September 24, 2007 Jill

Chuck and Journeyman compare nicely.

  • Both are about men who get superpowers: Chuck gets national secrets downloaded into his brain and Journeyman’s Dan can time travel.
  • Both pilots take a familiar form: One storyline introduces the series premise or season arc (the A-story) and the second covers a mystery of the week (B-story).

Then again, they’re very different shows, in terms of theme, tone, style and the way they were written.

One of the ways the two shows contrast is in how they present the premise. In Journeyman, it is a big mystery that you and Dan have to figure out. Chuck makes the whole complicated thing incredibly easy to understand and puts you ahead of Chuck in terms of knowing what’s going on. Both techniques work well for their respective shows.

Chuck, written by series creators Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz, runs on a comedy engine, with some beautifully executed action to get your adrenalin flowing between laughs.

The comedy brings with it a few techniques I haven’t seen since I’ve been breaking down shows for this blog.

Fedak and Schwartz set up a scene that offers Chuck a natural opportunity to talk about himself: meeting girls at a party. While Chuck babbles on about a lost love and the perfect college roommate who stole her, the women he’s just met grow less and less interested and wander away. We’ve got the comedy action taking the edge off the exposition.

Another technique I don’t see a lot in hour long pilots is the inter cut and in the Chuck pilot it’s used three times. First, we inter cut between Chuck at the party and ex-roommate Bryce Larkin stealing government secrets. Later there’s an inter cut between Chuck and Sarah each preparing for their date in different ways. In the tag, we cut between Chuck and Sarah on the beach discussing how this going to work and Chuck resuming his normal life.

The works well for comedy since it allows you to place contrasting moments side by side.

The inter cut sequence in act one also picks up the story pace. Chuck droning on sadly about the girl he lost is a funny scene. But it’s pretty slow moving for the very beginning of a pilot episode. But it with the comedic action sequence of Larkin’s escape and it works beautifully.

Another remarkable thing about this pilot is its use of filmic language. Flashing series of images represent the stolen government sequences and Chuck’s brain processing them. It saves a heck of a lot potentially agonizing dialogue. At Buy More, the big box store where Chuck works, they use the banks of television screens to great effect and near the end of the episode there’s a musical gag involving Chuck’s pal Morgan and the overblown underscoring.

Also from the comedy toolbox is the technique of putting the audience ahead of the lead character. We’re privy to what’s going on at the CIA and NSA while Chuck is not. Fedak and Schwartz wring lots of comedy out this. Chuck thinks he’s dancing with the very sexy Sarah, we know she’s throwing daggers at the NSA at the same time.

In Journeyman the POV is split the other way. The audience and the lead character Dan know more than the other characters — we know he’s time traveling and they think he’s on drugs. In my opinion, it didn’t work. It didn’t create drama when the friends staged an intervention because we the audience knew they were wrong.

At 30:14, we find what seems to be the statement of theme.


Listen to me, Chuck, those men will hurt you. They’re from the NSA and they’re after you.


Me? why me? I’m nobody. I’m the supervisor of a nerd herd at a buy more. Maybe one day I’ll be assistant store manager and I don’t even know if I want that job.

As the episode ends, Chuck seems to be on the verge of change. He takes control with the CIA and NSA. He applies for the assistant manager job and seems ready to take on some responsibility. If he does, will there still be a series? Can Chuck remain the lovable loser and play the hero too? Time will tell.

I often break the acts of shows into sequences of story. I couldn’t do that with Chuck. It was too linear. We track Chuck through a day: Morgan wakes him up, he takes a shower, they drive to work, he gives his workers a morning pep talk” Sure the story is moving forward, but little by little. The writers are going for comedy — and finding plenty of it — but story movement is getting sacrificed. No where do we meet those dramatic turns that change the story, move it into new places and keep us guessing.

Mind you, it’s always easy to suggest these things and much harder to get into the drivers seat and put them into action.

And I’m pretty happy that Chuck has a nice early time slot on Mondays so I can catch it right before Heroes.

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