May 24, 2015

Slice of PIE: Morals and Mayhem! (or Embedded Morality in Television Science Fiction)
I have a confession to wife and I are “binge-watching” the 2007-2011 television series, “Chuck” on Netflix.

While aware of Netflix, I only recently heard my 20-something daughter use the phrase. The only things my wife and I had watched before this, were individual episodes of “Star Trek”, “Bones”, “Sherlock”, or “Dr. Who”. We had NEVER watched an entire series over a period of days and when my daughter saw what we were doing, she laughed.


Anyway, I’ve discovered a couple of things while “binge-watching” this show.

First of all, the story arc becomes crystal clear when you see three or four episodes every evening. In “Chuck”, it’s obvious that the whole story is a classic science fiction “what if” scenario: “What if a regular guy had compressed data downloaded into his brain that was vital to national security – and the original was destroyed?” The creators, writers, and directors could have taken a dark path, but they chose to echo the much older TV series, “Get Smart” (1965-1970) and intersperse serious violence (REALLY serious violence!) with comedy.

The second thing I discovered is that like the best of television and movies, it’s possible to address moral issues AND entertain. Very few television shows have been able to pull this off successfully. Off the top of my head, only “M*A*S*H” comes to mind. Granted that there are more popular TV shows, but none of the others – “Friends”, “House MD”, “The Simpsons” – made such an intentional job of looking at the morality of the premise.

Zachary Levi played the perfect, unintentional, normal-person foil for something that all of us seem to accept – when you’re a secret agent (if there even ARE any such things), anything goes and anything is acceptable.

Levi, in the character of Chuck Bartowski, constantly questions the morality of what happens. In the episodes we watched last night, he brings to light whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” to humiliate his best friend; whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” for his undercover girlfriend, whom he’s fallen in love with, to have sex with anyone as long as it’s in the name of national security; whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” to kill someone in cold blood; and last of all whether it was really, truly “for the good of all” to stand to one side and let everyone else risk their lives for yours.

Moral issues like this aren’t just glossed over, either. Chuck struggles with them repeatedly.

Dare I mention that Levi himself is a Christian? Dare I suggest that his beliefs as a real person give the questions he asks as a fictional character a strong foundation in reality? I don’t know the moral orientation of the men women who created, wrote, and directed “Chuck” and I may be going out on a limb here, but it’s possible that they used the show as a vehicle to ask questions that plagued them – and proposed answers through the events of the show...but I have no evidence that that was true.

How can I apply this to my own writing?

“Easy” – I use my characters as tools to explore my own beliefs and the questions I have. I think I’ve been doing that lately, especially with my most recent short stories. But I’ll have to go back and look. That will be the subject of another PIE or Slice someday!

Your thoughts?

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