Tag Archives: TV Romance

Developing Quality Romance According To “Chuck”

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has required everyone to get creative in alleviating boredom. At some point, there’s only so much binge-watching you can do with new shows. That’s because, along the way, you find out just how many of them turn out to be utter crap. As such, you find yourself returning to older shows that you haven’t forgotten, but haven’t seen in a long time.

I found myself in that exact position recently. Over the weekend, I was in search of a new show and came across one that I once followed closely. That show is “Chuck,” a quirky, yet endearing spy thriller/comedy/drama from the late 2000s. It’s one of those rare shows that sounds good on paper, but is even better in execution.

The premise of the show is simple. A once-promising young man named Chuck Bartowski is stuck in a dead-end job at a Best Buy-like electronics store, his future having been derailed by getting expelled from Stanford after being wrongfully excused of cheating.

Then, one day he gets a mysterious email from his old roommate, Bryce Larkin, who just happens to be the one responsible for him getting expelled. That email turns out to be a top secret program called the Intersect, a compilation of every NSA and CIA secret ever assembled. It gets downloaded into his brain, making him the most valuable intelligence asset in the world.

It puts Chuck in a strange position that requires him to become a spy under the protection of Major John Casey and Agent Sarah Walker. Action, drama, romance, and various hijinks ensue. The show often has a comedic undertone, but it gets serious in just the right amount to still be entertaining.

I started by just watching the first episode.

Then, I watched the second.

Then, I watched five more.

The next thing I know, I’m already in season two and the show is every bit as fun as I remember. It’s even aged remarkably well. I believe that if this show came out today and was completely unaltered, except for some of the technology, then it would still be a hit. It might even do better than it did when it came out because of just how well every character is handled.

This brings me to the part about Chuck” that stood out most for me while re-watching it. Once again, it has to do with romance. There’s a lot I could say about how this show handles its romantic sub-plots, but I’ll sum it up in a simple statement.

This develops TV romance in a believable, balanced, and endearing way that everyone can appreciate.

A lot of shows have major romantic sub-plots that play out over the entire run of the show. Shows like “Castle” and “X-Files” are famous for drawing those plots out over years. The problem that often plagues these plots is that, by drawing them out, they often become stale. Some even become downright toxic. A show that successfully develops a balanced, sincere, believable romance is exceedingly rare.

I would gladly cite “Chuck” as one of those rare success stories. From the first episode to the emotional series finale, the primary romance that drives the plot of this show is between Chuck and Sarah. It’s set up in the first episode as a ploy for Sarah to get close to the man who possess the intersect, but it evolves into so much more over the course of five seasons.

There are many things that make this romance great, but a big part of what makes it work is how it gets the basics right. It’s a romance that never feels lopsided, forced, or insincere. It’s also not a romance that robs either character of their agency or their personality. It doesn’t move too fast or too slow, either. It evolves in a way that feels real and heartfelt.

Chuck and Sarah isn’t a run-of-the-mill, love-at-first-sight type romance. It’s also not one of those pretty-girl-falls-for-dorky-guy romance either, although that is how it seems initially. It starts off basic. One day, Sarah walks into the store. Chuck sees her and is attracted to her beauty. Call it shallow, but that’s how many romances start in the real world and this one certainly doesn’t remain shallow.

As their relationship and their partnership evolve, each character develops in their own way. Through their romance, we learn where they came from and who they are. Chuck was once a promising student at Stanford who had big dreams that got crushed by forces beyond his control. Sarah is the daughter of a con-man who was recruited to put those skills to use for the CIA.

Both characters have traits and histories that function outside the romance. They each develop along their own path. Chuck goes from being a bumbling, anxious, often-unwilling spy to a determined, capable, and dedicated agent. A big part of that evolution is due to the influence and support of Sarah.

Sarah goes from a simple role-player into someone with her own hopes, dreams, and ambitions. She has plenty of changes to become cold and callous like her partner, John Casey. She chooses to avoid that path and Chuck is a big inspiration for that choice. He makes her better, just as she makes him better. That’s exactly what a healthy romance should do.

