I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that most of you reading this right now are Chuck fans. We all know the very basic plot of the show, right? Underachieving nerd suddenly downloads a massive computer database full of the United States’ most important secrets into his brain. It’s like Johnny Mnemonic meets The Matrix meets James Bond meets Get Smart meets Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show meets West Side Story meets, etc… You get the point.
As a concept, it’s hard enough to swallow. A guy downloads a computer into his brain? Preposterous! Complete bunk, right? Everybody knows you can’t download a computer into your brain. It’s just not possible (at the moment…). And as an actual show, one that straddles many different genres, it really shouldn’t work. Jack of all trades, master of none comes to mind when thinking about Chuck. Regardless of how well you think the show handles this straddling currently, in theory, it should all be too incredible to be believed and too chaotic to really work.
Yet despite this, we’re all fans. The show has been on for four seasons. Why do we watch? Unless you’re like me and obsessed with, I mean, a great admirer of Yvonne Strahovski’s acting talent, you watch the show because you’re entertained, because for forty-odd minutes, the writers have crafted a story that has managed to suspend your disbelief and entertain you. This is quite an accomplishment for a show that a lot of people who aren’t already fans have trouble grasping. And why do they have trouble grasping things? It all comes down to their willing suspension of disbelief (for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to largely avoid the question of quality of presentation, as that’s a whole different kettle of fish).
Most people have, in the back of their minds, a little scale that weighs their suspension of disbelief against what they’re seeing onscreen (or reading in a book). It’s a scale that needs a delicate balance to maintain happy equilibrium. If it tips too far, most people will be yanked out of the story you’re trying to tell and throw up their hands and go, “Whoa, whoa, back up there. He said what? He just did what? That’s stupid. I don’t believe a piece of wood can talk.” Or, you know, something like that. Ahem.
Your goal as a creative person is to create a piece of art (and for the purposes of this discussion, we will classify Chuck as art, or at least a piece of creative expression) that allows your viewer, reader, whatever, to suspend their disbelief. This is no easy task as our scales are almost all different. We all have different tolerances for what we can accept and what we can’t. We all have different button issues that when pressed make us throw up our hands, but may not bother anybody else. In other words, being a writer can really suck a lot of the time because you just can’t win.
But that’s the burden you take on your shoulders when you try to create. It’s just inherent in the whole process. If you intend to be a writer, you MUST accept this. You WILL make somebody unhappy or turn somebody off because how you chose to do something just rubbed them the wrong way. It’s unavoidable and even the best writers will run into this problem. To make matters worse, sometimes, you will just have to do something absurd to tell the story you want to tell and you can only hope that the reader or your audience go along with you (and I will talk about this in a separate post—stay tuned!).
Which brings us back to Chuck. Most people suspend their disbelief automatically when watching TV, at least to a certain extent, especially for something with science fiction elements in it. You kinda have to, if you want to watch those kinds of shows. Television programs like Chuck and Fringe just assume that if you’re watching them in the first place, you’ve already decided to forgive or accept most of the biggest absurdities, like a computer that can be downloaded into a person’s brain or a war between alternate universes. So a lot of the time, they don’t bother explaining why certain things happen the way they do, or if they do try to explain it, it’s all technobabble (*waves at Star Trek*). Explanation is not really important. Yeah, most people might be curious, but if you’re watching one of these shows, you’ve probably already decided in the back of your mind that you don’t really care if they provide a reasonable explanation or not.
Not everybody is willing to accept this of course, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why science fiction shows traditionally don’t get very high ratings (there are exceptions, like Lost). Most people just aren’t willing to suspend their disbelief that far. By creating one of those shows, you’re automatically winnowing your audience to a special segment of the population. Of course, even science fiction fans have their breaking points.
I’ve seen or heard more than one person say they aren’t interested in Chuck because they find the whole basic idea stupid or that they won’t watch Fringe because it’s too weird. Sometimes maybe you’ve managed to get somebody to overlook the premise but lose them during the course of the show because a character acts too contrary to what they believe is understandable or rational behavior or a plot point is just too stupid or would never happen. Like my father, for instance, who I almost had interested in Chuck, but lost him during “Chuck vs. the First Date.” I’m sure many of you are probably scratching your head and going, “Huh? That was an awesome episode!” I know Frea is probably doing that. But my father, who was a military lawyer, just didn’t like or couldn’t accept that Casey, a Major in the
So what does this all mean? Why am I writing this lengthy post about stuff most people already know? Well, you could consider it a good prep for Part Two of this extensive look on suspending your disbelief. In that post, I’ll go over how you get your audience to do it and go more in-depth into what happens when you don’t.
I hope you found this article interesting and informative. And if not, don’t hesitate to tell me why not. I will try my best to get the second part of this article out as soon as I can.