Archive for the ‘the o.c.’ tag
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.
Spoilers for Angel (Season 5) and House (Season 4)
My official Best Television of the 2000s list will feature only shows that aired at least three seasons in the 2000s. I am making this restriction because one of the marks of a great show is its ability to sustain its stories and characters over a long period, and three seasons seems as good a cut-off as any. Also, since the traditional television season runs from fall to spring, I’ve decided to include seasons that began in the fall of 1999 and I am ending with seasons that concluded before fall of 2009. That means that shows debuting in fall, 2009, are ineligible (Community, Modern Family), and it also means that on-going shows that debuted in spring, 2009, are ineligible unless they had the bad fortune to be cancelled immediately; that means no Glee, Dollhouse, Parks & Recreation, Castle, or Better Off Ted. Those shows got too late a start to be included in the best of this past decade, as I am arbitrarily determining it. Because of these restrictions on my count-down list, I thought it appropriate to say a little bit about a few shows that didn’t make the three season cut-off, but were spectacular nonetheless. I’m also including three shows that I think managed to pull off one truly great season amidst a number of less spectacular ones, and those are included at the end. Below are the highlights, in alphabetical order.
Andy Richter and Conan O’Brien teamed up for a Thursday night mystery-comedy hybrid that only aired four episodes before being yanked. (Six were filmed.) Featuring a stellar supporting cast around beat-down everyman Richter, the show exhibited remarkable comic timing over its first few episodes. When Andy Barker, CPA, moves into the office formerly held by a private detective, he finds people mistaking him for a P.I.; he may not know how to handle a gun, but he can handle your taxes when it’s over.
For fans of Chuck, Remington Steele, accounting
Perhaps the greatest science fiction show to ever air on television, this series brought a legion of new fans to Joss Whedon. Its fans called themselves “Browncoats,” and turned Firefly into the most essential television show of geek culture in the 2000s. But is it any good? Beyond good, this show’s 13 episodes (shown, as jilted fanboys like to point out, out of order by the evil Fox Network) created a fully realized world from the first episode. The pilot is too slow and too long, but beginning in the second episode, this outer-space A-Team demonstrated that stories about vigilantes fighting against an evil centralized power could somehowstrike a chord with viewers during the Bush administration. Like many great shows, the most essential member of the cast was the location, in this case a creaky old spaceship with more smuggler’s holds than the Millenium Falcon. Wonderfully cast, with a sly sense of humor that combined Whedon’s subversive expressivism with Ben Edlund’s comic exaggeration.
For fans of Battlestar Galactica, The Tick, men in tight pants
Freaks and Geeks is remembered today as the greatest dramedy, the greatest high school show, the show most like your own life, and the show that launched a thousand careers. This brainchild of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig told the story of high school from those least interested in remembering it. Surprisingly, those of us who had successfully blocked our own experiences found glorious catharsis in watching the failures and (very occasionally) successes of the two bands of outsiders (those intentionally existing outside the system and those too nerdy to fit in comfortably). Essential viewing for people who love television.
For fans of Glee, Friday Night Lights, awkwardness
An unrepentant throw-back to a sillier form of science fiction and fantasy shows, The Middleman proved that sharp writing and smart characters can make great television using the flimsiest of CGI. When a smart young artist (Natalie Morales) working a temp job gets nearly eaten by a mutant science experiment, her unflappability catches the eye of The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) who recruits her as his sidekick. There’s perhaps never been a show in the history of television that required so many repeat viewings with a pen and paper handy to unpack its jokes and references. Often times, an episode would pick a theme (Die Hard, sixties rock band The Zombies) and build as many references as it could into its 44 minutes. This show never achieved the critical mass of devotion it deserved.
For fans of Get Smart, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, meta-humor
Chuck has found unexpected life, being renewed for a third season that begins this January. This is the only show on this list still on the air, so catch this bandwagon while its still hot. (Wow, now that is a mixed metaphor.) Chuck Bartowski is a hard-working Buy More employee whose brain, due to unexpected help from his college roommate-turned-nemesis, becomes the living computer that stores all of the US government’s information. This is a fun, funny, sexy, silly blend of action and comedy that really found its stride in its second season. The best thing to happen to Mondays since Memorial Day.
