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Pune/ India, Irvine/ CA, now Boulder/ CO
Welcome to my blog! I'm Hrishi from Pune, India. I am an earth system scientist currently working as a postdoctoral research associate at Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at CU-Boulder. These blogs are mostly about my travels, landscape photography, scientific computing, book and film reviews, fitness, cooking, and science communication. Feel free to navigate based on the labels below. My website: hrishikeshac.wix.com/hchandan


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tumbling down the rabbit hole: How I came to know, like, love, and got obsessed with 'Chuck': II

The first half of this post can be found here.

Spoiler alert: A couple of scenes in S1. They don't affect the ‘spy action' storyline, but provide insight on the characters. 

     I enjoyed watching the pilot, but didn’t think much of it. It was a really witty and funny episode, but that was it. I didn't find anything special about it. I recommended it to my friend Juhi who too watched and liked it, but had same reaction as me. Next day, I watched another episode and again it was nice and i enjoyed it and forgot about it. Same happened until the 4th episode. That one had Sarah Walker and her spy friend/enemy Carina fight each other. It was very obvious what the writers were trying to do by making two tall, slim, attractive babes in skimpy clothes fight each other. I found it pretty shallow. 
     It was also very obvious that there was a love story developing between Sarah and Chuck. It was sort of amusing to watch since they are anyway faking a relationship as their cover, and then we see the real thing is beginning to happen. I didn't mind it, but it felt so cheesy, and stereotyped. Lack of evident love story between Mulder and Scully (as of mid-S4) was one of the main reasons I liked X-Files. It was evident that Mulder/Scully loved each other and cared for each other. But their love seemed to be a unspoken, private matter, sort of sacred that it was none of audience’s business to know. This cleared up a lot of screen time for actual X-file plot. 

     So after finishing the 4th episode, likable as Chuck was, I lost interest. I still couldn't ignore the silliness of the missions, and the trying-to-be-funny Buy More employees. And as I still wanted some time away from X-Files, I started watching another of Netflix’s recommendation- Dr. House. Then one day Juhi, who had continued watching Chuck, said the show is getting interesting. Hence I decided to give Chuck another shot, though not expecting much redemption.

     After a few episodes, I started realizing that Chuck offers a lot more. Even though its storyline was still silly and funny, and cheesy and shallow, the characters (all played by brilliant never-heard-of actors) made it seem a lot deeper than perhaps the writers actually intended. Most notably, Sarah Walker. I hadn’t given her much thought as whatever little attention I had paid went to Chuck. That’s what the writers had intended too. After all, the show itself was named ‘Chuck'. Sarah is just a bad-ass babe shown in ever-changing clothes and hairstyles and serves as an eye-candy, right? Just a supporting character who is the quest/reward that motivates our hero to perform. A stereotypical male fantasy, right? 

     But Sarah's personality didn't add up to her supposed place in the show. Usually action babes are given a tom-boyish personality-flamboyant, outgoing, playful, and some what insensitive attitude towards emotions/feelings and romance. Instead, Sarah’s character is an introvert- a quiet, seemingly boring person who likes to keep things to herself, who doesn’t like to show off her killer looks nor her killing action. An antithesis of her spy-friend Carina. Despite being stunningly beautiful, she uses her beauty more as mission tool, like her knives, rather than to use it for casual pleasure in real life. Also, even if she’s kicking asses throughout the missions and saving Chuck’s life several times, she doesn’t appear to be very dominating, manly or ruthless like Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, nor does she has that smirk, or the subtle condescending attitude that Trinity is initially shown to have towards Neo. 

     The closest personality to Sarah that I can think of is also the one I liked- Clarice Starling, played brilliantly by Jodie Foster (who is the only other female actress/celebrity I ever came close to liking. Yvonne Strahovski is my first ever celebrity crush, and a big one!) in The Silence of the Lambs. Sarah never gives that be-grateful-I-just-saved-your-ass look to Chuck. In fact, she is vulnerable to Chuck, both on- and off-missions. She is sensitive to Chuck’s safety and well-being, not just for his own sake. During missions, she always respects him, and shows care and concern for him that goes beyond her job description of protecting him. To Casey’s disgust, she treats Chuck as if he were her child. And off missions, she is so convincing as a shy, quiet girl-next-door with a gorgeous smile and imperfect teeth, that its hard to believe she can use knives for purposes other than cooking. She is also very sensitive to what Chuck thinks of her, and gets genuinely hurt if he passes an offhand remark about their cover relationship.

     So it was Sarah’s personality that mainly got me interested in the show. Why would the writers write her this way? Is her complex personality even planned? Or is Yvonne trying to give her character more importance than the writers planned, by acting too well and beyond her expected supporting role to really bring out an extraordinary and original Sarah Walker.

