Tag Archives: Chuck

Review: NBC’s Undercovers Can’t Hide from J.J. Abrams’ Reputation

“Pilot”

September 22nd, 2010

In the future, I think J.J. Abrams should operate under a pseudonym (or go undercover, if you prefer the pun).

If it were not for his presence, I think I’d be able to write a review saying that Undercovers (debuting tonight at 8/7c on NBC) is a show with a decent premise, a stylish pilot, and a strong cast; instead, all I want to do is talk about how none of what makes – or perhaps made – Abrams a distinctive voice in television seems to be present. The pilot has no sense of surprise and little sense of mystery, and yet because we associate these things with Abrams it feels like a disappointment even when, objectively speaking, this is an average pilot for an average premise, and Abrams was only a co-creator and co-writer (with Josh Reims).

And yet, we desire – and perhaps even demand – something beyond average, which is why Undercovers fails to resonate beyond its attractiveness.

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Fiske-ian Learnings: Reflections on Fiske Matters

While I don’t often delve too far into my academic experiences here at Cultural Learnings, this past weekend offered an interesting convergence of my various different hats, and since I’m going to be more academically involved in television studies in the years ahead I figure now seems like a good time to introduce some of that material here at the blog.

I was in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend for Fiske Matters, a conference celebrating the legacy of John Fiske, professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Madison and considered to be one of the most influential figures in cultural and media studies. In particular, the conference was organized to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of his retirement from academia, and to begin the process of rescuing his work from a few decades of reductive criticism which has unfairly marginalized his contribution to the field.

The majority of people at the conference were themselves products of Fiske’s influential work: most of the attendees were former students, many of whom are now prominent academics within the field and who continue to rely on his teachings when inspiring a new era of scholars. And while I never had the pleasure of studying with Fiske, nor have I ever learned about Fiske in any of my direct academic experience, the conference was a fantastic introduction into the collaborative, creative and engaged academic environment which owes a great deal to Fiske’s work in the field.

I’m not going to be posting my entire presentation (for reasons I’ll get to beneath the fold), but I do want to discuss my paper and then raise some of my observations from the weekend which will hopefully be relevant to both academics and readers who may not be academics but might be interested in seeing how television and media are filtered through an academic lens.

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What’s my Genre Again?: The In(s)anity of the Saturn Awards

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films comes together every year to recognize the best in genre entertainment (in both film and television) at the Saturn Awards. This is, at least in my view, a noble endeavour, and the awards have offered a space where shows like Battlestar Galactica and movies like The Dark Knight have been awarded deserved prizes that may not have been awarded at the Emmys or Oscars thanks to what is considered a bias against genre entertainment in general.

The problem is that, over time, the Saturn Awards have stretched the meaning of genre so far that it legitimately has no meaning, welcoming both genuine confusion and some outright derision based on some of their categories. The sheer volume of nominees and the rather ridiculous range of categories means that this year the Saturn Awards skew dangerously close to the Oscar while simultaneously veering dangerously towards an opposite and unflattering direction, while on the Television side their definition of what defines as genre may be the most confounding awards show process I’ve ever confronted, as demonstrated by this year’s nominees.

Rather than seeming like a legitimate celebration of science fiction, fantasy or horror, the Saturn Awards read like an unflattering and at points embarrassing collection of films and television series which reflect not the best that genre has to offer, but rather a desperate attempt to tap into the cultural zeitgeist while masquerading as a celebration of the underappreciated.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Mask”

“Chuck vs. the Mask”

February 8th, 2010

I was pretty down on “Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler,” and I was in the minority on that one: many called it one of the best episodes of the season, and I’ll admit that I just don’t see it. I had a day to sit on the episode, which meant that my concerns festered overnight, but I do think that it failed to really capture the show at its strongest, losing a lot of its momentum by keeping Chuck and Hannah apart, and by sidelining Shaw in an effort to keep things moving. The Manoosh story was solid, but it seemed like it wasn’t saying anything new, and the story seemed to be actively delaying the inevitable (with Hannah) rather than integrating her into the stand-alone story.

And based on some early responses, I might be alone yet again in much preferring “Chuck vs. the Mask” to last week’s episode. While it wades into dangerous waters with its engagement with romantic entanglements, it uses that drama to its advantage, and crafts a story that sells some pretty important transition points as the show heads into an Olympics hiatus. The episode is a bit insulated, and it resolves one of its potential long term story threads a bit too quickly, but it’s all extremely well executed, and continues a string of good episodes that gives me plenty of creative faith in the show heading into the post-Olympics episodes.

