A Tale of Two Slackers
While any number of slacker characters populate the television landscape, two stick out in my mind; Chuck Bartowski, titular character of Chuck, and Sean Spencer, title character of Psych. Chuck and Sean are late 20-ish-early 30-ish, good looking, intelligent, charming, and somewhat lost in life. Both programs are part of the NBC Universal galaxy, and both blend elements of mystery, familial drama, and humor.
There is a significant difference, however; Chuck airs on NBC while Psych airs on basic cable outlet USA. This difference in venue extends into important differences in tone, character development, and attitudes towards authority. A comparison between the ways these two programs construct their main characters speaks in interesting ways to current anxieties about the future of television and Generation Y.
NBC’s Chuck is stumbling toward adulthood.
We might call Chuck a slacker of circumstance. Though clearly intelligent, Chuck works as a member of the “Nerd Herd” at big box retailer “Buy More,” fixing computers and hanging out with his best friend and Buy More salesman, Morgan. We learn that he dropped out of Stanford after being framed for stealing exams and losing his girlfriend to his ultra suave roommate, Bryce Larkin.
Chuck is still in the middle of what New York Times columnist Paul Brooks recently called the “Odyssey years,” that increasingly extended time between adolescence and adulthoodi.(1) Living with his sister, not involved in any serious relationship, unsure about his future career plans, and spending most of his leisure time playing video games and consuming television and film, Chuck is clearly not yet adult. But, the audience knows that Chuck’s failure to grow up is a result of his past heartbreak and not his capabilities or even his desires. He longs for meaning.
Chuck finds purpose through association with the CIA.
Meaning arrives in an email from the aforementioned Bryce, who it turns out is a rogue agent from the CIA. When Chuck opens the message he is exposed to a stream of images encoded with key government security secrets, leaving his brain as the only existing database of information key to national security. The government sends two agents to both guard and “access” Chuck, super sexy CIA agent Sara Walker and super aggressive NSA agent John Casey. Though not always happy with his life situation, Chuck nonetheless maintains his relationship with government and corporate institutions that might offer him meaning, and ultimately redemption. As a man suspended in adolescence, who spends most of his leisure time consuming media, Chuck might be thought of as the ideal media consumer.
Yet, while so many young people are leaving network television behind, the emphasis on institutions as a relevant and necessary guiding force speaks to anxieties about the future of broadcast network television. Through Chuck, both the slacker and the institution are redeemable. Sure, these are trying years, but the kids are all right, the network is all right, and everything is going to settle down.
Sean Spencer is a “slacker of choice.”
If Chuck is the slacker of circumstance, then Sean Spencer might be called a slacker of choice. Lacking a hint of ambition beyond his own pleasure, Sean Spencer, the titular character, is happy embracing a life that involves avoidance of any hint of adult responsibility. Like Chuck, Sean is intelligent, possessing a keen power of observation and photographic memory. While Chuck submits to the power and guiding hand of institutions, Sean refuses any form of “legitimate” work and instead opens a fake psychic detective agency, Psych. Clearly rebelling from his over-bearing cop father, Sean has learned the power of observation that can help him solve crime and a contempt for the institution of policing.
Pretending to be psychic allows Sean to earn money solving crimes, but on his own terms. Added to the mix is Sean’s childhood friend, Burton “Gus” Guster, a pharmaceutical sales representative who is easily persuaded by Sean to spend most of his time as partner in their fake agency. If Chuck offers the hope that his “Odyssey” years might end, Sean does not. Rather, in keeping with cultural anxieties about Generation Y’s narcissism, most recently explored by Newsweek, Sean is perpetually juvenile.(2) Nevertheless, he gets the better of the Santa Barbara Police Department, for whom he and Gus frequently solve mysteries. If Chuck seems like everyone’s puppet, shot through with decency, Sean’s only master his himself and only objective is constant rebellion.
It is tempting to say that basic cable tale of slackerdom is more liberal than Chuck’s. However, it would ignore one of the key sources of pleasure in the program, its non-stop barrage of pop culture references. Many of these references seem related to NBC, such as hiring Corbin Bernsen, best remembered for playing lothario divorce attorney on the ’80s NBC megahit LA Law and references to the ’70s NBC children’s show Land of the Lost. References to television programs, music and movies frequently pepper Sean’s fake psychic episodes and his conversations with Gus.
Sean might rebel against the idea of “work,” but this is because he already has a full time job consuming popular culture. And, and of course, the audience itself is constantly flattered for its own popular culture knowledge. This flattery through nostalgia makes Psych sometimes seem like a virtual shopping mall. The kids might be permanently arrested in their development, buy hey, they sure are fun, and the audience, well they sure are smart!
Of course the ultimate aim of both NBC and USA is to secure profits by delivering audiences to advertisers. Both shows are clearly aimed at the television industry’s increasing search for alternative revenue streams as the traditional advertiser support model breaks down.(3) If sweet, sincere, loveable Chuck on NBC is the “public” face of NBC Universal, Sean, relegated to the no longer hidden corners of basic cable, is perhaps the real heart. NBC tells stories that, in keeping with the historical sedimentation of broadcast television’s ostensible public service mission and current anxieties over its increasing irrelevance, offers us the tale of a character endowed with a secret power, but, who still needs some form of institutional power to guide him.
Redemption for Generation Y and the institution of broadcasting is possible. USA also offers us a character endowed with an enhanced ability to see what others miss. In the world of basic cable, however, our main character is the one with the power to control those around him. The price of such freedom, however, is permanent childhood, a life of extended leisure and devotion to consuming media, but one that ultimately lacks any real meaning. The beneficiary of both forms of slackerdom is NBC Universal.
(1) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9800E1DD1E2CF93AA35753C1A9619C8B63&n=Top/Opinion/Editorials%20and%20Op-Ed/Op-Ed/Columnists/David%20Brooks October 9, 2007
(2) http://www.newsweek.com/id/52229 Emily Flynn Vencat. “Narcissists in Neverland”
(3) For a great overview of such practices in relationship to NBC Universal, see Kevin Sandler, “Life without Friends: NBC’s Programming Strategies in an Age of Media Clutter, Media Conglomeration, and Tivo.” In Michele Hilmes, ed. NBC: America’s Network. Berkeley: UC Press, 2007.
1. NBC’s Chuck
3. Sean Spencer
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