As for the evolution of their romance, it’s hardly worthy of a fairy tale. Throughout the course of the show, Sarah and Chuck find themselves caught up in other romantic entanglements. Sarah has a romantic history with Chucks rival, Bryce. Chuck has more than a couple flings that range from a girl working at a sandwich shop to his lying ex-girlfriend, Jill.

Remarkably, none of these side-romances come off as basic obstacles. There are reasons and motivations behind these romantic pursuits. Even if Chuck and Sarah have feelings for one another, circumstances and uncertainties keep them from developing a functioning relationship, at least at first. Eventually, they are allowed to get together, be together, and even get married.

In many shows, that level of maturity is an endpoint. For “Chuck,” it’s another key component of their romantic evolution. That’s a big part of what makes both the series and the romance work. It doesn’t just end when the guy gets the girl. Being in a relationship and consummating that relationship is just part of what makes it function. The show finds a way to work that into the plot and it works beautifully.

There’s so much more I could say about the relationship between Chuck and Sarah, but there’s no way I could capture the full scope of their love story without recounting nearly every episode. That’s why I highly recommend bingeing the show on whatever platform it’s on. Last I checked, the show is on Amazon Prime.

In just watching the first two seasons, it’s easy to see how much time, effort, and thought was put into the Chuck/Sarah romance. It also helps that the acting skills of Zach Levi as chuck and Yvonne Strahovski as Sarah are maximized through plenty of dramatic moments.

It’s a romance that helps develop and benefit both characters over the course of the show. It’s easy to root for them and you really feel it when they’re hit with some devastating moments, especially in the penultimate episode of Season 5. It also shows that balanced romance can be told over the course of a show without it getting stale, hallow, or toxic.

In real life, quality romance occurs when two people bring out the best in one another. Chuck and Sarah prove that over five memorable seasons of “Chuck.” Their love may get messy, complicated, and convoluted at times, but it still feels real and genuine. If you’re a romance fan in any capacity, I encourage you to revisit this gem of a show.

Even if the romance doesn’t do it for you, the show is worth watching for Jeffster alone.

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Filed under Marriage and Relationships, romance, sex in society, television

Five Terrible Life Lessons I Learned From Sitcoms

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As a kid, I loved cartoons and comics. I think I’ve made my love of superhero comics abundantly clear on multiple occasions. However, I had other guilty pleasures as a kid that weren’t as common. Among those pleasures were sitcoms.

I’m not just referring to the popular or iconic ones, either. There was a time in my life where I would literally watch any sitcom that happened to be on TV at the moment. It didn’t matter if the premise was stupid. I still watched and I still enjoyed it. I certainly have my favorites. “Married With Children” and “Malcom in the Middle” are near the top of that list.

A big part of that love came from how I consumed them. My awesome mother also enjoyed sitcoms. I often watched them with her. She even let me watch sitcoms with themes that weren’t exactly kid friendly. That didn’t stop us from laughing hysterically at episodes of “Seinfeld” together. Those were good times.

As fun as they were, I also feel like I gleaned some less-than-helpful lessons from those shows. Unlike cartoons or kids shows, sitcoms involve real people who deal with real situations. I wasn’t the smartest kid, but I knew a show that involved superheroes, killer robots, and talking turtles was wholly unrealistic. Most kids with functional brains know that.

Sitcoms were a bit trickier. When the people are real and the scenarios look real, your inexperienced can’t always make sense of it. Even as an adult, the message of a sitcom can become muddled, even if it’s not based on a ridiculous premise.

Since I probably watched more sitcoms as a kid than most people did as an adult, I think I’ve been exposed to those misguided messages more than most. As a result, I learned plenty of terrible life lessons that did not help when reality hit me with a few gut punches.

I’m not saying that sitcoms were the reasons for my problems, growing up. I don’t blame the sitcoms themselves. I think that, in terms of the bigger picture, the themes of these shows tend to get complicated when it clashes with reality. In the same way fairy tales and porn create unrealistic expectations of romance and sex, sitcoms present false assumptions for making sense of the world.

