Last week I finally finished Chuck, the excellent spy-comedy series that ran from 2007 to 2012. While the show certainly has problematic elements (such as a total embrace of current sexual mores), it also has enough heart, thoughtfulness, and decency to make up for it.
The story: Chuck Bartowsky’s life is going nowhere fast. He’s very smart, but he was expelled from college after his best friend framed him for cheating and took his girlfriend, and now he’s working a dead-end job at the local ‘Buy More’ (basically Best Buy with a green rather than blue color pattern) and living with his loving, though concerned sister, Ellie, and her overachiever boyfriend, Devon (nicknamed ‘Captain Awesome’). His free time is mostly devoted to playing video games with his slacker friend, Morgan.
All that changes when, one night, he gets an email from his former best friend which, when opened, downloads the top-secret ‘Intersect’ computer – a complete database of all the intel from every government agency – into his brain. The CIA and NSA quickly dispatch their top agents – glamorous Sarah Walker and intimidating John Casey, respectively – to recover it. Finding that Chuck is more capable than he seems, the government decides, for now, to allow him to keep his life while serving as a mobile database for covert missions, with Sarah and Casey assigned as his ‘handlers.’ Sarah poses as his new girlfriend, Casey as a co-worker at the Buy More, and all are closely monitored by the no-nonsense General Beckman.
What makes the show so good, and stops it from being merely another spy-movie parody, is the care and honesty it brings to the relationships. A large part of the story is Chuck’s struggles to maintain his connection to his family and friends in the face of his new spy-life. This becomes increasingly difficult, as his undercover activities force him to repeatedly disappoint and lie to everyone he cares most about. As Chuck’s normally a very honest and nice guy, this puts a great strain on him and everyone else.
Moreover, Chuck’s “fake relationship” with Sarah also becomes more and more difficult to maintain, both because of his natural honesty and because he’s genuinely fallen for her. The delicate balancing act of pretending to be in a relationship with someone he desperately wants to be in a relationship with is depicted with great care and pathos.
This emotional honesty is mixed with a cheerfully cartoonish version of spy-craft; missions that require tuxedoes and dresses, vodka-martinis, secret lairs, glamorous assassins, massive thugs, and super-villains with gloriously silly weapons. The contrast between the down-to-earth, carefully written world of Chuck’s emotional life and the ‘everything-and-the-kitchen-sink’ approach to the spy life works surprisingly well. It emphasizes the alluring contrast between his dull, old life and his exciting new one, while at the same time making us understand his desire to get back to his old life. The spy world may be fun, but it’s his normal, boring life that really matters.
Which brings me to the ostensible point of this piece: the themes of Chuck:
1. Keep Things in Perspective:
One of the main sources of humor on the show is, as noted, the contrast between Chuck’s normal life at the Buy More and his more exciting life as a spy. But the really funny thing is that Chuck’s co-workers at the Buy More don’t treat it as normal. Indeed, they take the Buy More at least as seriously as Chuck takes international security. Almost every episode the Buy More crew are engaged in some insane scheme, some inner-store power struggle, or some ‘mission’ to boost their business, which they latch onto with Marine-like dedication.
Meanwhile, Chuck, Sarah, and Casey are off, say, trying to recover a biological-weapon before it can be sold to the World’s Greatest Terrorist™.
The point here is an amusing satire of the things we think important – office politics, bottom-line initiatives, group dynamics, and so on – and that really don’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. So what if the Buy More doesn’t out-perform its hated rival, the Large Mart? Who really cares who gets the assistant manager position? Is acquiring the latest new computer before it hits the shelves really that big a deal? And is it worth being cruel, selfish, or dishonest?
Well, no it isn’t. Not in a world where crazy corporate executives plot to take over the CIA via internet. But, in another way, it kind of is important. It’s their lives. It may not be as important as saving the world, but saving the world is done precisely for the sake of people like this. The world is kept safe for Democracy because Democracy means ordinary people like the Buy More crew, or Ellie and Awesome, being able to live their ordinary lives. In a way, you could say that Chuck, Sarah, and Casey recover that bio weapon because it would have prevented such ‘unimportant’ things as the struggles of the Buy More.
There must be ‘big’ things: governments, armies, nations, and spies, and they are grand and glorious and good in their own ways. But there must also be ‘small’ things: homes, families, friendships, co-workers, and Buy Mores, and it is for their sake that the ‘big’ things exist at all. A small family around their Thanksgiving table, or a retail storefront prepping for Black Friday are the ends; the CIA, NSA, and so on are the means. If they don’t promote and protect such moments, all the spy-craft, underground lairs, glamorous parties, and firefights are simply a waste of time. This dynamic is a universal part of the human experience, and it is well to keep in mind.
On a related note:
2. Don’t Despise the Ordinary:
Chuck’s life is your standard boring, underachieving lifestyle. And yet, throughout the first few seasons, he keeps trying to get back to it, or if not exactly to what he had before, at least to some kind of ordinary life. It is, as noted above, what really matters to him, because that is where his friends and family are. In one episode Chuck finds that his relationship with Morgan is fraying due to his spy-life. When Sarah fails to see the big deal, since Morgan is a slacker and an idiot, Chuck responds with a story illustrating how Morgan has been there for Chuck whenever he needed him the most. It was the simple, ordinary things, like inviting him over to play video games all night after his mom disappeared, which made a difference. Those were the important things, more important than high-profile meetings and international incidents.
