One way of thinking about comedy is to think of it as typically progressing from disorder to order, from a state of disquiet and unrest to one of rest. The scene of the disorder can be a place–a city, a home–or it can be a psychology, whether of one person or of more than one. When we rate Chuck a comedy, part of what we recognize it not only that it is funny, but also that it is marked by this sort of progress. In individual episodes, there is often progress of this sort (often the disorder begins with a flash of Chuck’s and the order by the triumph over some particular bit of bad-guy-ery). Sometimes the progress take several episodes.
For example, in the Jill arc, Jill’s appearance destabilizes the precarious stability that Chuck and Sarah have reached in S2, a stability underscored in the scene at the end of vs. Tom Sawyer in which they gaze at the stars, each obviously trying to chart a future that has them together (“Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars”). That precarious stability is precarious because it is set in a larger disorder–the larger disorder between Chuck and Sarah, the fact that they are together and yet not together. That disorder never gets ordered until the end of S4 when they marry. But the largest disorders of the show are the disorders internal to Chuck and internal to Sarah: each seems at long last to have reached order at the end of vs. the Baby. But then the final episodes throw everything once more into disorder. (It is this fact, that the order reached in S5 gets disordered, that accounts for much of the irritation (putting it mildly) many feel about the end of the show. It is as though the show suddenly decides, at its end, that it is not a comedy after all. It is like the world’s slowest bait-and-switch.)
There is a lot to say about that, but I have already said some of it in the book, and I will not say any more about it now. I mention the point about comedy to allow me to pursue a different issue: why is the Buy More present in the show in the way it is, from the beginning of the show until its end, and why are the Buy More characters, especially Big Mike, Lester, Jeff and Anna, so much a part of the show? To answer this question, we need to consider another typical feature of comedies, namely their divisions into three groups of characters, fay characters, clowns, and lovers. I won’t go into a lot of detail about this structural feature, but I will anchor it by noting its presence in Shakespeare, and there most clearly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The three groups are clearly marked in the play–the fay include Puck and of course Titania, Queen of the Fairies, the clowns include Bottom and his friends, and the lovers include the central pairs, Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius. I assume the play is familiar enough, so I won’t recount its plot. Instead, I want to look very generally at the way the three groups work and interact. Let me start with the lovers, since they are central.
The lovers must take a journey, make a forced venture in the dark. They hope for their desires to be fulfilled, their wishes to come true; but they cannot count on either. They face various obstacles, some external, some internal. And, if they are really to get what they hope for, they will have to make changes in themselves, moral or intellectual or both, so as to make themselves new. That is, what they hope for is something that requires self-transcendence, although they typically do not understand that or at least do not understand it completely, or they ‘repress’ their understanding of it. We take the lovers to deserve the love they find, and to reveal that they deserve it in suffering painful changes for the sake of their love.
The clowns are, as their title suggests, comic relief–but that is by no means all that they are. They typically do not have the freedom to change that the lovers do. They may have their own hopes–but they are usually hopes for something inappropriate or hopes born in mistake, and so are not hopes with which we fully sympathize. We do not normally understand them as deserving what they want, even when we rate what they want as appropriate or as not wanted mistakenly. But the clowns also take part in plots that parallel the main plot, offering a point-counterpoint commentary on the main plot, and sometimes it is the clowns who are gifted with the most visionary moments in the entire plot, a rare kind of intuition that allows them to see things to which the lovers are blind.
The fay are powerful beings, supernatural, who can wreak havoc on the lives of the lovers and of the clowns, who can punish or reward each. They are figures now of harm, now of help. They threaten and they praise.
It is easy enough to see how this structure is realized in Chuck. Chuck and Sarah are the central pair, the lovers, but that group includes more than just the two of them. It also includes Casey and Awesome and Ellie–and it includes their parents. The fay are General Beckman and the other higher-ups at the NSA and CIA. The clowns are the Buy More employees. (Morgan is a special case; I will come back to him.)
