Monday, 31 October 2016

Chuck - My Life as a Spy

Chuck Title

I have finally managed to watch the last episode of my rewatching of Chuck, a television series about a employee at an electronics store who wakes up one day to discover that the CIA database has been downloaded into his head (which is another reason why one shouldn't open strange email attachments, even if they come from friends - especially friends whose actions resulted in you getting kicked out of university). I have to admit that the series flowed a lot better the second-time around, namely because when I first watched it it was as it was progressively being produced, which meant that when one season ended I would have at wait something like six-months to continue from where the show left off.

Anyway, before I go any further it might be an idea to begin this post with the opening credits.

The Story of Chuck

Chuck, or Charles Bartowski, is basically a geek that works at a big box electronics store known as 'The Buymore'. He's actually a pretty smart kid, but found that his life took a nasty turn for the worse when the answers to an exam were found under his bed, and as a result he was kicked out of Stanford. Oh, his girlfriend, Jill, also broke up with him and then started dating the guy, Bryce Larkin, whom Chuck believes planted the exam papers under his bed. Anyway, down and dishearted, he returns to suburban Los Angeles (though I'm not sure if I can actually consider Burbank to be the suburbs - from what I gather from the show it is actually a metropolitan hub, but then again I don't live in Los Angeles so I only know about the place from what I learn from television shows like Chuck) to live with his sister (and her boyfriend Captain Awesome) and scrape out what life he can through being a techie at a big box retailer.

However Chuck's life completely changes one evening after a rather disastrous birthday party (where he completely bores a couple of young ladies by telling them about his ex-girlfriend, and then spending the rest of the time in his room playing shootem-ups with his best friend Morgan) when he receives a random email from his nemesis Bryce Larkin. As one does when one receives an email from a guy that got him kicked out of university, he opens it, sees a heap of images, and then faints.

The next morning he wakes up, goes to work, and an incredibly attractive young lady suddenly appears at the Buymore and specifically requests that he fix her mobile phone, and then promptly asks him out on a date. Well, things like that don't happen everyday, so he agrees, and suddenly discovers that when he looks at certain things he has this sudden knowledge of stuff that he never knew he had. Then it turns out that this girl who asked him out on a date, Sarah, is actually working for the CIA. What he discovers that the email that he opened has downloaded the entire CIA database into his head, and now he is wandering around with all of this knowledge - basically a very valuable CIA asset, and now has a couple of handlers, Sarah, and an NSA agent John Casey, who are literally watching his every move.

While it would be tempting at this point to go through all of the characters, there are actually a little too many. For instance we have the regulars at the Buy More, but we also have the spy world, and Chuck's family. Instead, I will explore how the show progress, and some of the major story arcs that run through it, while trying to give as little away as possible (even though most people who would want to watch it have probably already watched it).

As I have suggested, the series is about how Chuck lands up with the entire CIA database in his head, and then how he is thrust into the world of esplionage. While in the past the show probably would have simply been a collection of disconnected episodes, with the evolution of the television series we see instead a gradual development of the characters, as well as an overarching story line. At the beginning of the series there are a lot of unknowns - Chuck and Ellie lost their parents when they were young and the both of them grew up on their own, however what happened to their parents remains a mystery.

Further, Chuck starts off as your typical suburban geek - he's not a spy, he works at the Nerd Herd in the Buymore. However as the show progresses you begin to see a gradual change so that by the end of the series he is literally a full blown CIA operative. The other thing is that all of this is supposed to be secret, yet the CIA are kind enough to let him continue his life in Burbank, meaning that he is actually living a double life - we have his civilian life, and we have his spy life - and never the twain shall meet. However the problem is that since Chuck seems to regularly vanish for 'installs', people start asking a lot of questions, especially those close to him, and sooner or later they end up working it out. Mind you, Morgan was always going to be brought into the fold, even though it took two and a half seasons for that to eventually happen.

Bring on the Baddies

Every spy story has to have a villain, or a villainous organisation. James Bond has Blofeldt and Spectre, while Austin Powers would regularly be going toe to toe with Doctor Evil. Mind you, while there are a number of James Bond references scattered throughout the series, you never seem to hear of Austin Powers (which would have added a little more spice to the show, even if it was only once - though a Mike Myers Cameo would have been pretty cool). However, that is beside the point because I was talking about the bad guys, and Chuck surely has plenty of them.

The interesting thing with Chuck was that while it aired between 2007 and 2012 there was some hints, but not huge ones, on events that were occurring at the time. For instance we never saw, or even heard the name, of the current President of the United States, and there was very little mention of the war in Iraq (though by 2008 this had started to wind down significantly). There were a few comments about being in a recession, and the Buy More did close down (though that was because it blew up as opposed to going bankrupt, though there were suggestions in season five that the Buy More brand was still around). However, while the Iraq War didn't get a mention this didn't mean that there weren't all that many bad guys going around - and very few, if any, of them were Islamic Fundamentalists (which I have found make very boring antagonists anyway).

