Commemorating Chuck: How nerds saved a show from cancellation
Chuck Bartowski is a nerd. He works as a computer service expert (aka Nerd Herd) in his local electronics store and has not much of a plan for his future, aside from playing video games and watching science fiction movies with his best friend Morgan. His life has lacked direction after being wrongly expelled from Stanford University, but this all changes when he gets a strange e-mail from his former roommate Bryce Larkin. He accidentally downloads The Intersect, a database containing CIA and NSA secrets, into his head. Now he knows all the government’s secrets, and the CIA and NSA want them back.
The Intersect causes Chuck to have flashes which help prevent terrorist attacks and other types of international crime, which makes him very valuable to the CIA and NSA. At least until they can get the Intersect out of his head. In the meantime, he becomes part of a spy team along with two partners: Sarah Walker, the resourceful and beautiful CIA agent who takes on the cover identity of Chuck’s girlfriend, and John Casey, the stern but loyal NSA agent who poses as his co-worker. Together they protect the world from evil, but in order to protect his friends and family, this has to remain a secret. The nerd working the dead end computer service job now has a secret life as a spy.
Chuck was created by Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak, and aired on NBC from 2007 until 2012. While it was loved by many of its regular viewers, it suffered from low ratings throughout its run. This caused it to come periously close to cancellation on multiple occasions, most notably in season 2. However, after fans started a succesful campaign to save the show, it was renewed once again. In the end, the show ran for three more seasons, giving the fans five seasons of fun-filled spy action.
There is something beautiful about a show about a nerd saving the world, being saved from cancellation by its nerdy fans. In this article we take a look back at the unique circumstances that allowed Chuck to stay on the air, and why fans connected so strongly with it in the first place.
When a show is named after its main character, he or she has a lot to prove. If the character does not work, the show does not work. And boy, does it work here. Zachary Levi is brilliant as Chuck. He gives him a nerdy charm that is instantly relatable, making him a lovable hero who is easy to root for. Chuck is just a normal guy thrust into a crazy situation; one most of us have probably fantasized about at some point. What if my life was a spy film? This show allows us to experience that through Chuck, which makes it easy to identify with him. Throughout the first half of the series, Chuck is equally nervous and excited about all the craziness going on around him, and watching him grow into a more confident version of himself is beautiful to watch. He never loses his enthusiasm though, and his infectious energy keeps the show lighthearted and fun.
It helps that Zachary Levi is clearly so similar Chuck Bartowski in real life. He knows how to portray a nerd without it coming of as a caricature, because he is a nerd himself. If you look up any interview with Zachary Levi, there is a good chance he talks about video games at least once. Even his company, with which he often raises money for charity, is called The Nerd Machine. He clearly enjoys geeking out about the things that he loves, and it gives Chuck a sense of authenticity that is hard to fake. Zachary Levi was the perfect person to play Chuck, and it shows.
Talking about leads, Sarah Walker is as important to the show as Chuck is. Yvonne Strahovski imbues her with equal parts badass assassin and girl next door. Sarah and Chuck work well together: she pulls him out of his comfort zone into a situation where he can build confidence, whereas he gives her a sense of home and belonging that she never had. It is hard not to get invested in their relationship and instead of bogging down the show with needless relationship drama, it carries a huge part of it. This is also why I rank the finale of Chuck up there with the greatest TV show endings of all time. Without spoiling anything, it is both devastating and beautiful at the same time.
While nailing the lead characters is important, it is still just one cog in the machine of a great television show. Luckily the other characters are just as great. Firefly-fans might recognize Adam Baldwin as NSA-agent John Casey who completes the spy trio. He is tough and deadly but with a heart of gold, qualities he shares with Chuck’s best friend Morgan Grimes. Well, maybe not the tough and deadly part… Other notable supporting characters are Chuck’s sister Ellie and her boyfriend Captain Awesome (because “everything he does is awesome”) who keep the show grounded, and the other Buy More employees, who function more as comic relief. In particular Jeff and Lester provide some of the series most memorable moments as the greatest fictional cover band of all time “Jeffster”.
Chuck is a show that knew its audience well. Often it seemed to specifically aim for people you could call nerds, from the main character (Chuck even works at the Nerd Herd) to the dialogue. There are a lot of references to other films and video games. To name only a few of many examples: In the first episode Chuck plays Zork in order to decrypt Bryce’s e-mail, Chuck’s room is decorated with a huge Tron poster on the wall, at Halloween Chuck and Morgan dress up as a sandworm from Dune (and Sarah as Princess Leia) and in the final episode of season 2 Chuck references the famous line from The Matrix “I know Kung Fu”.
All of this made a lot of nerds fall in love with Chuck, but there was one problem: the general audience did not. At least, not enough. While reviewers were praising season 2 as a step up in quality from the already entertaining season 1, viewer ratings were low in large part because of popular shows like House, How I Met Your Mother and Dancing with the Stars in the same timeslot. All signs were pointing to a premature demise and the fans were well aware of this. So they took matters into their own hands.
Throughout the years countless fan campaigns have been started to keep shows alive, some of them succesful, some of them less so. From hashtags on Twitter to stands at conventions, many different approaches have been tried. Where the fan campaign around Chuck stands out is that it had a more business-oriented approach. A few years ago I interviewed Wendy Farrington, the woman behind the campaign, for my Bachelor thesis, and we spoke about what made this campaign different from others. Wendy had the ingenious idea to convince fans to collectively buy the product of an advertiser related to Chuck. She noticed that Subway was sponsoring the show and came up with the Finale & Footlong idea. The gist of it was to collectively buy a footlong sandwich from Subway on the night of the finale, as a way to show that Chuck had an audience that was willing to put its money where its mouth is. It is different from writing letters in the sense that it shows you made a purchase because you feel a sense of commitment with a show. It is a direct proof of return on investment for the network and sponsors, and shows them that the show is worth their time and money.
She posted her idea on fan sites, social media and even contacted TV critics and media outlets. From there it spread like wildfire. It was endorsed by Zachary Levi, who actually ended up behind the counter of a Subway at one point, selling footlong sandwiches to a group of fans. “This is where it all starts, right here people.” And it did. The campaign was an overwhelming success, and Chuck was renewed for season 3. From this point on, Subway had a really close connection with the show, which likely contributed to the show reaching five seasons.
The Finale & Footlong campaign is still one of the most unique and succesful fan campaigns in the history of television. And it speaks to the quality of Chuck that it could encite this much passion from its fanbase. It is a great example of what good TV can be, unadulterated fun with genuine characters that you come to love. It is a show that makes you proud to be a nerd and stand for what you love. And that’s as good as it gets, man.
Image credits: NBC