Nuts.

True to Chris Fedak's promise to me, Monday (April 27) night's "Chuck" season finale was, indeed, a game-changer. Whether viewers will be able to see how, exactly, "Chuck versus The Ring" changed the game is now entirely in the hands of NBC's programming wizards.

If "Chuck versus The Ring" is the last we see of "Chuck," at least the finale was exciting, hilarious and touching enough to bring tears to more than a few eyes (not that I have "more than a few eyes"). 

Was it on quite the same level of Awesome as "Chuck versus The Colonel"? Perhaps not. Still, "Chuck versus The Ring" was mostly a splendid example of how to do a season finale. You resolve some things. You pay off things introduced in earlier episodes. And you say, "Hey, this is what the show will be next season... GET PUMPED."

[My reactions to the finale and my thoughts on the show's future after the break, complete with spoilers...]

 

All manner of "Chuck versus The Ring" Awesome

[I liked the way my 50 Kinds of Awesome blog post played out last week, so here's a similar list of priceless moments from the finale, in chronological order... I've restricted the list to the first 35 minutes, because the last eight minutes are the launching board for the next season, so that'll get separate space...]

1. That's The Thermals' "Now We Can See."

2. "Let me stop you Chuck. I am incredibly honored, but I am a FLAMING heterosexual." Ah, Emmett. 

3. "I quit. No more Buy More. No more you. I can take your flag and job and shove it." "Ditto." But... But... When will we see Jeff and Lester?

4. "Your country is calling you, Mr. Bartwoski." "Well, then, I think my country might have the wrong number, cuz I'm just Chuck Bartowski, not a hero."

5. Chuck gets paid! I've been asking Schwartz and Fedak about this one for for two seasons now, if the government had been compensating Chuck for his work as spy/consultant/involuntary-Intersect. Apparently they'd just been setting the money aside until the completion of his duties.

6. "Casey, thanks for saving my life at least once a week."

7. A vintage nostril flair from Adam Baldwin in response to Chuck's man-hug.

8. Casey's personal number: 323-555-0173. "Your fingers better be on fire when you're dialing."

9. Hi, Bryce. "Walker and Larkin, together again."

10. Quitting your job is not an acceptable wedding present for your sister. Especially when you already did it earlier in the season.

11. "You look like a real spy." "You look like a real bridesmaid." Plus, to save space, "Sarah Walker, will you do me the honor of taking a vacation with me?"

12. "What the hell do you want?" "There's no need to curse. You know damn well what I want." Chevy Chase has been very good these past couple episodes. Emmy nomination good? Possibly.

13. Momma Awesome warned Daddy Awesome about Morgan.

14. Key Revelation Alert: Bryce has been working with Orion since Stanford. "He wanted to keep you out of this. I knew you could handle the Intersect. I knew Sarah would find you. And, most importantly, you deserve to know the truth about your father: He's a hero."

15. "Morgan Grimes, unofficial member of the wedding party." 

16. Jeffster! "Four-four time. It's in D. Watch me for the changes." Mr. Roboto!

17. "Know that if you hit me, it only teaches me to hit."

18. Great Ryan McPartlin moment: Awesome going from ready-to-stranger Morgan to totally on-board after learning that he's helping Chuck.

19. That's an amazingly alterable bridesmaid dress Ellie picked out. How fortunate for Sarah.

20. Line of the episode: "Why are you letting Sam Kinison and an Indian lesbian wreck your wedding?"

21. How many presents did Sarah open before uncovering the knives?

22. Love the musical score joining in and amping up "Mr. Roboto."

23. Ellie's dress was also designed for easy yogability.

24. "A real shotgun wedding. Just think, that terrible pun is the last thing you'll ever hear."

25. Casey's team drops in as "Mr. Roboto" hits its climax, with a shoot-out, hand-to-hand brawling, massive destruction and Daddy Bartowski cold-cocking Roark. If that had been the climax of the episode, who wouldn't have been totally satisfied? Plus, Jeffster! is a much better band than we may previously have given them credit for. Maybe they just respond well to bigger venues? Love the Roman Candle climax!

26. "I just want to be a normal guy who helps his sister in normal ways."

27. The Chuck Bartowski Economic Stimulus Package! Government subsidies to rebuilt Ellie's Wedding! "That's not what a normal guy would do."

28. "Sir, how do you spell begonia?" "Sound it out! No, no, no. It clashes with the bunting." If you absolutely, positively have to throw together a replanned wedding in a single montage, United States Marines, accept no substitutes.

29. Chuck and Daddy Bartowski simultaneously standing for Ellie at the wedding.

30. "Sarah, you're not coming with me, are you?" [Head shake.]

