Where does entertainment end and the manufacture and broadcast of blatant government recruiting infomercials under the guise of independently produced TV shows begin? I attempt to explore this gray area in a textual analysis of the pilot episode of the show Chuck that I wrote for a Communicating Across Cultures class I took at St Catherine University. You’ll find additional commentary below the works cited.
Who is behind the creation of television shows like Chuck that glorify the lifestyle of state sponsored espionage, assassination, and adventure? The writers of the show, Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz, have a history of creating action-adventure fare, but this unique niche whose neighbors include Alias, MacGyver and 24 is comprised of territory they were entering for the first time in 2007 when the pilot aired on NBC. In an interview, they claimed they were inspired by the humor of the movie Spies Like Us, and it’s apparent throughout the pilot that the audience is indeed viewing a comedy as much as an espionage thriller (2009). But while the show’s creators may be two young guys new to the industry and upon whom a lucky star shines — a star that connects their writing to the best directors and network to showcase it — Chuck’s institutional purpose is likely much more layered and nuanced.
The foundation of the show is upper middle class America in a post-9/11 world; not the the realm of blissful ignorance of current events amidst the combination of fake smiles and socioeconomic prosperity that emanates from other shows to the average living room on Must See TV night, but a realm of fake smiles, hyper-beautiful people and socioeconomic prosperity that does — specifically — acknowledge world conflict and international affairs. Layer two is the introduction of Chuck himself, a nerd we can all relate to because he is not nerdy at all. Instead, he’s socially savvy, witty, and also kind: right away we learn he has a broken heart and that his surgeon sister and soon-to-be-brother-in-law are using all the power and privilege at their disposal to help that heart heal. We then learn that unbeknownst to him, Chuck has received a cache of government secrets in an email from an old Stanford classmate and that this cache has been uploaded, via a series of flashing images, into Chuck’s brain. It’s called the Intersect and now both the CIA and the NSA are concerned about the mystery behind the sender and the recipient of the email containing these encoded top secret images. Layer three is the introduction of the human representatives (and personified stereotype) of each agency. We learn that Major Casey, NSA, is “a killer — cold school” and that Sarah Walker, exuding confidence, beauty and charm, is — what else — a covert operative for the CIA who wears bullet proof bustiers and weaponized hair pins and takes kill orders from the Director of the CIA himself (with whom she is on a first name basis, by the way). Casey calls Sarah “the CIA skirt” in his most demeaning tone and Sarah calls Casey “a burnout” and means that in a commensurately belittling way. It seems to be the US government itself putting the institution in the institutional purpose of the show.
One can’t help but wonder if Chuck was designed to recruit potential spies to both the CIA and the NSA. Every Hollywood stereotype is repeated and refined: the message is that spies have Maseratis, diffuse bombs, drive cars backwards down stairs, pretend to be people they are not, get to break and enter without reprisal, and of course, keep photos of their clandestine romantic relationships with fellow spies on their phones and reminisce about trips to Cabo as they sit in the lap of a luxury suite whose floor to ceiling windows offer a breathtaking view of a cosmopolitan skyline. Rather than an ulterior or secondary motive, recruitment of future employees for these national security and intelligence agencies seems not only to be one of the messages (i.e. “wouldn’t you love to live this lifestyle too? come work for us”) but the original intention for the show. In other words, Chuck is government recruiting propaganda modified to incorporate characters who interact for an hour each week first, and a dramatic comedy about spies with a few recruiting messages thrown in for good measure second.
So who exactly is being targeted by this program? “Geeks, nerds and lonely dudes,” as Chuck says when referring to himself and his cohorts in the Nerd Herd (redolent of the Geek Squad at Best Buy), who fantasize about a life of adventure where the geek gets the girl and all really is fair in love and war (2007). As a television watching demographic, the working people aren’t totally forgotten: they can see reflections of themselves in the employees at the imaginary retail store called the Buy More where Chuck works (“buy more” itself being a command statement sending a strong message to the viewing audience to spend money, regardless of a slowing economy — recession would hit the next year in 2008). The expert physical comedy and Carol Burnett-worthy one liners and farce will appeal to those viewers who enjoy a good dramatic comedy. And who isn’t patriotic? Certainly, there are many people who aren’t, but in our post 9/11 world, it is taken for granted that we are: patriotism is a hegemonic value. Many Americans in the year 2007 were reeling over the disclosures of the Bush regime’s constitution-violating surveillance and unlawful treatment of prisoners in the Global War on Terror. Chuck was there to remind Americans from coast to coast that it’s all for a greater good. Plus, it’s exciting to boot.
