Ask Matt: Is Chuck the Best Show You're Not Watching? And More!
Nicole Richie, Chuck
TV Guide's Senior Critic Matt Roush takes your TV questions. Have a rant, rave or burning question about your favorite show you'd like addressed? E-mail him here!
Question: Several years ago, TV Guide used to do an annual feature on the "Best Show You're Not Watching." I want to nominate Chuck for this honor. It is almost tragic that a show, which through its first three episodes of this season has been nothing short of fantastic, has such criminally low ratings. I understand it received a full season pick-up before a single episode aired and that NBC surely must take its competition into consideration, but is there another show that could benefit more from a time period shift? The wit and goofiness of the writing, coupled with strong performances from Zachary Levi and the rest of the ensemble make this the show which I honestly can't wait to see each week. It even handled NBC's blatant cross-promotion of its NFL coverage by giving guest star Michael Strahan a decent role to play (especially with the extremely funny Joshua Gomez to play off of him). While Chuck is certainly not deep, I consider it the most entertaining show on television, and I hope NBC will allow it to find an audience. — Alex M.
Matt Roush: Chuck is as close to pure classic TV entertainment as I can think of. It's slick, funny, good-hearted, exciting, with the ability to juggle its genre elements of action and comedy in just about the perfect measure. And the cast is simply dee-lish. It would certainly be a candidate for the "best show you're not watching" title (which was abandoned as a cover franchise a while back, in part I believe because it was felt it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy), although I'd also throw Pushing Daisies into the mix as well. I've been arguing for a while that NBC should get Chuck out of that overstuffed 8 pm/ET Monday time period. The network has so many holes on its schedule right now you can't help wonder what they're waiting for and why they're continuing to squander this terrifically enjoyable asset.
Question: I had a question about the Emmy rules. I just finished watching Ellen Burstyn on Law & Order: SVU, and I thought that she just dominated the show in about 20-25 minutes of screen time. Her portrayal of Stabler's mother was so spot-on and believable, and it really provided a lot of back story for Stabler himself. So my question is: What are the rules for being nominated for a guest actor Emmy? Do you have to appear in a certain number of episodes or some set amount of time? Or can you just appear in one episode and blow it away, as she did here? — Chad
Matt Roush: Ellen Burstyn's sensational and bravura performance — complete with mad scene — is pretty much a classic example of the sort of guest performance that qualifies, and tends to win, the guest-actor Emmy. (Law & Order: SVU has done pretty well in that category over the years, with multiple nominations and a handful of wins: for Cynthia Nixon this year, Leslie Caron last year and Amanda Plummer in 2005.) You can be nominated in the guest category for appearing in a single episode or for a recurring role, depending on the number of appearances. I think you can guarantee she'll be nominated. This is the actress, after all, who became somewhat infamous when she was nominated for a supporting role in the HBO movie Mrs. Harris, in which she appeared in a cameo for just a few seconds. Name recognition goes a long way in this category, so she'd probably be a shoo-in anyway. This time, however, she really delivered the goods, and she was heartbreaking as she looked back on the choices she made and the personal toll her madness took on her family life. If she does nominated, and the voters for that category do their job properly, she'd have to be considered an early front-runner to win.
Question: In regards to a recent letter you received thanking you for the advice to return to The Shield, I ask myself why anyone would leave in the first place. The Shield is still easily the best show on TV. While The Wire put in a valiant effort with its final year and Brotherhood is brilliant (despite more than likely going into the night after its eight-episode order), The Shield stands out to me as the best show on TV for its entire run, if not the most brilliantly written drama series ever. The only thing in The Shield I have disliked was a bit of Season 2 with Danny Pino, which Shawn Ryan said himself was too over the top. But Season 4 with Glenn Close and especially Season 5 with Forest Whitaker are in my mind the most original hours of TV in history. Somehow The Shield even now in its seventh year is as fresh as it was when I first watched it in 2002. It is constantly gripping, and I am going to be crushed when it ends. I don't know about you, but this season could be the best ever. That is a tall order, and I hope that it doesn't end with disappointment. — Ben
Matt Roush: I'm not sure I'd go so far as you in my praise, although I am and always have been a Shield fan. I agree that The Shield is even now very intense and suspensefully gripping, especially when it deals with the disintegration of the former Strike Team (Vic, Ronnie and hapless Shane). But I've also found much of the plotting in this final season to be almost ridiculously convoluted as Vic juggles schemes involving the Armenians, the Mexicans, the feds, the Barn, the family, playing everyone against each other in a way that almost requires a flow chart and defies credibility, even by this show's loose standards. Still, the tension is at times unbearable, and it just gets ratcheted up further in these final weeks. I was lucky enough to be invited to a screening of the final two episodes last week, and while I wouldn't dream of giving anything way, I will say that the show goes out on a very satisfying note. It's brutal, tragic, ironic, shattering, surprising, all the good stuff you'd want in a rock 'em, sock 'em finish. And it is an actual ending, no ambiguity, no cutting to a black screen (although there is a significant lights-out moment). I can't imagine any Shield fan will be disappointed by how it all turns out Nov. 25.
