Television

Jumping On The 'Chuck' Wagon: NBC Versus The Jay Leno Problem

Chuck: In this recap of the first season, you can find out a little about who's who on NBC's wonderful Chuck, a show in grave danger of disappearing.

NBC is a bit of a punching bag these days, what with the decision to hand five hours of prime-time real estate to Jay Leno and the spectacular failure of most of the shows the network has tried to introduce in the last few seasons.

Just about the only thing the network has done in quite some time that anyone has cheered has been keeping Friday Night Lights alive through a partnership with DirecTV. And now, it finds itself on the receiving end of another insistent campaign to save a very, very good show — albeit one that's entirely different from Friday Night Lights.

Where FNL is a prestige drama, Chuck — about an employee of a Best Buy-like electronics store who finds himself carrying classified government secrets in his brain — is a mischievously funny, sharply written, genre-mashup comedy/drama/spy thriller that has struggled in the ratings ever since it premiered in the fall of 2007.

(Chuck will air its season finale next Monday at 8 p.m. — yes, that's the death slot opposite ABC's Dancing With the Stars, Fox's House and CBS's How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory.)

It managed a renewal last year at this time, but with five hours being thrown into the gaping maw of Jay Leno (which is nothing against Jay Leno; it's just... a big gaping maw), it's going to be harder for other shows to make it, and the gathered wisdom of industry watchers seems to be that the odds of Chuck surviving are no better than about 50-50.

Enter the cavalry.

The campaign to save Chuck, after the jump...

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for the New Jersey Star-Ledger and one of the most level-headed evaluators of popular television you'll find, recently wrote an open letter to NBC providing plenty of reasons — none of them "I like it," which is an argument that never works on networks — to renew the show.

Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune has jumped in with a full rundown of options for fans who want to try to save Chuck.

Daniel Feinberg of the popular entertainment blog Hitfix has pleaded the show's case, as has The Onion A.V. Club.

That is, of course, not to even mention the fan involvement, which is intense, to say the least.

My cynical self believes, of course, that this will all end in tears. Even if networks had ever believed that they should bring shows back just because a thundering chorus insists that they should, they undoubtedly got over it after CBS brought back Jericho in response to wildly enthusiastic fan support, only to cancel it again almost immediately.

But Chuck is a special case in a way that I think is hard to understand if you don't spend a lot of time watching popular television. Television is better at affecting drama than it often gets credit for (Mad Men, The Sopranos and — yes — Friday Night Lights), and it's good at escapism (whatever you think of a show like Dancing With the Stars, it's effective escapism).

Nevertheless, it's rare for it to land right in the pocket with something that's very funny and often touching and romantic and often packed with inventive action sequences. (I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to point out that this week, a good guy beat up a bad guy with a radiator.) The show's sensibility is both classic (in that it's a spy-adventure comedy) and always current (in that it scored a recent romantic scene to "Creature Fear" by Bon Iver, which is — say it with me — the Official Heartbreakingly Sweet Gut-Punching-Love-Song Band Of NPR Music).

Lots of shows inspire love from fans, and lots of shows inspire admiration from critics. Chuck inspires love from critics, probably precisely because when you have to watch a lot of television professionally, something that drops into your lap that is joyful and satisfying and different feels like a real gift. Consider what Maureen Ryan recently wrote in a comment on Sepinwall's blog: "Here's how I feel about Chuck — it doesn't just make me happy in 2 or 3 or 4 ways. It makes me happy in about 28 different ways." (She repeated the sentiment in another write-up of the show yesterday.)

It's very common for chasms to open between critics and viewers: Everybody tells you to watch The Wire, and you should, but it's a lot of work. Many great shows — especially those that are underappreciated and therefore get a lot of critical praise — can be hard to watch. It's part of what makes them challenging, and that's part of what makes them worthwhile.

But here, critics find themselves passionately advocating for something that's extraordinarily enjoyable to watch. It's like being a dentist who's in the position of telling people entirely truthfully, "You know what's really, really, REALLY good for your teeth? Gummi bears!"

Nobody knows yet what's going to happen to Chuck. But if it doesn't return for a third season, there will be, I would say in solidarity with Maureen Ryan, about 28 different reasons to be unhappy.

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