The contrast is interesting: the spy-world is glamorous and exciting, but it’s shallow. You can’t have real relationships, only quick flings to burn off energy. You simply don’t hang around anyone or anything long enough to really build memories or friendships. Meanwhile the ordinary world may be boring, but it’s deep. There are real, tangible emotions and relationships here. Morgan and Chuck care about each other in a way that spies, even friendly spies, don’t or can’t. More than once there are scenes where Sarah finds herself standing awkwardly to one side while Chuck mingles freely with his family and friends, looking on wistfully at a world she has never known.
Chuck wants to get back to his ordinary life because he knows that’s where his roots are. That’s where the things that make him really happy are to be found. That’s where real opportunity is. He enjoys the spy-life, but he knows that there’s no future there for him.
Both Casey and Sarah, steeped in the glamorous, shallow life of the spy, are at first contemptuous of Chuck’s ordinary life. But as they spend more time around him, they come to appreciate it and understand his longing for it, and even to come to desire it themselves. Which brings us to:
3. The Allure of Goodness:
There’s a lovely dynamic in the show: as time goes on, Chuck grows from a terrified, awkward bumbler to a genuinely skilled and intelligent spy. At the same time, Sarah and (especially) Casey start off as cold, cynical killing machines, but the more time they spend with Chuck the more his own honesty and kindness rub off on them. They grow into warmer, friendlier, and more caring people. And they slowly turn from literally wanting to kill each other into honest-to-goodness friends.
Sarah and Casey are both long-term spies. They’ve never been around anyone or in any place long enough to build any real relationships. But now, effectively stuck in Burbank, surrounded by Chuck’s family and friends, and forced to work with the same people week after week, they begin to build them.
The two spies, who are trained to suppress their emotions, to follow all orders, and to be remorseless and detached from other people, begin, perhaps for the first time, to experience real goodness on a regular basis, and find that they like it. They come to appreciate Chuck’s honesty and gentleness and, what’s more, to desire to emulate it themselves. They find, slowly, that they want to be able to trust people, to be honest and open, and to care about others. And by degrees, they do. They put down roots, they build friendships, they learn to trust and to be honest with one another.
In the process, they find that they’re happier than they ever thought they would be. Indeed, in contrasting their characters at the start of the show with the ones they have at the end, you wonder whether they’ve ever been happy at all before they started to emulate Chuck. Sarah becomes warm, smiling, and good-humored; not taking herself so seriously and acting much more relaxed around others. Casey finds himself forging friendships and familial bonds, becoming protective and caring of other people, and developing a surprisingly perceptive ear for emotions, which he uses to give his friends relationship advice.
What it is, as noted above, is that the spies, seeing the depths and joy in the ‘ordinary’ world, recognize the goodness in them and feel a natural attraction to it. They want to experience it for themselves, and finding that they can’t as they now are, they change so as to be able to. Goodness, especially deep, rich goodness like that, is intensely alluring. Maybe not at first, while the shallower goods of excitement and physical pleasure still beckon, but the more you’re exposed to it, the more irresistible it becomes.
And, as they become better people, Sarah and Casey also become better spies. Learning to trust and care for each other, they develop into a much more formidable force than they would have been otherwise. It allows them to read situations better by noting each other’s behavior, to push themselves further than they would ordinarily be able to, and even, when it comes down to it, to tear down conspiracies and unknown enemies, because they know going in who is on their side and who isn’t.
4. The Importance of Family
Finally, perhaps the key theme in Chuck is family. Chuck’s sister, Ellie, is the most important person in his life, his emotional rock, and maintaining his relationship with her is his first priority. Meanwhile, major story arcs revolve around Chuck’s hunt for his long lost parents and the consequences – emotional and otherwise – of this search.
The broad dynamic of the show’s characterization has Chuck’s immediate circle coalescing into an odd but effective extended family. Distrustful characters learn to open up, dislike turns into affection and care, couples get married and start families. His extended family is what keeps Chuck stable and, more importantly, morally centered. It is the foundation of his life.
The interesting thing is that none of the lead characters had particularly stable family lives. Chuck and Ellie’s mother and father vanished without a trace while they were children, forcing her to raise him. Sarah’s father is a con man and her mother is…complicated. Casey, meanwhile, turns out to have considerable family related baggage of his own.
But the characters manage, despite everything, to forge out real, happy family units despite their unpromising backgrounds. This mirrors, in a sense, the way Chuck turns out, despite his completely unpromising start, to grow into a surprisingly competent spy. From out of the wreckage of their lives, the characters struggle, through love, loyalty, and friendship to forge something better for themselves.
What this ‘better’ thing turns out to be is family. Family – a real, solid, loving, normal family – is the Holy Grail of the series; the thing that everyone ultimately ends up longing for. Though, as noted, the show takes unchaste behavior such as living together before marriage for granted, it also portrays marriage and family as the goal of any serious relationship. Towards the end it even skewers things like pre-nuptial agreements and easy divorce, and dares to suggest that a successful, professional woman would really prefer to stay at home with her new baby instead.
In short, Chuck is far from what you’d call a ‘Christian’ show: religion is pretty much non-existent in the character’s lives, the worldview is pretty much wholly secular (at least it doesn’t, as far as I can remember, engage in the casual religion bashing so common these days). But it is steeped in what you might call the most Christian aspects of secular morality: family, friendships, the allure of love and honesty, and the dignity of ordinary life. Outside the sexual aspect (which, to be fair, does come in a good deal), the show is wholesome and uplifting; the violence is frequent, but cartoonish and almost always justified in context. Issues of honesty, fidelity, and responsibility are handled with care and thoughtfulness and the show typically comes down on the right side of all of them. It’s all around a great show.
Vivat Christus Rex!