Why the Veronica Mars Movie Could Work (and others maybe not)

All of them could feasibly be in the movie
I backed the Veronica Mars movie on Kickstarter.

I won't go on and on about why it's not the end of the world as people seem to be claiming it is (you can read a very nice response to that over here), but I will say that I spent $50 on a DVD, digital copy of the movie, PDF of the shooting script, and a t-shirt.  That's about what I would spend on those items, anyway, and that money is going towards getting a movie made about a character I care about.  It's a win/win, as they say.

VM's success has, of course, opened the flood gates for people to speculate on which other canceled television shows could make their return through Kickstarter.  I think the ones that are brought up most often are Firefly, Terriers, Chuck, and Pushing Daisies.

Firefly has already had one movie made, so the storytelling logistics are clearly not a problem.  Given that Joss Whedon's star is on the rise in Hollywood and that he's currently promoting a movie he made with his own money (Much Ado About Nothing), I can't imagine he'd need to use Kickstarter for a second Firefly movie.  He'd basically just need time.

I watched the first episodes of Terriers and Pushing Daisies and didn't really have the time to watch anymore than that, although Terriers appealed to me more.  I believe it was only on for half a season, so I would think a movie version would be pretty easy to write, given its lack of substantial back story.  I think Pushing Daisies was on for two seasons, though, so that might be trickier.

Beaver's dead and I doubt we'll see Jackie
Chuck would be problematic, because it was on the air for 5 seasons and has a fairly large, established cast.  It would be really difficult to appease fans of the show while simplifying the story to the point where it would work in a movie.  It's probably not impossible, mind you, but it would be hard.  However, it seems like Zachary Levi (aka Chuck) is aware of this, as he thinks a Chuck movie should be distributed online, not through traditional methods.  A move like that would basically make the movie for Chuck fans.  Traditional distribution means theaters need to believe the movie will bring in a wide audience and make them money.  Online distribution doesn't care (more or less).  It's a smart idea from Levi, and proof that he understands his audience (and his show).

But if a show that was on the air for 5 seasons (91 episodes) would be difficult to turn into a traditionally distributed movie, then what about a show that aired 64 episodes aka Veronica Mars?  That's an awful lot of back story.  That's an awful lot of characters.

Here's the beauty of Veronica Mars, though: it can be distilled down to a very simple, pure essence, to the point that only one character actually matters (Veronica, of course) for a movie, and only two characters matter when it comes to making that movie feel like the television show.

That other character is Keith Mars, Veronica's father.

If you think that the most important relationship on Veronica Mars was the one between her and Logan, then you weren't paying attention.

Fans are obviously going to want to see characters from the show, but from a story standpoint -- and as a matter of theme -- only Veronica and Keith are truly necessary.  While Keith might not have been in the season 4 pitch video, I have no doubt that he would have been on the retooled show had it been picked up.  But that's a perfect example that the show can work without the expanding cast, or at least the one we saw for three years.

The show is about Veronica and how she's rebuilt her life after everything that's covered in the pilot.  She stuck by her father even when he was ostracized by the community, so that bond is foremost in any version of the show.  She lost all of her friends, so any new friends she makes are nearly as important.  The pilot isn't about Veronica falling for a boy, it's about her meeting Wallace.  Her relationships with Wallace and Mac are ultimately more important than anything she has with Logan, Duncan, Piz, or even Leo, because they're the relationships that last -- just like the one with her father.

Lamb is dead. Sorry, Piz and Parker, you're probably out of luck
It's actually kind of funny that Logan and Dick are in the Kickstarter video given that the two of them aren't really at the core of what the show is about.  They do bring most of the flavor, though.

Of course pushing the show forward in time to the 10 year high school reunion will allow them to bring back some characters.  It's interesting to note that the show will actually take place in the future -- 2016, to be exact.  Probably not enough to get us flying cars, but still something to consider.

So, yes, I think the Veronica Mars movie has every chance of not only being good, but also appealing to a wide audience, as long as it sticks to its core and doesn't pander to its fans.  Fingers crossed.

Rewatching Chuck (and fixing 2 big flaws)

Yes, it's another post about Chuck.  I realize that will send the vast majority of you hitting the back button.

