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Before we begin this odyssey, an explanation, some caveats, and a list of certain exclusions that might raise your eyebrows.
When the shady and uber-powerful Outkick cabal green lighted my television concept and gave me this initial assignment, it was harder than expected to put together a top ten list of favorite television programs because in effect, it requires me to thoroughly beat down certain shows in order to put them into a specific spot. Make no mistake, I adore all ten of these shows and the fifteen below them that I excluded for one reason or another. It’s funny, because the top five isn’t a difficult task at all, but the next five shows all have strengths and weaknesses and at the same time, those that missed the list entirely do as well. It was simply tough to decide what made it and what didn’t. I love scripted television. My affection for it has grown exponentially over the past 20 years as I became old enough to appreciate the nuance, the brilliance, and the challenge of creating a lasting property with fresh ideas and a set of characters placed within a story that truly captivates a wide audience. In that way, I find the grandest triumphs in television to be superior to their counterparts in film.
One concept I created a few years ago is the idea of a “RED show” and a “BLUE show.” I describe a red show as a program of high merit but one so emotionally taxing or difficult to watch that it requires the right mood, at least after the initial viewing. Examples would be Hannibal, The Wire, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, or Six Feet Under. A blue show is something I can put on loop and shuffle on my computer and just have on in the background of my everyday life. Something like Sports Night, Monk, Leverage, Firefly, Veep, or any number of well-structured procedurals, self-contained shows, or even Friday Night Lights, which despite being very heavy handed at times still qualifies. Most of this top ten will be red shows, but today we begin with a blue show and you’ll find three more during the course of the next few months. Blue shows are more everyday products (not a slight) and red shows are the ones you don’t want to be interrupted during and require decompression time after finishing.
While I hate the word “I” in print, it’s impossible in my role not to utilize it fairly liberally, so your author apologizes in advance for overuse of the first person. You’ll appreciate me writing colloquially and conversationally rather quickly. I’m a critic. I’m not recapping the latest happenings of the G-8. So with just those few things in mind, let’s do this thing.
A top ten list based on subjective opinion is, frankly, going to piss people off. I’d be somewhat stunned if anybody agrees with all of my selections. Here’s my process and I look forward to seeing your own lists over the next few months based on your own criteria. Those looking for Homeland will not find it in this list. The reason is very simple. Homeland had a spectacular first season and in a way it was almost the perfect miniseries. Since that point, the show has given us a very uneven second year of content, though it ended very well, and a third season that most definitely had highs and lows. It hasn’t been on long enough and given me enough highs to make the list, and some people will be ticked off about that. Honestly, Dana Brody’s character is so annoying that it might not ever make the list, but we’ll see where the show goes as it undergoes its drastic Pakistan change this fall.
Also not on the list are Netflix heavyweights House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. I expect the third season of Cards to potentially be the show’s last and I’m a big fan, but in no way have we gotten enough to justify its inclusion. I highly believe Orange is the New Black, if the quality stays where it’s been and if the show gives us at least four seasons, would make the list and potentially even push into the top six or seven. It’s that good. Jenji Kohan has knocked it out of the park on that one. I highly advise everybody to watch it as soon as they can.
For the same reason, you also won’t see FX’ The Americans, which again, may well be in this list if we revisit it in three years. It’s brilliant television and the second season, which just finished up in April, was as good as dramatic TV can be. Every bit of the previous statement also applies to BBC America’s fantastic Orphan Black, featuring the best performance on the small screen from Tatiana Maslany. Just two seasons, but damn is it phenomenal. Fargo…same deal. Rectify…same deal. True Detective, also…same deal. I just don’t have enough of those shows yet to realistically and fairly consider them, but they’re all stellar.
One season wonders also can’t make the list. They’ll get their own due down the road. Just as a few examples, FOX criminally mishandled Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Shawn Ryan’s Terriers couldn’t catch a foothold on FX. Just this year, Enlisted was given a horrendous time slot and despite being incredibly promising, barring a pickup from another network, it’s already done after less than 15 episodes.
Finally, you’ll see no comedies in these rankings. It’s simply too hard. It requires a separate top ten, one that I hope to write in coming months. This is a top ten for scripted dramas.
I hate lists like this, but only because I have to leave off a ton of excellent stuff and in the process feel like I’m slighting high quality material. But that’s the gig, so here we go.
NUMBER TEN: CHUCK
It’s quite possible that Chuck isn’t one of the ten best television shows of all-time. But it’s undeniable Chuck is one of the most purely entertaining programs of my lifetime. For this list, I easily could have placed a show like Deadwood in this spot and felt great about the choice. Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen would probably call me a name that sounds a lot like “mock tucker” either way. Incidentally, that portrayal is one of the best ever seen on television. (Also, for the sake of argument…I’m pretty sure it’s number eleven.)
