#TVFail Entry 8: Chuck, “Chuck Versus the Mask”

The accused: Chuck, “Chuck Versus the Mask”

The crime: Delaying the eventual union of the series’ primary romantic couple even further by pairing them off with new characters, subsequently creating a fan panic/outrage

Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?

These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.

Hello again and welcome back to the latest edition of the ongoing #TVFail feature. If you recall, last time out I tackled what impact the much-anticipated coupling of an Unresolved Sexual Tension will-they-or-won’t-they couple had on a series with Moonlighting’s late season three arc. Those episodes unintentionally defined a generation of television “common sense” wherein we are now supposed to think that a series is better off when an UST couple doesn’t actually get together for good. I hope I did a solid job of interrogating both the presumed thoughts about those episodes and that thread of so-called common sense.

To follow up that Moonlighting entry, I wanted to explore the opposite side of this coin: What happens when a couple stays apart for too long? Again, I know that the “logic” says a couple should never be together for an extended period of time, but that doesn’t keep fans and critics alike from salivating for the moment that the “won’t they” because “will they.” That all sounds entirely contradictory and I think that’s sort of the point. People think a series will not work if the creative team finally pulls the trigger on the creative team, but those same kinds of people fret over the possibility of a series dragging the relationship out as well. It’s an unfortunate, but true double-edged sword that television programs built around a probable romantic pairing have to deal with. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be a problem or maybe we would stop making series explicitly about the quirky sexual tension of a couple goofballs. Alas.

In hopes of examining what happens when a series keeps a couple separated for too long, I have chosen NBC’s Chuck and the much-discussed third season episode, “Chuck Versus the Mask.” Chuck is an interesting case because there are probably other episodes that reflect even larger problems in the series’ construction that aided in it quickly devolving from “almost great” to “meh.” I am certain that I could write an entry about the series’ inability to develop real villains or its blatant lack of real stakes over the last season or two. This is particularly true because the primary issue discussed in this post was tackled and solved in subsequent episodes. The fans I’m going to discuss momentarily are probably not too angry anymore considering Chuck and Sarah eventually got together, consummated their feelings and even became husband and wife.* The tension between the characters and the intense fan reaction isn’t really there anymore.

*Hilariously, I guess we could say that Chuck proves The Moonlighting Corollary true, considering that the season with Chuck and Sarah together the whole time is undoubtedly the worst (even though almost all of the issues with season four have little to do with the Chuck and Sarah relationship). The Moonlighting Corollary is true! Long live The Moonlighting Corollary!   

However, perhaps the end of all the tension makes discussing this episode and arc leading into it more compelling. Despite all the common sense, logic and corollaries, we can basically assume that if a series introduces an UST relationship, they will eventually have those characters consummate their feelings, even if it is for just a short period of time. I don’t want to say this is a given because I know that someone will (rightfully) point out a case that proves me entirely wrong, but it is fairly close to a given. With that in mind, it kind of makes all the fan outrage moot, doesn’t it? The comments I’m going to quote and link to are full of rage, confusion and seemingly legitimate hurt. These Chuck fans were UPSET. But they had to know that Chuck and Sarah would get together eventually, right? So it is apparently all about when (i.e. how soon) they get together?

Chuck is of course a unique case to discuss, particularly in regard to fan reaction and response. At this point, everyone knows the story so I will just briefly summarize: At the end of season two, Chuck was teetering on becoming a capital G-Great series, but NBC did not seem interested in renewing it. Fans started all sorts of online/social media campaigns to save the series, including a crusade that involved buying all sorts of Subway $5 footlongs as a sign of support for the series and one of its primary sponsors. It worked, everyone was happy, yay Chuck.

Because of the legitimate and acknowledged fan impact on Chuck existing past the second season, many fans clearly felt like they had some sort of ownership or investment in what happened within the story itself and in some ways, it is hard to disagree with them. Fans spent their own time spreading the word about the various campaigns and spent their own money going to Subway. If there is any group of fans that deserved to claim ownership over their favorite series, it might be Chuck fans. And although it is now impossible to empirically prove what fans did or why they did it back in May 2009, it is safe to say that many folks were hooked on the relationship between Chuck and Sarah. The end of season two brought the two star-crossed lovers close together and then ripped them apart, so I have to imagine there was a cohort of fans who just needed to see Chuck and Sarah together. HAD TO.

Cut to eight months later in February 2010 when “Chuck Versus the Mask” aired. The first six episodes of season three spent a lot of time explaining why Chuck and Sarah couldn’t be together quite yet and frankly, did a solid job as far as I’m concerned. It makes some sense that Chuck would want to focus on becoming all he could be and therefore not have the right mindset or time to enter into a relationship with Sarah. I get that. Apparently, many fans didn’t see it my way and once “Versus the Mask” came to pass and both Chuck and Sarah ended up in the arms of other (admittedly less interesting) partners, all hell broke loose.

The comments on Alan Sepinwall’s review of the episode ranged from raged-filled to insanely raged-filled. Here is one for your “pleasure”:

“When Chuck returns after the Olympics, no one should watch it on air. Rather we should all watch it online at Hulu or any other online service we can find. Failing that, DVR the show and watch it that way. That way we can send a message to NBC and the producers of the show that we are still interested in the show but we are not prepared to settle for the caliber of show we saw last night…If we can bring the number of on air viewers below 1 million, the advertisers will take note. You can count on that. You can also bet the advertisers will be on the phone to NBC and the producers of Chuck. Money talks after all…We need NBC to know that we love the show. We also need for NBC to know that we are disappointed.”

