Chuck vs the Everyman
by Kevin Rigdon
I know I’m not the only person who watches all the extra bits on the Chuck DVDs, and who reads commentary on stories like Harry Potter (yes, I read Quidditch Through the Ages, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Tales of Beedle the Bard), the Appendices for Lord of the Rings, documentaries on Walt Disney, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. I know there are a lot of us about. And I know there are quite a few who’ve taken the time to investigate why these various ‘entertainments’ are so well loved by us, and millions more. Throughout my own investigations of these stories, a theme keeps popping up, and that is the Everyman.
Originally, the concept of Everyman comes from the 15th century English literary tradition. The idea was that the protagonist of the story was to be so nondescript that every person (hence, the term, Everyman) could plug themselves into the events of the story. In modern usage, the Everyman device seems to be more that the protagonist is generic, and ordinary. By this I mean that there seems to be nothing overtly special, or heroic, about the ordinary protagonist so that the audience can feel a connection to him or her, and abstract themselves into the story. This second, and more common, sense of the Everyman seems to be the default view of the writers and producers of Chuck. Of course, both senses of the Everyman can be found within the template of the Hero’s Journey, and help to explain our love of these stories. But I can’t help but think there is something more going on. Instead of desiring to plug ourselves into the lead role as-it-were, it seems that we are desirous of interacting with the protagonist as ourselves.
Let’s look at it this way. When I first started reading the Harry Potter books, I had the same secret thought that most other people had: wouldn’t it be cool to be a wizard? Actually, ‘cool’, doesn’t even describe it. I believe the word, epic, would be more appropriate. How could you read Harry Potter and not want to be a wizard? I mean, come on! But wanting to be a wizard, going through Hogwarts, and hanging with Hagrid, doesn’t necessarily entail wanting to be Harry. I never wanted to unplug Harry, and drop myself into the narrative in his place. Rather, the desire was always to be myself within the story; not to replace a specific character, but to participate in the story with the characters.
I had a similar introduction to, and instant love for, Chuck. On a whim a couple months ago, I bought the pilot episode of Chuck through Amazon Prime. I have to admit that I watched the final 10 minutes of the last episode of season 5 before I bought it. I did this because I didn’t want to waste my time on a story with a crap ending. (I’d just gotten burned by Mass Effect 3, so I was a wee bit skittish about liking something else.) And so, from my not-so informed position, I decided to go for it, and bought all 5 seasons of Chuck on DVD. There are a host of words I could use to describe the stupendous epification that is Chuck…but I’m digressing. I do that sometimes. It’s a sickness, really.
Anyway, this Everyman concept seems to be a tool used by the writers and producers of Chuck to elicit a personal connection to Chuck Bartowski. Chuck is the quintessential Everyman in that he seems completely average, nondescript, and generic. And for those of us who share the nerd gene, this is especially true. But even though I may personally identify with Chuck, having once been a twenty-something computer nerd slacker with a penchant for gaming, and even though I could abstract what it might be like to have the Intersect, I have never wanted to be Chuck. Near as I can tell, from the fan community, people don’t self-identify with Chuck, Sarah, Casey, or even Morgan. Like Harry Potter fans, there is more a sense of desiring to be a part of the story alongside these characters instead of being the characters themselves.
Here, I think, we can begin to see the breakdown in the classical understanding of the Everyman device in explaining our gravitation toward certain well-told stories. Though we all identify with the ordinary, feeling that we ourselves are ordinary, and perhaps we long to get out of a rut that we may be stuck in, the thing that draws us into the story is the chance to participate, on some level, with these characters in the world they inhabit. While reading a story, as J.R.R. Tolkien describes it, we enter into a sub-creation with its own laws, morality, and magic. It is in this sub-creation that the characters live and are real. It is within this sub-creation, even though we are mostly passive, that we want to participate in the lives of these characters. Just like our desire to go to Hogwarts and be sorted into Houses, or watch a Quidditch match with the Weasleys, is born from a desire to be a part of the lives of these beloved characters, our love of all things Buy More, or wanting to be at Thanksgiving with Team Bartowski, is evidence that there is something within us that longs to be a part of the story. We want to be friends with Chuck and Sarah, go to their wedding, see their kids. (I, personally, would love to throw down some d20’s with Chuck and Morgan…and to get Casey to role-play would be the very definition of epic.)
Considering the above, it seems to me that in some sense, the motivation, or rather, the template, whereby Everyman stories are constructed is flawed. Without the existential reality of the character within the story, there is nothing for me to connect to. Indeed, there can be no story without the characters; just as there can be no characters without the story.
The template is flawed in that the mistake is to assume the Everyman is the basis for the story. Rather, the basis for the story is the desire of the audience to participate in the lives of these characters. In other words, there is a strong desire for communion. I know that may sound like an excessively religious word, but it is the most appropriate and philosophically correct word to use. In the next post on Chuck, this idea of story as communion will be explored further. Suffice it to say for now, however, that as the characters are well written, and in the case of Chuck, well-acted, we want to be a part of their lives. We all have within us a desire for communion, to be at peace with the people around us, to love and be loved, to save, and to be saved. This is so deeply rooted within us that it is impossible to get around it. When we are alone, or are at enmity with our loved ones, it hurts like nothing else. To be excluded from someone’s life, to be excommunicated, “is the worst torture of all,” as Casey would say.