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The Best of 2009: The Shows of the Year

The Shows of the Year

December 21st, 2009

When you’re selecting the Top 10 shows of the year, you reach the point where you have to ask yourself: what would the year have been like if this show hadn’t been on the air?

And this criteria oddly kept a few shows off this list that I thought would have been here, shows which felt like they made a fairly substantial impact at the time but eventually felt defined more by a single episode than by the season as a whole, or by a single performer rather than the entire ensemble. And then there were shows which I love, shows that hold a special place in my heart and held special places within my End of Decade retrospective, but delivered seasons this calendar year which felt as if they were relying on rather than building on previous success. And then there were shows that I know are objectively better than some of the series which are on this list, but yet never felt integral to the year in television as we know it, that never felt as if they had made an impact on my experience with this medium over the past twelve months. Throw in the shows I just don’t watch, and those which just barely missed the cut despite meeting my criteria, and I’m sure there’s plenty of shows which you would contend should have a place on this list.

However, the shows on this list are a reflection of what was a really great year in television, a year where shows with intense fan support proved to withstand critical scrutiny and where shows with strong reputations delivered seasons that demonstrated intense control over their characters and their journeys. It was also a year where we recognize the joys of the Sophomore Season, where a network shows enough faith in a series to give it a second kick at the can and is rewarded with a creative explosion impossible to ignore. And it was also a year where, according to the list below, the network with the worst track record somehow managed to be affiliated with five of the best shows on television, demonstrating that there are some shows capable of transcending industry finagling to simply be great television.

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When Worlds Converge: Futures of Entertainment at Cultural Learnings

One of the reasons I write about television is in order to engage with a larger community of both television viewers and television critics. While there is no doubt a personal desire to consider the medium more carefully nearly every day, it’s also about contributing to a broader critical discourse on television that extends from traditional critics to television bloggers to message board commenters.

However, one of the things that has been missing within my academic experience (which is only rarely a topic of discussion on the blog, as regular readers will know) is that same sense of community when it comes to analyzing television. Working within an English department as an island of television studies has made me more defensive than I’d like to admit, and while being forced to justify my projects has helped shape my perspectives on television it has also led to a lack of considerable outside input.

So, this weekend was one of those moments where my current academic work was put on hold as I took advantage of the wonders of Twitter to participate from afar in discussions occurring during Futures of Entertainment 4, a conference hosted by MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium and designed to engage scholars and industry figures in discussions about, well, the future of entertainment. And, as lame as it sounds, it really did feel like a convergence of my academic interest in television and my work here at Cultural Learnings. While the discussions used theoretical ideas that are uncommon in television criticism, the conversation always went beyond theory to application, with panel members including representatives from the BBC and from companies that actually produce the types of content being discussed.

The resulting conversationswere  different from what I’m used to but not entirely foreign: there was a lengthy discussion about Joss Whedon’s future in television considering Dollhouse’s cancellation, and while the discussion jettisoned subjective analysis of the series it nonetheless considered the potential of online business models and the changing metrics networks use to determine a series’ fate, the same types of things that critics and bloggers alike have been discussing since the show was axed. It was one of many conversations that made me both appreciative of the chance to contribute to the amazing discussion between these top academic/industry minds in Cambridge and extremely proud to be part of a similar sort of community through my regular reviews and analysis here at Cultural Learnings each day.

As a result, I wanted to be able to reflect the convergence of sorts between the two worlds, so I put together a series of “FOE4 Musings” that focus on shows/situations I cover here on the blog from some new perspectives inspired by the crosstalk on Twitter during the conference.

Chuck vs. Fan Management vs. Fan Facilitation analyzed the failure of NBC, in the wake of the “Save Chuck” campaign, to leverage this fan support in a substantial fashion, inspired by a distinction made between management and facilitation by Henry Jenkins.

Glee and the Limitations of Reality Competition Narrative analyzed the degree to which Glee’s storytelling, along with its business strategy, refers to the successful formula of American Idol, inspired by a tweet from Ivan Askwith.

AMC’s The Prisoner and Transmedia Participation analyzed the potential for transmedia storytelling within AMC’s remake, and the ways the show’s schedule/writing worked against audience expectations, inspired by the panel on Transmedia play.

These articles are also all collected on the new “Articles” page, where readers old and new can visit (or revisit) some of the broad pieces of analysis that I’ve written over the past three years here at Cultural Learnings.

