Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Story that GETS You

Have you ever found a story that feels like it was told just for you? Not one you wrote--that's cheating--but one you read, or watch. It pushes all your buttons, your passions. The situation, characters, and complexities keep you up into the night, imagining. You finish a chapter or an episode with a goofy grin on your face (YES!), and then immediately turn the page or watch the next episode or click PLAY again to keep that feeling going as long as possible.

I hope you have. It's an immersive, complete high (without drugs!), and it's damn fun. I hadn't had that feeling for a while--the last time was with Jane Austen, maybe, or earlier with The Princess Bride. I found it again this past month in what was (for me) an unexpected place: a tv series.

Meet my latest obsession: CHUCK.



I'm not much kidding with the obsession part either. I had been mildly attracted by the ads for a little while, so one lunch break a month ago I decided to watch Season 1, Episode 1 and see if I liked it.

Oh my GOD. A month later and I have watched every single episode of 3 and a half seasons. Avidly. Several of them more than once. That world and characters was so compelling for me it was hard to drag myself out of it every day. Yesterday I finally caught up to the series in real-time, and I just want to go back and watch my favorites.

Now being a storyteller myself, of course I had to try to analyze WHY. What made it so compelling? What was/is the magic? (how do I put that magic into my own books?) So here 'tis. Why I love CHUCK:

THE GENRE MASH-UP

From Wikipedia: "Chuck is an action-comedy television program from the United States created by Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak. The series is about an "average computer-whiz-next-door" who receives an encoded e-mail from an old college friend now working in the CIA; the message embeds the only remaining copy of the world's greatest spy secrets into Chuck's brain."

It's not just an action-comedy. It's action, comedy, drama, romance, and spy stuff, with geek references. It really does a great job of mixing it all up, every week. I've read and watched so much that I get bored by the predictable, and it's never predictable when you can dip into any genre and steal the best stuff. This you can definitely translate to books.  

Takeaway: Don't go for the simple and predictable because you're "supposed" to, because it's in the genre. Throw in whatever you like best. Mix it all up together.


THE SITUATION (WISH-FULFILLMENT)

At the start, Chuck is about your everyday guy--bumbling, nerdy, not living up to his full potential, but smart. Through no fault or intent of his own, he gets an extremely valuable power (knowledge) thrust upon him. He not only has to figure out how to handle it--or how to try to get rid of it--but how to deal with all these people who are suddenly fighting with him and over him for it. Yes, it's an old story, but it's one that appeals to everybody. Who doesn't want to suddenly find themselves special, valuable, and fought over? And yet the struggle is that it also puts him and the most important part of his life--his family and friends--at grave risk. So does he want to keep the power, or doesn't he? Does he really want to go back to the way he used to be?  I loved that he doesn't embrace his skills right away and just turn into a super-spy. He's actively trying to rid himself of them, even while everything in his life is changing under his feet.

This situation does change after Season 3, but by that point I was hooked enough to want to see the character grow. It was a natural development, and would have been stagnant to keep it as it was. And they still find ways to put in the everyman theme.

Takeaway: It's okay to use an old story if you keep it fresh with new twists.  Keep the stakes astonishingly high, and not just for the main protagonist, but for others we care about. Also, I love spy stuff and powers.  *cough*

THE WRITING

Day-am there is good writing in this show. The characters are so very well drawn it's hard not to feel like you know them. Even the minor characters are complex. There are strong plot arcs that keep you coming back and fabulous dialogue. I adore Casey's grunts and Chuck and Morgan's nerd repartee. All the wonderful inside nerd jokes, from movie lines to game references and props. Yes, I am a nerd herder.

It's SMART writing.

People warned me off Seasons 3 and 4, but I'm still right in there addicted. Yes, some of the episodes aren't as strong as others--that's just the way of things--but when they hit the heavy plot arcs of family, loss, relationships, romance, and discovery of self, they always bring it back. By this time I trust the writers. Go Josh and Chris and your teams!

Takeaway: Pay attention to all the details of the story. Make EVERY part of it sing, and it will show. Have fun with it. These writers seem to have great fun. Also, don't underestimate your audience. Assume they're smart; assume they'll get it.

THE ACTING

This part unfortunately doesn't translate well to writing books, but I have to give props to the actors. Zachary Levi is outstanding as Chuck. One moment Kung Fu action hero, the next showing the pain of self-sacrifice to save someone he loves. He really does carry the show, and I don't think it would've made it this far without him. Yvonne Strahovski, of course, as Chuck's handler/love interest Sarah, is fabulous. My favorite episode of the two of them, still, is Chuck vs. The Honeymoon. They seemed to have a great time together, and I do love their relationship.

The supporting cast is all fabulous, though. Joshua Gomez, Adam Baldwin (grunt), Sarah Lancaster, Ryan McPartlin, and all the guest stars (Timothy Dalton and Linda Hamilton FTW). There isn't a weak link, and that's important to keep it GOOD.