Outkick’s impetus for this specific assignment was to provide people with a good group of programs to binge watch and enjoy during the summer months before football comes back and the world begins spinning correctly on its axis again.
The reason Chuck makes this list is because I wanted to start, right off the bat, with a show a little out of left field and a show that has almost nothing in common with the rest of my rankings. I also wanted to kick things off, no pun intended, with something you probably didn’t watch. Rest assured, all the major leaguers you expect to be in a list like this absolutely will be, but the two programs you’ll have the biggest issue with, I think, are the bookends. I want you to know who I am and what kind of a viewer I am, because although I’m a snob about the top stuff, I love it all. As much HBO and FX and AMC as I have and continue to consume, through the years, I’ve seen just as much, if not more, USA Network. I look forward to a future grouping of the best “case of the week” procedural-style programs, because I highly enjoy them and feel they have plenty of value. Some shows almost have to be in every list, but this is my ten, given to you gradually to enjoy, scrutinize, and debate.
Chuck is the action-comedy brainchild of Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak, the former best known for creating The O.C. and developing CW’s Gossip Girl from the book series. It tells the story of Chuck Bartowski, a tech expert at a major big box retailer. It’s very clearly and intentionally a parody on Best Buy and the Geek Squad. He works in a dead end job for the Nerd Herd, which isn’t a nickname but is in fact the department’s official nomenclature. His life is fairly simple. He fixes computers, hangs out with his best friend and coworker Morgan Grimes (Josh Gomez), spends time with his sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and her fiancÃ© Devon (Ryan McParlin), and lives the life of a regular person in his mid-20s.
And within the first ten minutes of the pilot, he also, by no fault of his own, becomes the top CIA asset in the world. Interested?
Chuck struggled like hell from a ratings perspective and was consistently on the cancellation bubble, but it wasn’t a quality issue. Chuck suffered because NBC began to stink out loud with its decisions and lead-ins and had no idea how to market it. Heroes was awesome, right up until the first season finale, and although it lasted three more years, it now lives as a joke at Comic Con for people who still can’t believe how bad it became in short order. NBC couldn’t buy a hit. 30 Rock won a lot of awards but was never a Nielsen behemoth. Parks and Recreation, one of the three finest comedies in the last fifty years, rarely nets a 1.5. Community, just cancelled, fought to stay above the 1.2 line. All these shows have something in common. They’re all outstanding and they’ve all been plagued by horrendous marketing, strange timeslot moves, and a company that didn’t know how to back them correctly. Then of course, there was the 10 PM ET Jay Leno Show decision that nearly destroyed the Peacock for good.
As a result, Fedak and Schwartz provided constant fan-service, making sure to give the audience what it wanted, because they were never sure when their show would end. There are no fewer than three episodes that easily could have played as satisfying series finales. The ratings problems were so bad that Chuck fans launched an internet campaign aimed at one company, something quite unique, and managed to attract the attention of the Subway restaurant chain, which poured in a massive amount of money to help fund the third year. NBC moved the show to Fridays from its original Monday primetime slot for the fifth and final season.
The lead character, played by Zachary Levi, is the rare creation of this generation where the protagonist is entirely and consistently likable. With so many amazing antiheroes crowding the airwaves, it’s very refreshing to watch a show that doesn’t make you hate your life or root for the villain or feel no positive emotions during the closing credits. You’re not asking “Who’s going to die next” or “Who’s about to get fired” or “Who’s he cheating on his wife with next.” At some point, AMC might actually just brand those inquiries into their network mission statement. Yes, most of the shows higher on the list are all about those kinds of questions, but this show is different. Chuck is unapologetically fun as hell and that statement is true from moment one. While the subject matter is often serious, Schwartz and Fedak spend plenty of time throwing in so many little tidbits to enjoy. Chuck is, in essence, the male fantasy played out in 43-minute bursts.
Chuck Bartowski is the lovable sad sack who lost the girl of his dreams due to a misunderstanding involving his best friend at the time, Bryce Larkin. Larkin, played by White Collar veteran and Magic Mike and The Normal Heart star Matt Bomer, sets the entire story of the show in motion early in the pilot. Without giving away all of the show’s early plot, Larkin knows every global secret due to a computer program that figuratively scripted them all into his brain, something he helped develop. As part of the procedure, he watched enormous amounts of encoded data fly by on a wall of monitors in a series of images that subliminally reached and remained with him. The project is called the Intersect, and once it’s proven a human being can actually absorb all this material, the individual becomes the Intersect. The Intersect doubles as an enormous filing cabinet for every potential military and CIA concern. This would include dossiers on the worst of the worst, schematics and blueprints for buildings of interest, agents in the field, and that’s just a little of what’s involved.
