The TV show Chuck had it last two episodes last night and while it never achieved a huge TV audience, it represents the type of modern, innovative, quality TV programming that can exist if those involved use the same creativity with production as they do with writing, acting and directing.
Chuck premiered on NBC in the fall of 2007 and it’s first glorious season was cut short because of the writers strike. It achieved a small but hardcore audience of people who enjoyed humor along with spy hi-jinks and nerd culture (with a little unrequited romance thrown in for good measure) . Those original 9 Million viewers dropped with each of the show’s 4 more seasons until it was no longer profitable (was it ever?) to keep the show on the air. To NBC’s credit, as the show got better creatively (even as viewers were dropping off), they stayed with it and allowed the producers to find creative ways (like completely non-subliminal Subway and car commercials inserted into the scripts).
NBC had such a habit of throwing away good, but unprofitable shows that it was a miracle they stayed with Chuck for as long as they did. As the budgets started to get cut, quality wrinkles could be seen in many of the episodes, but all in all throughout its 5 seasons the show kept the quality of writing, humor and creativity high.
A good comparison to Chuck would be the Big Bang Theory (BBT). It was another show about “nerds” that premiered at the same time as a Chuck, but on CBS. I have watched a few episodes of BBT and while it really is not my “cup of tea”, I do like it, and I understand how it went from ratings “slow starter” to top 10 hit and why Chuck needed to find creative financing to even stay on the air. Both shows at their core are about “Nerds”. The Chuck Lorre show (as with the strategy all of his shows employ) took “nerddom” and amplified it to be what the majority of people expected from nerds: Hyper-realistic, awkward, almost Aspergers style Bill-Gates characters that we could all laugh at (and sometimes with).
Chuck never went that route. While both shows include an attractive blond woman for the nerds to drool over, the Chuck writers and production team were able to realistically show Sarah slowing falling for Chuck because at his heart he was not a nerd, but just a hyper intelligent man-boy who loved real nerd culture (Star Wars, Raiders of The Lost Ark, Xbox, etc). Both Chuck and Morgan were supposedly nerds, but they were actually heroes and didn’t fall into the stereo-type that most people looked for in their nerd humor.
Chuck is more of a show that modern nerds (such as myself) identify with. The modern nerd likes nerd culture, but is also interested in other pursuits (sports, music, cars, etc) that don’t fit cleanly into the CBS style box that BBT has created for Nerds to exist in. Unfortunately, modern nerds don’t watch TV when it is actually on. While they identify and love Chuck (for the most part), they probably were working, partying, making their own content, or doing other things when Chuck was actually on. Modern nerds don’t rely on TV programming schedules, but work and watch at their own leisure. They would DVR it or watch it on-demand (a good reason why the product placement commercials helped keep the show alive).
This is one of the reasons why Chuck will leave a lasting impression. Aside from 5 seasons of funny, creative spy missions, retro nerd humor, great baddies, and an attractive (but quirky) cast, Chuck showed that a show can keep its quality high in the modern age of TV viewership without stooping (maybe the wrong word choice) to the CBS version of compartmentalizing its subjects into EXACTLY what CBS viewers want to see. I don’t know too many modern “nerds” who admit to watching anything on CBS other than Football and Letterman. That doesn’t mean the shows on CBS are bad, because in reality, they are genius. CBS understands its audience and is able to exploit their likes and dislikes into to a very profitable business. They just don’t have many shows that I will watch.
I might be wrong here, but I feel that shows such as Chuck and Fringe (another show perpetually on the bubble that has used similar production tactics to stay afloat) will eventually have a much more lasting appeal and become part of a more significant media and pop culture landscape down the road as many more modern nerds discover them via re-runs, box-sets, and streaming.
At its core, Chuck was a story about friends and love. It was a show that was about a lost “nerd”, man-boy who actually had friends, and a family but needed a “brain” in almost a Wizard Of Oz sense to become the man he needed to be. Plus, Chuck kicked some major ass and also got the girl at the end. What more could a modern nerd ask for?
Now that all five seasons of Chuck are complete, my hope is that when the “complete” series hits Costco bins and Netflix later this year, it will become more of a cult favorite than it is now.