Question: I am interested in your thoughts on the current trend in TV series this fall. Worst Week, Life on Mars, The Ex-List are all quite limiting as TV programs, and the reason I am avoiding these shows is that I don't see them having any longevity. How could these shows pan out several seasons, let alone aiming for that elusive 100-episode mark? It makes me wonder why the networks are bothering to begin with. Additionally, I am going on record to promote this season as the worst for new programs. Only The Mentalist and Fringe have interested me slightly, and the rest have been too familiar (Knight Rider, Gary Unmarried) or embarrassingly awful (hello, Do Not Disturb). The icing on the cake, though, is Worst Week, which is one of the most atrocious programs I have ever watched. CBS didn't take a risk. They lost their mind with this painful "comedy." The comparisons to other movies and shows are obvious (wasn't this done before with Big Day and In Laws), but the writing is just shocking, and it makes me want to get Rules of Engagement back on the air. It's that bad. — Chris C.
Matt Roush: Well, those are the questions dogging a lot of new shows this season, and not just the imports: Do they have legs? Can they sustain the long haul? And yet, I think it's a mistake to use one's doubts about the premise of a show as tool to pre-judge it. As always, it's all about execution, and eventually follow-through. I thought the Life on Mars pilot was especially good, given the turbulent development process, and even though it was almost a direct copy of the original pilot, I know I want to stay on this ride for a while and see where it goes. Worst Week and The Ex List (with its one-year deadline for Bella to find her mate) do seem especially vulnerable to this problem, though, and I sense that even those out there who are enjoying Worst Week are getting concerned at the predictable beats of a show predicated on continually humiliating its main character. But to your other point: Is this the worst fall batch of new shows ever? I'm not sure. It certainly is the least (in volume and in stimulating interest) since I've been on the beat. And NBC's lineup of new shows is easily among the worst I've ever experienced. Even the one that's relatively well produced and cast (My Own Worst Enemy) is virtually impossible to endorse, it makes so little sense.
Question: I think there's one major problem with Heroes and it's in the title. There's no one heroic figure that's can carry us through the many storylines. It's a huge cast, and the characters switch from hero to villain on a whim. I call this the Star Trek actor dilemma: When actors are on a series for a long time, they often ask for episodes where they can stretch by playing evil. The problem for Heroes is a large cast already trying to stretch, and some of the cast aren't good at it. The young women outside of Nikki are just not convincing as baddies! It's all hollow posing. I could use more consistency in the characters so you can invest more fully in at least one of the storylines. Otherwise, this show is going to crash and burn! — Gordon P.
Matt Roush: Consistency? On Heroes? Surely you jest. They were hammering that am-I-a-hero-or-a-monster idea so relentlessly last week I felt my own forehead splitting open. And then they have Hiro, the one remaining idealist among the heroes, stab his sidekick Ando? (Although given this show, I'm sure he'll be able to reverse the dark deed.) The last thing this show needed was to become even more confusing (with the time jumps and the character flips, and Linderman now appearing to Daphne?), not to mention becoming so deeply unpleasant: Mohinder's horror-movie psycho act with the cocooned victims, for instance. What is this, The Fly Returns? Yours is an overall fair criticism, one that plays into my problems with the show from the start: a lack of focus, compounded by a sense that they're rewriting the rules as they go, week by week. I still find Heroes strangely and darkly compelling at times, but wow, what a mess.
Question: Lost, my favorite show, made the unique decision midway through the series to create a timeline for how many seasons and how many episodes per season. (Skewed a bit by the writers' strike, of course.) This allowed the writers to carefully plan out their story and viewers to realize and anticipate that they were only midway through this epic tale. All shows, particularly shows like Lost that have such a mythological/ mystery element, need to know what direction they are going and when. Shows like Prison Break could have been great if only left to one season, because I believe a good plan for its future post-"prison break" wasn't conceived. However, in instances like Alias, shows sometimes have the ability to completely reinvent their premise. When SD-6 was taken down and Sydney was no longer a double agent, the show forever changed. Alias transitioned well, and that was perhaps due to forward thinking. What about the cute show Chuck? It isn't realistic to think that he'll always be the only intersect, and it's not realistic to think they'll let him live or that we'd even have a show if he were to be taken into CIA custody. What is his future? And as much as I hate to say it, Pushing Daisies will overstay its welcome if not done properly. Fairy tales need a clear middle and ending just as Pushing Daisies had its marvelous beginning. My question is: How much of the ending of a series is imagined during the pilot season? When studio executives pick pilots, don't they need an outline of the series to determine its longevity factor? I know that series concepts change particularly with cast and storylines, but how much of a series stays true to the original "writing board" of which it was made? — Ruthanne L.