Long story relatively short, Larkin gets in a situation where he’s pretty sure he’s about to die, so although (in a story told many episodes later) he and Chuck were no longer close, he trusts Bartowski’s intellect and nature with the Intersect and sends the program in an email attachment to his former bestie. Chuck unwittingly opens the file, the images flood through and he passes out, and voila, a new Intersect.
Quickly, the government learns of Bartowski’s situation and sends in a pair of fixers who almost immediately become handlers, one from the NSA and the other from the CIA. The crux of the show is in the varying relationships in its title character’s life and how he chooses to balance them. He has a wonderful relationship with his successful sister and her fiancÃ©, same with Morgan, but now, once he learns of his new reality, he begins working with Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski of Dexter and 24) and John Casey (Adam Baldwin of Firefly.) Their relationship is complicated, hilarious, full of peril, and so entertaining to watch. The truth of the Intersect has to remain a secret to protect Chuck, but more importantly his family and friends, so Sarah and Casey become part of the proverbial con. Both are undercover except to Bartowski himself, with Sarah working across the Buy More parking lot and “acting” as Chuck’s steady girlfriend to placate his sister and Casey working as part of the Buy More sales team and moving in next door to them.
Again, Chuck is the ultimate “regular guy” fantasy. An ordinary nerd becomes the government’s most important asset, learns how to operate under these circumstances, gets the hot girl, becomes a bad ass, struggles to uncover family secrets, and lives a double life. He’s Clark Kent. You’ll see beautiful women all over the place throughout the show’s five seasons. You’ll see some fantastic cameos. Honestly, the action itself is a weak spot, but it’s just the icing, not the cake. The setup and execution of various operations is far more important to the show’s success than the actual punches, kicks, and gun play scenarios.
Fedak and Schwartz are pop culture junkies. Chuck is their love letter to an audience of kindred spirits in a very similar way to how Dan Harmon used Community. References to comics, to innumerable other films, shows, characters, books, events, and video games permeate the screen from episode to episode, but never in a way that feels tacky. Chuck isn’t the deepest show of all time. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a true escape. It’s hard not to smile watching it and as you see it, you realize you’re watching the beginnings of bright careers for some entertaining and talented people.
The other side of Chuck, a side almost always handled correctly, is in the difficult moments. Things like his old girlfriend, being kicked out of Stanford, what happened to his father and mother, his sister’s marriage and children, his own budding romance, feelings of inadequacy, pressure and expectation, and a constant push to “grow up” and mature in his life. Chuck is usually a good mix of humor and drama and you should expect to laugh. Also expect to cry or fight back the waterworks, no matter who you are, at least a few times during the run.
The story is simple enough to follow but complex enough that it isn’t always obvious where the show is headed next. Its biggest strength is without question the chemistry of its ensemble cast, which will be a common theme in these pieces over the next few months here at Outkick. I’ve been intentionally vague on storylines and a lot of the actors and have left out many of the intricacies of the show because if you choose to watch, that’s part of the experience. I don’t want to give you all the good scenes in the “trailer.”
Outside of that Taylor dude from Dillon, Texas, you’ll find no other lead character on this entire list that even approaches Bartowski’s likability. You root for this guy and pull for his loved ones instantaneously and it never wanes. Chuck isn’t the show that cures cancer. It’s not the program that changes your life or sends you to the water cooler. It isn’t about a crazy mystery.
Here’s why Chuck makes my list.
Chuck makes you feel good. It’s never boring and it does run a wide gamut of emotions, as any good program should. But when an episode ended, I felt a little bit better. It was worth my time. It was the “super vacation” kind of escape. I smiled. I enjoyed it. I wanted to watch it again. I wanted to share it with people. And best of all, at the end of Season 2, the show made a drastic change and evolved in both a natural and highly satisfying way. It became a very different show but in the best possible manner.
My only caveat for the show is the way it ended, but without question, the hardest thing for a great or engaging show to do is end strong. Very few programs have had the Shield or Six Feet Under ending, far more have gone the route of St. Elsewhere, How I Met Your Mother, or ugh…Dexter. I still, after watching it live three years ago, can’t decide if I loved or disliked the way the story concluded. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to answer the question to my own satisfaction. Maybe that’s a good thing. It means Chuck will forever be a part of my critical mind.
Plenty of death, debauchery, sex, violence, hatred, nepotism, racism, chicanery, skullduggery, and abject unabashed scumbaggery to come in future weeks, but not today. Because of so many things it did right and the warm feeling I get when I think about it or rewatch an episode, I’m happy to name Chuck…number ten.