I don’t pretend that any of these pieces from this weekend are comprehensive, but they allowed me to consider some subjects common to the blog in a new light, and I can only hope that they stimulate 1/1000th of the discussion that some of the tweets from this weekend did. Any comments, from both old and new readers alike, are more than welcome.

I want to thank everyone who took part in the conversation at FOE4 for helping create a really fantastic experience that offered me far more inspiration than could be put into three posts; I can only hope that I’ll be able to attend FOE5 in person, and be able to offer more considerable insight into these fascinating discussions.

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An Obligatory “State of NBC” Post: Chuck, Jay and Trouble in Southland

nbc-logosmallAs I was getting back from vacation in New York City (there’s some photos of the trip on Flickr), a number of news pieces hit in regards to NBC, easily the most maligned network at the moment. Part of me almost pities the network, to be honest with you: going into this season, every critic was anxious to tear apart the Jay Leno experiment and almost looking for the network to fail. I don’t think this is entirely unfair, as they have ushered in an environment where television drama has become an endangered species on one of the networks, but I think that it meant that NBC was in the public eye in a way that makes this all seem that much more dramatic.

It was ultimately worse than critics could have imagined, and perhaps the worst case scenario for NBC. Jay is getting about the ratings he needs to be considered profitable but well below what he needs to be considered a “success” by any other metric, and the network has all but imploded around him. Outside of reality, which remains buoyed by The Biggest Loser, the network’s dramas (both new and old) are flatlining in a way that no one could have imagined. While Law & Order wasn’t expected to pop on Friday nights, no one expected its spinoff, Special Victims Unit, to implode on Wednesdays. While Heroes’ slide into the ratings basement has been on display for over a year, dragging Trauma into the grave is predictable but nonetheless tragic. Even the Thursday lineup, one that I genuinely love, feels in some way tainted as Parks and Recreation and Community struggle to find viewers. And, of course, to top it all off the network chose to cancel Southland before even airing its second season premiere.

It’s created a network that feels legitimately toxic, an environment that midseason shows like Chuck are going to be forced to wade into. So, when news broke of Chuck potentially being rushed in at the end of October, it seemed like a desperate move for the network to reverse the critical slide by re-introducing a show that we critical folk love. And, for all of my love for the series (I did just purchase a Jeffster t-shirt, after all), I have to say it: I don’t want it to come back this way.

No good can come of it.

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The Cancelled and the Underrepresented: The 2009 Creative Arts Emmy Awards

Emmy2009Title

The Cancelled and the Underrepresented

The 2009 Creative Arts Emmy Awards

For those who aren’t particularly interested in the seedy underbelly of the Emmy Awards process, the Creative Arts Emmys aren’t particularly interesting. Generally, the awards tend to be a bit more scattershot than the main awards, meaning that few “favourite” shows take victories and thus there isn’t a lot of mainstream attention generated by them. However, more and more each year there’s interest in terms of smaller shows getting a chance to shine in awards not deemed worthy for network television consumption, and more importantly for us pundits there’s a chance to see if there are any trends emerging (as tenuous as any trend can be when different voting bodies determine each set of awards).

Complete Winners List – 2009 Creative Arts Emmys

This year, through the joys of Twitter, I was able to both share the news of various winners and be able to get some response (from Todd VanDerWerff, Alan Sepinwall, and in particular Jaime Weinman), which resulted in some interesting discussion. So, to kind of pick up on that, here’s a few of the key areas of interest from the awards that made me pause either out of interest, excitement or concern.

Pushing Daisies wins Big, Still Cancelled

The Emmys were never Pushing Daisies’ problem: although the show wasn’t able to garner a nomination as a series in its first season, it did grab nominations for Lee Pace and Kristin Chenoweth, as well as some attention in the creative arts categories. This year, though, the show received a really fitting swan song as it picked up three awards (art direction, costumes and makeup), showing that even in an ill-fated and shortened season the show was noticed by voters in terms of its craftsmanship. The show has now won six Emmys total (picking up trophies for Directing, Music Composition and Editing last year), which helps cement the show’s legacy as a wonderful if tragic moment in television history.

Battlestar Galactica finds Mixed Bag in Final Year

After two back to back wins in Visual Effects, and a hugely effects-driven finale, one would have expected the show to dominate in that category. However, to my shock at least, Heroes picked up the Special Visual Effects award for the first time, although BSG didn’t go home empty handed. Spreading the love around, the show picked up the award for sound editing, which is well deserved if not quite the award one would have expected them to be contending as closely for. Either way, it’s great to see another part of the show’s great team behind the scenes pick up an award, and its unfortunate that areas where the show should have contended (See: Bear McCreary’s amazing scoring work) were uncontested.