I honestly don't even know what triggered my desire to rewatch the show from the start.  Maybe it was just the fact that it's been a little over a year since the show went off the air.  Funny enough, I started rewatching it long before the Veronica Mars movie news hit, so it wasn't even the glimmer of hope of a Chuck movie that caused this.

I've gone on (at length) about the problems the show ran into the longer it was on the air.  A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that it was constantly on the verge of cancellation; it was very clear that long term planning started falling apart after season two.

There were two major plot points over the course of the last three seasons that have always rubbed me the wrong way.  The first was the Shaw storyline from season 3, made even more unfortunate by the fact that it made up the bulk of the season, bringing down a decent number good episodes.

The frustrating thing about the Shaw storyline is that there was a really, really simple way of making it work: Shaw should have known it was Sarah that his killed his wife from the very start.  In other words, Shaw is a Ring operative when he joins the team, but the viewers wouldn't know that.  Suddenly his every move has motivation.

Part of the problem that so many people had with the third season was the division between Chuck and Sarah.  The fact that they were apart because Chuck chose being a spy over being with her was understandable, but they took it a step further and had the two of them start dating other people.  It felt completely unnatural, particularly because a) Chuck's the kind of guy who would spend months moping over Sarah and b) Sarah jumping into a relationship with Shaw felt incredibly forced.

But if Shaw was a Ring agent from the start, trying to date Sarah would have been part of his plan.  His reasoning would have been twofold: set Sarah up to suffer and keep Chuck emotional so that the Intersect wouldn't work.  They could have taken it a step further by having Hannah work for Shaw, if need be, underscoring Shaw's plan.

Shaw never tells the Ring that Chuck is the Intersect because it didn't matter to him.  He had no interest in hurting Chuck's family -- or even Chuck, initially -- and at that point in the show, Shaw still had a strange sense of honor.  He wanted revenge on Sarah and he wanted to take down the CIA for ordering the murder of his wife.

Chuck undergoes his red test during season 3, and Sarah spends a lot of time thinking about hers.  Say, for example, Sarah mentions how she'll never forget the distinctive necklace the woman she killed wore.  Chuck eventually becomes suspicious of Shaw (which everyone will assume is just jealousy), and towards the end of the arc discovers the necklace with Shaw's personal effects -- like the wedding ring he still holds on to.  Since Chuck knows that Shaw's wife was killed while deep under cover in the Ring, he pieces it all together and we get a big time reveal.

No forced relationships to keep Chuck and Sarah apart.  No "Sarah's real name is Sam" (not that my idea fixes that, but it was an awful storyline).  Actual, real surprise for the climax of the storyline.  A cohesive story that works organically.

That last point is important for the second plot point that drove me nuts.

At the end of season 4, we meet Decker, a villainous CIA agent who drives Chuck and the team out of the CIA.  Decker basically claims that everything that has happened to Chuck from day one has been part of a bigger story -- nothing that's happen has been a coincidence.  He even says that Chuck receiving the Intersect was no accident.

When that plot point plays out, however, it turns out that Decker simply works for Shaw, and absolutely nothing from the beginning of the show is connected in any way.  Decker is just helping Shaw escape so he can get his revenge.

It is, to put it mildly, a betrayal of trust.  The writers set it up to be the big secret of the show, something that would pull all five years together into one, cohesive storyline, but it wasn't.  It wasn't even close.  And it's over halfway through season 5.

But now reframe it with the new version of season 3.  If Shaw's ultimate goal was to destroy Sarah, what better way than to set up her then boyfriend/partner Bryce Larkin?  And if he's working for Fulcrum/Ring at that point, what better way to bring Orion out of hiding than by making sure that Orion's son gets the Intersect?

Shaw is the Ring's big gun, who was supposed to get the Intersect 2.0 at the end of season two.  But when that went south for them, Shaw had to make his move, both to bring down the CIA that ordered his wife's murder, and to get revenge on the woman who murdered her.

Presto! Everything's connected.  Even better, it's not a stretch to think that Shaw has shared intel with Quinn, the guy who was originally supposed to get the Intersect, the guy who is the final bad guy of the show, who actually does more to torture Sarah than Shaw ever does.

The kicker here is that it's not just a case of me wanting things to add up, it's a matter of giving fans what they were told they were going to get.

This is the problem with being me: these episodes have happened and the show is over.  All of this "if only" business really only serves to drive me crazy.

