Monday, October 31, 2011

The Chuck Season Premiere, Swarming Life and Television

Carol and I just finished watching (via the magic of the Interwebs) the season premiere of our favorite show, Chuck. In fairness, it's probably not both of our favorite shows (I adore Doctor Who, and I haven't gotten Carol to start the reboot yet, while I'm sure there are other shows out there she likes as much or more than Chuck), but it is our favorite show to watch together.

So as we were watching, I was trying to identify why Chuck is our favorite show (don't worry, this is spoiler free).

Television works, I think, because the viewers find a character or characters they identify with, someone with a perspective they can inhabit in their daydreams. This connection has been simplified and codified by reality-contest tv (as distinct from reality-documentary tv); starting with game shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, where we call out answers at our television encouraging/ chastising/ competing with the game show competitors, we now can vote along for and about a slew of dancing, singing, performing "stars." We, the audience, have become the prize to be won.

I would also argue that audience identification with a character or characters fall into one of two categories: recognition and desire. Every successful character has a combination of traits that the fan either recognizes and connects with, or traits that the fan envies and desires (my best off-hand example of this is House; we [fans] all recognize our misanthropic tendencies while envying his brilliance. Better still, because he is an addict despite his genius, we are able to claim moral superiority).

So we (Carol and I) love Chuck because it charms us; it turns exciting to witty to whimsical to romantic at a pace that suits our personalities. Our least favorite episodes have consistently been those which give too much air time to one aspect of the aspects listed above: the action oriented episodes lose the romance, the most comic lose the spy mystery-thriller sense of danger, while the romantic episodes are mirthless. This, I think, says as much about us as about the quality of the show.

Chuck also does one of the things I love most in art: develops a self-sustaining world in which the fantasy's initial assumptions reveal to be a crux upon which the story turns. Bilbo's ring is truly the One Ring; the Enterprise crosses space to encounter new life, who then become the allies and villains of future episodes; "Obi-wan never told you what happened to your father." This is the unifying force that is always missing me from reality television and conventional sitcoms (where the characters are usually static, ie. Archie Bunker never really learns anything from episode to episode). This, I think, says a lot about me as an artist and as a consumer of art, and this thought has popped on a light bulb about The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which I read last week and have been unsatisfied-ly ruminating on ever since). More on that later.

Ok, if you're still with me, I'm about to go off the deep end in an effort to get this post back on track. Hang on to something secure.

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know.... You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.
This idea of the "absorption of swarming life" into a controllable, enjoyable, master-able life resonates. Television offers the same absorption through reduced labor. No self-reflection, no terrifyingly blank pages, no cramps in your neck or hands. Choose the channel and watch life "melt into the little rectangle before you." Especially in the reality-contest and sitcom formats, we know that any drama created in the course of the first 20 minutes must be resolved in the final 10. How's that for immobile?

So Chuck, then, serves in some way as a miniature diary for Carol and I. As one of us said to the other in a commercial break: in between seasons Chuck and Sarah have worked at being married, and so have we. The show has, at certain moments, spoken to each of us on the challenge of a relationship and the spectacle of a well executed somersault. What we love about the show must be things we identify in ourselves, either in recognition or desire.

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