Idiot Box: Why Chuck Fell Apart

Last week's episode of Chuck dropped to a 1.3 in the ratings, a series low.  Since that would appear to be the last nail in the Chuck coffin (barring a miracle or the WB agreeing to sell the rights to NBC at a reduced rate for the sake of reaching the syndication point), I thought I'd take a look back at the show and figure out what exactly went wrong.

Chuck premiered on September 24th, 2007 to over 9 million viewers and what would have been around a 3.8 in the 18-49 year old demographic that networks count.  For what it's worth, a rating like that now would make Chuck NBC's highest rated show, and even a highly rated show outside of the shallow pool that is NBC.

As with most shows, Chuck's ratings dropped after the premiere, but never ventured into the danger zone.  In fact, the first season averaged 8.68 million viewers, a perfectly acceptable number, particularly given the fact that the first season was cut short by the writers' strike.

To give you an idea how of far Chuck has fallen, last week's episode reigned in 4.1 million viewers, less than half of its average from the first season.

So what happened?


For those who know anything about this show, "timing" would seem to be an obvious answer, if not an obvious excuse, although it would be wrong to place that blame entirely on NBC.

Watch Chuck or Sarah will shoot you.
Obviously, the writers' strike that derailed the first season didn't help matters.  While the show got a typical half season order of 13 episodes in, the finale didn't pack much of a punch.  It also aired in January, which isn't exactly a hot bed of television activity.

Because the season ended after only 13 episodes, the show never dealt with many stories of substance.  The episodes consisted mostly of secret identity issues and Chuck pining away for Sarah, although it was all done very well.  Each episode was funny, relatively self-contained, and at times even moving.  The chemistry between the core cast members was on display from the start.  We also got just enough information that everything made sense, yet not so much that we didn't want more.

The only problem is that the show never got to a point where it seemed like something real was at stake.  This is completely understandable after half a season, but made the show feel less substantial than it really was.  I think, to many people, it was easy to dismiss.

It's not entirely surprising, then, that the second season of Chuck (which premiered in September of 2008, 9 months after it had gone off the air) had less than 7 million viewers.  The ratings were all over the charts for season two, but it eventually clocked an average audience of 7.36 million, about 1.3 million fewer than season one.  And while that was good for something like a 2.7 average (which it would kill for now), the finale clocked in at closer to an 1.8 -- not a good sign.

What's truly frightening about the ratings trend that developed is that season two was easily the best single season Chuck ever had.  The show had been renewed for an entire season well in advance of filming.  The creators knew they had 22 episodes to produce and planned accordingly.  They planned it out so much, in fact, that they ended it on a cliffhanger, as they assumed they would return for a third season.

Each episode of Chuck from season two (more or less) built upon the mythos of the show.  The spy world was fleshed out, but so was Chuck's family life.  Mysteries were introduced, new and old characters showed up at unexpected times, and we actually got plot twists -- all while Chuck and Sarah grew ever closer.

I was never more excited about the show than I was after season two, which made the fact that it's renewal was in doubt all the more frustrating.  This is where timing would, yet again, get the best of this show.

NBC eventually decided to renew Chuck, but they only picked it up for 13 episodes.  In many ways we were back to season one, with the show forced to try to walk that fine line between continuity heavy episodes that its core audience loved and self-contained episodes that could possibly bring in new viewers, all in just 13 episodes.

Season three of Chuck premiered on January 10th, 2010 and scored a 3.0, a huge jump from the season two finale and a rather ridiculous bump for NBC's overall ratings.  While the ratings crept slowly downward after the premiere, the show was still above a 2.5 six episodes in, so NBC -- who were desperate for ratings (and still are) -- decided to order 6 more episodes, bringing the season 3 order up to 19.

The problem, of course, is that the show had already been planned out for 13 episodes, so the additional six were going to be like a new season.  Even more unfortunate is the fact that the first 13 episodes felt like it was created by people who weren't entirely sure if these 13 episodes were the end of something or the beginning; it was completely unfocused.

Season three did just barely well enough for NBC to renew it, yet again for only half a season, lead it to the same difficulties in season four that were found in season three.  And when the show debuted with a 2.5, NBC did exactly what it did earlier; picked up the show for a full season even though it had been plotted out as half a season.  And, again, it was obvious that the show had not been put together in a cohesive manner.


But all of the blame can't be placed on the network.  No, some of the blame falls at the feet of the show itself, at the drop in quality that has been so evident since the end of season two.


