Over the last four years, "Chuck" has gone from "watch when/if I have time " to a "guilty pleasure" to my favorite show on right now. And year after year, it seems the show is faced with a hold-your-breath moment at Upfronts, with the decision to renew or cancel hanging in the balance. Despite awesome episodes coupled with excellent guest appearances from everyone from Bill Lumbergh to the Old Spice Guy, ratings are hitting an unprecedented low, even though the show is a proverbial post-season inch away from syndication.
With Chuck's future a mystery even for its stars, here are five reasons the show should be signed up for at least one more mission-filled season.
5. Old School Spy Mastery. As a self-admitted fan of all things espionage, I like "Chuck" because it occupies a unique yet classic place among spy shows. It's not agency procedural like "Covert Affairs", nor is it a blue-collar MacGuyver like "Burn Notice". Instead, "Chuck" harkens back to over-the-top entries of the 60's and 70's, closer to old-school James Bond, "The Man from Uncle", and yes, even a little "Get Smart". This isn't to say "Chuck" can't be serious when it wants to be. But when the story is about a young computer geek getting entire Intelligence Agencies uploaded into his noggin, realism isn't exactly a primary concern for the show. This gives "Chuck" license for action-packed fun well beyond most action movies playing at the local cineplex.
4. A Supporting Cast That Doesn't Hit You Over the Head. If you remember my reviews of the now-canceled "Cape", you might remember my complaint with the late superhero show's supporting cast: they were featured even when they had nothing to do on-screen. Compare this with "Chuck", which features a likeable and engaging cast of diverse characters who only appear when the script actually has a purpose for them. From Chuck's bumbling and scheming co-workers Jeff and Lester to his well-intentioned sister Elle and brother-in-law Awesome, the show's supporting cast works because the show makes the most of their characters. Sometimes they fulfill a major subplot (like Elle and Awesome's current discovery of a super-secret laptop), but again, the show only uses characters when they fulfill a purpose other than filling the script with dialogue. This leads one of the most compelling cast of wacky characters on television today.
3. A Believable Transformation from Slacker to Super-Spy. Admittedly, I groaned at the end of season 3, when Chuck uploaded a new version of the Intersect which made him "know kung fu" ala "The Matrix". But against all odds, the show has laid out a fairly compelling case for Chuck's transition from really important slacker to really effective spy. What makes Chuck unique as a character is his ability to process emotions. He's not a soldier like his grumpy NSA handler Casey (played by Adam Baldwin of Firefly fame), nor is he a professional like his CIA handler/love interest Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski). He hasn't been trained to ignore, overlook, resist or otherwise shut down his emotional response, and thanks to the Intersect in his noggin, he doesn't need to. As a result, the show plays upon the decisions Chuck makes as both a meek super-spy and a normal guy, for both good and ill. This consistency in characterization from season-to-season makes Chuck a rich and compelling character to watch from week-to-week.
2. Alexei Volkoff. Timothy Dalton has played a lot of villains in his day, but none of them are as downright cool as Alexei Volkoff. Dalton first appears against-type as a seemingly bumbling and harmless MI6 handler unaccustomed to working in the field. But even when Volkoff shows his true colors, he always retains the veneer of benevolence which initially disarmed Chuck and his team. He is a gregarious romantic who claims to be loved by children in one moment, and who kills his most loyal lieutenants and quotes Stalin in the next.
In many ways, Alexei Volkoff single-handedly solves one of the most annoying problems about "Chuck": the lack of consistent villains. Whether Chuck and his cohorts are fighting agents of Fulcrum or the Ring, their enemies are at best symptoms of an "Insert-SPECTRE-rip-off here" model. Volkoff remedies this problem by giving a nemesis we not only can see, but also a nemesis we can occasionally root for. In many ways, Volkoff is the ultimate anti-Chuck: while Chuck's emotions define his integrity, Volkoff's emotions are a tool used to deceive others. While Alexei Volkoff seems to have be usurped by his own daughter Vivian (Lauren Cohan) in the villainy department, only time (and another season) will tell what role Volkoff will be play in the future.
1. Chuck Heart Sarah. While most shows revel in the will-they-or-won't-they, they all but collapse once the question has been answered. "Chuck" is one of the best exceptions on television. First off, "Chuck" began by putting its title character in a fake relationship with his CIA handler, Sarah Walker, in an effort to better protect the Intersect. As one would expect, this relationship gradually became more and more real as the seasons progressed. However, the show has hardly slowed down since the two became a couple, which is culminating in the upcoming wedding.
Oddly enough, the two characters are on equal footing when it comes to relationships. While Chuck continues to learn the ropes of a spy life, Sarah continues to learn about the ropes of a real love life. Despite his emotions (or probably because of them), Chuck can barely talk his way out of a paper bag, much less a hostage situation, and while Sarah can handle opponents twice her size, she isn't nearly as adept at handling everyday relationship woes. These particularly well-rounded characters are a thrill to watch at any stage of their relationship, and often, their anniversaries are just as interesting as their first date.
To be fair, "Chuck" does have an expiration date. After watching the show face cancellation after cancellation, I think its time for the show's creators to start thinking about how to send "Chuck" off on a high-note. But that's at least one season away - and maybe even three. Honestly, "Chuck" isn't just the best action dramadies on NBC - it's one of the only action dramadies on NBC. Low-ratings or not, "Chuck" has a fan-base which keeps coming back to the troubled show. NBC would do to keep "Chuck" around for at least one more season instead of putting all their eggs in the basket of "Wonder Woman" and the many other new shows NBC is bringing to their schedule. After all, if NBC has learned anything, it's that they don't have very many eggs to gamble with this point. "Chuck" might switch from dark horse to underdog interchangeably, but either way, it's one of the only hour-long shows making NBC relevant in prime-time.
(That's it for this blog. Check in Wednesday for a new edition of Blue Yonder!)