Let me focus on Jeff, using him to stand for the rest of the crew. Jeff at times seems hopelessly substance-addled, beyond help. At other times, he seems creepy–deviant, a stalker. He seems racist and sexist, a harasser. Yet at other times, perhaps most often, he seems pitiable–lost, lonely, half-asphyxiated. He is the Bottom of the Buy More. But, like Bottom in Midsummer, Jeff is also visionary. At the low point of S3, when Chuck is with Hannah, and Sarah with Shaw, it is Jeff who recognizes that Chuck loves Sarah, and at a time when only he can see it. Later, when Chuck and Sarah are about to marry, it is Jeff who makes the video that captures Chuck and Sarah and reveals them as the couple they have really been all along. The guy who cannot seem to get anything right manages at crucial moments to see what others miss. Later, after he stops sleeping in his van, he is the one who finally notices what is happening at the Buy More, the one who realizes that something spy-ish is going on. And, earlier, in an explicitly visionary moment, after prompting from Lester, he automatically writes that the strange force affecting the Buy More is ‘C-I-A’.
One reason to have a character like Jeff is that he incarnates the future that Chuck fears will be his own. This is especially true in the early seasons, when Chuck has not figured out that he wants to be a spy, when he has not come to understand that Sarah does love him. As Chuck clears those hurdles, the show no longer offers Jeff up as representing Chuck’s possible future. But for two and a half seasons or so, that is Jeff’s primary symbolic role. The vs. Tom Sawyer episode matters in this regard because, beyond throwing Chuck and Jeff together, it reveals that Jeff’s past and Chuck’s share some general geekiness and some specific interests, like Missile Command and Rush. That similarity in their past then forces Chuck (and of course the viewer) to speculate on Jeff’s life and whether Jeff’s present might be Chuck’s future. (I thank Brian Lewis for getting me to reconsider that episode.)
When, toward the end of the show, in a remarkable reversal, Jeff gets healthy-clean again (by taking Awesome prescription), his transformation then provides a kind of parallel to Chuck’s: Jeff’s potential is not as great as Chuck’s, and he has not used his time as well, so of course his transformation does not reach the heights of Chuck’s, but it does force us to see again and again how far Chuck has come. Jeff keeps us wondering at how much Chuck has grown and continues to grow. And, of course we feel good about Jeff’s growth too–about his more positive Flowers for Algernon life. (Jeff is shown reading that book in vs. the Business Trip.)
Since I have mentioned that book, I want to make a brief aside; it will actually help me get to where I want to go. The epigraph of Flowers is from Plato’s Republic:
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.
Plato’s book is a book about light and darkness, about vision and blindness, about remembering and forgetting, about reality and appearance–in a phrase, it is about the bewilderments of the eye (whether of the body or of the mind). So, too, is Chuck.
Jeff is the character on the show who is most obviously visually bewildered. It is not for nothing that a word like ‘addled’ leaps to mind when we describe him in the early seasons. Jeff spent the early seasons in darkness, having come out of whatever light had been available to him when younger. He gropes in darkness most of the time. Toward the show’s end, Jeff, despite seeming less bewildered, is actually still struggling–but this time he is going into the light. His apparent shift in feeling for Lester, his by-the-bookness, is part of his eyes adjusting to the light. Suddenly seeing clearly can be blinding; too-bright things come quickly to confusion. So I do not think that the new Jeff of the late episodes is really quite what he seems (punctilious, officious) but is flailing a bit as he comes into the light.
I mention this because it also serves as a subtle parallel to Chuck and to Sarah, who are themselves still adjusting to the light of their open and acknowledged love of one another, who are still adjusting to the light radiating from the Mystery of Marriage. Just as Jeff has to adjust to living in the light, so do they. Their decision to refuse Beckman’s offer to rejoin the CIA, their desire to start a different version of Carmichael Enterprises, are their way of refusing the darkness of the spy life and of trying to inhabit the life of real love. But it is worth bearing in mind that moving into the light can still bewilder the eye.