The Return of Californication

If I had to guess, I would say that 90% of all the male writers in America wish that they could be more like Hank Moody -- or at least have lives like him.

Before I get ahead of myself, I should address the fact that Californication is a television show, albeit one that airs on a premium cable network.

There's a general belief out there that television and writing are mortal enemies.  Stephen King says as much in his book "On Writing."  He straight up tells you to stop watching television, as it's no good for you or for your work.

It's not an unreasonable stance.  I don't think anyone can deny that the rise of television led to the decline of reading, and the decline of reading has a pretty serious impact on those of us who write.  Hell, if television didn't exist, it would probably be much easier to get a book deal.  Television put a cap on the demand for books.

And let's face facts: television is a time suck.  The average network television series is 22 episodes a year.  For an hour long show, minus commercials, that 880 minutes, or 14.666 hours.  If you watch two, hour long shows, you're ultimately giving up over a day of your life.  Imagine how much writing you could get done in a day.

But all the negative beliefs about television overlook a very clear positive: stories are stories.  Sure, you can debate the quality of the storytelling on the average network television show, but in a world of ebooks self-publishing, I don't know that we can claim the average written work is that much better anymore.

As with anything, the key to television is moderation.  It is very, very easy to get pulled into television and waste hours and hours of your life in other people's stories.  But such a trap is easily avoidable in this time of DVRs and on-demand video.  I could theoretically watch 3 episodes of hour long shows and 3 episodes of half shows in 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon.  That's 3 hours spent digesting a variety of storytelling techniques, 3 hours enjoying a different medium than the one I work in.  It's 3 hours relaxing on a Sunday afternoon and if there's something wrong with that, then I don't want to be right.

And so we come back to "Californication," a show I can, in fact, watch whenever I want because it's available on-demand.  It's a half an hour long and it features a writer, so it kind of does double duty.

"Californication" is male fantasy.  Hank Moody is a drunken, partying writer who has success without trying and has lots of sex in much the same way.  And, as the male fantasy holds, the one true love of Hank's life remains relatively chaste as he sleeps his way through a certain demographic of Los Angeles.

Hank is brutally honest in a way that almost none of us could ever be.  His only notable family is his father, who he indirectly wrote horrible things about, and who dies a few seasons in.  He has a daughter that you can't actually imagine him ever taking care of when she was a little girl, but we come in when she's on the verge of being a teenager.  His daughter's mother, the aforementioned one true love of his life, always manages to be nearby, but just out of reach, mostly through Hank's own doing.

So true.
Which, of course, is why the show is so appealing -- Hank continually fucks up, yet his savior, the most important thing in the entire world to him, is always near.  He can be that kind of Salinger influenced Easton Ellis/Palahniuk/McKinerney type of writer who just takes that hard line, crotchety stance on any given thing, surrounds it with shock value, and throws in this feint glimmer of hope, as if the shitstorm he's created won't actually drown everyone and everything.  It is how he writes and how he lives.

And what red blooded, heterosexual, American male writer doesn't, at some point, wish they could have that life?  Who could deny the appeal of partying like a rock star and yet still being able to come home to the loving and beautiful muse and the amazing fruit of that union in physical form?

It's a character that I don't think really exists anymore or, rather, a character that we don't really care about anymore, at least when he's real.  We enjoy Hank Moody, but I doubt we'd tolerate him were he real, and I can't imagine the publishing world would have any time for him.  He's written one novel that was turned into a shitty movie and another novel that was stolen by the underage girl he slept with.  He's not a guy that publishing companies are lining up to give a book deal.

Yes, that's his fictional book.
Maybe we can blame that on the 80's beating that dead horse to a pulp, or maybe we can blame it on the new reality of book publishing that says companies are looking for reliable revenue generators and you can't generate revenue from the floor of some bar or in the back seat of a car, covered in your own vomit, having unprotected sex with a woman who was about to go home with the guy standing next to you until he had to run to the bathroom real quick.

"Californication" is the fantasy.  It's the romanticism of writing.  It's hilarious and occasionally heartbreaking and it's often inspirational.  As the writer who is more highly regarded than Hank says to him, you have to sit in that chair until your ass bleeds.  You have to put the work in until putting the work in seems like punishment for some crime you've yet to commit.

