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The "Chuck" Series Finale and the Question of How Long We Should Stick with Series We No Longer Enjoy?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 30, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 30, 2012 |

One of the reasons I’m not a big gamer is that I’ve never found the payoff worth the effort. I cannot describe how crestfallen I was upon completing my first few full length video games only to learn that, after hours upon hours, or weekends stacked on top of weekends, that in the end, all you get is a “Congratulations” screen, or maybe some fireworks or a screen that announces, “You Are a Winner!” After 20, 30, or 50 hours spent trying to beat a game, the fact that no one comes over to your house to shake your hand, the President doesn’t call you up on his private line, or women don’t fall at your feet makes the entire experience feel awfully anti-climactic. I’m always hit with a wave of disappointment as I begin to calculate all the hours lost, time I could’ve spent reading or working or improving myself in some small probably insignificant way.

It’s not that much different with television. How many hours do we spend investing ourselves in characters and storylines and plot resets and empty adventures, and how often is the payoff ultimately worth the time? We spent five years and nearly 100 hours with “Lost,” and who would claim that we got our time’s worth? It’s different, of course, if you enjoy the week-to-week episodes, the plot arcs, and the season-long story lines: “The Wire” could’ve been canceled the day before the final episode aired, and it still would’ve been worth every single goddamn minute. You could say the same about “Friday Night Lights.” With many shows, of course, it’s about the ride and not the destination, but how many people want to be jostled and thrown against their windshield for five years only to discover that, in the end, Wally World is closed?

That brings me to “Chuck,” the NBC spy-geek series that wrapped up its run on Friday with its 91st episode (that’s 64 hours, without commercials). It’s one of the many shows that people like myself — somewhat OCD television junkies — often stick with even after we’ve stopped enjoying it on a week to week basis because we want to see how it ends (there are others who are still suffering “Fringe,” as we speak, those poor souls). It’s an affliction that many of us suffer, and rarely is the effort worth the payoff. “Six Feet Under” is one of the few series that comes to mind as an exception: After a brutal third and fourth season (the dark Lili Taylor years), “Six Feet Under” bounced back with a strong fifth season and a finale so good that it wiped away most of our memories of Nate’s first wife.

“Chuck” of course isn’t even capable of those heights. But the question is: Was it worth it? Did the finale justify our investment in weak fourth and fifth seasons (and, to a lesser extent, the third season)?

Of course not. But do I regret that time wasted?

Not really. Because it was a strong finale, all the moreso because I had been so fully invested in the characters that I felt their victories and heartaches. Yes, the show reset twice a season, and and the episodic nature of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship was frustrating as hell (one episode on moving in together, another episode on buying an engagement ring, then an episode on the bachelor party, and another on the gift registry, etc., etc.) But the show was always very good at wrapping up seasons (or half seasons), which allowed it to trick (fewer and fewer of) us into soldiering on because, while the middle episodes were rarely worth the effort, the mini-payoffs along the way kept the investment/reward experience on the black side of the ledger, if only barely.

So, how did it end? After Sarah had her memories wiped clean by the Intersect and lost all knowledge of her marriage to Chuck, Chuck set about winning the cold, dispassionate spy-Sarah back while keeping the intersect out of the hands of one final villain. Thanks to a show-stopping orchestral performance of ah-ha’s “Take on Me” by Jeffster, the day was saved, Morgan moved in with Alex, Casey went in search of his one true love, and Jeffster left to be huge stars in Germany (but not before one final hokey homage to Subway).

Did Sarah get her memories back? That’s the part that divided audiences: Those who wanted the pat, happy ending with the bow and tassels were probably disappointed with the ambiguity. But I was pleased, pleased that the showrunners had the guts to go out on a sweet but melancholy final note. The house with the white picket fence, the kids, and the end of their spying careers that the show alluded to all season long didn’t arrive. Instead, and in keeping with the shows traditions, we got another reset. Chuck and Sarah will have to start all over. Morgan and Alex embark on a new stage of their relationship, and a softer, more emotionally vulnerable Casey is in the wind.

It was, ultimately, satisfactorily unsatisfying. Would I watch it again, if I knew where it led us? Probably not. I probably would’ve quit midway through the third season. But on the other hand, I don’t feel ripped off or cheated. There were enough solid episodes (and Yvonne Strahovski wardrobe highlights) along the way to keep it just interesting enough to reward the investment.

What did you think? How many of you made it to the end? What other shows have you stuck with long after you stopped enjoying them? What are your regrets? Are there other shows besides “Six Feet Under” that ultimately bounced back and rewarded your investment in weak seasons?

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.