Images and symbols throughout the show reinforce that assumption of patriotism: the Intersect itself is comprised of a slew of triggering images. We see fragments of actual footage of terrorists about to behead someone, then in a flash, we see Lady Liberty and an American flag. A humming bird and a rose rotate in quick succession and then we see someone being hypnotized. Never was a television show audience bombarded with images in ways that are so openly geared toward inducing and reinforcing feelings of pride, righteousness and love of country.
This show is consistently funny — hilarious at times — but its Achille’s heel for the first forty minutes of air time is that it relies on and amplifies stereotypes that descend into derogotype. I was turned off the first time I saw the pilot by the way the characters came across as one-dimensional caricatures rather than people we could really imagine in those roles. But during the last five minutes of this series premiere, after Chuck is able to diffuse a bomb with the help of the Intersect in his head, the Casey and Sarah characters suddenly reveal their humanity and their devotion to protecting others, not because they know these random people who might be affected by an explosion but simply because those strangers are in danger and preventing them from being blown up is their job, one Casey and Sarah do well and fearlessly. But there’s a very gray area society would ideally confront when it comes to portraying actual government activities in ways that glorify morally ambiguous life choices, such as killing, surveilling, and detaining people indefinitely. Chuck himself is quite literally indefinitely detained and repeatedly surveilled over the five years this series was on air, and though the majority of the American people may not object to the existence of a CIA or an NSA, I do think we should question the ethics of going beyond writing and producing an exciting show about spies protecting our country from international threats and crossing the line that separates entertainment from the manufacture and broadcast of blatant government recruiting infomercials under the guise of an independently produced TV show. That being said, Chuck soon became one of my favorite shows, each episode outdoing the degree of suspense, last minute bomb diffusion, and romantic tension of the last.
Pilot: Chuck, Season One, written by Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz. NBC for College Hill Productions. Original Air Date: September 23, 2007.
New York Comic Con 2009: CHUCK Panel Live Blog; The TV Addict. http://www.thetvaddict.com/2009/02/08/new-york-comic-con-2009-chuck-panel-live-blog/ Accessed September 8, 2016.
So the question is: Is it bad? Is it morally wrong for the government to collaborate with production studios to create this kind of patriotism-inducing call to service to our country? Actually, no. It’s just product placement like any other. We see people on TV drinking coke, we want to drink coke. But no one is forcing us to — the same concept applies to advertising certain career paths. (To wit: if watching Criminal Minds makes you want to be an FBI profiler, good — they need people to hunt down child pornographers and human traffickers and other sick psychopaths.) It’s not even morally gray. What IS gray is any glorification of torture or other unconstitutional acts. On the other hand, to its credit, Chuck did a great job of revealing the loneliness and anonymity the viewer might expect would be required of working for the government in such a capacity. Major John Casey is basically an alcoholic and Chuck Bartowski is often miserable as he finds himself entrapped by one love triangle after another and Sarah Walker literally has no friends and no life. That’s it. The writers — and the script suggests finishing touches (probably) added by very real government operatives — go out of their way to warn the viewer to think very carefully before seeking employ within the federal government.
What IS gray is any glorification of torture or other unconstitutional acts.
And as far as the glorification of torture and other unconstitutional acts goes, that is very dangerous, because its normalization is slowly but surely wearing away our collective moral compass; and the show Chuck does make light of it in other episodes later in the series. I will blog another textual analysis of the movie Central Intelligence starring the Rock and Kevin Hart to explore this paradox further.
**This show is due to be pulled from streaming on Netflix on November 1 so watch it while you can!