31. Lots of cigar-smoking these past couple episodes. Might Cohiba come on as a featured sponsor next season?

32. "I'm not with Fulcrum." Uh-oh. 

33. A dream wedding is a much more acceptable wedding gift than quitting your job. "You're pretty amazing, brother. Sometimes I think you have superpowers." "I wish." "I know."

34. "Now I really *am* your bro."

35. "What does this new computer do?" "You don't want to know."

36. Daddy Bartowski FLASHES!

37. "How many times do you have to be a hero to realize you *are* that guy?"

38. "Dad... I love her."

 

The Game-Changer

I can find no meaningful flaws with the first 35+ minutes of "Chuck versus The Ring." For the last eight minutes, what I find aren't flaws so much as a series of questions about what the end of the episode means for "Chuck: Season Three" (knock on wood).

I'll take that back. Daddy Bartowski's Super-Powered Computer-Armshield was cheesy. And I'm glad it didn't turn out to be Chuck's ticket to future adventures -- "Stay in the car, Bartowski." "No. You need me. I have the THE WRISTGUARD!"

Instead, we got Chuck re-Intersecting himself and discovering the modifications Bryce had Daddy Bartowski make to the Intersect. As Chuck flashed and began displaying previously unrealized butt-kicking skills, I quickly typed, "I know kung-fu" into my notes. I'm not sure if I was pleased with myself, pleased with Chris Fedak and Ali Adler or disappointed in Chris Fedak and Ali Adler when "I know kung-fu" turned out to be the last line of the season.

There's a part of me that disapproves of ending your season (your series?) with a direct reference to a decade-old movie. That part of me is well-aware that we're talking about "Chuck," so the rules that state that you need to go out on a note of originality, rather than post-modernism, don't actually apply. "Chuck" is all about how totally absorbed Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz are in the pop culture they grew up on, so it seems almost appropriate that they'd go out on a reference, though given where the season began, maybe this was also the time for a Huey Lewis cue? "New Drug," perhaps?

The question of what this does to "Chuck," the character and the show, moving forward is a concern. The very essence of the show is that that a nerd with no physical gifts becomes such an utterly essential intelligence asset that it requires two highly trained operatives to protect him. In a world where Chuck knows every piece of intelligence information and also knows kung-fu, what purpose do Sarah and Casey serve? What purpose can they serve? 

One suspects that Chuck's new gifts aren't completely voluntary and that they go well beyond merely the assortment of martial arts that would allow one to take out an entire team of energy spies, all with at least some measure of training themselves. Probably he can disarm bombs now. Probably he has newly-uploaded knife-skills. Probably he knows how to hit a curveball. Presumably we'll be uncovering a new gift every episode or two. But what will happen to the innocent way Chuck used to occasionally be able to convert his actual native intelligence to the purposes of an individual mission. I still remember Chuck preventing an explosion in the pilot by uploading a porn-based virus and shutting down a computer system. The further we get from that point, the less true the show is to its initial premise. That doesn't mean shows aren't allowed to evolve or supposed to evolve, but it does mean that "Chuck" next season will, at least initially, be a different flavor of show.

The main reason I think what happens at the end works for me comes down to agency, and I'm not talking about the CIA or the NSA. I'm talking about Chuck, who has spent two seasons essentially being a victim of Bryce Larkin's confidence in him, becoming the master of his own destiny at the end of the episode. Naturally it required Bryce's seeming death to give Chuck that final push. The powers that he never wanted, the powers he desperately wanted to get out of his head, he realized at the end were also his responsibility. If "Chuck" is a show about a man in full quarter-life crisis mode maturing and learning to take responsibility, then his decision at the end of the episode is all about embracing his destiny and choosing to live up to his potential as a Bartowski. Prior to this season, his father, and therefore his name, had been associated with an absent deadbeat dad. The build of recent episodes has been around the notion of Daddy Bartowski as a hero and, simultaneously, the idea of Chuck as a hero. As Sarah basically told him at Ellie's wedding courtyard bash, there's a limit to the number of times Chuck can accidentally become a hero before we stop buying it as accidental and we start accepting it as hero. That's what his final choice was about. 

A responsible, self-empowered New Chuck won't be the Chuck we've grown to love, but there are plenty of important questions that we'll have to get to in short order come Season Three:

Does New Chuck require handling at all? Does New Chuck require government oversight? Does New Chuck require a cover job? Does New Chuck have to keep his powers on the DL? If so, what does it mean that Awesome is the only one who knows Chuck's secret? Does New Chuck with his new powers become the sort of guy Sarah's familiar with and therefore less appealing to her? Does New Chuck earn Casey's respect for his butt-kicking ability, or is he still just a well-programmed nerd in Casey's eyes? Can Daddy Bartowski stick around? Can he reengineer another Intersect to de-Intersect Chuck again? And what of the Buy More gang? What of Morgan? Who's still on the show if we return? And what is The Ring? [Note how unimportant that last question is. Ultimately, Fulcrum was pretty much a red herring itself.]