The thing with Chuck is that the first seasons simply has the 'bad guy' or 'mission' of the week, that is until we get to the final episode (though the season finished early due to the writer's strike) where we are introduced to an organisation known as Fulcrum. We did hear about them earlier, however it was this episode when we first meet one of their agents, and when we hit the second season their activities become more and more apparent until we get to the final three episodes which are the climax of the season.

The thing with Fulcrum, and the antagonists in Season 3 - The Ring - is that they aren't actually external enemies - they are internal - which makes it much more interesting. The thing is that the CIA in the world of Chuck is rife with factions, and these factions are all trying to vie for control over the organisation. It appears that the faction that Chuck is a part of tends to be more defensive, and conservative, in nature, while Fulcrum, and the Ring, tend to be more offensive in their desires. One believes in defending democracy, whereas the others see democracy as a threat to security and that security trumps freedom.

I won't go into seasons four or five however as I will leave that for you to either watch the show, or simply read the Wikipedia post.

Just Another Superhero?

When I sit back and look at the series as a whole I wonder whether Chuck, or Charles Bartowski, is really just another superhero. Consider this - he is an ordinary guy that suddenly came upon some extra-ordinary powers that set him apart from the rest of society, and he also lives a double life - one where he is a lowly techie at a big box electronics store, and the other where he is some sort of super spy and secret weapon of the United States Government. Is this not what a lot of the superheroes are, in one form or another?

Yet for some reason I seem to find Chuck a lot more appealing than your typical super-hero show. In a way he doesn't seem to fall into the same genre, despite the fact that he portrays the characteristics of many of the superheroes that happen to grace our screens and the pages of our comic books (though on the other hand most superheroes are also vigilantes - something that Chuck is not). Another thing that seems to set him apart is who he is - ignoring the fact that he has a supercomputer in his brain (that becomes more powerful as the series progresses), he still comes across as that regular geek that many of us relate to. However, this still seems to put him back into the Superhero category.

Let us consider Peter Parker for instance (since he is probably one of the superheroes that is closer to Chuck, considering that he is not a multi-billionaire like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark) - in many ways he is actually a lot like Chuck. Okay, Chuck doesn't run around in a fancy suit shooting webs out of his hands, and he isn't known amongst the populace either, however there are actually a number of similarities between the two. First of all they both come from less well off backgrounds, and both of them also have lost their parents (though the identity, and location, of Chuck's parents are revealed as the show progresses). Also, both of them gain superpowers through a freak event (though I would hardly say that Chuck got his powers through an accident).

The other thing is that they are both geeks, though it is interesting that Peter Parker doesn't go around fiddling with computers or playing video games. Even in the later Spiderman movies we don't have that aspect of Peter Parker come about. The reason for that is that Spiderman is basically a child of the fifties and sixties, and the idea of the geek (or the nerd, though  there is apparently a difference between the two terms) didn't come about until the 80s (and one might suggest that the term Nerd was probably popularised in the film Revenge of the Nerds).

The thing is that both characters are actually quite similar, it is just that they appeared in two different eras, which is why Peter Parker is a photographer working for a newspaper (though it is also suggested that he is pretty smart when it comes to science) while Chuck is working as a techie at a big box convenience store. However there is also another major similarity between the two, which I will explore a little deeper - both of them lead double lives.

The Double Life

It seems to be the nature of the superhero to lead double lives - that is the life that everybody knows about and the life that only a select few know. We see this with quite a few (though not all) superheroes (mainly because there are some whose identity aren't divorced from their superhero role, or have made a public statement that they are actually the superhero). We can actually list a few of them - Superman/Clark Kent, Batman/Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker/Spiderman (though not being a huge comic book fan my list pretty much comes to a halt here). In the same way Chuck also has a double life, the one where he is a super spy wielding the goverment's secret weapon, and the other where he is a university drop out working behind the counter at the Buy More (though later on in the series he seems to be rarely, if ever, behind that counter - though this is actually explored when people start to become suspicious that he is always out of the store).

However this is what I consider to be one of the genius parts of the series - the double life - we actually have two shows effectively running concurrently: the show where Chuck is a super spy, and the show which simply follows the ordinary, but somewhat amusing, life at the Buymore. Mind you, at first it is only a very select group that knows about Chuck's secret identity, however as the show progresses this group becomes larger - though the key characters at the Buy More (Jeff, Lester, and Big Mike) are always kept in the dark. This is important as it works to keep the nature of the double life alive, and even when the Buy More becomes the property of the CIA, and later Chuck and Sarah, this divide remains active (despite the fact that Chuck is no longer a member of the CIA and is running what is effectively a private security firm).

