Save Chuck: A Movement with a Message
April 25th, 2009
As some of you may know, I found myself caught up in the whirlwind that was the Save Jericho campaign, where fans went nuts and sent nuts, bringing their canceled show back from the dead. Since that show’s success, there have been numerous campaigns to save other shows, and to be honest I haven’t really got behind any of them. I got behind Jericho because it was a true grassroots movement, an example of the power of the internet, of fans, and of expanding the definition of success from traditional ratings measurements; to be honest, the show never really captured me, but the fact that it captured others so strongly was something worth fighting for.
But I can honestly say that this is the first time that I am entering, albeit late thanks to my vacation, a fan campaign primarily because I love the show involved. Chuck was an engaging series last year, but this year it has elevated itself to an entirely new level: this is not the most intelligent show on television, or the funniest, or the most dramatic, but its ability to combine all of these elements into a single package has created a series that myself and hopefully many, many others view as worthy of our time and energy. Saving Chuck is not just some sort of experiment, but something that is necessary for my faith in NBC as a network, and network television as a medium for high-calibre entertainment, to remain intact.
What I want to discuss is how the campaign is operating, and how there are three keys to its success that have given it a real chance of succeeding: I write this, two days before the show’s season finale, without the intention of placing a (Series?) in that post title, or even considering that possibility, and I honestly feel as if this goes beyond wishful thinking. Based on every piece of evidence before us, the campaign to Save Chuck has all of the momentum to overcome the obstacles facing it and send a message to NBC and all other networks that we’re not ready to let a great show go so easily.
Just so we’re all on the same page, Chuck’s obstacles are actually quite simple. First and foremost, ratings are not good, especially in key demographics – the show has been struggling to stay above a 2.0 for a while, and while it has been largely stable it’s not showing much growth. The second problem is that NBC is giving Jay Leno five hours of primetime, vastly reducing the number of available timeslots. And third, NBC doesn’t actually own the show (which is produced by Warner Bros.), which makes it a bit of a different negotiation in terms of costs and the show’s future.
But all of these obstacles are entirely surmountable, especially considering the ammunition that the fans are both using and being given in these important weeks.
I don’t quite have time to get to an entire episode review of the amazing and awesome “Chuck vs. the Colonel,” but suffice to say that it was one of those ridiculous penultimate episodes wherein it feels like a finale. It’s not that much unlike what The Wire does every season, in terms of placing most of the resolution in the penultimate episode in order to leave the finale for the deneoument. What the episode did so well was simultaneously give us something that was exciting (some great fight choreography, some fun explosions, some legitimate tension) while also so subtly moving our characters forward: Chuck and Sarah finally consummating their relationship if not quite in the biblical sense, for example, was so sudden that I thought it was a dream sequence, and so well-played that within a minute my season-long complaints of Josh Schwartz dragging out their relationship longer than necessary were almost completely gone.
Similarly, the work given to Adam Baldwin’s Casey was just great here: he was hunting them down because his feelings had been hurt more than his duty driving him, and that’s the kind of diversity of character that the show has been exhibiting all season. Schwartz has been on a creative roll all season, whether it’s in the show’s casting (which has been top notch) or in the amping up on mythology in the back half of the season. The decisions the show has made have just been really smart, like choosing Devon (Captain Awesome) as the person who first learns of Chuck’s double life. He’s the perfect character whose character is both simple enough to not burden the rest of the show but also pure and established enough to be able to weather the internal drama it will create. It was the right decision, played at the right time, and then executed in brilliant fashion.
That’s been the show’s second season in a nutshell, and the quality is one of the things that give the show a strong chance at renewal: the show earned its full season before it even started airing after the first six episodes impressed the NBC brass, so it’s not as if the show’s success creatively has been a surprise. The network knows it has a great show here, and the fact they’ve acknowledged this before when there weren’t even any ratings to go by is a great sign that low ratings won’t be the deciding factor for the show.
The Critical Support
No, critical support is not a necessary component in a fan campaign: Jericho, for example, lacked a single major critic really speaking out for the show, and it was perfectly successful. However, there is something very important about critics like Maureen Ryan or Alan Sepinwall sporting “Save Chuck” avatars on Twitter: first and foremost is indicates that they have extremely good taste (which we knew already, but still), and second it tells NBC that this is not just a one-sided affair between viewers and this show.
