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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu


Last week we discussed 24, a "realistic" action show. This week, we turn to action-comedy.

On Monday, September 24, 2007, Chuck Bartowski first appeared on television screens. At his own birthday party, he was hiding in his room hoping to avoid his sister's attempts to help him find a girlfriend. She dragged him out and introduced him to several attractive young women. Alas for his well-meaning, meddling older sister, Chuck regaled the women with the sad story of his lost college girlfriend. Along the we also learn that Chuck is a college drop out, works at the Burbank, California, Buy More store and is part of the Nerd Herd (did Best Buy pay for this kind of publicity?). The message is clear; Chuck is a capital 'L' Loser.

But all of that is about to change. More or less...

Chuck's old college roommate, now a top agent with the CIA, steals the "Intersect," getting himself killed (or so we thought at the time) before he can get away with it. His killer turns out to be none other than Jayne Co- I mean, Adam Baldwin (not related to the other, irritatingly political Baldwins, btw). Baldwin's character is John Casey who is a lot like Jayne except, well, Casey is smart. And he works for the NSA. Unfortunately for Casey, Chuck's roomie manages to use a wireless connection to email the Intersect to Chuck before expiring. Chuck opens the email and is hit with a barrage of graphic images that flash on his screen, through his optic nerves and into his brain. It takes a very long time. Chuck opens the email shortly after his party and is unable to move or look away until 7:00 AM the next morning.

Wait a minute! This vast collection of graphic data was sent to Chuck in a matter of seconds on a wireless connection using a hand held device slightly larger than an iPhone? Anyone who has sent a graphics intensive email knows it won't transmit in under 10 seconds, especially using a wireless connection! But, hey, file transmission times on TV only make a difference if the plot requires realistic transmission times to build tension. Let's give them a pass on this one.

But what is this "Intersect" that turns Chuck from a geek into a spy, from a Loser into merely a loser? The Intersect was supposed to be a computer that could make all sorts of amazing connections using data images from all over the world. Now that the Intersect is stuck in Chuck's head (and has been wiped from all other locations), Chuck gets to make those amazing connections. If Chuck sees something or someone from one of the images stuck in his brain, he "flashes" and sees the connections, learns who the bad guy really is or what he's really after.

Having the Intersect in his head makes Chuck valuable, so valuable a CIA agent and an NSA agent are assigned to protect him and act on his flashes. The NSA agent, of course, is tough, no nonsense, no emotion Casey. The CIA agent is Sarah Walker, a beautiful blond just the right age to be Chuck's girlfriend.

To round out the not-quite sitcom setup, Chuck lives with his sister and her fiancé, neither of whom know Chuck has become a spy. Since all the world's bad guys keep wandering through Burbank, Chuck keeps his job at the Buy More as his "cover." Casey gets a job in the same store while Sarah works at a nearby frozen yogurt place (or something like that).

Each episode features some crisis at the Buy More that only Chuck can solve plus some threat to the free world that only Chuck can identify. The writers get the same tension Spider-Man suffers from all the time; how do you balance your real life with your secret life while also keeping your friends and family from discovering your secret life? Plus there is the added tension because Chuck has no spy training but has to be along on the spy missions in case he flashes on something.

More than most TV shows, Chuck takes a lot of willing suspension of disbelief. If you let yourself get caught up in just how preposterous the Intersect is or how ludicrous the cover stories are or start wondering how Chuck, Casey and Sarah manage to successfully hold down regular jobs while also slipping off to do spy stuff all the time, you won't be able to enjoy the show at all. And it is an enjoyable action-comedy, one my whole family has fun watching.

On the ironic side, Chuck was almost canceled after its second season. Only a massive fan effort kept the show afloat. NBC reluctantly agreed to a third season, but not until March of 2010. Then NBC got a look at the ratings of all of its new shows for 2009. Suddenly, Chuck looked a lot better; so good that NBC brought it back in January with back-to-back episodes on Sunday night followed by another episode in the show's normal Monday time slot.

But things have changed for season three. Now Chuck has the new, improved Intersect in his head. Not only can he flash on all the same stuff he used to flash on, he can also flash on new skills. One minute, you've got the bumbling Chuck who needs Casey and Sarah then, flash, you've got kung fu Chuck or swordsman Chuck or mariachi Chuck. For me, the jury is still out on this new, improved Intersect. Yes, it can be funny when Chuck goes from wimp to superhero in the blink of an eye, but that's going to lose its appeal pretty quickly. But maybe the writers will surprise us.

And maybe Hannah, the new woman in Chuck's life who was introduced this week, won't turn out to be yet another undercover agent trying to capture the Intersect. But I'm not holding my breath.

Which Chuck do you prefer? Or do you even like Chuck at all? Why are all female spies sexy beauties with brains? Have you ever seen a show that required more willing suspension of disbelief? And what would James Bond do with the Intersect in his head? What Maxwell Smart do with it, for that matter?

Let the arguments begin!

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.
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