For fans of Alias, Eureka, Adam Baldwin
Immigration. Unemployment. Bureaucracy. Topics for a gritty documentary somehow became occasions for the musical comedy duo to perform their songs. Each episode is a poorly constructed attempt to cram three pre-established songs into 30 minutes of story. Somehow, despite the obvious problems with this plan, the show managed to create moments of sublime comic awkwardness squeezed between occasionally brilliant, occasionally boring musical set pieces. In its way, it was one of the most ambitious television shows of the decade.
For fans of Dead Like Me, The Ben Stiller Show, Michel Gondry
In its strike-addled first season, Life was a gritty cop drama, light-hearted character study, and on-going mystery in absolutely perfect balance. No procedural has ever managed to so perfectly blend those three elements as well as Life did in that first season. Its second season renewal came with strings attached: bigger (and subsequently less plausible) weekly hooks, less of the on-going story arcs, and Donal Logue as the new police captain. The second season fell to merely an above-average cop show, but was fortunately able to tie up many loose ends in its memorable series finale. The show drew out a nice parallel between generic Eastern religion’s emphasis that everything is connected and the basis of good detective work, which is following connections. Unlike most shows that attempt to make a character religious or philosophical, the writers were fully aware that the form of Zen being practiced by Charlie Crews is a watered-down, pop psychology version of Zen, which kept the show from ever falling into self-parody.
For fans of Castle, Burn Notice, staying out of prison
Abandoned by film, television became the home of screwball dialogue in the 2000s, and not even Gilmore Girls or 30 Rock could manage Pushing Daisies‘ speed. More brilliant color and wacky quirkiness than any show should rightfully be able to manage, Barry Sonnenfeld somehow managed to create an engaging dream world in which a pie maker brings people back from the dead and solves crimes along with the love of his life whom he can’t touch, a crabby detective, and Kristin Chenoweth. Death has never been so funny.
For fans of Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, color
UPDATE: Silly me. I left Kings off the list. Great modern fable.
Long-Running Series with One Great Season
Angel never discovered what it could do well until its final season, by which point fans’ whiplash was so great from its overhauls each season that no one knew what this show was any more. However, by having Angel go to work for the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear wisely guided the show into complex thematic territory: at what point do you stop protesting the system and find a way to work within it? Mirroring Whedon’s own complex relationship with the Fox Network, Angel and his band of merry men try to be constructive from inside a destructive system. And by bringing Spike over from the now-finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer, shooting for darker, more gothic horror, and achieving more sublime humor, the fifth season became by far the series’s best. Watching Angel is worth it simply for the show’s finale, which is perhaps the finest final episode in the history of television.
A weaker knock-off of England’s Prime Suspect, The Closer began its run on TNT as a law & order procedural with the added element of watching an unknown, and therefore untrusted, female cop head LAPD’s Major Crimes division. A breadth of capable acting by the supporting cast grounded Kyra Sedgwick’s head-flailing approach to characterization. In later seasons, the show became unbearable in its explorations of Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson’s inexplicable relationship with her boyfriend Fritz, unnecessary relationship with her adopted cat, and unwatchable relationship with her family. But in that first season, The Closer was a smart woman-in-the-workplace drama with workable stories about how only she could wrangle a confession out of the bad guy.
Modeled on Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House, M.D., is a jackass to everyone, including his trusty confidant, his busty boss, and his team of diagnosticians. The writers always knew how to write for House (or Hugh Laurie’s indelible performance at least made it seem that way), but he was always surrounded by thin, unnecessary characters led by Cameron, the whiniest female lead this side of Felicity. So when House fired his staff at the end of Season 3 and began Season 4 by whittling down an auditorium full of candidates, new life was breathed into this occasionally stale medical drama. House was allowed to be his devastatingly truthful and hilariously cruel self and a better cast of supporting characters stepped in. The writer’s strike created some story-telling problems for the back half of the season, but it was still an audacious reinvention that amazingly worked, at least until Season 5 became too enamored with the Foreman-13 story.