This takes me to Morgan. Morgan is the rare clown who gets promoted to lover. This sometimes happens in comedies, but it is a tricky matter, since it can damage the template or structure I am describing by blurring the difference between the clowns and the lovers. (Consider Jeff again. He never gets promoted to lover. He clearly develops, progresses, moves. But it is from the bottom of the clowns to the top, not out of the clowns. His progress does not blur any lines.)
One reason Chuck manages to promote Morgan without blurring the lines is that the show, like Shakespeare, has a world for each group. In Midsummer, the lovers are city folk, royalty. They are at the center of civic life. The clowns live on the periphery, as it were in the suburbs, neither in the city nor outside of it, but liminally. The fay live in the green world, in the forest. The groups stray into one another’s worlds–the lovers and clown go to the forest–but the fact that no one moves from one group to the other makes the mixing of locations safer and easier to manage. But, setting aside the discovery of Castle by Jeff and Lester–and notice it is a drug, somewhat like the one Puck uses in Midsummer, that keeps them from genuine, full discovery of it, since they cannot remember it–Morgan is the only clown who moves from the clown world to the lover’s world. (This is part of the significance of Anna leaving and of Alex eventually replacing her. Anna is a clown (her makeup, her makeup!) but Alex is a lover–and if Morgan is to be a lover, he must eventually be paired with a lover. Carina foreshadows this change, since she too is a lover.)
We all realize, even if we don’t quite experience the full symbolism, that the moment of Morgan’s discovering Castle in S3 is a major moment in the show. It is so important that it competes with, although it loses to, the soon-to-happen coupling of Chuck and Sarah. (Think what you will of S3, but despite its imperfections, it is the axis of reference of the entire show. S1-2 make sense as moving toward it; S4-5 as moving from it, and not just in obvious ways.) Although it will take the call from Beckman to put the official seal on Morgan’s promotion to lover (as it is a conversation with her that puts the unofficial official seal on Chuck and Sarah’s coupling), it is clearly accomplished when Chuck tells Morgan what has really been going on–that is the moment Morgan becomes a lover and no longer a clown.
The show can make this happen because it so rigorously enforces the separation of the Buy More and Castle, the clown world and the lover world. The clowns and lovers do mix occasionally at the apartments, but the apartments do not represent the full reality of the lover world. Only Castle does that, only there is Chuck’s appearance distinguished from his reality.
Morgan’s promotion to lover is one of the most satisfying aspects of the show, and a tribute to the writing of the character and the writing of the show overall. That Morgan has the stuff for such a promotion is hinted at as early as the pilot, when, for example, it is Morgan who has the quick courage to try to face down the ninja stealing Chuck’s computer. His courage is short-lived, but is real enough during its short life and it will reappear in longer-lived forms as the show goes on. Morgan’s promotion to the lover world also changes–as it really has to do–his standing in the clown world. He goes from mad work-avoidance skills to competent manager of the store. Etc.
So why is the Buy More in the show and why does it never leave? Because it is demanded by the structure of the show. It is a scene of silliness mostly–but of a necessary silliness. It allows for comic relief from the stresses of the main story, it allows for separated parallels and commentary, it provides separated comparisons and differences. It provides a world for the clowns.
Final thought: Just in case you are unconvinced that this structure typifies comedies, consider very briefly a very different comedy: Gilmore Girls. The three groups are there, although the register of the show is different. Lorelai’s parents–and the other members of their elite world–are the fay. Lorelai, Rory, Mrs. Kim, Lane, Luke, Sookie, Jackson, Dean, Jess–they are the lovers. Kirk, Taylor, Miss Patty, Babette, etc.–they are the clowns. Since all the groups, excepting the fay, inhabit Stars Hollow, it is not very surprising that there is no Morgan-like character in the show who gets promoted. Like Jeff in Chuck, some move a bit in rank in the clown world; none move out. The interesting character in this respect is actually Lorelai, who chooses to leave the fay (a choice under duress, but still her choice) and who gets ‘demoted’ to lover. There is a long story about the scare quotes around that word–but this was about Chuck, not Gilmore Girls, so I will tell that story some other time.