MidSeason Melodrama – Episode 3.07: Chuck Vs The Mask – Part II

Part II

Note: the moments in question may reside in this episode but that is a matter of circumstance. There are preceding story telling decisions that led up to this point. It is not an issue that can be analyzed in isolation.

Chuck: ‘Sarah and I have a very unique relationship.’
Indeed they do. Relationships are what drive this show. Not just Chuck and Sarah but all of them. More precisely it is the characters. This is the crux of the matter about the unhappiness being expressed by what transpired during the last 8 mins or so of the show. It is not about  WHAT of the show. It is the HOW.
When a piece of creative work is put forth to be experienced by an audience there is an unspoken bond taking place between the two parties. The creators are offering a story telling experience via the use of dramatic tokens. In turn for these tokens the audience gives the creator their willing suspension of belief. The creator sets up the premise of the show and within the first half dozen episodes build up an array of dramatic tokens for the audience to use to suspend that belief.
These creative tokens come in various forms via characters, plotting, show mythology, story telling logic, internal consistency, etc. Those tokens create ‘buy in’ for the audience. They know from episode to episode the show will be worth investing in because the tokens will be be in play. The more dramatically and empathically these tokens are woven into each episode the more engrossed the audience becomes. Synergistically so does their suspension of disbelief. The better the creators can get the audience to suspend their disbelief the stronger the audience’s involvement becomes. There is a symbiotic relationship going on between the two parties.
The amount of initial suspension of disbelief is dependent on the type of show. Obviously shows grounded in the reality of our world require less suspension. Comedies and shows with fantastical elements require a greater suspension of disbelief. The creators of such shows must compensate for this by offering up bigger storylines, bigger characters, bigger action and so on.
While Chuck may take place in a real world setting, it is one rife with fantastical elements. The show’s basic premise, that a computer database can be downloaded into a person’s brain, allowing them to access information, and now physical abilities, is a big step for the viewer to take. In turn the show offers a mix of entertainment that includes comedy, action, drama, pop culture/nerd references, romance, music, wish fulfillment, spy world vs real life conflicts, and characters.
Out of all of these tokens the show offers, the bedrock one is the characters. Chuck is blessed with an awesome cast and the chemistry between the two leads is captivating. This has turned out to be both blessing and curse. Double-edged sword as it has been referred to elsewhere. For the character/romance token has become so powerful and so dominant that the other tokens pale in comparison.
What it has allowed the show to do is skate around most tokens with a greater degree of freedom. The tokens of story logic, internal consistency, and story mythology are not scrutinized to the same degree we would with other shows because the entertainment payoff is well worth it. We get some great laughs, action, music, spy intrigue, romance, wish fulfillment, and character interaction because of the cross genre show pedigree.
But the caveat is all of our suspension of disbelief hinges on the characters and, by extension, the Chuck and Sarah romance. They are the realest things in the show. They are the anchor for the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The moment the show wavers on that token then everything else built around it comes crashing down like a house of cards.
The show has set up the dynamics of a, ‘Will they, won’t they?’ tension that has been carried over the 3 seasons of the show. The longer that tension is maintained the more mass it acquires. The more mass it requires the bigger the elephant it becomes in the room. I liken it to a dramatic ball of inertia, or DB for short.
The longer the show runs with this DB, the more history and emotional investment by the viewers it acquires. So it becomes more and more of a complex story telling exercise that the writers must address if they want to bring in other romantic parties to the mix. The days of having a guest star show up for 1 or 2 episodes and strike up a romantic relationship with Chuck or Sarah are long past.
Now it requires several episodes to set up a storyline that can overcome the inertia that the DB has accumulated. It is not just an operation of injecting the new characters into the storyline. That is the easier part of the equation. The more difficult part is positioning the two leads where the new characters can be integrated into their lives in a manner that is not contrived. To add to the difficulty, all this must be done in a manner that the viewers will find plausible and dramatically interesting.

Switching Things Up Is Getting More & More Complicated
Switching Things Up Is Getting More & More Complicated

Extremely vital is the storyline being told, must be told honestly. This means that story points, character traits, etc established previously must be adhered to going forward. With Chuck this comes down to being true to the characters. A difficult one to maintain too as character evaluation is subjective and varies from individual to individual. We may agree on the broad strokes but beyond that there are many interpretations on the finer points.
When it was announced that the third season PLIs were going to be around for 4 and 8 episodes it appeared that the story requirements would be addressed. However as we have seen that has not been done entirely successfully. Of the two, the Chuck and Hannah one has been the more successful. Hannah has been in consecutive episodes and it can be seen that her character is a perfect match for Chuck. Though in 3.06 little was done to advance her arc with Chuck.
(Total aside here – I find it hard to believe that Chuck would be interested in striking up a new relationship given his focus on becoming a spy. He, more than anyone, is aware of the danger he is putting Hannah’s life in by mixing civilian and spy worlds together. This is one of those out of character issues that arise based on previous character history. To date the show has given me little to remove this objection.)
Matching Chuck up is easier than it is for Sarah because of the fundamental nature of the characters. Chuck is open emotionally and provides many doorways to new relationships. Sarah is the opposite and hence requires a lot more story finesse to do so. So when Shaw is MIA in episode 3.06, any momentum built up between him and Sarah is lost. This was a tactical error.
Shaw’s absence places the Shaw/Sarah storyline in a difficult spot. Sarah may have expressed concerns over Chuck turning into a spy in 3.06 but, again, nowhere enough story time is allocated on this point to make the necessary dent in the DB. Especially when Shaw does return in 3.07 and Sarah spurns him for three quarters of the episode. This makes telling the story honestly no longer possible if the goal is to initiate these new pairings by the end of the episode.. What happens then is a rush to move the characters to a targeted position. An exercise in artificiality. In this rush corners have to be cut. This means corners that involve story logic concessions and the use of out of character behavior.
This is the overhead the show must carry when it decides to sustain the, ‘Will they, won’t they?’ dynamic over time. If the Chuck showrunners want to use that device then they must be willing to pay that price. A price that has to be based on honest story telling instead of rushed story telling.
Rushed story telling is what happened in the last 8 minutes of 3.07. That is the HOW that is the issue.
Rushed story telling takes away the capacity for true storytelling and diminishes the most critical dramatic token the show has to offer; that of the characters. That is why the reaction is the one that resulted from fans.
It is not about telling the showrunners what to do.
It is not about objecting to injecting new PLIs into the storyline.
It is about whatever the show does, it does so by being true to the story telling and the dramatic tokens it gave us.
It is about the implicit bond of trust between creator and audience.
A speedbump was encountered on the third season journey. We saw it, we hit it, and we have gone passed it. It was a bump. Not a supernova. Let’s look forward instead of back, shall we? Because the road ahead is oh so, very inviting!

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