Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Chuck vs. Downton Abbey

Throwing timeliness to the wind, I'm here to talk about the series finale of Chuck and the Season 2 finale of Downton Abbey. If you're as behind as I was and don't want to hear about them, you won't hurt my feelings by skipping this post. But if you're into it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on either or both.

Obviously, SPOILERS FOLLOW. First for Chuck, then - following the picture of Mary and Matthew - for Downton Abbey.

So, Chuck. Shame on you. Not the character. He remained affable and charming right up to the end. It's the last season of the show that was disappointing.

One of the coolest things about the series is how it took the constant threat of cancellation and turned it into a strength. Every season - heck, every half a season - the show would wrap itself up in a way that was emotionally satisfying (in case that was the last episode) while leaving just enough hook to hang another season on if it was granted. It was genius how the writers kept doing that. It kept the show constantly evolving; always changing directions and moving forward in unexpected ways.

So what went wrong in the last season when the writers knew they needed to wrap things up? Instead of building to a satisfying conclusion, they brought the show to an end about five episodes too early and then spun their wheels for the last month by dragging out the One Last Mission, culminating in an ambiguous ending that undermines the central relationship that's driven the show from the beginning.

The end doesn't destroy that relationship. There's still hope that the kiss will magically restore Sarah's memories, and even if it doesn't, it sure looks like she's open to falling in love with him all over again. But seriously? Why do I want to leave this show - that's worked so hard to get me invested in this couple - with the feeling that Chuck and Sarah have to start over? That Chuck's going to have to continue with the frustration of emotionally being five years ahead of his... What is she? Is she even really his wife anymore?

The reason ambiguous endings sometimes work is that it forces the audience to bring their own ideas to the story; to think about the story's themes and how they connect with the viewer. What kind of ideas are we supposed to bring to the Chuck finale? Am I way off base in thinking that every single Chuck fan was rooting for Chuck and Sarah to end Happily Ever After? Did anyone watch the finale and decide that the best ending is for Sarah not to regain her memory? And if not, why is that even an option? Why not just show Sarah remembering? How is it better or more thought-provoking to leave it ambiguous? Seriously, what the hell?

It's not fair to contrast the series finale of Chuck with Downton Abbey, a show that's not done yet and could conceivably - at some future point - go off the rails as much as Chuck ultimately did. It's just coincidence that I caught up with both shows around the same time and that the final scene in Downton Abbey's second season finale gave me everything that Chuck failed to.

For me, Downton Abbey begins and ends with Mary. Yes, yes, I love Bates and hate how life conspires against him and Anna. I admire the Earl and hated when he stumbled. I hiss at Thomas and am appropriately dumbfounded by O'Brien. I laugh every time Maggie Smith opens her mouth or gives a look and I'm heavily invested in Daisy's character development. But Mary has my heart completely.

Maybe it's an Oldest Child thing and I just relate to her on that level. Lord knows I began the first season thinking that she was a selfish witch, but I quickly and irrevocably got on board with wanting to see her happy. That's what the show's about for me; everything else is absolutely gorgeous and impeccably acted window-dressing. So at the last scene of the season finale, I literally, audibly cheered and tried not to cry in front of my wife. I'm not sure how successful I was at that second part.
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