What follows are five of those terrible lessons that I surmised from my excessive sitcom assumption. If you have other lessons you’d like to add, please share them in the comments. Some sitcoms tell better lessons than others, but these are some of the worst.


Terrible Lesson #1: All Great Romances Begin As Friendships

This lesson preyed off my inherent love of romance. While superhero comics offered plenty in terms of in-depth romance and melodrama, sitcoms were a bit more limited, thanks to their half-hour format. It was a tough, but not insurmountable limitation. Unfortunately, a great many sitcoms relied heavily on flawed, incomplete concepts of romance.

The most common involved romances that begin as friendships. Shows like “Friends” built almost every meaningful romance around this concept. While it wasn’t the only sitcom that did this, it’s by far the worst offender in sending the message that an epic romance starts with a great friendship.

While that makes for good TV, it’s a very flawed approach in the real world. I’m not saying that being friends with someone can’t lead to meaningful romance. It definitely can. However, shows like “Friends” give the impression that this is the only romance that has true depth. Every other romance is just flat and uninspiring, by comparison.

In the real world, seeking friendship is a good thing, but using that as a pre-cursor to romance can come off as deceitful. Sometimes, a person wants a friend more than a love interest and if that’s the only reason you’re friends with them, then that just comes off as insincere and a little creepy.

That’s not to say that sitcoms don’t contain meaningful romance lessons. This just isn’t one of them.


Terrible Lesson #2: Everyone Always Has Ulterior Motives

Chief among the hallmarks of sitcoms are the conflicting motivations of the characters involved. Whether it’s Charlie Harper trying to hook up with a new woman in “Two and a Half Men” or Kelly Bundy trying to win a modeling gig in “Married With Children,” those motivations are rarely that complicated. The only conflict arises when they encounter others whose interests aren’t in line with theirs.

In a half-hour sitcom, there’s little room for characters whose agenda has nothing to do with that of the main characters. Unlike real life, everyone around these characters is either looking to help or thwart their efforts. There’s rarely anyone who just wants to live their life and doesn’t care if someone like Kelly Bundy gets a modeling gig for a pest control company.

While that makes logistical sense within the context of a sitcom, it has some nasty implications for the real world. It further fosters a mentality that anyone who isn’t helping you is actively opposing you. That us versus them mentality already brings out the worst in people, both in the real and fictional world.

At least in the fictional world, that mentality is somewhat justified. It often is the case that the people around you, including close friends and family, have ulterior motives. In many sitcoms, close family members are the ones who screw you over the worst. It’s not a healthy approach to dealing with the world. If you can’t trust your family, then who can you trust?


Terrible Lesson #3: Every Authority Figure Conspires Against You

When it comes to villains or antagonists, there isn’t much room for nuance in sitcoms. You’re not going to find a Walter White within those constraints. Most of the time, the bad guys in a story are painfully obvious. That, in and of itself, isn’t too big a problem. Villains don’t have to be complex to work, even in a sitcom.

However, if a sitcom does have a villain of any kind, it’s almost guaranteed to be an authority figure. They can be a parent, a teacher, or an older sibling. If they have even a shred of authority, no matter how arbitrary, you can assume they’re going to oppose the protagonists in some form or another.

Whether it’s Red Foreman clamping down on the pot smoking in “That 70s Show” or Lois being a tyrannical mom in “Malcom in the Middle,” the authority figures are always the problem. There’s really not much to their villainy. They exist solely to prevent the main characters from having fun and achieving their goals.

Now, I’m not going to claim authority figures can’t be corrupt. There are real cases of authority figures acting like real villains. There are also cases in which authority figures do genuine good. Whether it’s the leader of a country or the chief of a police unit, it is possible for someone to wield authority over others and not be an asshole.

If your understanding of authority comes solely from sitcoms, then that’s like claiming pigs can do algebra. It’s not just that power corrupts. In sitcoms, any kind of power corrupts and it does so completely. It’s as simplistic as it is absurd. In reality, there are authority figures worthy of respect and sitcoms seem to go out of their way to avoid that point.