Mind you, the Buy More and the CIA operation are not always kept apart - as I mentioned at one stage the CIA purchase the Buy More as a part of the operation, and to keep Chuck's cover intact. Mind you, having a store staffed by highly efficient operatives does start to back fire a bit, especially since the store seems to be just a little too perfect, to the point that within two weeks the store wins an award for efficiency. Of course, the problem is rectified by bringing back the old staff, if only to create some realism about the place.

However, since the Buy More is a cover for the CIA, whether it is owned by the Buy More brand, or a cover for the CIA, it is going to attract a lot of attention, especially from Chuck's adversaries. As such it becomes a common sight, especially during some of the busiest shopping periods, that the store is evacuated because some enemy agent is either in the store, or threatening to blow up the store. In fact, as soon as Big Mike (who begins as the store manager, though finishes up as the assistant manager) makes an announcement that this particular day is the biggest (or one of the biggest) shopping days of the year, you can expect that by the end of the show the store will have been evacuated.

Life as a Millenial

Another interesting aspect of the show that I read about somewhere (it was on the internet, but it was quite a while back, which means that it has probably been lost in the countless number of other posts on the show - though it is interesting that a number of shows, including Chuck, have their own wiki page - though this is not surprising considering the one thing about the internet is that it enables fans to write stuff about their favourite shows, such as I'm doing here) was that the show explores the lives of the 20 somethings as they move from high school and university and into the real world. Mind you, the term that is used now is the Millenial (or it could be generation Y - maybe the millenials are still at high school and university and the post GFC world that they looking to enter is appearing quite bleak).

As I mentioned above the idea of the geek has changed a lot since the 1950s. Back then the geeks would be writing for the school newspapers and wearing cardigans and thick rimmed glasses. That changed somewhat during the eighties, as while they still wore their cardigans and their thick rimmed glasses, they are now firmly entrenched in the computer lab as opposed to the school newspaper. Come the turn of the Millenium the geek has now taken the form of Chuck and the guys from the big bang theory. With Chuck gone are the glasses and the cardigan, and now we simply have a normal guy that happens to be good with computers.

A house of Nerds

However lets look at our millenials - one the one hand we have Ellie and Awesome, the two successful doctors (one a heart surgeon, the other a neurosurgeon). On the other side we have Chuck and Sarah. In both cases neither of them know, or are in regular touch with, their parents. In fact Sarah doesn't even have a real identity - we do learn that her real name is Sam, however the only identity that Sarah has is her identity as a spy. The same goes with John  Casey (though he is actually a lot older than the others - technically he is a generation Xer, not that he actually looks that old) - his identity as John Casey actually isn't his true identity, but it is an identity that he has taken and made his own.

This is the thing about the world in the new millenium, and that is the idea of identity. Sure, there has always been pressures from outside attempting to (and in many cases succeeding) in shaping our identity, however with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the United States as the sole superpower, this fluidity in our identity has come to the fore. In fact there is this constant tug of war in our lives as to what our identity is - is it our job, our family, our hobbies, our interests? In the commercial world in which we live our identity is inevitably based upon the job we do - in fact it is pretty much the second question that is asked when we meet somebody (after their name of course). However, this identity is problematic, especially in Chuck's case, as not only to his friends and family is his identity tied to his role at the Buy More as opposed to his role in the CIA, but his identity changes depending on the mission he is currently undertaking.

The Security State

I want to finish this post off on how pervasive the CIA seems to be in Chuck - basically everybody is a spy. Well, not everybody, but the tentacles of the security state seem to stretch far and wide in this series. In fact we regularly encounter celebrities (including Stan Lee and Bo Derek) who are actually spies, though they are both allies and enemies. This is the nature of the security state, and one of the constant struggles within a democracy - the concept of freedom, yet an extensive security state that arises to protect that freedom, which means that while one may be free, one may not have a private life because to protect that freedom one must be willing to allow one's privacy to be invaded so that those who threaten that freedom may be exposed.

Which then raises the question of whether that is actually freedom, and what they actually mean by freedom. Is freedom the freedom to do what one wants? Well, there are certain things (in fact quite a lot of things) that we cannot do - like park a truck in the middle of a motorway, and then proceed to have a barbeque. Is it the freedom to choose who will govern us - well every so often we get to chose who will govern us, but you can be assured that at least half of the population won't be happy with who the other half selected (and as we see in the Brexit referrenda, 48% of the population of the United Kingdom are unhappy that their views will now be ignored). However, the freedom that I suspect they are actually referring to is freedom from the government interfering in trade or commerce.

This is the end point of our fight for freedom, and the creation of the security state. It has nothing to do with our freedom, or rights, but rather the freedom of businessmen to go about doing business without interferance from the government. The thing is with freedom is that no matter who you vote for, or who wins an election, there is no way you are going to be allowed to practice your archery in the middle of a shopping centre, or let a pack of rabid wolves run around the local sports field. However, you can be assured that there is one party who will make it easier for businesses to do business, and for financial advisors to rip people of - this, my friend, is the freedom that the security state protects.

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Chuck - My Life as a Spy by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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