The end of season two changed the core dynamics of the show.  First, there was the fact that Chuck and Sarah had, at the very least, made their feelings for each other known.  And then there was the Intersect 2.0.

I know that, at the time, Chuck's upgrade was a point of contention for many people.  The problem was that Chuck was no longer a fish out of water, but the ultimate weapon.  Personally, I have really enjoyed Chuck having 2.0 in his head, but I think it was a difficult adjustment for the writers to make, one that didn't always work out.

In fact, the most fertile ground after Chuck's upgrade was the issue of what the Intersect 2.0 was going to do to Chuck's brain.  But the issue was never addressed until the second episode orders, which shoved a potentially overarching story into just 6 episodes so that it was never covered as thoroughly -- or as effectively -- as it could have been.

With Chuck suddenly becoming a full fledged spy, the writers had to find a new source of drama, and they decided to focus on the relationship between Chuck and Sarah, a relationship that had, up until this point, felt very natural.  And then we met Shaw.

Clearly, two people with chemistry...or not.
Honestly, I liked Shaw.  We never learned much about him and he lacked any kind of chemistry with anyone in the cast, but that was fine with me, for the most part.  As a spy, and later a villain, he was great.  But they ruined him by making him a complication in the Chuck/Sarah relationship.

This was problematic on a number of level.  First of all, Shaw and Sarah had no chemistry, and we were constantly being told about how they were together as opposed to ever seeing it.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it was unnecessary.  The fact that Chuck had decided to become a spy even against Sarah's wishes was more than enough reason to keep the two of them apart.  It was a huge issue that was going to cause problems between them ; there was no need for anything else to happen.

And yet we got Shaw.  And the we got Hannah, who was almost as ridiculous, given that the number one rule of the show up until this point was that Chuck couldn't date a civilian, but for some reason it was now okay...because Sarah was dating Shaw, evidently.

The relationship drama was forced and heavy handed and it was particularly frustrating given that it could have been left out completely and nothing about the third season would have changed.

Timing and Manufacturing

Season four has, in many ways, been a combination of all the things that have gone wrong with this show.  Yet again, Chuck got an order of only 13 episodes, 13 episodes that could end up being the series' last.  So over the course of those 13 episodes we were introduced to the proposal storyline.

"You're very nice, but totally unnecessary."
Part of my issue with the proposal storyline is that we got only 6 episodes in season three of Chuck and Sarah being together, and then only three in season four before the proposal comes up.  In other words, they had been together for less than half a season and already they were talking about getting married.  It was way too quick and, even worse, became the focal point for the show.  As if to replace the "will they/won't they" question that had now been answered, they found another "will they/won't they" question one which, frankly, had significantly less impact.  And, again, it was forced.

Again, we saw the balance of the show shift.  Whereas season three had fought to regain some semblance of the balance the show had before Chuck got his upgrade, any steps season three had finally taken to right the ship were thrown out the window.  All focus was place on Chuck and Sarah, with minor storylines going on around them.  The plot of every episode was built so that it connected to something Chuck and Sarah were going through, and often times that construction was heavy handed and flimsy.

Then Chuck got picked up for an additional 11 episodes, and it was clear that the creators weren't prepared for more episodes.  The initial episodes after the original finale seemed hastily thrown together, with ridiculous plots that pushed suspension of disbelief well beyond its breaking point.  We saw a random and, at the time, rather bad plot point from the first set of episodes brought back, and while they've managed to make it work so far, it's underscored how awful it was to begin with (yes, I'm referring to the computer).

Now we have three episodes left, and from all appearances those three episodes are going to be packed to the gills with story.  The last three episodes sound like they're going to be urgent, something Chuck has missed for some time now.

Season Five?

The final episode of season four is called "Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger," and given what we got at the end of season two, I have no doubts that the creators mean what they say.  For those of us who have spent four years following this show, one more season seems pretty essential.

The fact that Fox renewed Fringe for an entire season even though its ratings were, at the time, lower than Chuck's is a little bit encouraging, particularly given that Fox operates with higher ratings standards than NBC.  But the real glimmer of hope has to come with the fact that Chuck is, at most, just ten episodes shy of the threshold for syndication.

From a creative standpoint, I feel like the fewer episodes, the better.  Ten episode will get them to the syndication point, and ten episodes might be about right.  Give us ten episodes filled with suspense, adventure, humor, drama, and romance.  Give us ten episodes that I can't predict based upon the "next time on."  Give us ten episodes where the stakes are high and emotions run wild.  Give us ten episodes that culminates 4+ years of television.

And then let the show rest, as I think it's probably about that time.