Friday, January 27, 2012


Chuck vs. The All-New, All-Awesome Adventures of Danny Baram

- In 2007, I was still a relative rookie at NBC Universal. I was already working in Digital Distribution at that point, though I still had a lot of contacts at NBC Development, where in late 2005 and early 2006 I was the resident NBC Page on assignment. So I pulled every string I could to get my hands on new pilot scripts. I got a huge thrill (and still do) from reading these, even though you had to wade through a lot of so-so scripts to get to the good stuff. In early April 2007 (I checked my old email logs to verify), I read the pilot script for Chuck and was blown away. I liked it so much that I wrote an email to some contacts in Development to tell them. It reminded me of Y: The Last Man meets Alias meets The O.C. It was probably the first TV script I've ever read that actually felt like it was meant for Gen Y. It wasn't like anything else on TV. It was a genre mashup - comedy, action, adventure, sci-fi, and romance. If it actually made it on the air, man, it was going to be awesome.

At that time, NBC would typically do early pilot screenings for employees, where we gave feedback and got an early glimpse of what was in development. As it happened, I was in a screening session with a lot of older people. At the time, I was only 24. Most had no idea what to make of the Chuck pilot, and certainly, it didn't go over particularly well with that crowd. People wondered who would watch it. They were confused - was it a drama or a comedy? Mostly, I think the fast-paced, self-aware mix of pop culture references, geek speak, and 20-something angst just went over the heads of the 40, 50, and 60-somethings in the room.

Flash-forward to the San Diego Comic-Con, 2007. Somehow, Chuck had been picked up for NBC's Fall schedule. The network had decided to take a risk on a show that was clearly different, unique, and younger-skewing. Heroes had become a smash the previous Fall, so there was a desire to do more high-concept, younger-skewing shows. But man, it was at that Comic-Con that Chuck cemented itself - before it had even aired - as a fan-favorite. My friends and I went to the show's panel in San Diego, and the place was electric. Josh Schwartz and Zachary Levi were given thunderous ovations. And as the pilot played, people laughed, cheered, and clapped. It went over like gangbusters, and Chuck was one of *the* breakout hits at Comic-Con. And rarely have I had such a gratifying experience as an entertainment industry professional. Not that I had any involvement whatsoever in the show - it was just that, there at Comic-Con, it was a victory for us, the fans, and I felt proud to be involved with this paradigm-smashing show even tangentially. It felt like a win for everyone who was sick of shows about white-collar yuppies and shows about young people that felt written by middle-aged writers who didn't have a clue. Chuck felt for us, by us. And maybe people who wear suits to work were never going to get it. But for the rest of us - those of us in our 20's, those of us who grew up with comic books and videogames and movies and pop-culture, this was a TV show that spoke to us - that was, nearly instantly, near and dear to our hearts.

Of course, this same group of geeky twenty-somethings is the same group that inspires all these articles about cord-cutting and the death of traditional TV. So the same people that were so passionate about Chuck from the get-go were the same people least apt to watch it on its regular NBC timeslot. It made Chuck one in a long line of shows with intensely passionate, loyal fans but relatively miniscule ratings. And yet, Chuck persisted, despite the odds. It seemed to face down cancellation two or three times each year, and always, it rallied. Sure, some of that was due to NBC's overall situation over the last few years. But a lot of it was the fact that the fans refused to let their show go quietly into that good night. Subway sandwiches were bought, the internets were swarmed with petitions and protests, and over and over again, the fans got behind this little show that could.

Chuck had its ups and downs creatively, but its heart was always, always in the right place. Even when the plotlines weren't totally clicking, the show worked because the characters were so great. Over the years, Chuck became one of those shows that was just nice to have around. You looked forward to checking in with old friends - Chuck, Sarah, Casey, Morgan, Jeff, Lester, and Big Mike. The show was overflowing with heart, and for that reason, it was deceptively heartstring-tugging. Despite an over-the-top sci-fi premise, the friendships of the characters felt so authentic that some of the big moments - like Chuck finally revealing to Morgan that he was a spy - were as impactful as on any, more serious drama.

