(Spoilers for both shows to follow. Duh.)
Knowing I had a lot of time to kill during my recovery the first thing I did when I signed up for Netflix was dive right into Dexter, an infamous show I had heard so much about over the years. While living with Ruy Batello I had watched one episode Dexter since this was at the time a weekly religious experience for “The Portuguese Sensation”. I believe it was a season six episode and Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) professed her love for her serial killer adopted brother Dexter (Michael C. Hall), and I can’t say I was very impressed at the time. A devoted fan of amazing television (Breaking Bad) and hot garbage shlock (The Walking Dead) I officially entered the world of Dexter with much trepidation.
I confess I’m a binge TV watcher, and can digest an entire television series within a very short time span. While living with Ruy I devoured all four previous seasons of Breaking Bad leading into its epic fifth season and plowed through eight seasons of How I Met Your Mother within a couple of weeks so I could be fully caught up for the uneven 9th season this past fall.
Without rehashing the convoluted history of Dexter I will say that flat out the first and second seasons of Showtime’s most successful series were its strongest. While a show like Breaking Bad started off strong and only got better Dexter hit the ground running and maintained a steady level of quality throughout its first two years. Season three was a bit sluggish, though Jimmy Smits did his herculean effort to raise the bar and the final coupe of episodes saved the third season from being a total wash. With season four, it was once again the season long guest serial killer who saved things as John Lithgow dove into his persona as the Trinity Killer. But watching season four and it’s “game changing” finale just served to help me understand why I hated the following four seasons so much.
Dexter has no arc on Dexter.
I look to my friends at Wikipedia, helping best explain this predicament.
Story arcs in contemporary drama often follow the pattern of bringing a character to a low point, removing the structures the character depends on, then forcing the character to find new strength without those structures. In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story:
The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.
—Author Jenna Blum in The Author at Work, 2013
Dexter the Television show always tried to find a way for Dexter the character to return to the status quo of its series premise. Whether it was eliminating Doakes (while putting a nice little bow on the Bay Harbor Butcher storyline with Lilah’s crazy fully blossoming), killing Rita off and sending the step-kids packing, or having the recurring players go from stupid to ignorant based on episode, Dexter the character never truly evolved (even when Michael C. Hall’s voice over did its best to TELL us he was changing). Even when they tried to change the game, like Deb FINALLY finding out about Dexter’s killer ways, it attempted to find ways to return Dex to his original place ‘in the world’ (his ridiculous world, not the tangible real world of any kind).
I pretty much skipped over season five once I saw Julia Stiles pop up as the recurring love interest for Dexter. With season 6 and the Colin Hanks/Edward James Olmos storyline I routinely threw my hands up in the air over the ridiculous plot contrivances (PS I already knew that Olmos was a “ghost dad” like James Remar, so there was no swerve for me in that regard). Season seven seemed to pick things up slightly, and I do love me some Yvonne Strahovski (see; Chuck) but was forever bored with the lack of resolution to certain stories. The final season was a train wreck, and limped to the silly finish line where they laughably killed Deb and made Dexter become a lumberjack (a true, punishing comeuppance that echos Wolverine’s purgatory as a lumberjack in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
I hate to keep going back to Breaking Bad, but the evolution of Walter White (and the supporting characters around him, specifically Jesse) is a masterstroke of
televisionwriting. The fact that Showtime refused to have Dexter killed or caught for his sins in their series finale shows just how shortsighted they were. There’s absolutely no shame in having an endgame and giving finality to your characters.
I can’t really tell you why I never did, but I do distinctly remember watching a couple of random episodes here and there while flipping through the channels back in the day and finding it charming. I’m a huge nerd when it comes to continuity and story arcs spanning multiple seasons, so right off the bat Chuck was hitting the right notes for me. I can also forgive many faults for a series (cheesy special effects, complacent and repetitive case-of-the-week episodes) when the greater arc is served and evolves the characters at the end of the day.
So basically the anti-Dexter.
The first season of Chuck took a little while to fire up, but the chemistry between Zachary Levi’s Chuck and Yvonne Strahovski’s Sarah was instantly there, in addition to the wild card status of Adam Baldwin’s John Casey (Hey, that’s me!). The second season is one of the best plotted seasons of TV I’ve seen for network television and the continued expansion of side characters into this world was nothing short of amazing (John Larroquette, Scott Bakula, Chevy Chase, Brandon Routh, Matthew Bomber, etc).
While Chuck suffered the same NBC bullshit that Community suffered through (another NBC TV show I was late to the game with unfortunately) the show runners Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz always had an endgame in the pipeline, filming nothing short of 4 possible series finales before getting saved at the last minute. The fifth season would be Chuck’s last however, which Fedak and Schwartz helped accentuate throughout the final thirteen episodes leading to their final arc for Chuck, Sarah, Casey, Morgan, et al.
So about that final arc. I can’t believe they gave Sarah amnesia! I can’t believe they had such a crappy final villain in Nicholas Quinn (Angus Macfadyen) after wasting Brandon Routh earlier in the season! I can’t believe they ended the series like that!
But here’s where I’m going to sound like a giant hypocrite after bitching about Dexter not getting a period put on his story, I fucking loved the ending of Chuck, and even if they never tell another story in this world I applaud them for ending on such a beautiful, open-ended note. The reason? Well for one Chuck earned it. I read A LOT of reviews and comments after catching up on the series, and saw a lot of people unhappy with them ret-conning the previous five years out of Sarah’s mind. But that didn’t happen at all.
In the final two episodes Sarah was already getting certain memories back, and even if the Morgan suggested fairy tale kiss didn’t work the fact that NuSarah wanted Chuck to try shows us that there is a happy ending in the cards for these two, and they’ll do it together.
One of my favorite finales all time was on Angel (S5: Not Fade Away) which saw Angel, Spike, Illyria, and Gunn prepare to take on the demons of Wolfram & Hart in a battle they were sure to lose horribly. The series cuts to black just as Angel declares “Let’s go to work.”
AND THEN IT CUTS TO BLACK OMG ARE YOU SERIOUS ANGEL?????
But it leaves such a rousing feeling in your gut, an open-ended feeling of what’s next that it was the perfect way for Angel the TV show to end. And a much better finale than Buffy for what it’s worth.
I loved the finale of Chuck, and while I’d certainly welcome a followup story to tell us what happened next (I mean Jesus Christ even Heroes is coming back to TV) I wouldn’t be terribly upset if that’s how their tale ended.
DEXTER FINAL GRADE: D-
CHUCK FINAL GRADE: B+