Matt Roush: Lots of points made here, where to start. I only wish Pushing Daisies would get the opportunity to overstay its welcome, ditto for Chuck. And I think many would argue that Alias didn't exactly improve in its latter years, after scrapping SD-6 and going all Rambaldi on us. The bottom line here is that with all series, and maybe with high-concept genre shows in particular, they have to be seen as works in progress. Many show creators say from the start they know the general direction their show is going, and the underlying answers to the core mythologies, but usually they need to get a season or two under their belt and see how the long haul is playing out (if they should be so lucky) before contemplating the actual end game, I'd think. For Lost, the creators made the unusual decision to announce the end strategy in part to allay concerns among fans that the show would just keep piling on new mysteries without ever providing answers. I'm pretty sure J.J., Damon and Carlton didn't go into the show necessarily expecting to map out the end of the run long before it was time. Maybe that will be the wave of the future. Marc Cherry has made it pretty clear he's folding Desperate Housewives after its seventh season, and that has probably helped him focus his ambitions for the characters. At the same time, though, you'd like to give series creators the latitude to expand their vision, not limit it, if the show takes off and flourishes. (Final point: Couldn't agree more that Prison Break made sense as a one-year season-long miniseries, with maybe a "fugitive" season to follow the breakout. By the time they ended up back in a South American prison, the show had become a joke.)
Question: As Boston Legal comes to a close, would you say the acting of James Spader and William Shatner on the show has been good or bad? They have both won Emmys, but I feel a lot of reviewers would put their work in the bad/horrible column. — George M.
Matt Roush: And those reviewers would be wrong. Both actors have created memorable and often very enjoyable characters in Alan Shore and Denny Crane. The objections you hear from many critics (including, at times, myself) has more to do with the material they're given, which sometimes stoops so low for sophomoric sex comedy (when it isn't soapboxing from a pulpit) that you can't help but cringe at times. David E. Kelley has given both stars some terrific and even moving material, especially in the courtroom, and their scenes of male bonding on the terrace at the end of each episode, with cigars and Scotch in hand, have taken on an almost iconic status. They've earned their acclaim, but at the same time, there's a sense they and the show are overrated in the industry's eyes, when it keeps being nominated for Emmys. That makes the actors and the show a frequent target for criticism, especially when you consider the amount of truly great drama out there that gets ignored. But that doesn't mean, taking the long view of the series, that they won't be remembered fondly for their contributions.
Question: I remember a few years back you raving about the Dexter book series and your high hopes for Showtime's upcoming adaptation months before it premiered. My question to you today is along those lines. I am a big fan of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire & Ice series and know that HBO bought the rights in January 2007. Just wondering if you've heard anything about if/when it will actually be released? As an aside, thank you so much for encouraging people to watch quality television. Your championing of shows got me watching some things that I wouldn't normally. I think I've now said the phrase "I swear to you, Friday Night Lights is not a show about football. Just give it a chance..." about a thousand times. But I will say it a thousand more if it gets people to watch! — Lauren
Matt Roush: Keep fighting that good fight, Lauren, and I'll do the same. But you'll need to be patient on this one, just as patient as fans of the book series (me included) have had to be waiting for the next volume to be published. I hadn't heard anything from HBO since the original news in the trades about a series version being developed, but after getting a number of questions about this, I checked out George R.R. Martin's blog — which he calls, amusingly enough, "Not a Blog" — and he gave this update back in September, from which I quote: "HBO has just exercised its option, and purchased the television rights to A Game of Thrones [the title of the first book in the series]. For those of you who don't know Hollywood, an option gives a production company the right to buy a property (a book, a screenplay, whatever) at a certain agreed-upon price for a certain period of time (a year, six months, whatever). When that time runs out, they can let the option lapse, renew the option, or exercise the option and buy the property. The last is what HBO has just done. What they have not done is greenlight the project. A Game of Thrones remains in development. They're still budgeting, still looking at locations (Spain and the Czech Republic at present, I hear). No decision has been reached, so any celebration would be premature. In Hollywood, it is always best not to assume something is going to happen until it actually happens. Even so... this is a very encouraging sign, and one that suggests a continued high level of enthusiasm and commitment for A Game of Thrones at HBO."
