Smackdown: ‘Chuck’ vs. ‘Bionic Woman’


I’ve been forming this theory for some time now, and I’m just going to lay it on you: NBC wanted to run a show like Alias, and couldn’t decide how best to update the concept in order to make it entirely their own.

And there were two lines of thinking at the pitch meeting, the first which went something like, “We should do it as a spoof, like an edgy, modern version of Get Smart,” while the other camp was all, “We should totally provide an explanation for why the awesome, strong female spy lead character can suddenly do all of the cool things she can do, relying on the audience for a liberal dose of the suspension of disbelief.”

And those two camps broke off, much like the crack-up of the Algonquin Round Table, and went off to their respective jobs to create their own series.

And thus, up until this week, we had Chuck and Bionic Woman.

Chuck didn’t draw me in initially with its strategy of launching a show by running the world’s most annoying commercials (You remember: “Chuck!” “Chuck!” “Chuck!” “Chuck!”). But once I got around to watching the premiere, I was hooked. I may even like it more than Pushing Daisies, and, whew, I feel like I’m cheating on that show even by writing that. Forty lashes for me later on.

Anyway, Chuck is Alias for fans of camp and the role-playing game set. It’s constantly sending up the spy genre. You can’t take it seriously, and as long as you don’t try, it will make you laugh. I promise.

Chuck is a spy against his will, but apparently in this show, as in Alias, other spies are recruited while they’re still undergrads. To explain how Chuck comes upon the knowledge that turns him into a spy, we get the highly unbelievable subliminal-messages-taught-him-secrets plot device, which, in a weird twist, I’ve actually been fed often enough by ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture to find, um, semi-believable.

Chuck has a handler who is set up as his obvious impossible romantic foil, similar to Sydney and Vaughan’s relationship in Alias. Chuck can’t tell the people he loves what’s going on, because it’s the only way to keep them safe. Yet, like Sydney, he continues to live with these people, even though a double life would be much easier to maintain if he just lived by himself.

The biggest differences I see between these shows is that, well, a. Chuck’s a dude, and b. it’s actually funny–and with supporting characters who are both so unbelievably clueless about life and also over-the-top, you can’t help but find every other line of dialogue worth quoting, fan-boy style. Sample line: “Her hair looked so much like licorice, I want to chew on it until I make myself sick.” What? Ew. But also, kind of aw. (And, again, ew.)

The gadgets are just fun to see, too–Agent Casey coming in to “borrow” milk with a “milk carton” radio receiver, for one–and that very lactose-themed moment occurred during an episode when Kevin Weisman, who had played Alias’ awesome gadget guru, guest-starred.

Then we have Bionic Woman, which started out very, very dark, and with a dead fiancé, in a set-up vaguely reminiscent of our introduction to Sydney Bristow– except that Sydney’s fiancé had nothing to do with her spy world, so the audience immediately experienced empathy for Syd’s character due to that tragic injustice.

Bionic Woman continued with a display of awesome fighting skills, which were pretty fun to watch, even though she didn’t wear Sydney’s disguises–she didn’t need those extra details, being half cyborg and all. The show stayed in its original dreary mode for the next few episodes, not really hitting its stride until a real relationship emerged between the new Woman and the “original” one (not to be confused with the original show, just the first bionic woman created on this new show. Keep it straight.).

The lead character, Jaime Sommers (the new Jaime Sommers), who was not the first bionic woman created on the new show, didn’t really become a sympathetic character until she got a new love interest. The show’s tone changed for those few episodes, becoming lighter and presenting some of the cooler aspects of becoming a newly-minted TV spy. The mood had too uneven a keel, though, with very little continuity of feeling from week to week. I will say that Sydney Bristow looked like she could fight–I wouldn’t have wanted to run into her in a back alley–and the two bionic women on this series were no waifs, either.

Chuck, so far, has developed its own flavor while retaining the best parts of spy dramas—and took over Bionic Woman’s repeat slot Saturday. A new episode is scheduled to air tonight at 8, as per usual.

Woman is in a dicier spot. If it does come back, I hope the show can develop its own clear voice. As it was, it gave me a sort of bionic headache.