Chuck and the Incredible Exploding Computer

Ah, the new fall television series. An American event that has survived from my childhood up until the current day, albeit in a somewhat altered form. It was 1977, I believe, when I first started to pay close attention to the fall season, and all the new shows that would debut at that time. In ’77, I remember The Man From Atlantis, Spider-Man, and Soap. 1978 was Battlestar Galactica. And so on.

Despite the fact that now, through satellite and cable, I have many, many more television viewing options these days, it seems that I am always drawn back to the main, over-the-air television networks and their shows. At the moment, all of my favorite television shows (baring a few oddball reality series here and there) air on one of the Big 4 broadcast television networks. I don’t know why this is… but it is.

And so, this year I find myself drawn, like a moth to the flame, to the new fall television series. Thanks to the modern miracle that is Tivo, I have recorded the premiere episodes of all the new shows I could find that seemed of interest, and I’ve been slowly previewing them over the past few weeks. The season premiere of Heroes, of course, I watched live, and it’s as good as the previous season. I’m in for the ride on that one.

Possibly I’ll get around to reviewing some of them as time goes on (Bionic Woman is my current favorite of the new crop), but this post is about Chuck (Mondays at 8pm on NBC) .

Chuck‘s premiere episode came with a good pedigree; it was directed by McG, who directed both Charlie’s Angels and its sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, two films which I enjoyed immensely. The tone of this show is comic with dramatic elements, not unlike the two Charlie’s Angels films themselves. That’s an odd mix that somehow works in a film, but somehow doesn’t seem to work very well on TV. I’ll expand on that in a bit.

Here’s the premise of Chuck: A hapless nerd – the titular Chuck – works at a “Buy More” store, an obvious clone of Best Buy. If you’ve seen The 40-Year-Old Virgin, just think of the scenes with Steve Carell in the electronics store, and you’ve got the exact picture. Chuck lives with sister and her husband / boyfriend (it’s not clear and it doesn’t seem to matter), and hangs out with his nerdy friend who also works in the Buy More store.

In a side-by-side story, we see Chuck’s college roomate, now a CIA spy, downloading a shitload of stuff from some strange government computer room, and then e-mailing a file to Chuck before he gets shot. Did he email it to Chuck on purpose, or did his dying hand just happen to hit upon his address at random? It’s not clear.

Chuck gets the email, opens the file, and “all the secrets the government has” download into his head. He now becomes a walking, talking computer with all NSA and CIA information available to him for instant analysis. And so two agents – a guy from one agency and a girl from the other (the girl being the former girlfriend of the now-dead agent who emailed the massive file to Chuck), tag along with him to do, well, spy shit.

There you have it. On paper, it sounds like fun, sort of Charlie’s Angels meets The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I’m sure was how it was pitched to the NBC executives. “The nerds will love it”, they must’ve said. “A pretty girl and a heroic nerd. It’s television gold!”

Not so fast. The problem with this show? It’s really, really dumb. Too dumb to be funny, and way too dumb to be even vaguely dramatic. Now, Charlie’s Angels was “dumb”, but it was sort of in its own little world, so you buy it. This show is not. It tries for the same goofy vibe, but it just does not fly when you try to merge that into the real world that you and I actually live in. And, far worse, no nerd or geek will ever like this show – because they are just waaaayyy too stupid with the computer stuff.

For example, I’ll bite on the concept that somehow a guy could “download” a bunch of government secrets into his head. Of course this could not happen in “real life”, but along the lines of Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, I’ll go along with it if that’s the premise. But they didn’t even try. Instead, we get crap like the following…

The big giant government computer in the beginning? It consists of a single room, which is covered floor, walls and ceiling with LCD screens. And a single Macintosh on a pedestal in the middle. Not even a modern “Mac”, mind you. But an original issue, 1984 type Macintosh. Which magically has a color screen and can send email. And somehow can stream all of the data from a government computer over the internet in real time. Uh huh. Right.

