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.