Sinking Ships: Chuck Versus The Fandom

I’m going to talk about this week’s Chuck, Chuck Versus the Mask, and the discussion will include spoilers, but they’re the sort of spoilers that ought not to matter to anyone. You know what comes after ‘boy meets girl’, right? Then these aren’t  really spoilers. You understand narrative momentum, don’t you? Of course you do. But you’ve been warned. Also, Torchwood spoilers, but if you’re not up-to-date on that by now, heaven help you.

brandon-routhBrandon Routh

So, this season on Chuck, they introduced a new contrivance to keep Girl and Boy apart, and they introduced the characters of Other Girl (played by a former Lana Lang), and Other Boy (played by a former Superman, above). And do you know what happens when Boy and Girl break up, and Boy meets Other Girl and Girl meets Other Boy? It’s called ‘a complication’. These are what they put in stories to keep the story interesting. These are what the put in stories to keep Boy and Girl apart so that the story can keep on going, because when Boy and Girl get together, the story is over.

You know all this. You don’t have a housekeeper who comes in and waters you twice a week. You know how this works.

And Other Boy is a guest star. And Other Girl is a guest star. And it’s a spy show, so chances are one or both of them will turn out to be a traitor, and one or both of them will end up dead, and Boy and Girl will get back together only for another complication to get in their way (or the show will get cancelled). And everyone waiting for Boy and Girl to finally get together once and for all can enjoy the long ache of deferred gratification, which is what a story is. Love stories, horror stories, adventure stories, war stories, comedies; they all rely on tension. Stories happen in the gap between expectation and fulfilment.

You know all this, because no-one sews your gloves to a long piece of string and feeds the string through the arms of your coat.

But certain fans of Chuck don’t seem to know this. TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall blogged about the latest episode, in which Chuck attempted to steal a mask of Alexander that blatantly looked like a mask of Agamemnon (travesty), and fans of the show revolted. But not about the historically  inaccurate mask, which would have been understandable; about the Other Boy and Other Girl thing.

Talk on Sepinwall’s blog is of how these plot developments have destroyed the show or torn out its heart; “that was the worst episode ever they killed the characters” (sic). One commentor (or possibly the same one - a lot of the negative comments are anonymous) even suggested a boycott, employing what must be history’s worst invocation of Howard Beale’s, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. (Beale’s cry is against the complacency of comfort represented by the pablum on TV; this anonymous fan is crying out to be pandered to by his or her television set. “Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything.”)


The coy nickname for these people is ’shippers’, meaning cheerleaders for a specific fictional relationship. Sometimes they cheer for relationships that are unlikely to ever happen - Wilson and House in House - and sometimes for relationships that are guaranteed to happen - Boy and Girl in Chuck. Either way, they’re usually nutty fundamentalists, with the former category sometimes insisting that their imagined relationship must happen, and the latter so protective of their promised happy ending that they would rather kill the show they love - as a successful boycott would do - than let the story play out.

Take, for example, Ugly Betty. With Ugly Betty officially cancelled, some of that’s show’s fans are adamant that Betty and her boss, Daniel, absolutely have to get together. One even suggested that the characters are contractually obliged to fall in love, because it’s what happened in other versions of the show (adapted from a Colombian telenovela). It’s not impossible that the hook-up could happen in the show’s last remaining episodes, but Ugly Betty long ago abandoned any attempt to play with that relationship as a will-they-won’t-they, because the two actors clicked better as friends than as potential lovers. They are not Boy and Girl.

Then there’s Torchwood, which never quite seemed sure how it wanted to handle its Boy-Meets-Boy romance until the time came to kill off one of the characters, at which point we found out it was a tragic love story. This lead a lot of rabid fans to promise a boycott, or to campaign for the character’s ressurection, and those bruises don’t seem to have faded yet. Boy has since flirted with Some Other Boy, and fans are furious about that as well, as if the character must forever remain chaste in memory of his one lost love, who was really only ever presented as a notch on his bedpost.

Now, I grant you that the death was written in a cheap, pointless way that robbed it of any dramatic weight, but that doesn’t justify the fans’ sense of entitlement in demanding that the death be undone and the writers responsible be flogged in the streets.

I don’t know if the internet invented the feeling among fans that they ‘own’ a show and that its creators should be indebted to them, or if the internet just allowed them to converge in frightening numbers, as it has for so many other fringe fetishes. The show Chuck might actually be grateful for rabid fans, as they may have helped it get renewed when it was on the brink of cancellation - but that in turn may have increased the feeling among some fans that the show should do what they want.

Fans are entitled to have an opinion, and they’re entitled to share it, and they’re entitled to stop watching a show that they don’t like. Where they cross a line is in thinking that their opinions represent a consensus, and that this false consensus should be used as a cudgel to batter the writers. If it were up to fans, shows would all skip past all the obstacles and go straight to the happy ending. That’s not how stories work. Being a good heckler doesn’t make you a good writer. Or, to put it another way; shut up, fans.

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4 Responses to “Sinking Ships: Chuck Versus The Fandom”

  1. Jill Says:

    I’m guessing that most of the mob with flaming torches on this one are too young to have sat through the last two series of Moonlighting, i.e. The Post-Shag Post-Any-Interest-At-All Years. This formative teenage experience taught me everything I ever needed to know about shipping, i.e. be careful what you swoon for.

  2. Kev Says:

    Surely everyone knows that Daniel is supposed to find true love in the form of Amanda? Surely? Ah well.

    I’m with you on not understanding the Chuck boycott. I’d have said it was worse that at the end of the last series he went all Neo-like and used kung-fu because the Intersect told him how. Unless they’ve switched to using that ability like they did the superpowers in Greatest American Hero, phenomenal power, but the inability to use it successfully all the time, that could kill the show for me.

    The relationship with Sarah has always been nicely handled, with them both not-quite-moving on, so carrying that on into this series seems sensible. I like that the faux relationship in the series has evolved to them NOT being together. My only fear is that they’ll ramp up the non-relationship angst too much, and that there won’t be enough Captain Awesome or Morgan moments.

  3. Helen Says:

    Have these people not seen Frasier, after Daphne and Niles finally got together? Immediately boring.

  4. Halliday Says:

    I have to say that I prefer Captain Jack as a galavanting Space/Time Super-Whore to a sad sack emo-dult pining away for his lost love in a wicked cool alien bar. I thought that was a nice send-off for both characters to have the Doctor give him the tools to hook-up with the piece of callback man-candy that was sitting right beside him.

    Fan entitlement is a weird thing as fans don’t generally know whats good for them… they think they want Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard to be happy together, but then they stop watching the show… and then complain when it’s cancelled. They don’t get that it only works if the END is happy… not the middle.

    I think it’s because people project too much of themselves into their fictional obsessions; they want the characters to be happy, because they think it’ll make them happy. They want the characters to find fulfillment so that they can feel fulfilled; but with happiness and fulfillment they comes falling action. There are no more emotional highs and lows… just a listless, unentertaining, and unengaging middle ground.

    But try explaining that. The general audience doesn’t think to much about WHY something entertains them; they just want to be entertained and have their emotional investment pay off, without considering that when that investment is paid off, that’s it… you’re no longer invested, and no longer entertained.

    In sort… fucking NERDS!

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