Chuck came into existence with high expectations. One reason for this was NBC’s ridiculously aggressive marketing campaign prior to its premiere. Everywhere you looked, NBC was relentlessly pimping Chuck, whether it be the early availability of the pilot, endless on-air promos, and those annoying little pop-up ads where Zach Levi started talking to you. NBC had faith in the series, and why not? The ingredients were enticing: show runner Josh Schwartz coming off The OC, star Zachary Levi playing what is pretty much an evolutionary Seth Cohen/Josh Schwartz, stunning Australian import Yvonne Strahovski carrying on the Sidney Bristow memorial “spy who must show extensive cleavage to do her job” torch, fanboy favorite Adam Baldwin in his best role since Firefly and a pilot helmed by blockbuster film director McG. However, despite this impressive list of creative talent, the pilot and first few episodes came and went with a collective “meh” (a word I freaking hate, yet one that is annoyingly apt here). The series equaled less than the sum of its parts. Thankfully, since those first couple episodes, the Chuck team did something rare in the world of network television: it recognized its flaws and evolved rapidly, strengthening ratings and turning itself into one of the better new series on TV.
I had the honor of watching the pilot last July at San Diego Comic-Con in the presence of the cast and crew and a few hundred TV fans. The pilot went over incredibly well but, in hindsight, that was an easy room. The laughs were contagious. Sometimes that happens. After the screening, Josh Schwartz called Chuck a mix between Alias and The Office. You could tell that this was a genuine comparison, and something the pilot definitely accomplished. However, after episodes two and three of Chuck, it must have quickly became clear that Office-level humor is almost impossible to accomplish.
Early Chuck episodes featured too many blatant attempts at Office humor and with that came an increasing percentage of jokes that fell flat. Going back to The OC, this was not the type of humor Schwartz was known for. His forte was not in jokey jokes, but with characters being realistically funny in a character-driven way. Subsequent episodes have spurned the all-too-blatant jokes in favor of humor which, even if it didn’t hit a home run, wasn’t record-screeching if it fell flat.
The toning down of the Morgan character was a key part of this. Morgan was early on meant to be the goofy comic foil to Zachary Levi’s relatively straight man Chuck. The problem was, the more the writers turned up the Morgan humor, the more annoying he got. Chuck, it turns out, is probably the funniest character on the show, and this is in part thanks to the construction of the character (again, a Seth Cohen cypher), but also thanks to the very talented Zachary Levi. Morgan has been consistently amusing in shorter doses, and that’s where the writers now seem content to use him – less. Also, they’re now not exclusively using Morgan as comic relief (note his relationship with co-worker Anna).
The other key to Chuck’s evolution (and the most important aspect in terms of upping the show’s overall quality) is the increased focus on series mythology. The re-introduction of Bryce Larkin opened up the over-arching story that Chuck is telling, and the whole ordeal has been surprisingly fulfilling for audiences. The series has turned into a less serious version of Alias, and that’s a compliment. The key going forward is for the writers to make sure every episode is satisfying on a pure story level and that any humor should be looked at as a bonus and not a crutch.
Even with the writers’ strike on going, Chuck has a few more episodes left before the well runs dry. NBC picked up the series for the entire season, so even if the strike continues on for the duration of Winter and Spring, fans can look forward to Chuck evolving more and more once it returns.
-Oscar Dahl, BuddyTV Senior Writer
(Image Courtesy of NBC)