Terrible Lesson #4: There’s Never A Reason For Someone Being A Bully

In the same way sitcoms present a simplistic view of authority and villains, they take an equally bland approach when it comes to villains. For the most part, bullies in sitcoms aren’t characters. They might as well be robots programmed to insult, denigrate, or annoy the main characters at every turn. There’s no deeper motivation beyond that. They’re just mean, unrepentant assholes.

Characters like Libby Chessler in “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and Harley Keener in “Boy Meets World” don’t exist to give depth to a sitcom. As bullies, they’re function is to present obstacles and setbacks for others. Giving them a reason for being a bully, be it a personality disorder or past trauma, would hinder their ability to achieve that function.

While this makes sense in the context of plotting a sitcom, it grossly simplifies the concept of bullying. When it happens in the real world, it’s nothing like what we see in a sitcom. I know this because I dealt with bullies in my childhood. It did not play out like any sitcom I ever saw.

Bullies aren’t robots fueled by the whimpering cries of their victims. They are human beings too and while few will sympathize with them, few people are born bullies. They may not even see themselves as one. There are some deeper complexities to the mental makeup of a bully and sitcoms pretend those complexities don’t against.

Granted, it’s difficult for a half-hour TV show to explore and flesh out the personality of a bully. It’s considerably easier to make them an unlikable asshole who helps glorify the main characters. As a result, it’s easy to see bullies as blunt instruments rather than people you need to deal with in your day-to-day life. In such a complicated world full of complicated people, it’s bound to cause problems beyond losing lunch money.


Terrible Lesson #5: Hard Work Is For Suckers

Let’s not lie to ourselves. Growing up, we tend not to appreciate hard work. Most of us go out of our way to avoid it or when we can’t, we take the path of least resistance. Many sitcoms reflect this sentiment. They certainly aren’t the reason why people avoid hard work. That inclination existed long before sitcoms, but they do take it to extremes that can be both hilarious and asinine.

In the world of sitcoms, hard work is tantamount to waterboarding. From Lucy standing on an assembly line in “I Love Lucy” to the over-the-top slacker behavior that plays out in “Workaholics,” hard work is only a step down from bullies. It’s something every major character either avoids or gets crushed by.

Sitcoms build entire plots around characters looking for a way to get out of hard work. Francis in “Malcom in the Middle” is the personification of this struggle. He once spent an entire episode willingly distracting himself from an overdue history assignment. While characters like him often pay a price for their slacking, it’s rarely a worse alternative than hard work.

In the world of sitcoms, you only work hard if you have your dream job. Since most people don’t get their dream job, hard work is basically tantamount to defeat. That’s the main take-away from sitcoms. Anyone with just a small amount of life experience knows how flawed that is.

Even when I was working a part-time job in high school, I learned the value of hard work very quickly. It’s a means to an end. It’s something that, when done right, gives you a sense of accomplishment. While we all can’t approach it with the same passion as Hank Hill, it does have value and sitcoms would have you believe that value doesn’t exist.


I still enjoy sitcoms. I still watch them regularly when there aren’t superhero movies or TV shows to see. While they can be funny and entertaining, they can also present a very flawed concept of life, people, and how to handle it. There are a lot of bad lessons to be learned from even great sitcoms, but if they make us a laugh, then I say that’s a price worth paying.

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Filed under human nature, media issues, romance, television

Love Or Obsession: Big Bang Theory Edition

It’s okay to love things that are flawed. Hell, if we weren’t able to love things that are flawed, romance as we know it would be impossible. It’s our ability to overlook, understand, and even appreciate flaws that allows us to love each other and the things that bring us joy in life.

That brings me to one of my favorite TV shows, The Big Bang Theory. I’ve talked about it before, specifically when discussing toxic relationships. I don’t doubt that plenty of fans of the show disagree with my assessment. I still stand by my criticism. Remember, I crafted that post with the full disclaimer that I love this show, despite its flaws.