And perhaps that's what writing really is.  Perhaps we're all just doing penance for the sins down the line. And perhaps that's why "Californication" is so appealing, because Hank Moody is getting away with the sin...for now.

Determining Chuck's Fate

Chuck fans now have six days to neurotically worry about the fate of their favorite show.  And I'll be honest: it doesn't look good.  This begs the question: why is Chuck more likely to be canceled than renewed, and what could possibly save it?

Chuck is produced by Warner Brothers.  NBC then pays the WB to air it.  So we're looking at two different factions that need to make money in order for Chuck to stay on the air.

(Keep in mind that I am, by no means, an expert on these things, but perhaps living in Hollywood has given me some kind of knowledge through osmosis.)



Warner Brothers

The WB's formula for making money on Chuck is pretty simple: amount NBC pays them minus the cost of producing the show plus licensing income.  I'm not sure if the WB gets all the profits from DVDs, but I'm sure those things probably pull in half a million dollars per season, if not more.

The WB is also in a pretty good position with Chuck because the show is relatively cheap to make; they've cut the budget multiple times over the last four years in an effort to make it more profitable.  Up until now, the show has probably made plenty of money for Warner Brothers.

NBC

The show is not, however, as profitable for NBC.  Their formula for making money on Chuck is pretty simple as well: advertising revenue minus amount paid to the WB plus any licensing fees they might get.  Again, I don't know how the licensing is divided up, but I do know that NBC sells a lot of Chuck merchandise in their online store.

The problem, of course, is that as Chuck's ratings have plummeted, the value of commercial air time during the show has dropped.  While it has probably not affected the show this year (as such advertising is most likely determined well in advance), it's going to be a hard sell for NBC for next year.  After all, advertisers want to reach viewers, so why would they spend their ad dollars on a show that has a small audience?

The recent Twitter campaign to tell advertisers that fans watch the commercials and will buy their products if they support the show has been a good one, but it's hard to judge how effective it will be.  Advertisers have responded to it on Twitter, but will that translate to them saying to NBC, "hey, we really want to advertise on Chuck again next year, and we'll keep paying what we paid this year?"  I kind of doubt it.

So if NBC's advertising revenue decreases, the only way to keep Chuck profitable is for the amount it pays to the WB to decrease as well.

The Deal

Ultimately, this means there is only one thing that can save Chuck (aside from executive decision from someone in NBC who is just really nerdy like the rest of us): the WB has to lower its asking price to the point where NBC can make money on the show.

Why would the WB do that?  Syndication.

Basically, the WB number crunchers have to figure out how much money they can make by selling the syndication rights to Chuck.  Then they need to figure out how much they're willing to lose when they sell the show to NBC in order to make it back (and then some) when they sell the syndication rights.

The problems here are twofold: 1) There's no way of knowing for certain how much the syndication rights for Chuck will sell for, although they could probably come up with a reasonable estimate and 2) Would the discounted price to NBC be low enough for the network to pick it up?

The syndication point for a television is how is generally considered to be 88 episodes, although most networks prefer 100.  But if 88 is the minimum, then Chuck would only be 10 episodes away after the end of season 4, and it would hit 100 with a final, full season.

But, again, it all boils down to this: Is it worth it to the WB to make a lower offer?  And would it be worth it to NBC to take it?

Negatives

There's really only one negative that matters when it comes to the fate of Chuck: no one watches it.  It has been bleeding viewers all season long.  No other network (well, not entirely true, but I'll get to that in a moment) would even consider renewing it, the ratings are that bad.

Positives

I could go on and on about the idea that an official, final season of Chuck would bring back a decent number of former viewers and thus increase the ratings to at least an low average level, but that's all speculation and more of a sales pitch than anything else.  No, if there's one, glimmer of hope to look towards for Chuck's renewal it's this: Fringe.

For reasons that have never been revealed by Fox, Fringe was renewed for next season -- for a full 22 episode season.  Fringe gets ratings that are just as bad as Chuck's and airs on Friday nights, which means it's ratings could very well get worse.  It's also clearly much more expensive to make, if the effects are anything to go by.  It is, as many have said, mind boggling that Fox renewed it at all, let alone renewed it for a full season.

But here's the kicker: Fringe is produced by the WB.  It has aired 65 episodes, just 23 shy of syndication.  That's one full season plus one episode.