The vitriol was so strong that Chuck masterminds Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak decided to speak with Sepinwall on the matter. Guess how people responded!

“It continues to amaze me how JS [Josh Schwartz] just doesn’t seem to get it that when you have a show that rides a fine line with ratings that when you go over the top to alienate your fan base on purpose, it could end your show. The show lost 39% of its viewers in the second half hour, that’s not your competition. There will be another drop for ep 8 because of the firestorm surrounding this ep. The hope is that they can get the show back on track so we don’t see a continual erosion.”

“When I wrote six letters to NBC and ate my subs and spent several hundred hours voting repeatedly on online polls to support Chuck, I never once thought I would be driving the bus. WHAT I DID THINK WAS THAT I WAS SAVING A SHOW WORTH SAVING. That is what I no longer feel at all…”

It would be unwise to say the fans of Chuck believed that they should literally be able to pick and choose how narratives development, but from the comments and reactions to episodes like “Chuck Versus the Mask,” it is clear that many fans had an implicit trust in the producers to write the series in ways that they would respond most positively to (i.e. putting Chuck and Sarah together). In his interview with Sepinwall, Schwartz commented on this struggle for control over the text:

“We are incredibly invested in and respectful of our fans and their response. We are receptive and read almost everything that’s out there. This is a show that we’re doing as much for us as we are for them. That being said, we still have to tell the story that we’re going to tell.”

With this statement, Schwartz is acknowledging the possibility of shared “control” over Chuck’s narrative by saying that the creative team writes the series “as much” for the audience as they do themselves, but ultimately discards any “real” control that the fans might have by noting that the writers are going to tell the story in the way that they want to tell it. His statement suggests that he recognized that the fans might actually feel more entitled over the series’ narrative, but though that those feelings were not necessarily helpful or useful. Clearly, Schwartz did not want to alienate any members of the already-small audience – which is probably why he and Fedak did the interview in the first place – so there is some massaging of the fans’ expectations for entitlement.

Nevertheless, the fan reaction to this episode and this entire arc presents us with an interesting question: How much power do fans have in declaring something a failure? Clearly we can point to Nielsen ratings as an overt way that audiences make or break the success of an individual episode or an entire series, but I’m wondering more about creative failure I guess. If 90 percent of the comments on most of the reviews of an episode are negative, does that define an episode a failure? We all know most viewers don’t take to Sepinwall’s blog or The A.V. Club to complain after a shoddy effort, but I’m curious about Chuck and its fans because of their past work. This is a fandom that used the internet to their and the series advantage and then when things didn’t go their way, they used the same platform to cause a somewhat substantial (in television critic/news/fandom circles) ruckus. Disregarding whether or not the Chuck fans had the right to have this additional layer of ownership, how much stock do we put in the vocal “this sucks” group response? I don’t know the answer to this question, but it’s certainly one that drives the lasting “legacy” of “Chuck Versus the Mask.”

From my perspective, this episode isn’t much of a creative “failure.” I think the series jumped the gun a bit with both Chuck and Sarah’s new relationships, but that was mostly a by-product of originally only having 13 episodes to tell their story. I don’t want to let them off the hook completely, but if we consider the rushed time-frame, both pairings make some sense. Both relationships were so clearly rebound stop-gap-types that had no chance of surviving longer than a few episodes and if you’re familiar with the rhythms of television and these kind of UST relationships, you could see the purpose behind it all relatively easily. Looking at this episode in the larger picture, it was still only the 42nd episode of the entire series and it wasn’t like Chuck and Sarah had not voiced their feelings to one another. Everyone, including the two of them, knew how they felt. This happened to be a roadblock between them actually consistently acting on those feelings, but no one was ignorant here. I’m not saying that the fans who wanted to boycott the series in the aftermath of this episode were stupid and unable to view television like I can, but it appears that they let their emotions get the best of them in this circumstance.

Additionally, we have the valuable hindsight to see that “Mask” didn’t have a major impact on the development of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship. Sure, it took them a few more episodes to finally get together, but when they did, I don’t remember thinking that it was any less satisfying. In fact, forcing Chuck and Sarah to go through that additional obstacle as individuals made their relationship matter a bit more. They both had personal issues that needed to be worked out separately and that never would have happened had they jumped right in bed after Chuck realized he knew kung-fu. And although the series fell apart in season four, very little of that had to do with this relationship. There were a few episodes that presented unbelievable relationship “struggles,” but these two crazy kids were just as charming Together as they were when they were just together.

“Chuck Versus the Mask” presents us with an example of what’s sure to happen more often in the internet and social media era. Fans are more empowered and keyed in to productions than ever before and unsurprisingly, that presents both good and bad impacts. No matter what happens within the text itself, fans and commenters can be so vocal and so loud in their opinions of those events that they take on a new life of their own. I wouldn’t go as far as labeling this episode as a failure, but I also won’t ever be able to separate my feelings from the moment I logged on to various web sites and saw all the hatred. Maybe that’s just me or maybe fans do have the power to define something as a legitimate failure based on the volume of their paratextual voices.

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