     I didn't notice any exact turning point of my views on the series, but in retrospect, I think it might have been just one scene in Episode 1.8, when Chuck goes to Sarah after his ’near death’ experience to scratch off his bucket list. Sarah first thinks he will ask her out for real or may be kiss her. We see an upsurge of hope and excitement in her eyes. Her eyes waver, alternating between either of Chuck’s eyes. And then Chuck says he wants to breakup their fake relationship (so that he would start a real one with some other girl, Lou). Immediately, we see surprise, shock, hope-crashing disappointment, hurt, and finally her denial to all these feelings as she smiles and shows agreement that it doesn't matter to her as their relationship was fake anyway. And then she keeps staring into nothing even after he’s gone. 
     This entire scene is just a brilliant piece of subtle acting by Yvonne, and great music (‘Fresh Feeling’ by EELS). And then when she sees Chuck being happy with Lou, the look of pain and longing seen in Sarah’s face is again very well portrayed. To show you what I meant, here's the scene: Though I must warn you that watching the video without watching any episodes won't do Yvonne's acting enough justice. Revisit this video after watching the entire series and you'll know what I mean. 

     After this, things started getting exciting for me. In the next episode, a desperate Sarah disregards her denial of her true feelings as she thinks they both are going to die, and kisses Chuck. And then later her professionalism returns as she behaves as if nothing ever happened, and makes Chuck say something very painful; “You kissed because you knew you were dying and my lips were the most convenient ones around, or because it was about me” to which her reply is “what happened was a mistake which won’t repeat again”. Without getting into my past, all I'll say is that this dialog resonated with me, and made me pretty upset. Also, for a light and silly 'action-comedy', these scenes were surprisingly intense, and were totally unexpected. Chuck suddenly became an action-romance-drama-comedy. And I got very, very interested. 

     I felt for Chuck- he desperately loves Sarah, and he thinks she loves him. But then she’s supposed to love him as cover. Plus, as an underachieving genius, he’s not been very confident in life, and has identity crises after getting kicked out of Stanford. And now he gets inferiority complex as to why would someone as hot and attractive as Sarah really love him? May be just because he is the intersect, and all she’s doing is playing her part of cover girl friend, like a true professional. And plus, didn’t she had feelings for a guy who’s as smart as he is, but better looking, much better at kicking ass- the very guy who got him kicked out of Stanford and stole his girlfriend? Ops. Inferiority complex increases several fold. And so he gets confused, and she doesn’t make it easier for him at all. 
     And I felt for Sarah- she loves Chuck for what he is, despite (and not due to) the intersect, she sees how truly and innocently he loves her, but she can’t ‘compromise her cover’ (now what does that mean? hint: watch out for the term '49B' in Season 2). Yet, she can’t help being vulnerable towards him, and ends up giving mixed signals. 

     Suddenly, watching Chuck got interesting(*). Chuck/Sarah were so adorable as a couple, that in no time I became a 'shipper. Suddenly, those silly missions, Casey's grunts, and those Buy Morons, became not just bearable, but hilarious and enjoyable. Extremely enjoyable. 

And so began my obsession with Sarah Walker's and Chuck Bartowski's love story(**). 

* And things just keep getting ridiculously better in Season 2, which can be considered as the quintessential Chuck season. 

**I wanted to limit the spoilers in this post, hence I'll write separately about my thoughts on Chuck and Sarah's story through all five seasons. 

Tumbling down the rabbit hole: How I came to know, like, love, and got obsessed with 'Chuck': I

Spoiler alert: I’ve tried to keep spoilers to minimum, but this post has spoilers on the pilot episode.

     This one word pretty much summarizes everything I have been doing after work hours for last 2 months. I've now watched the entire show, twice (2 x 91 episodes). Yes, in two months! All my other hobbies have come to a complete stop. Daily things like cooking, eating, sleeping- all necessary to maintain my productivity at work, housekeeping- to maintain relations with my roomie who has shown extraordinary love and patience to tolerate the constantly on TV, and keeping minimal hygiene- to avoid being a temporary social outcast, are the only activities that have been distracting me from watching Chuck!

     First of all, let me admit that I'm pretty embarrassed to write these Chuck-related posts. I've read, and loved several stories- from books, movies, manga, and TV shows, but I've never been so obsessed with any of them. The ending of His Dark Materials did affect me for weeks, but I got over it eventually. I would have considered myself a diehard fan of HDM, LOTR, and Harry Potter, but the intensity with which I feel about Chuck is many fold stronger than with them. My love for them was not irrational. And no matter how much I've liked a book/movie/TV show, I've never rewatched it immediately. Its hard to keep things rational with Chuck. I might have written worth at least 100 129 single-spaced pages while I rewatched the show, and I was (I am) so embarrassed to go public about it, I even considered posting a new, Chuck-centric blog and going by a pseudonym. But then I thought, this is a part of me, and there are several fans spread across the internet who rever Chuck with a similar passion. So why care to hide? 

