|Zachary Levi, Chuck|
|Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock|
When I was on the book tour for MY NAME IS WILL, my wife Sa coined a new phrase. She's not a big reader, so she was a little panicked about going to lots of book signings and after-parties with bigwigs of the publishing world, and trying to keep with the Vassar/Yale MFA chitchat. So she came up with this stock response to the ever-popular "So what are you reading?" and "Who are your favorite authors?" icebreakers: "I don't read. I watch television."
She speaks fairly truly when she says that, although she was kind enough to read my book and like it. We do, in fact, watch a lot of television. For the past couple of weeks we've been catching up on Chuck, (still in the middle of season four, so no spoilers, please!), and also watched the three ninety minute episodes of the BBC mystery series Sherlock. I think Chuck is extraordinary, and I found Sherlock somewhat disappointing, and I've been trying to assess why.
Each show is an updates of one of my childhood icons. Chuck is essentially Get Smart meets Charlie's Angels meets 21st century geek culture, a post-Cold War retro spy comedy/adventure show that plays out in the interstices of a big box electronics store, with lots of pop culture references (the supercomputer at the nexus of a take-over-the-world control center looks exactly like an old Mac Plus computer; one of the shady front corporations in a season three episode was "Vandalay Industries." You have to know your Seinfeld to get that one) and badass, scantily-clad-chick-on-scantily-clad-chick martial arts sequences. "Sherlock" takes the classic Conan Doyle characters and simply inserts them in modern-day London, Holmes and Watson still ensconced at the fictional 221B Baker Street and solving crimes, but doing so with computers and cell phones and ready explanations that no, they're not gay. The cast in each show is terrific. Chuck features two sexy leads that have made their way onto Sa's and my respective "lists" -- you know, that list that spouses keep that provides a marital get of jail free card if the opportunity should ever arise to be unfaithful with one of five listed celebrities -- in Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski.
Guest spots are perfectly cast with an eye toward both geek cred and great comedy, from Scott Bakula and Linda Hamilton as Chuck's parents to Fred Willard and Swoozie Kurtz as a bickering old married spy couple. Sherlock features an obsessive, asexual, exasperating, Aspergers-y Holmes in Benedict Cumberbatch, and the always lovable (and Bilbo to be Martin Freeman as a redoubtable and almost-clever-enough-to-keep-up Watson. Both shows are smart, clever, fast-paced, and alternately funny and action-packed.
The difference is in the story arc. Sherlock, because of its ninety-minute episodes, had a chance to do something like a movie trilogy, with long-waveform plot development, an evolving relationship between Holmes and Watson, and doing some deep diving into that most enigmatic of questions: what makes Sherlock Holmes tick? But after a promising opening, in which Holmes and Watson are cleverly introduced and Holmes makes his usual almost-perfectly accurate eductions about Watson's past, the character relationships are left largely unexplored. Instead, the second two episodes simply feel like a more-intelligent CSI episode, with multiple dizzying plot twists and breathless deduction, but almost nothing in the way of emotion or character development.
Chuck, on the other hand, manages to constantly surprise and innovate, both moving the story forward and spinning out the compelling backstory mystery in nearly every episode. Standard sitcom tropes like the Sam and Diane/Ross and Rachel "will they get together?" storyline between civilian Chuck and his handler and superspy Sarah Walker are handled deftly, with a thoroughly contemporary edge, and so much chemistry between the two that you find yourself rooting for their relationship out loud. Characters and relationships evolve at a rapid pace, yet manage not to jump the shark of unbelievability. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger--usually an emotional one between Chuck and Sarah or Chuck and his family--that makes for long nights of three-and-four-episode marathon viewing.
I just learned today that the upcoming season of Chuck, its fifth, will be its last. If you haven't been following, I highly recommend catching up. Seasons 1-3 are available on DVD, with the fourth no doubt coming soon.