From my end, I've heard no confirmation or announcement from HBO about this, and wouldn't expect to until the actual green light is given for casting and pre-production to begin. (Besides, it's not like HBO hasn't been going through its own growing pains lately.) This would be a colossal project, and I hope it happens, just as I hope Martin eventually finishes A Dance with Dragons (the long-awaited fifth volume). It probably makes sense that this would end up on HBO, which used to make us wait for unconscionably long periods between seasons of The Sopranos.
Question: I've been a longtime fan of Joss Whedon and frequently visit the many boards dedicated to his shows. I am finding with greater frequency links and discussions of stories about fans and their fears for his upcoming show on Fox called Dollhouse. If one was to believe the few that get quoted in many of these articles, one would think the entire fandom was waiting for the axe to fall 15 minutes into the airing of the first episode. I'm finding the opposite to be true. Most are actually tired of hearing others a panic about the fate of a show they haven't seen yet. (I know I am.) In this day, it seems perception is everything, and I for one would think it a shame for people to not bother to tune in because they've been reading for months that not even the fans have faith that the show will last more than a few episodes. My question is, do you think maybe the articles written claiming the entire fandom is resigned to lose another show too soon are having a negative impact on the potential for Dollhouse to succeed? — HGP
Matt Roush: I don't even know how to respond to this sort of twisted fan logic, that fans are upset because fans are concerned that fans are already giving up on a show that is still months away from premiering. I think fans should relax. It is almost always a mistake to judge a show by its early buzz, and Dollhouse suffers for having been in the pipeline a long while and having undergone a fair amount of widely reported retooling. There's reason to be skeptical (given the history with Firefly) that Fox may not live up to its end of the bargain, but look how supportive the network has been to Fringe so far, a show that has been exhibiting its growing pains on air, which is possibly even more perilous than what Dollhouse is currently experiencing. In a recent interview with Television Week, the heads of the studio that produces Dollhouse were asked about the status of the show, and 20th co-chair Dana Walden admitted, "The midseason opportunity is a blessing and curse. It's a blessing because you have more time. And it's a curse because you have more time. There's a greater level of scrutiny. There is a greater level of intrusion from executives. The bar just keeps being raised because there's no urgency to put the show on the air. … Being stuck in that limbo with a lot of well-intentioned executives is very difficult for a creator like Joss." She added that the first two episodes "are quite good. The third episode is as compelling a script as I've ever read." So while there's no doubt that Dollhouse is a risk for the studio and the network, everyone involved desperately wants to be in business with Joss, and my advice is to let them roll the dice without getting overly agitated in advance.
Question: Recently, some have written in about their concern that critical darling Pushing Daisies' ratings are not what they were last season. I can't help but wonder, now that the novelty of the show has worn off, if people have lost interest. After reading all the rave reviews last season, I checked out the show. Stylistically, the look of the show was unique. It wasn't quite like other shows, but I soon saw the Ned/Chuck relationship to be one that's going to be hard to sustain over multiple seasons. The premise of two people who are madly in love with one another but who can never touch just seems too difficult to keep up over time. How long could they sustain the premise? How many cutesy ways can they come up with for Ned and Chuck to touch without touching? There's the possibility of an accidental touch. What if, for instance, they were both kidnapped and tied up together? Considering Ned's P.I. work and Chuck's involvement, I think that could be a possibility and there are numerous other ways of a potential accidental touch. I didn't even make it through the whole season of Pushing Daisies last season, so after a long writers' strike and the network decision not to run the show after the strike, honestly, I'm not surprised at the drop in ratings. I know you are a fan, Matt. Why do you think the show is not bringing in last season's ratings? — Dee Bee
Matt Roush: For all the reasons you note above, all of which we've been analyzing in this column since the show's return. No one's a dummy about the risk this show represents and the challenges in relaunching it after a long absence. And while I know a show as extreme in look and tone as Pushing Daisies can be a hard-sell, I am beyond frustrated at the short-sighted complaints about the nature of the Ned-Chuck relationship. They can't physically touch — true, that's the essential crux of the show and the magical premise. But what makes Pushing Daisies such a delight, and so achingly poignant beyond the over-the-top fantasy and comedy and mystery, is watching Ned and Chuck touch each other in so many meaningful ways beyond the physical. They complete each other despite the physical barrier, bringing such joy to each other's lives that I find it contagious, not in the least frustrating. And there's so much else going on and so many other characters in their world to enjoy, I just can't buy that this part of the story alone is such a deal breaker. But maybe it is. I just wish more people would open their minds and hearts to this one.