Big spoilers for “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners” (3.14) (Monday, April 27, 2010) and general spoilers for season 6 of The Office
Last night’s Chuck (which is the first of six episodes added after the initial run of 13 episodes in season 3) brought a lot of satisfaction to those who had been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for Chuck and Sarah to get together. Finally, an end to all that UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension, to use Mo Ryan’s acronym). Most critics have focused on the myth that a show takes a nose-dive in quality after the leads finally get together (the Moonlighting myth). “Look at Jim and Pam on The Office,” these critics say. “There are still interesting stories to tell about being in a relationship, not just about leading up to a relationship.” And these critics are right (except that The Office example is ill-timed, since the best part of season six has been the budding romance of Andy-Erin and not the established relationship of Jim-Pam). There is no part in dragging out a relationship of two characters who seem like they should be together simply to avoid dealing with the new problem of writing them as a couple.
Unfortunately, though, critics have been forced to deal with a rift among the devoted viewers of Chuck. Some fans’ major interest in the show is in seeing Chuck and Sarah get together. Known as ‘shippers among critics (as in “relationshippers”), these fans primarily care about casting aside any obstacles to Chuck and Sarah and getting them together as quickly and as happily as possible. Critics are then in the position of needing to distance themselves from these fans while also reaffirming that there is no point in keeping the leads apart for arbitrary reasons or because of the Moonlighting myth. I’ve written before about how this season of Chuck is an example of how shows (often in their third season) push the lead character away from their allies/friends to add new levels of drama. This was partly accomplished by the introduction of Agent Shaw (Brandon Routh) and Hannah (Kristin Kreuk) as romantic possibilities for Sarah and Chuck, respectively.
What I want to focus on is Sarah. But to do that, alas, I must write about Chuck. A lot has been written about Chuck, which is appropriate on a show that bears his name. But Sarah’s story is in many ways the more interesting one. To an underappreciated extent, Chuck is a show by, for, and about fanboys. It’s the now-classic tale of geek-gets-girl. From Sam Raimi’s Spiderman to Josh Schwartz’s The O.C. to beer commercials, the last ten years have seen a new popular narrative established in which the Geek (brown, tousled hair, glasses, shirt untucked, comic book obsession) wins the Girl (blonde, svelte, a little tomboy-ish). This is derivative of some of the college nerd comedies of the 1980s, but one important twist is that the Girl must recognize that what makes the Geek geeky is also what makes him lovable. Also, the Geek may have a Rival, but this is more often the cause of undermining the Geek’s self-confidence than forcing the Rival out of the Girl’s gaze. Because deep down, this narrative says, the Girl really does like the Geek better, and they would be perfect together if only the Geek could gather the courage to be with the Girl.
One of the dangers with this narrative is that it reinforces the focus on the man (the Geek, in this case) even as it redefines manliness. If the story of the Geek getting the Girl is about the Geek overcoming his lack of confidence, then the story will have to follow him getting that confidence. It’s still all about the guy.
We’ve seen that problem pushed to the forefront in this season of Chuck. Sarah was shoved aside this season while the Geeek (Chuck) tried to earn her love (by becoming a spy) while fending off the Rival (Agent Shaw, who, like all Rivals, represents what the Geek is not but thinks that he must be to deserve the Girl). This left the viewer with one episode in which the Girl makes her move, followed by twelve episodes in which she sits idly by watching the Geek become unrecognizable. Since in the Geek Gets Girl narrative, it is the Geek’s geekiness that makes him suitable to the Girl, when he loses that geekiness he becomes too much like the Rival. And then the Girl may as well be with the Rival. Watching this unfold, however, it reinforces an underlying problem with the Geek Gets Girl narrative: the Girl is completely passive. She simply reacts. This is less noticeable in films (such as Spiderman) where one small goal (e.g., breaking into acting) is enough to distract away from the Girl’s passivity. But over the course of 50 episodes of a television show, it is difficult to find a way to make the Girl an agent with a life and decisions that are her own. This season of Chuck‘s greatest failing has not been avoiding a Chuck-Sarah romance, or introducing Agent Shaw, or putting the Intersect in Chuck’s head, it has been giving Sarah nothing to do. This is a problem embedded in the Geek Gets Girl narrative, but it came to the forefront this season.
Remember when we got backstory on how Sarah became a spy (2.10)? Remember when Sarah shot a Fulcrum agent to protect Chuck’s identity (2.11)? These provided ways to make Sarah a person, someone who makes decisions with consequences and has a story of her own, within the loose confines of the Geek Gets Girl narrative. This season Sarah has been reduced to a prop, whose job is to watch with Sad Eyes while the Geek tries to become like a Rival. She is a passive spectator, rather than a worthy partner to the eponymous hero.
What I liked about last night’s episode of Chuck was not that Chuck and Sarah finally got together, but that Chuck and Sarah were treated as equals. Both were trying to be good partners to each other, considering the other’s desires as at least as important as their own. That Sarah is once again Chuck’s equal is nicely captured in the smartly choreographed fight scene from the episode.
There is still a fundamental inequality to the show that I don’t think it will ever overcome. As we saw in the pre-credits sequence of “Chuck vs. The Honeymooners,” Sarah is in an expensive, barely-there neglige while Chuck is in a plain t-shirt and lounge pants. Sarah, no matter how realized the character becomes, will always exist also as eye candy in a way that Chuck does not. (Captain Awesome, who was yet again shirtless, is supposed to roughly even things out I suspect, but it doesn’t approach the level to which Scrubs took the equity, requiring that every episode of a woman in underwear also have a man in underwear).
Sarah may begin to be treated, finally, as an equal to Chuck, but she will still be the Girl.