Did the WB make a deal with Fox this far out?  Fringe has a pretty heavy cult following and would probably do well in syndication.  So did the WB

Less helpful but still encouraging is the fact that NBC doesn't have a whole lot of new shows being prepped for next season, so there could very well be an opening for Chuck.

So there you have it: six days left to worry.  Let's hope the Fringe effect wins out.

Chuck 4.23 (spoilers)

You do have to wonder why this show can't be this good all the time.  Why is it that the show has these extended stretches of...well, mediocrity?  In some ways it's baffling that the same show can run so far to the extremes, sometimes in the course of the same season (honestly, sometimes in the course of a single episode).  But I suppose that has a lot to do with the fine line that chuck walks.  It's not a comedy.  It's not a drama.  It's not a romance.  It's not even about action or espionage.  Yet it steps in all of those worlds, and sometimes it leans too heavily in one direction and the show suffers for it.

This might seem like a bold statement, but this show should always concentrate on the spy aspects first and foremost -- or, more specifically, the spy elements need to be the essential A plot.  Yes, I know that, in theory, the spy stories are always the main plot, but they're not always essential -- they don't always matter.  And when they are insubstantial, the other aspects of the show are played up to compensate, and the balance is thrown off.



Here's the thing: the romance, the comedy, even the drama -- it can all be placed within the context of an important spy story line.  I probably laughed more tonight than I have in the majority of episodes this season and this was, for all intents and purposes, a heavy duty, super serious episode.  The romance was also really apparent, from simple moments between Chuck and Sarah to the rehearsal dinner.  And it hit home because it wasn't the sole focus, because it wasn't laid on really thick.  It worked because it was in contrast with something.

When I was in high school, my grade were always better in the fall because I played soccer.  This meant I didn't have time to slack off -- I had to keep to a rigid schedule.  Chuck is a lot like me in high school.  It needs the structure of a tightly plotted spy storyline to keep it on task and to make the other parts of the show shine.

We have one week left until we find out the fate of this show.  Like I said in my last post, I can't believe I'm back to being on the edge of my seat waiting for word about the fate of Chuck.  But tonight's episode just reiterated the fact that there's plenty of material left to be mined.

I love the move to get Morgan out of the spy game.  Honestly, I've had a hard time with the fact that he's been a part of the team for a while.  It really, really stretched the suspension of disbelief putting Morgan in the field.  It's possible to have believed him being back in Castle monitoring the missions, yes, but in the field?  That's a bit much.

We also haven't seen Casey's ex-wife since she found out the truth about him.  I was actually waiting to see her show up at the rehearsal dinner.  That's obviously not a story that's going to get dealt with this season and it would be a shame to see it fall away.

I think it's probably safe guess to say the "Chuck going rogue" story line isn't going to be completely resolved at the end of next week's finale (the title kind of gives that much away).  I also really like the idea of Chuck going rogue; it's pretty close to the finale I suggested many, many months ago.  I also wonder if he'll do so alone; will Casey go with him?  Will Sarah go on the run with him at the end of the episode after Chuck has saved her?

And then there's the twist that was suggested in the preview for next week.  I honestly have no idea what it is.  There as a point where I wondered if Vivian might actually be related to Chuck, as we've never really gotten a clear explanation as far as the relationship between Volkoff and Frost.  It would make a kind of terrifying sense, really, if Ray Wise (whatever his character's name was) was partially right, that Chuck's dad actually programmed Hartley to be Volkoff as a way of getting revenge on him for having an affair with Mary.  That seems kind of convoluted and intensely serious.  It was also require Frost to keep sleeping with Hartley after he becomes Volkoff, since he became Volkoff before Chuck was born.

Then again, maybe the multiple Star Wars jokes tonight were meant as clues that there's a brother and sister at play here.

For that matter, it's possible the reverse is true.  According to wikipedia, Chuck Bartowski was born on September 18th, 1981.  That's 10 months after Hartley was turned into Volkoff, but it's entirely possible for wikipedia to be wrong (I'm honestly not sure where that date came from).  The timing seems really close...

...could Volkoff be Chuck's father?  And is that why the Intersect worked on Chuck, because it worked on his dad originally? (Technically, it also worked for Orion)

Again, that's probably a stretch, and way too convoluted.  But the fact that I'm even considering such things is a good indication of how completely clueless I am, and how completely glued to my chair I'll be next week.