The version of the show we return to should probably be less like "The Matrix" and more than the incredible first hour of "Long Kiss Goodnight," with Geena Davis' forgetful assassin suddenly uncovering one lethal and self-protective skill after another, often with comic consequences. The problem with that comparison is that the more Davis' character learns about herself in that movie and the most mastery she gains over her skills, the less fun the movie is. "Long Kiss Goodnight" is probably a cautionary tale that I'm assuming Schwartz and Fedak have seen. It's a great comedy and a great action comedy, but it's only a mediocre pure action movie. 

 

Thinking about the future of "Chuck"

The public perception of television is like an iceberg. Above the water, you have the top-tier Old Media critics. Then as you approach the surface, you have the Professional Bloggers and the Gentleman (or Amateur) Bloggers.  Under the water, you have the people who actually watch the show, both the ones who are semi-visible from above water (those with Nielsen boxes or who, I guess, watch the show on Hulu or download it off of iTunes) and those who are utterly invisible (the vast majority of people whose viewership habits are impenetrable in our antiquated ratings system).

The two most high-profile Save Our Show campaigns of recent seasons, the successful rallies for "Jericho" and the unsuccessful mission for "Moonlight, were both grass roots campaigns. Returning to my iceberg analogy, they were both surface-down campaigns. "Jericho" was resurrected with scarcely any big name critical support and only occasional advocacy from the more familiar destinations in the blogosphere. It was truly fans, well-organized and swiftly mobilized fans, who made the difference. If it's possible, "Moonlight" had even less critical support than "Jericho," though its fans had the "Jericho" template to work with and were able to mobilize even more quickly. 

To me, "Chuck" feels like it's a surface-up campaign. The show has never lacked for critical appreciation and folks like My Buddy Sepinwall, who doubles as both a top-tier Old Media critic and a Professional blogger, have been banging the "Chuck" drum for two seasons. And because the ratings for "Chuck" have been suggesting bubble status for many months, there was able opportunity for exemplary blogs like GiveMeMyRemote.com to mount committed campaigns. The pro-"Chuck" sentiments on the blogs I frequent and, as has been discussed in many an article, on Twitter, has been almost unanimous. What that has meant is that the Save Chuck campaign has already had several weeks of media attention before the finale even occurred, as opposed to the Save Jericho campaign, which pretty much shocked an ill-prepared CBS. Part of why CBS renewed "Jericho," but then didn't renew "Moonlight" is that the network went from complacent to alert and back to complacent again in near record time.

The ratings indicate, though, that the below-the-surface support for "Chuck" may not be as great. The campaigns for "Jericho" and "Moonlight" were striking because they allowed a previously silent group of viewers to be heard. No matter how many receipts from $5 footlongs NBC is faxed and no matter how many Nerds get FedExed to Ben Silverman, I wonder if anybody will be surprised.

Of course, if "Chuck" had "Jericho" or "Moonlight" ratings, we wouldn't be having this discussion. It would have already been renewed and we could have gone about our normal dinner plans tonight, without that trip to Subway. Similarly, if "Chuck" were on CBS, this never would have been relevant, because the network would have pulled the plug months ago. But NBC isn't CBS, which has given "Chuck" hope, but also pushed the network into the desperate step of surrendering an hour of nightly primetime programming to Jay Leno.

I continue to believe that when the dust settles, "Chuck" will return next year, though if I were placing money, I'd only bet on a 13-episode midseason renewal, where it would split time with another NBC series unlikely to air in repeats. 

My proposal: How about NBC orders "Heroes" for 18 episodes as two carefully arced 9-episode mini-seasons, building a "Chuck" sandwich with a single primetime hour. Air one "Heroes" volume October through December, schedule "Chuck" from January through March with 13 uninterrupted episodes, air "Heroes" again from March through May? That's a repeat-free programming hour with a semi-compatible audience going through the year. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's almost logical enough to work, right?

Mmmm... Chuck Sandwich. That's a turkey and muenster, on grilled egg bread, right?

[POST SCRIPT: For other erudite post-finale commentary of note, check out Sepinwall, Mo Ryan, Jace of Televisionary and sometime HitFix freelancer Myles at Cultural Learnings

But enough of me... What'd y'all think of the "Chuck" finale and where it positions the show for the -- knock on wood -- future?

 

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