With that love and admiration in mind, I’d like this show to be the subject of my next entry of “Love Or Obsession.” I’m actually enjoying this little exercise, breaking down iconic romances and assessing whether they constitute love or obsession. It helps add a new perspective to my understanding of romance and erotica. For someone in my field, that understanding is vital.

In the spirit of such understanding, I’d like to do this exercise for the three major romances on the show. To fans of the show, I understand I’m leaving Raj out for the moment. I was going to assess him and Emily, but that plot seems to have fallen to the wayside. If that changes, I’ll do a follow-up post. For now, I’ll be focusing on the big three, which is Penny/Leonard, Sheldon/Amy, and Howard/Bernadette.

Again, I’m open to discussing these assessments. If you disagree with me, let me know. I’m certainly willing to discuss this topic. I think, if we’re going to appreciate romance in media, it’s a discussion worth having.


Penny/Leonard

Love Or Obsession?
Obsession

This one is, by far, the most important and iconic romance to the show. It also happens to be the one that bothers me most, as I’ve said before. This romance began at the very beginning of the show and has been a major driving force for every episode since. It’s presented as cute and it does lead to many entertaining subplots, but there’s no getting around how flawed it is.

Leonard is obsessed with Penny. He was obsessed from the moment he saw her. He was obsessed with being with her, being the man for her, and being the guy who ends up with her. There are times when I don’t think he separates the concept of loving Penny as a person and loving Penny as an idea. The concept means more than the person. Being a socially awkward nerd, this does make sense, albeit in a pathetic sort of way.

With Penny, I don’t think there’s quite as much obsession involved. I think on some levels, her love for Leonard is genuine. However, there are also times with her when I think she loves the concept more than the person. What I mean by that is she loves Leonard because he’s not the same as the guys who have hurt her in the past. That’s not a good basis for any romance.

On top of that, Penny knows she can control Leonard. She knows he can never get someone like her. She controls the relationship. She controls Leonard in pretty much every way. It’s not a healthy relationship. There is love, but it is grossly overshadowed by the flaws and the obsession behind them.


Amy/Sheldon

Love Or Obsession?
Love

This is probably the second most important relationship in the show, if only for the entertainment value it constantly brings. Amy and Sheldon are not a normal romance because they’re very abnormal individuals. They have extreme quirks that constitute major personality disorders.

Despite this, or because of this, they find a way to work. They find a way to complement each other. They annoy and challenge each other, but they’re better because of it. Amy is stronger because of Sheldon. Sheldon is less of a self-centered asshat because of Amy. This is one of those relationships that makes both sides better. I’d argue it’s probably one of the strangest, but most productive relationships on TV right now.

That’s an odd thing to say because these two characters are so odd. Sheldon, especially, takes oddities and proclivities to such an extreme that anyone who puts up with him deserves incredible sympathy. While Amy does get annoyed at times, she still puts in the effort and, despite needing a nudge every now and then, Sheldon does the same.

Every episode, it seems as though these two find a new way to annoy each other. In the end though, they find a way to be closer. It’s an incredibly odd, but fittingly beautiful thing.


Howard/Bernadette

Love Or Obsession?
Love (Mostly)

This one is hard to assess, especially since Howard was such a creepy jerk early in the show. He grew up over successive seasons, becoming more likable along the way. He’s still self-centered, lazy, and arrogant at times, but there’s no doubt that he loves Bernadette. He will go out of his way for her. He will do what he has to do to prove that he loves her, even if she needs to twist his arm.

I rule this as love not just because they were the first couple to get married. I render this ruling because I never got the impression that these two were obsessed with one another or that their relationship was built on pure infatuation. They learned to love each other as individuals and not be totally defined by their relationship.

I still added the “mostly” there because, like Penny and Leonard, it’s an unbalanced relationship. It’s not nearly as unbalanced, but it’s still a relationship where one side, namely Bernadette, exercises a larger role. She makes more money than Howard. She’s more assertive than Howard. She can get him to do things like a trained pet.

Despite this imbalance, their love does come off as genuine. They do complement each other in some respects. It’s not a wholly healthy relationship, but it works and there is a fair amount of love guiding it.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights