I’m writing this column a few days after USA Network’s announcement it was canceling spy series Covert Affairs after five seasons. Meanwhile, White Collar, starring Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer as an FBI agent-informant pairing, ended with a six-episode sixth season. The cable networks in general seem headed for darker, “edgier” territory, and I thought I’d take this column to examine three lighter series’ darker turns.
This past Black Friday, I bought Chuck: The Complete Series on Blu-ray at a bargain. For those who may have missed it, Chuck was a comedic spy thriller starring Zachary Levi as a computer geek working at a big box store who opened an email from a college rival (Matt Bomer) and accidentally downloaded the combined intelligence of the CIA and NSA, subliminally coded in images.
In turn, the CIA and NSA sent field agents Sarah Walker and John Casey (Yvonne Strahovski and Adam Baldwin) to protect Chuck, though at first they were more interested in protecting the secrets than the man. The show originally ran on NBC from 2007 to 2012, and I liked how its early depiction of a female action hero falling for a regular guy reversed the usual roles. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory ultimately won the bid for my attention in the same timeslot, in part because Chuck tried to go from reluctant, regular guy to real spy.
At the end of Season 2, Chuck tracked down his long-lost father Steve (Scott Bakula), himself a computer-savvy spy, who built the computer that originally stored the secrets now in Chuck’s head. Steve managed to return Chuck to normal, but in the season finale, Chuck was exposed to an updated version of the computer that somehow endowed him with kung fu skills, but only intermittently, the same way he would flash on state secrets in the nick of time.
I’d like to think Chuck’s physical upgrade was an urgent play for ratings. Otherwise, I didn’t see the need to mess with the premise. In the next three seasons, taken with his new abilities, Chuck tried awkwardly to be “a real spy”, and only succeeded because the series’ image of spies came from escapist fantasies of the 1960s through the 80s. The show’s first and second seasons worked for me because Chuck stayed on the edge of the spy world. In not wanting to be part of it, he showed how far-fetched it was, and how appealing everyday life was by comparison.
Each season, Chuck narrowly escaped cancellation, only to end on the ambiguous note of Sarah losing memories of her relationship with Chuck, the relationship that had been the core of the show. The finale hit me harder because the show did have excellent continuity from episode to episode and season to season, so I watched the whole thing in five days.
Similarly, in its five seasons, Covert Affairs went from an upbeat show about juggling work and personal life, complete with cartoon opening credits and theme song, to a darker, more realistic show. I lost interest in Season 5, when Annie (Piper Perabo) started a relationship with newcomer Ryan McQuade (Nic Bishop) after not giving her longtime friend and confidant Auggie (Christopher Gorham) much of a chance by comparison.
And while White Collar was the longest running of the three, it also ended on something of a dark note. Instead of Neal Caffrey winning his freedom and reforming his life, he faked his death and returned to crime. Is this the way of all TV? Do fun shows build up history to the point of taking themselves too seriously? Or did these three formerly fun shows find themselves struggling to fit a larger trend toward darker television? I take heart that such trends are cyclical, and it will only take one upbeat ending to change my mood.