WHAT I HOPE COMES NEXT

A Season 5, of course. I've already joined the campaigning. But I also hope the writers live up to that trust and keep it strong, keep the stakes HIGH, not just devolve into standalone bad-guy-of-the-week episodes. I don't think they will.
(spoiler speculations below in white text)
I do think in Season 4 they haven't exploited the potential danger to Ellie/Awesome/Clara enough. Chuck and Sarah are so high-profile now, with many people having seen them in action. I'd love a storyline where the danger is real and they have to seriously consider putting Ellie/Awesome/Clara away in witness protection. Before the wedding. It would take us back to Chuck seeing how this life affects his family, which is a primary theme. *hopes*

****

This is probably getting a little embarrassing now. Okay, We probably passed that point a few paragraphs ago. :) But I hope a few of you take a look at CHUCK, if you were thinking about it. Or if that's not YOUR story, the one that GETS you, I hope you find a story you can get that passionate about, if only for a little while.

I'm off to figure out how to MAKE a story people can get that passionate about. This obsession has been good for the creative brain.

Now, tell me about the stories that were made for you! Which ones have really gotten under your skin?

15 comments:

Linda G. said...

White Collar. Start at the beginning. ;)

Patty Blount said...

Best part about this post? "Nerd herder."

I'm sold.

charles frenzel said...

How could I not be moved, although I was thinking all along that this is some of the best writing I've seen Susan do. Maybe it should be the start of a new book featuring a network critic with the uncanny ability to see one minute into the future.

Joseph L. Selby said...

If they hadn't sold Jeffster t-shirts at $27 a pop, I would totally own one (or two!)

Susan Adrian said...

Linder: Oh dear. Not again. :))

Patty: If you haven't seen it, I think you'd love it. Nerd herder is a big part of it.

Charles: Thanks! Mostly because I actually took some time/thought with this one. Most of my effort in writing usually goes to my...writing. (but yes, this is too!)

Joseph: Myself, I want one of these. Chuck Me

William L. Weaver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William L. Weaver said...

Thanks for this Susan! Similar story here. My mother handed me Season 1 on DVD over this past Christmas break and said I needed to watch it. My wife, 2-teenage kids and I were hooked about half-way through Episode 1.

Back-to-back view-a-thon through Seasons 2 & 3 and now caught up with Season 4. Every point you made it spot on. What a privilege to witness awesomeness while surrounded by mediocrity. =]

Henry said...

Welcome to the family! ;-)
I'm afraid that now it's too late to warn you about how addicting chuckaholism could be...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting into words exactly how I feel about this show! I started watching during season 3 and was hooked! I spent the summer watching and rewatching all the episodes starting with 101. And while I agree there are some episodes that are not as strong as the rest, that is the way of things. The actors click, the writing is fantastic, and it keeps me coming back week after week. Here's to a season 5. Pretty sure we won't be disappointed!

Susan Adrian said...

William: Exactly! Awesomeness surrounded by mediocrity. :)

Henry: FAR too late. Far, far...but I'm glad!

Anonymous: Yes! I'm so glad I'm not the only one who gets so excited about this story.

Chuck said...

When I heard there was a show coming out about a computer nerd named Chuck, I thought I would check it out. Especially since I'm a computer nerd named Chuck.

The brilliance of the show keeps me coming back and I look forward to each episode. I also let my sister borrow my dvd sets and she became a Chuckaholic over the summer after watching them in marathon fashion. Then we got my parents hooked on it , too. (If only one of us had a Nielsen box so we could boost the ratings!!)

I keep trying to recruit new fans all the time, hoping to add more push for a season 5.

Chuck

Chuck said...

BTW. If you like Chuck, you should check out Firefly. The short lived little show staring Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin. It is another great show that many Chuck fans love.

Chuck

Beth said...

Hi Susan. CHUCK sounds fun. I'll have to check it out.

My latest TV crush is THE CLOSER. I stumbled across a Season Six episode last summer and became so intrigued that I watched a few more episodes and became hooked. So I went back and started at Season One, Episode One, and I've been watching straight through ever since. Currently on Season Five. The main character is fascinating and the writing is superb. Definitely start at the beginning, though. Character arcs do build.

Other TV crushes: BURN NOTICE. Can't get enough of it. FIREFLY. There isn't enough of it. Ditto with THE TICK (live-action version); only nine episodes created. It's campy, satirical, and totally funny and adorable.

Susan Adrian said...

Chuck (love the name!): sorry to take so long to reply! I have been ON VACATION. I am still rooting for a season 5. There seems to be much conflict of opinions on whether we'll get it, but I guess that just means nobody knows!

Beth: Please do check it out! It's a great show. Um, I think I said that. :) Your shows sound great too.

I have to admit to both of you that I *tried* to watch Firefly and couldn't get through the first episode. I was so disappointed, because I'd heard so much about it. Ah well.

Beth said...

Susan,

Oh, you must give Firefly another chance! The pilot was not the best of the series by a long shot. Some of the writing is just amazing. Out of Gas, Jaynestown, Our Mrs. Reynolds, Objects in Space...so many good episodes.

Oh, and btw, I am now hooked on Chuck and it's all your fault. :)

One of the things I love about it is the Buy More, which is almost a character in itself. One of my sons works at the store that it's, ahem, based on, and he kind of got hooked on Chuck, too. [g]