For some shows, like The Wire or even Friday Night Lights, there were moments when networks likely fely as if the only people even watching their shows were the (sadly dwindling) numbers of people paid to watch television for a living. And I can see how they’d be wary of trusting the critics’ voices entirely on their own: yes, the decision to cancel critical darlings will get some very bad press for a while, but considering how many critics’ endorsements are ignored by the viewing public it’s not something that’s going to drive an entire decision.
But this is a movement that is crossing the boundaries between fan and critic, the former term being the dominant trait in all involved. Critics who are getting involved in the campaign are, like me, doing so out of love for the show. Their attachment with the show demonstrates that this isn’t just some sort of message board campaign, but an honest-to-goodness movement for the sake of a great television series at almost every level of the totem pole, from the most critical to the most blindly devoted.
It’s a great thing to observe primarily because it demonstrates two things I see as a huge step forward. First, it shows that critics (in the wake of Jericho) have not become so cynical about fan campaigns that they are unable to engage with them alongside their readers. And second, perhaps even more importantly, it has shown that fans have taken the lessons of Save Jericho to heart and are launching an intelligent and sensible campaign that critics are open to. As someone who isn’t a real critic, but is perhaps too critical to be “just a fan,” seeing those two sides of my own feelings for Chuck come together gives me a great deal of hope and inspiration that NBC can’t possibly ignore.
I said above about Chuck being a highly intelligent show, perhaps more than one might expect, and the same goes for its fans as well: not only have they gotten critical support, but the foundational element of their campaign is an example of both the changing dynamics of the television industry and a genius strategy for catching NBC’s attention in the right way. As a result, fans are going to be lining up at Subway restaurants on Monday to buy foot-long subs for $5 and write comment cards that the only reason they’re in the fine establishment is because of the recent product placement on Chuck.
It wasn’t subtle or sarcastic product placement, as 30 Rock is wont to do: no, this was straight up “we need money to stay viable, and product placement cuts out the impact of DVRs and gets products right to the viewer,” and while shameless it’s also the new reality. In this economic climate, you have a combination of shows being asked to cut their budgets and companies with less advertising dollars to spend and an imperative to ensure their product gets to more people. Just as it’s impossible to truly gauge viewership with Nielsen numbers, it’s even tougher for a company to gauge the effectiveness of their advertising, in particular product placement, so the more feedback they receive the better it will be.
As a result, when it comes to keeping the show afloat financially, a company like Subway learning that Chuck’s fans are acutely aware of the value of product placement, and are willing to put their money (only $5) where their mouth is when it comes to their favourite show, is a huge boost for the series. It is even helpful when it comes to comparisons with other shows in the timeslot: companies might get larger volume from House or The Big Bang Theory, but if those viewers aren’t willing to go to these lengths perhaps Chuck could become the show known for having viewers paying attention and understanding the new dynamics between networks and advertisers.
For me, these three qualities are enough to overcome any obstacles facing the campaign or the series itself. Yes, NBC is losing five hours of primetime, but in deciding which shows remain on the air they have a legion of fans who are showing they understand the industry, a group of critics demonstrating they’re just as much fans as the legion, and a show and a showrunner delivering a show that has already impressed NBC brass and that has only gotten better as it has marched towards its season finale. It’s just all come together so well: the show has been firing on all cylinders, the fans have been slowly gathering with the peak coming just at the right time, and the critics are on board in time to give the movement some credibility with the mainstream media.
Now, it’s all about follow-through: I look forward to seeing plentiful tweets on Monday about Subway sandwiches, perhaps some discussions on which foot-long is the best choice for non-afficionados, and then (assuming I’ll have access to a TV with cable and the ability to watch amidst the chaos of moving) to log back into Twitter after the finale airs and discussing the cliffhanger and what it means for a third season that, barring every Subway store closing and every executive at NBC going blind, should be a reality come May 5th.
To quote another show that, having left the air, is now open to reappropriation: so say we all.
- Kath at GiveMeMyRemote got this whole ball rolling three weeks ago with a concentrated effort to get things started: I was sadly too busy to contribute, but head over to GMMR for the initial postings that really got things moving.
- Daniel Fienberg at HitFix, for whom I did some writing during PaleyFest, has an interview with co-creator Chris Fedak.
- Alan Sepinwall has an open letter to NBC on why the show should be renewed when they announce their fall schedule.
- Maureen Ryan has her discussion of the drive for a “Nerd Third” at The Watcher.