I’ve been binge watching Chuck lately. It’s essentially a show about spies. At some point I realized that you don’t see spy stuff on television very often. Aside from Archer, I can’t think of anything that’s got spies in it. To be fair, though, I still don’t have a tv and watch everything way after it’s actually on so my sense of the dearth of spy-related shows may be skewed. Anyway, a brief rundown of Chuck: mild-mannered IT guy, Chuck, gets an email from his old college roommate. Unbeknownst to Chuck, said ex-roommate has become a super-secret CIA spy and said email contains a super-secret computer program that contains all the government’s super-secret, urm…secrets. Which get downloaded into Chuck’s brain and he becomes a walking computer-slash-national security nightmare. Operatives are sent to protect him until the information can be extracted, but they also have to have him tag along on missions so they can continue to use the information now that no one else has access to it. Chuck accidentally becomes a spy.
Once again, I realize that this sounds cheesy. And although it may not sum up well and spies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I assure you it is hilarious. It’s well written and the cast is great. The Husband insists that Zachary Levi (who plays Chuck) is doing a spot-on early Don Knotts impression. I can’t stand Don Knotts, so I’ll just take him at his word that that’s a good thing. The show is also full of excellent guest stars, which of course the writers use to make a lot of self-referential geeky jokes. Like having Scott Bakula say “Oh, boy,” or Linda Hamilton say “Come with me if you want to live.” Delicious. And the executive producer is McG, who also brought us Supernatural (and, weirdly, the first Sugar Ray album – but feel free to ignore that little tidbit).
I’m not a die-hard fan of the spy/action genre. I like a couple of the Connery era Bond films and I enjoyed Archer quite a bit. But I’m not particularly well-versed in these things. It all seems a little old-fashioned somehow. Like a Cold War holdover from when techy gadgets like teeny tiny cameras and phones without cords were universally mind-blowing. What I like about Chuck is that it’s spy stuff for the digital generation. The Intersect, the computer in his head, is like the Matrix for governmental dirty laundry. Which seems relatable. We all understand the internet, so the Intersect isn’t that huge a leap, right? But it’s just outside of the realm of possibility, just barely beyond what we can actually get our hands on right now, making it seem like a thing that the government might have in a crazy secret base somewhere. Sure. Why not?
I also like that Chuck’s just a normal dude. He has a sister and a best friend and a comic book collection. He’s not trying to be extra suave or super buff like Bond. He’s never been trained in spycraft at all. He’s just trying to live his life as a Nerd Herd specialist (read: Geek Squad) at the Buy More (read: Best Buy). This is a classic “weird shit happening to normal people” scenario. Which you know I love. On that note, though, he actually is a computer genius. He went to Stanford and used to be a hacker. So he brings an extra, non-spy skill set to the table. But I think that’s what makes the show relatable, that genius slacker thing. Which, as far as I can tell, is pretty new. Your friendly neighborhood electronics store could be full to brimming with baby Steve Jobses and Mark Zuckerbergs and Alan Turings. Our generation is probably only the second who are capable of making a serious impact on tech and culture without having to be a part of any preexisting industry, because everything’s so accessible now. You can work a shitty retail job and invent the thing that changes the world in your spare time. I feel like this is new, or maybe just the easiness of it is new. Either way, the rise of geek chic and mainstream nerd love has gone hand-in-hand with the genius slacker becoming a powerful and important archetype. So be nice to your IT guy. Really, really nice.
Here’s the thing about spies, though, keeping in mind that, as I said, I’m not fluent in the minutiae of this genre: how did they become superheroes? In a purely background-story kind of way, I see the similarities – secret identities, working for the greater good, protecting their loved ones from their work. But what happened to our culture that made us idolize and lionize these people? Or villainize them, as the case may be? Spies have existed since the dawn of time. It’s in our nature to clump together in groups, fear the unknown “other,” and try to keep tabs on their activities so we know how those activities will affect our own group. This is a given. But I’m sure the realities of those jobs are wildly different from the James Bondish image we’ve cultivated. I’m imagining a lot of paperwork and whispered conversations in dank alleys, much fast food and waiting around. The day-to-day of being a spy might be awful. I think the same thing when I watch all those police procedurals with FBI agents or undercover cops or whatever (which, I shamefacedly admit, I do a lot). It can’t possibly be all awesome all the time, catching bad guys. But for some reason, those cop characters don’t carry the mystique of spies, do they? They’re everywhere, on every network, but they come across as everyday people, very blue collar. It’s a weird disconnect in our fictionalizations of two jobs that may not be all that dissimilar. Plus, to go back to what I was saying before about techy stuff, those sorts of operations are probably less vital than the programmers and hackers who do computer surveillance these days. Connery never needed a code monkey on his team, is all I’m saying.
There is one thing that bothers me about Chuck, though. One of the spies who’s sent to be his handler is a very attractive young blonde woman. Her cover story is that she’s Chuck’s girlfriend. This is a pretty predictable plot device and creates space in all the running and shooting and explosions for a romantic tension kind of B story. Fine. Granted. However. Chuck is a really, really nice guy, with a good heart and a steady (if shitty) job. He’s adorable and loves his family. A bit of a slacker, sure, but who isn’t in their twenties, at least for a while? So why does every single character ask him, all through the entire first season, how he landed this girl? Just because she’s smoking hot? Her cover job is at a horrible fast food joint. If you didn’t know she was a spy, she wouldn’t seem all that great. I’m troubled by the assumption that a decent, good-looking guy couldn’t date someone beautiful just because she’s beautiful. Should my geeky brethren and sistren assume that all hot girls don’t like computers and comic books and video games and scifi? That they don’t have a shot and shouldn’t even try? That’s absolute bullshit. And kind of offensive, both to nerdy guys and to the beautiful women who love them. Gentlemen, even the buffest of chiseled dudebros get all drooly over the same women. You never know, she might be an even bigger geek than you. Look at Felicia Day or Chloe Dykstra or Rosario Dawson or Rashida Jones. I say take a chance on the hot girl. Confidence is sexier than sexiness, for sure. Just don’t be a douchebag about it.
Anyway, check out Chuck if you’re into clandestine governmental shenanigans and fun gadgets and cool explosions. And if you happen to find yourself at San Diego Comic-Con, check out Nerd HQ. It’s a venue that Zachary Levi sets up with gaming and all kinds of nerdy things, the coolest of which is a series of panels with famous folks. All the ticket money goes to Operation Smile, a charity that does cleft palette and dental surgery for people in developing countries. Awesome. What a nice guy.