Taking a stigmatizing step back with Chuck

by Cody Dolan on June 11, 2010 · 8 comments

in stigma

Those of you who’ve read my previous posts have probably picked up on the fact that I’m a fan of the television. I don’t try to hide my love for the medium, and will defend until my dying day the programs I love. For instance, anyone who says a negative word about The West Wing (well, the first four seasons at least) should probably be prepared for fisticuffs if I’m within earshot. I actively recruit my friends to watch shows I like, argue with them if they disagree and will usually badger them until they acquiesce (speaking of which: Dan, you seriously need to watch Burn Notice. Clint, you’d love Top Chef. Walker, I would recommend Justified, but you like Family Guy so there’s no hope for you).

And this is why it was so disappointing when one of my favorite shows, one I actually look forward to and get excited about watching every week, decided to use the stereotypical mental asylum in a recent episode.

I’m looking at you, Chuck, and I’m doing it with scorn.

Chuck and his luck

For the uninitiated: Chuck is a regular (but very smart) guy whose grand plans and dreams have all been shattered at a young age. He got kicked out of Stanford and now works for the Geek Squad stand-in at a Best Buy stand-in. By chance (or was it?…*cue nefarious music*) he stumbles upon “The Intersect,” a computer program that uploads all the essential knowledge a spy would ever need directly into his brain. For example, our hero sees a bad guy, “flashes” (in the show’s parlance) and instantly knows everything about said bad person.

Chuck starts working for the government while trying to maintain his civilian identity, and hijinx ensue. Hilarious, poignant, thrilling, enthralling hijinx. (Seriously, get the first season from Netflix or better yet, buy it from Amazon.com through SayNoToStigma.com’s e-store, and then thank me in the form of a donation to The Menninger Clinic.)

Three seasons later, and The Intersect is malfunctioning. Chuck’s flashes are incomplete and causing him increasing physical pain. It’s almost as if having a gigantic database full of information forced into your cerebral cortex was a bad idea and might actually damage the brain. I know, hard to believe, right? He flashes on a bigwig from a fictional African nation, assaults said bigwig, is slapped with the old “crazy” label and gets carted off to an asylum for former spies.

Mental hospitals, TV-style

And, because no one seems to be willing to do even the slightest bit of research as to what a mental health facility actually looks like, Chuck ends up in your typical TV-style asylum. There are lots of locked doors; the group activity room is decorated like a prison; all the patients wear scrubs (Chuck wears a robe the whole time!); and his fellow inmates stare blankly at nothing in particular, talk to themselves or only discuss conspiracy theories and other gibberish.

Have a look at this clip, which is only available on Hulu.com (which itself is only available in North America). Quick set-up: Bad guy (whom Chuck was actually right about) comes to the asylum to silence Chuck once and for all. He and his helpers, in their white uniforms with black belt accessory, grab Chuck, drug him and start to interrogate him. Chuck breaks free and seeks help from the other inmates.

See what I mean? And this is from a show I consider pretty intelligent. Unfortunately, I could write another 600 words about the rest of the show, including Chuck’s ridiculous psychiatrist and the way our hero (who has been reliable for three seasons now) gets treated when people think he’s “crazy.” And I admit to having no idea what to do with this:  http://www.nbc.com/chuck/games/which-spy-are-you/

Aren’t we as a TV-watching nation tired of this kind of thing? Is it really that difficult to build a TV set that in some way looks like reality?

How hard is it to use soothing earth tones instead of harsh whites or institutional greens? How much more does it cost to make one of those group activity rooms the entertainment industry is so fond of throwing in their asylums look and feel like a living room (in other words, like the kind we have here at Menninger)?

Set designers from Mad Men go to museums, look at old magazines and interview experts on interior design trends from the 1960s, all so the show can look and feel authentic. But no one from Chuck or House or LOST can ask to see pictures of a contemporary psychiatric hospital?

This kind of willful ignorance is as insulting as it is infuriating.

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