I don't watch much network TV -- I have two small kids and too much work and if I had time to do that I'd spend it sleeping. That doesn't mean I'm not up for checking out a series once it's available on streaming or DVD. Two I recently dropped into my Netflix streaming queue are Dollhouse and 24, which I've never seen and honestly don't much expect to like, but the real-time thing is a cool concept and I figured I'd give it a try. I was five minutes into the first episode of the first season of 24 and there was a chessboard between the lead super-agent character, Jack Bauer, and his teenage daughter. (Yeah, right.) And Dollhouse, a silly/sexy techno-thriller series that's already been canceled, also makes a feature of a chessboard in the same way. That way, of course, is the "establish the character as a braniac, especially if he's mostly an action guy who needs some quick and easy Sherlock Holmes cred via a prop in the corner of the room."
The other way is even more cliche, the "he's a geek" way, which is its use in Dollhouse. Slightly ironically, considering Josh Whedon's massive rep in the geek world, mostly thanks to Buffy (which I haven't seen either), the chessboard in the tech guy's room in Dollhouse is perpetually turned 90 degrees. I doubt anyone would bother with a joke that subtle, and since the position changes regularly I guess someone in the crew is quite sure that "black square on the right" is the way to go. It was correct in that 24 scene, but having established Jack's smarty-pants cred I doubt we'll see the board again after he gets busy shooting people in the kneecaps.
I usually take this opportunity to drop Tim Krabbe's theory that the black square on the right must be more aesthetically pleasing somehow, since it seems to be that way more than 50% of the time. I think it's more that we only really notice it, or at least blog about it, when it's wrong.
Hmm, first episode of 24 is half through and I already have no idea what's going on. I think Jack just shot someone he's working with in the kneecap.