Tag Archives: Zachary Levi

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

Shazam! Review: A Simple Formula For Maximum Fun

shazam

When a particular genre becomes over-saturated and overdone, it’s tempting to try and reinvent the concept in hopes of striking a new chord. It’s especially tempting when so many others have risen the bar to such an insane extent that success can only be measured in billions instead of millions.

It would’ve been easy for a movie like “Shazam” to give into such temptation. With the recent success of “Aquaman” and “Avengers Endgame” set to break all sorts of box office records, it seems like this movie has to do something extreme, just to stand out. How else would it succeed in such a crowded market in a golden age of superhero movies?

That was my greatest concern before I saw “Shazam.” As much as I loved the trailer, I was worried that this movie would try so hard to stand out that it would overlook the part of actually being a fun cinematic experience. That sort of oversight has been plaguing the DC Extended Universe since “Man of Steel.”

This picture sums up the issues nicely.

Well, having seen the movie, I’m happy to say that none of those concerns were founded. In fact, I’m elated to report that “Shazam” is another big win for DC Comics and superhero movies, as a whole. However, it didn’t win because it reinvented the genre or did something radically different. It won because it followed the basic formula for quality superhero movies and had fun along the way.

It helps that the core appeal of Shazam, as a character and superhero, is that it approaches heroics with a childlike playfulness. Billy Batson, the alter ego of the titular hero, is not some jaded adult like Batman. He’s not even a boy scout idealist like Superman. He’s just a kid and one who got dealt a bad hand, for that matter. Being both an orphan and a troublemaker, he sees the adult world through very different eyes.

That’s a novel perspective, to some extent. Every other superhero movie, even going back to the era of Richard Donner’s “Superman,” has framed the idea through an adult lens. It always starts out as something simple. An individual gets superpowers, they start carrying out simple acts of heroism, and those acts eventually get complicated, as often happens with adult issues.

With a character like Billy, things never get that complicated. Again, he’s a kid. Even in his heroic form, he sees conflict with a childlike simplicity and “Shazam” captures that simplicity perfectly. The movie doesn’t deviate much from the details and themes of the source material. Concepts like the Rock of Eternity and the Seven Enemies of Man are present and accurately portrayed.

Such details may not matter to those unfamiliar with the comics, but such accuracy is largely a bonus. What really makes this movie work is how it follows Billy’s journey and not just the one he undergoes as a hero. His evolution when he’s not a magically-endowed superhero is arguably the most meaningful aspect of the story.

When we first meet Billy, it’s hard to discern whether he has the spirit of a hero. He’s no upstanding boy scout. In fact, he’s very much a troublemaker who’s willing to thumb his nose at police, break the rules when it benefits him, and run away from anyone who tries to help him. However, he never comes close to crossing that might send him down a darker path.

It’s that trait that sets him apart from his villainous counterpart, Dr. Sivana. While he’s no Thanos, he demonstrates that he’s a lot like Billy in a few key aspects. He’s given a chance to become a hero, but is unable to refuse the temptation that often comes with immense power. That failure haunts him and pushes him down a darker path.

For a time, it seems as though Billy could walk a similar path. When he first gets his powers, he reacts in ways that most would expect of a 14-year-old boy. He tries to buy beer. He tries to make money. He even ventures into a strip club. It’s hilarious and cute, but it also establishes the perfect tone for a movie that avoids complicating the standard superhero narrative.

Within that narrative, there’s a hero who makes choices and learns from his mistakes. There’s also a villain who makes choices and refuses to learn from them. When they eventually clash, it’s a flashy spectacle with simple, understandable stakes. It’s no Battle of Wakanda, but it doesn’t have to be.

The look of someone who DIDN’T get to work with Josh Brolin.

From the moment he first gets his powers to the final showdown with Dr. Sivana, Billy develops into his own hero, but never loses his childlike mentality. He’s not forced to grow up too fast, nor does he have to abandon the civilian life he’s trying to establish. Whereas being Bruce Wayne is often an inconvenience for Batman, being Billy Batson is necessary for Shazam.

This shows in the seamless characterization provided by Asher Angel, who plays young Billy, and Zachary Levi, who plays Shazam. At no point does either manifestation feel like a different character. They both wield the same childlike charisma as they navigate their superhero journey. The same lovability that made Levi so great in shows like “Chuck” help him and Angel bring out the best in Billy Batson.

When the movie begins, it’s not clear that Billy has what it takes to be a competent hero. Trying to determine his worth is like trying to determine if some random 14-year-old will one day play in the NFL. The odds are against them, but the potential is still there. By the time the credits roll, the message is clear. Billy has the spirit that Shazam was looking for and you can’t help but root for him.

At its core, “Shazam” checks all the right boxes for the classic hero’s journey. Billy Batson is perfectly poised to take that journey and not just because he’s one of many orphans who become superheroes. The movie doesn’t try to subvert these tried and true tropes. If anything, it embraces them and dares to have a little fun along the way.

It’s easy to share in that fun. The humor is exactly what you would expect of a movie that involves 14-year-olds getting superpowers. It’s serious when it needs to be, but never too serious. Given the grim and gritty settings of other DC Extended Universe movies, it’s a breath of fresh air that the superhero genre badly needed.

It’s not without its flaws. Some details of Billy’s life are underdeveloped and glossed over. There were also inconsistencies with Dr. Sivana as well, but none were egregious to the point where they derailed the movie. It simply stuck to a simple formula, mixed in a few twists along the way, and made the most of what it had to work with.

If I had to score “Shazam,” I would give it an 8 out of 10. It didn’t reinvent superhero movies or raise the bar. It was simply a fun, entertaining movie that gave a character with little star power a chance to shine. It even managed to accomplish all this without trying too hard to make him like Batman. For a DC Comics movie, that alone is a major accomplishment.

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Filed under Movie Reviews, movies, superhero comics, superhero movies