Changes Wreak Havoc on Comedy Guest Acting

Of the changes made to the Emmys this year, the one that sort of slipped under the radar (and didn’t face a lot of pressure from any particular group) is the elimination of the individual performance in a variety/comedy/music special/series. This was the category that Stephen Colbert infamously lost to Barry Manilow, and in which musical performers, talk show hosts, and (most interesting for our purposes) Saturday Night Live hosts contended.

This year, both Tina Fey and Justin Timberlake won awards for their appearances on Saturday Night Live, and in both instances it raises some really interesting questions. Now, in Fey’s case, this actually was a guest performance: she wasn’t the host in that episode, and her stint as Sarah Palin really was a guest spot (albeit in the really strange variety show format, which would have put her in the old category especially since they submitted a clip show of ALL of her appearances). However, Timberlake’s win is an example of something that would certainly have remained in the Variety Performance award, which makes for an interesting test case. Considering how much of each individual episode an SNL host is in, I think it’s a strange comparison with other guest stars, and I can see why voters would lean towards Timberlake in comparison with the other contenders.

It just raises the question of whether the loss of that category has now opened the door for the more showy SNL roles to elbow out some more complex supporting work on the comedy side of things…although, realistically, they probably would have given it to the oldest possible nominee if not to them, so I’d still be complaining. Although, what else is new?

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2009 Emmy Award Predictions: Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Emmy2009Title

Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Predictions

There is no category at the Emmys that will be less contentious in terms of deciding the nominees than this one, where a number of current favourites, a few old favourites, and one newcomer are going to duke it out: there’s six slots available, and I’d tend to argue that there’s really only seven contenders, making for a disappointing wakeup call for one individual.

Returning to the category will be four of five of last year’s nominees: Lee Pace rode a lot of popular support for Pushing Daisies last year, but shows that were canceled in December aren’t going to make it to the Emmys nine months later. This leaves Charlie Sheen, Steve Carell, Tony Shalhoub and winner Alec Baldwin, a competitive group (although my money’s still on Baldwin).

The two remaining spots are really divided between three people. First, you have previous favourites Zach Braff and David Duchovony. In the latter case, Duchovony was expected to get a nomination last year but failed to make the category; if the voters were supportive of him but the panels didn’t like his morally corrupt character on Californication, he could make it in this time around. Braff, meanwhile, got a tearful sendoff on Scrubs this season, and his fame coupled with the show’s return in quality could make him a contender (if not the show itself, which was off the radar for too long).

They’re likely duking it out for one spot, however, since Jim Parsons is the talk of the category. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to beat out Carell and Baldwin, but Parsons has been delivering an absolutely amazing performance on The Big Bang Theory, equally broad and nuanced in a way that indicates a real talent. The show around him is rarely as good as his ability, but the way he manages to bring humanity to this cold and unfeeling character is noticeable even for non-fans of the show, a quality that makes him a definite dark horse and a likely nominee (he’s announcing the nominees, after all).

This all doesn’t leave much room for even any other competitors: while I could cheer for Zachary Levi, Chuck was definitely a critics’ darling more than it was an industry darling, and outside of a left-field guest star nod for Chevy Chase the show won’t connect with voters.

Predictions for Lead Actor in a Comedy

  • Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”)
  • Steve Carell (“The Office”)
  • David Duchovony (“Californication”)
  • Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”)
  • Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”)
  • Charlie Sheen (“Two and a Half Men”)

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Chuck Me Mondays: Season One, Episode Three – “Chuck vs. the Tango”

chucktitle

“Chuck vs. the Tango”

Season One, Episode Three

In its pilot, Chuck was a show with a great deal of potential. In its second episode, it was a show that still hadn’t quite pieced together its dynamic. And, when it first aired in 2007, I won’t tell a lie: through two episodes I was not quite sold.

And then came “Chuck vs. the Tango,” an episode that is the earliest sign of the show that this would eventually become. It’s the moment when the Nerd Herd would come into its own as a legitimate source of comedy and antics, when Chuck would enter the field as Charles Carmichael, and when nearly every sphere of the series would come into its own simultaneously.

In revisiting the episode, and revisiting my own comments, it is clear that this is the moment that I officially made the leap from an interested party to an outright fan of Chuck Bartowski and the world that surrounds him.

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