Next, the downloaded data is sent to Chuck in an email, sent from a weirdo non-existent hand-held device that doesn’t look even remotely like anything sold today. OK, so it’s fantasy, right? No iPhone product placement for them, they’ll make up a completely phony science-fictional hand-held gizmo for our government agents to use.

But then – Chuck receives the resulting email on a very normal Mac Pro, complete with Apple Cinema Display and keyboard. He opens the email – and it does things no email attachment could ever do. It takes over the entire screen instantly, turns into a full-res HD video stream, and plays all night long, as a hypnotized Chuck gets data fed directly into his brain. Uh…. exactly what kind of computer network on the planet we live on can do that? If they had given Chuck a made-up computer as well, I might have gone along with it – fantasy device and all that – but they don’t. Or they could have had him somehow get hooked up directly to some sort of bizarro secret device that tapped directly into his brain… there are millions of ways they could have done it that would not have had to use real-world computers doing ridiculous things.

Later, a ninja (!) tries to steal Chuck’s Mac Pro. And drops it. And, in true movie fashion, it instantly smashes apart, with parts flying out of it willy-nilly. Most of the parts which fly out don’t exist inside any computer I’ve ever seen (and I have, in fact, seen the inside of my own Mac Pro many times), such as mounds of wires, LEDs, several metal gears, etc. He takes it into his Buy More store, where the geeks gather all around the pieces and say, “It’s hopeless”. Uh… what? Dropping a computer causes everything in it to instantly become so destroyed that nothing can be retrieved? This is key, because since apparently no other copy of this data exists anywhere else, they have to rely on Chuck. Uh…. sure. I can see the director now: “Throw some more parts into that computer case, so when it gets dropped, more stuff flies out!”

I’m sorry. but this show just doesn’t work. It’s annoying and frustrating instead of being funny and endearing. For example, in Bewitched, Samantha still drove a normal car that did normal car things, unless and only unless she did some magic on it. She didn’t walk around and have magic just happen for no reason. Chuck wants us to go along with a silly premise, but they hang the silly premise on stupid, ridiculous interpretations of how computers work. What self-respecting geek is going to be able to see past that? I’ll accept 24th century Star Trek technobabble about crystals and hyperspace, but you can’t show me a computer that’s for sale right here and now and expect me to go along with it having magical capabilities that no real computer can ever have.

TV executives, listen to me carefully, OK? Here’s a checklist for you:

  • A Mac Pro will not fall instantly apart and break into pieces if you drop it.
  • Even if a computer did fall apart, you could just pick up the hard disk and get the data off of it easily.
  • Email attachments are limited to about 5 megabytes in most cases. That’s about 10 photos or so.
  • Little handheld gadgets that can send email would take at least a minute or two to send even a normal, large size attachment. Never mind 8 hours of high-definition video.
  • Emails, when opened, do not go into full screen and show video nonstop.
  • You cannot stream high-definition video through an email that will play for eight hours.
  • Macintosh computers from 1984, while certainly cool and retro looking, will not function as interfaces for government supercomputers.

So, no season pass for Chuck. It goes into the ashcan of stupid TV shows. Will it last? I predict not. We’ll see if I have to eat my words in the future. You can’t make a show targeted for a certain demographic (geeks), insult their intelligence with the same show, and then expect them to watch it. For Christ’s sake, couldn’t they have just asked any real geek for a half-hour’s consult? Wil Wheaton lives in Los Angeles, they can give him a call. He’s even got years of experience in dealing with Star Trek technobabble!

Oh, and one more thing… the guy who plays Chuck? Zachary Levi? He is about as convincing a nerd as Brad Pitt or George Clooney. This guy is tall, dark, handsome, and physically very well-built. He tries to look “geeky” by having, uh, slightly unruly hair. That’s about it. Sure, I’m gonna believe this guy is perennially dateless and working at a Buy More.

A good comedy has to have a sense of smarts and style about it, no matter what its stated situation. And a good action drama needs a key binding theme that everyone watching can buy into and believe in. Chuck has neither, and is neither.

Chuck – You Are The Weakest Link. Goodbye!

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