     It all began with me raving about X-Files. Indeed, isn’t that show just awesome?! Mulder and Scully are so seriously professional-never crossing the line between partners/friends, and lovers (as of S4), and the stories are so logical (considering outrageous paranormal themes that dictate the episodes) that within no time, X-Files became my favorite show! X-Files is one of those rare, intelligent shows that acknowledge that the audience is not stupid, and hence don't dumb themselves down. 

     But as I continued watching, the initially-rare horror themes started surfacing far more often, and started giving me nightmares! Coming home from office, cooking my own dinner, and then experiencing the intense, dark, gloomy X-Files everyday, suddenly didn’t seem like a good idea anymore. The opening whistle started sounding even more ominous as days went by, until one day, I had an epiphany- "I don’t have to do this! Nobody’s forcing me to watch!". That is when I went back to the Netflix homepage, and saw the recommendations from the awesome Netflix algorithm, and that’s when an action-comedy which Netflix believed I’d love, caught my attention. Chuck.

     Now, action-comedy (according to show creator Chris Fedak, '24' meeting 'The Office') is not a genre I’ve watched many shows of. I remember watching only one, and loving it- Firefly. In fact, I even drew a sketch of the spaceship. The poster of Chuck, however, looked far less interesting, and was good example of the kind of shows/movies I would avoid watching. That is why Netflix’s estimation of my probable rating amused me. I’ve grown to be a firm believer in Netflix’s algorithm. I’ve liked ALL the movies/shows it recommended me. Norwegian Headhunter, French Tell No One, Brazillian Ellite Squad 2 are some examples of awesome movies I may never have heard of without Netflix’s algorithm. So when Netflix said “Our best guess for Hrishikesh: 4 + stars”, I was intrigued. Plus the show description made it sound like a lightweight fun show, which served as a perfect antithesis to X-Files. While I’ve written all this at length, in that moment, it was a spontaneous decision, sparked by me wanting something far lighter than X-Files, and the fact that Netflix thought I would love Chuck. So without a second’s delay, I clicked on the pilot- Chuck Vs. The Intersect. 

The pilot is about a Stanford-dropout-underachiever-computer-geek, Chuck, who works at Buy More (ala Best Buy) and lives with his over-protective sister Ellie and her awesome boyfriend, Captain Awesome. He’s not dated a girl in last 5 years, and his best friend is a slacker. Then one day, he accidentally/mysteriously gets a computer with government secrets, called the intersect, into his head. Both CIA and NSA send agents (Sarah, and Casey respectively), to get Chuck, to retrieve the intersect, only to realize that Chuck doesn’t have the intersect, he is the intersect. Amidst Casey/Sarah's attempts to kill/save Chuck, he helps them avoid an assassination, and diffuses a bomb. In the end, CIA/NSA realize that he’s a good guy and decide to keep Sarah (who acts as his cover girlfriend but whom Chuck falls for at first sight itself) and Casey (who hates the very guts of the likes of Chuck Bartowski, and is very wary of femme fatales like Sarah walker) to protect Chuck and use him as an 'asset'. 

    From the first scene itself, I liked Zachary Levi’s Chuck. A nerdy underachiever with a not-so-smart-nor-funny best friend, socially awkward, but not unpleasant. Despite his tragic past(getting kicked out of Stanford, and getting dumped by girlfriend), he doesn't complain much, but rather prefers his shell, and does things like running away from his own birthday party. He demands immediate sympathy, from those who can feel him, and care and protection, from those who fight for underdogs/underachievers. 

     The pilot seemed pleasant and light and funny. I liked the fact that Chuck used his inherent common sense and computer knowledge, and not the intersect, to diffuse a bomb using a porn virus! There were some good characters namely Sarah Walker, John Casey, and Captain Awesome. Some of the scenes, like Chuck downloading the intersect into his head just by clicking an email, made me realize immediately that I need to switch off common sense(*) and logic else I won’t be able to continue. 

 I enjoyed watching the pilot, but didn’t think much of it. It was a really witty and funny episode, but that was it. I didn't find anything special about it(**). 

The second half of this post can be found here.

*Almost all the spy action in Chuck should be taken with a grain of salt.The biggest plot-hole perhaps is the fact that the real CIA sends only offshore missions, while most of Chuck's missions are based in Burbank! But Chuck's plot-holes are almost always unimportant, and hence can be easily forgiven. In fact, I realize now that I fondly remember them, just like all other Chuck moments!

**Season 3's Nacho Sampler, The Other Guy, and S5's The Baby, throw a new light on the pilot by giving it a context on Sarah's life just before the pilot, and what she thought of Chuck during the pilot. And also, the series finale has too many callbacks on the pilot. Rewatching the pilot with all this context was an amazing experience! So much so that I continued rewatching the next episode and the next, and ended up rewatching the entire series.