Part of the reason for the authenticity, I think, is that stars like Zachary Levi and Joshua Gomez were the real deal - true blue geeks who used their newfound starpower to do things like attend E3, become kings of Comic-Con, and in Levi's case, to start a company called The Nerd Machine. When you mix those guys with the all-around badassery of an Adam Baldwin, and the beautiful/dangerous combo that is the smokin' Yvonne Strahovski, well, it's that rare kind of TV chemistry that makes for something special. And I can attest - these guys are among the nicest bunch you'll find in showbiz. I'll never forget the night that I got to hang out with the cast at Comic-Con. Levi, Gomez, Ryan McPartlin (aka Captain Awesome), and the rest couldn't have been cooler.

If you needed further proof that Chuck's showrunners were themselves fanboys, recall the list of guest stars that the show's utilized over the years. Scott Bakula was brought in to play Chuck's estranged dad, and Linda Hamilton appeared as his mom. Superman himself, Brandon Routh, had perhaps his best role to date as the villainous Daniel Shaw. Carrie-Ann Moss was great this past season as superspy Gertrude Verbansky. We've seen everyone from Timothy Dalton to Chevy Chase to Gary Cole to Stone Cold Steve Austin to Stan Lee grace the show. And that's just barely scratching the surface.

I will miss Chuck, but it's one of those shows that will live on forever. A world was created that people will go back to, that people will revisit, even if only by popping in a DVD and sharing it with their friends. And I think that Chuck is going to have a major influence. Chuck was a show that brought a unique sensibility to TV. During a time when series like Lost, Veronica Mars, and others were playing around with multiple genres and high-concept premises, Chuck showed that there is a way to do a show that's funny and goofy and nerdy yet also action-packed and that has heart. Personally, as a writer, I find myself brainstorming new TV pilot ideas and thinking that it'd be fun to do something in the spirit of Chuck. I think in the years to come, we'll see a lot of shows come down the pike that get compared to Chuck. And when we look back, we'll look at Chuck as a key pop-cultural touchstone of an era when geek culture became mainstream culture. When Comic-Con became the center of the pop-cultural universe. When a mainstream NBC show like Chuck could make obscure references to things like Dune and the music of Rush and get away with it. Maybe Chuck was even ahead of its time. Maybe in a few years, we'll look back and laugh at the dark ages when a show like Chuck lived and died by an antiquated system of Nielsen ratings that didn't even measure the show's target audience and/or its preferred viewing methods in its sampling.

Most of all, I look at CHUCK and, as cheesy as it is to say, I see myself. Chuck Bartowski started out as a just-graduated geek who underachieved and looked for meaning, as his potential was wasted at a boring Buy More job. When fate (and Bryce Larkin) intervened and bestowed upon Chuck the Intersect - a vast database of information, knowledge, and skills downloaded directly into his brain - it gave Chuck a purpose, a mission, and a wake-up call that he was, indeed, meant for great things. As Chuck has grown, figured things out, and approached the big 3-0, well ... so have I. Chuck and I even share the same city - Burbank, CA. And yeah, anytime I head over to the local Best Buy, a part of me will be looking for Jeff and Lester and the rest of the Buy More crew. Now, I can only imagine where Chuck, Sarah, Morgan, and the rest go from here. But I like that. I like that what we've seen is, really, only Chapter 1. Somewhere out there in the metaverse, Chuck will grow old, maybe settle down, but probably have at least a few more great adventures. Isn't that the case for all the best heroes?

Thank you Josh Schwartz, Chris Fedak, and everyone behind the scenes at Chuck. It's been an awesome ride, and even when I wasn't loving the show, it felt like its mere existence was a victory for the good guys, the geeks, the fanboys, and really, anyone who was sick of the same old crap on TV. Chuck fought the good fight, and was a success despite the odds against it. Its kung-fu was strong. And it taught us all to never, ever - under any circumstances - underestimate the power of the Nerd Herd. So here's to CHUCK. It's been a great run.

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