Next Monday could be a roller coaster for Chuck fans.  We could get bad news during the day, then a great and sad finale.  Or we could get good news and a finale that will energize for one, last season.

Fingers crossed.

Chuck 4.22 (spoilers)

"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."

That was from my April 17th blog entry, "Why Chuck Fell Apart," my attempt at dissecting why, exactly, Chuck had diminished in both quality and number of viewers.  My number one complaint was that the show had lost its sense of urgency, that sense that you never really knew what was going to happen next.

Certainly can't say that about this episode, now can I?

There have been many times over the course of this season that I have been willing to let Chuck fade away.  The quality had dropped and it didn't seem to be getting any better.  Ideally, I would have liked a final season to wrap everything up, but I probably would have shrugged my shoulders and went about my business if we don't get that.

Now, however, I just can't imagine the season finale being the end of the show.  Chuck has suddenly struck gold again and I think it could last for some time.



Season 2 Redux

The true beauty of season 2 was that it had focus.  It seemed like there was a deliberate line planned out from the first episode to the last episode and the show was focused on telling that story.  Every new complication seemed to stem from the main story and the show maintained the perfect pace because of it.

It felt like confidence.

It felt like the show had confidence in itself, that it was telling the stories it wanted to tell.  We've only really glimpsed that same attitude a few times since season 2, and never for very long.  In a lot of ways (and no doubt by network decree), the show seems to have tried to cater to new viewers in hopes of improving its ratings, only to watch regular viewers get bored and turn away.

But when this show gets it right, it really gets it right.

It's not the mystery that made last night's episode great.  Yes, it's what drove the episode -- who wasn't eager to find out who Agent X is?  It was what came after the revelation that made the episode perhaps the best of the season.  It was the crazy implications of what they've discovered.  It was the fact that Casey was (rightfully) the first person to piece it all together.  It was brother and sister Bartowski debating whether they could just let it go.

And it gets to the core of the show: can someone like Chuck actually be a spy?  Sure, he has the abilities, but he still doesn't carry a gun.  Chuck has a very well defined moral compass and he has finally found himself at odds with the CIA in a way that there is no grey area.

What's particularly interesting is that no one associated with the team has any idea what they've just discovered; this is big time, high level, deep dark secret stuff.  If and when the team goes rogue over this, how will Beckman react?

Also interesting is how this effects Chuck's battle with Vivian.  While he might have felt guilty about her before, he most certainly feels responsible for her now.  And if the only way to stop Vivian is to help her father, then doesn't Chuck have to do that to save his family and friends?

It's brilliant, really: a dilemma that strikes at the core of the show while being wrapped in complications and mysteries.  It's what this show should always be about.

Yes, the similar named cities joke took a turn for the ridiculous at the end, although I personally feel like the "make it snow" joke saved it.  I also really liked the new dynamic of adding Big Mike to Jeffster's misadventures.  The musical montage was just long enough to be hilarious without being tedious.

What Next?

My initial instinct after seeing the "Next On" was that Morgan will get shot, and it will be up to Ellie and Awesome to save him.  It would make some kind of sense, as the focus has been on how capable Ellie is, and it would be a natural way to involve her in Chuck's world.

But I re-watched the preview and there's no gun shot, which would seem like an odd thing to leave out if you're trying to create interest.  Vivian's dialogue also seems to imply that she already did something to someone, which I think suggests poison.  I also think that they give it away.

Go watch it again (I just added it below) and you'll see that Sarah is on the screen when Vivian makes her threat.  Sara is also absent from the reaction shot.  And given that we all know they won't get married just like that...

Second thought: It might actually be Mama Bartowski.  While the writers have just said that something bad happens, I can't imagine they would kill off anyone but Frost.  It would also be easy to see Vivian doing something to Frost before Chuck rescues her which would cause her to die later on.  And, as far as revenge goes, Frost has to be Vivian's #2 target, if she finds out about her father's obsession with her.

Of course Chuck would get really good again.  Just as I was at peace with the idea that this show would end, I find myself completely invested again, and trying to things of ways in which Chuck might actually come back.

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?

Timing

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.



NBC's

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.

Manufacturing

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.