good show with a lot of padding. What I refer to as “padding” is the stuff that’s supposed to give it more depth and breadth, but instead just seems to make it harder for the show to offer really strong and interesting stories-of-the-week. It’s a bit like Veronica Mars‘s problem delivering satisfying individual mysteries, but at least on that show we understood (for the first two seasons anyway) that the mystery was secondary to the overarching developments. With Chuck I can’t quite escape the feeling that Chuck’s adventures are afterthoughts; I don’t think they are, but there’s so much going on around them that they can feel perfunctory.

If they would drop a few regular characters and use the money to hire more stuntmen and writers who can craft a satisfying adventure episode, I sometimes feel they’d be better off — though other times I think I’m just rooting for the show to be what it isn’t, and never should be. It’s not Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak’s fault that there aren’t a lot of genuine action-adventure shows on the air, and the stuff I consider “padding” is probably the part of the show that interests them the most. Or as I said elsewhere: a writer for a CBS procedural could come into Chuck and do a better-structured adventure story than some of the writers they’ve got; but it would lose the special qualities that attracted fans to it in the first place, and it wouldn’t be a better show than it is now.

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