Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Suburbs”

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“Chuck vs. The Suburbs”

February 16th, 2009

“We can’t go back there – it was just a cover.”

There has always been a certain question of how, precisely, Chuck is going to be able to manage to draw out the relationship between its eponymous hero and his handler/cover girlfriend Sarah. The “will they/won’t they” of the scenario could get old quickly, something that nobody really wants to see happen when Levy and Strahovski actually have a lot of chemistry and the episodes that focus on the intricacies of their relationship, like “Chuck vs. The Suburbs” are amongst the show’s most resonant.

The episode is a sign, though, that there is going to come a point where we can’t keep getting the same memo over and over again. While bringing Chuck and Sarah to the brink of a real relationship before tearing it away from them might have worked the first time around, or even the second, we’re getting to the point where it doesn’t really have the same impact. Changing their cover from “dating” to “married” and placing them in the confines of a happy suburbia with a golden retriever and a whole bunch of photoshopped photos of a happy couple is a pretty good setup for this part of the series’ identity, but I feel as if things are beginning to wear somewhat thin.

And yet, this is all in theory: in theory this episode shouldn’t work, its central theme of “we can’t return to something that wasn’t real” being something that the show has dealt with numerous times, but in practice Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski bring so much pathos to these scenes that it feels like the honeymoon is still ongoing long after the post-wedding bliss should have ended. And that’s a testament to the show’s quality, even if I feel they’re tempting fate at this point in the show’s run.

Guest stars are a tough thing for Chuck, and I like them more when they’re on the side of good, or at least innocent bystanders. I didn’t end up blogging about the 3-D episode that aired two weeks ago, as it really didn’t do anything for me, but Dominic Monaghan was used extremely well there. The problem is that, when they’re the villains, you know their allegiance immediately: the second you see Andy Richter smiling creepily, or Jenny McCarthy coming on to Chuck, you know that they’re going to be part of the conspiracy. Sure, there was a chance that Richter was going to become a hapless victim, but if that was going to be the case they would have played the card sooner. The show just doesn’t have the narrative complexity, and rightfully so, to create the sort of subterfuge necessary to conceal their allegiances.

This isn’t to say that Richter and McCarthy weren’t good guest stars: I enjoyed both of them in their limited roles, and Richter always plays creepily friendly well, and here nicely transitioned into something more sinister. McCarthy, meanwhile, was more well cast for seducing Chuck and handcuffing him to the bed than she was for being a centerpiece of their Fulcrum-tests in their efforts to create a new intersect, but it worked well enough in both instances.

Don’t let the ending fool you, by the way – this episode really didn’t tell us anything more about Fulcrum than we already knew, and the people we met were all quite easily neutralized. Rather, it was an example of how well they’ve created Fulcrum as an organization that poses a realistic threat to Chuck and these missions: just making it a “Fulcrum” mission does elevate the scenario into something representing more of a threat, and the news that they are more close than we thought to creating a new intersect is something that will add further to Fulcrum’s validity in the future.

But really, this was less about the actual mission and rather the cover assigned to it. Charles and Sarah Carmichael’s suburban life has the two-car garage, the grocery lists, the dog, and the photos sitting on the table inside the door. Of course, the two-car garage likely houses a few firearms, the grocery list has invisible ink written on the back, and the dog and the pictures came courtesy of the magic of the CIA. There is nothing real about this, except maybe the diamond rings that end up symbolizing this new stage in their fake relationship. Even Chuck’s cover he gives Ellie, that he and Sarah are housesitting, gives his sister enough of the idea to play into Chuck’s anticipation and his concern: it’s going to be “just like they’re married” whether Ellie knows they’re CIA agents or not.

Things are pretty predictable from there, with Chuck getting drawn in to Sarah being nice and making him breakfast, as their attempts to keep up cover start slowly leaking into something closer to two people in a real relationship, the lines blurring between the case and reality. It happens for both of them, in the end, not just the usually lovelorn Chuck, but the difference comes in the reminder for Sarah that Chuck is in danger. This reminder is always going to be there, the thing that will keep them apart. Sarah has to protect Chuck too much for her to ever be able to settle with him, and the idea that the married life they just saw has been made even more impossible now that it has been connected with a mission is a logical step for their relationship.

The problem is that we’ve seen many similar things, and at a certain point they will need to make a more grand gesture or, more importantly, let things settle for a bit longer a period. The concern right now is that these characters won’t be going anywhere as the show continues, and I want to see some dynamics that will work for them. Outside of giving him different handlers, and then placing Sarah in a less direct role in Chuck’s job, there’s only so much they can do to shake things up, and I guess the more we see the same thing over and over again the more I fear that it’s a pattern the show won’t break.

Because it’s not like the show isn’t funny or enjoyable right now, as this episode had strong dramatic and comic elements within the above storyline, and I never (when watching it) was as focused on the potential long term problems as I was in reflection. The Buy More side was pretty good here as well: Big Mike’s romantic prospects fit fairly well into the theme of the episode, and the punch line was something I actually predicted as soon as there was a hand over the date’s face in her online photo, but it was still pretty charming to watch. There wasn’t quite as much comic genius from Jeff and Lester as I would have liked to see, but Emmett’s hairpiece was kind of wonderfully awful, and I’ll always enjoy the wonder of people putting more work into grand schemes in order to do less real work.

Either way, I felt like this one was a bit better than the 3-D episode, but the show definitely still has some movement to make before getting to the point of its early season greatness.

Cultural Observations

  • Two gags in this episode, one a bit more subtle than the other: “why did you spray it there?” from when Casey sprayed Chuck’s lower-body with deodorant, and then “Charles Carmichael always comes early” from Chuck immediately after. I’ll let you decide which one was more subtle, but even in their baseness they were pretty enjoyable.
  • Speaking of baseness, see the one Buy More line that stuck with me: “Someone to suck…the will to work right out of him.”
  • Just as a programming note, the next episode to air was actually scheduled to air before this one: because of the Valentine’s Day framing, the network chose to keep this episode here despite last week’s, “Chuck vs. The Best Friend,” being pre-empted for Obama’s press conference. Things will get back to normal with the next new episode, but we’ll see how much continuity is affected next week.
  • Love that Morgan’s mother confused a shipping magnate with a boat captain.
  • I think a constant loop of Must Love Dogs is certainly not the most frustrating thing to be on an electronics store television wall – we’ve all seen The 40-Year Old Virgin, and Michael MacDonald is the only possible answer.
  • Great music choices here: really enjoyed the use of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” for Chuck’s entrance to the suburbs, in particular.
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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Suburbs”

  1. Jack

    I loved this episode. It had everything that makes this show great. I do agree that the will they won’t they stuff is about to pass a point where the audience will stop caring. That is a very dangerous thing because Chuck and Sarah are the heart of the show. I don’t think they can keep them apart for much longer. Instead of a Ross and Rachel type deal, the writers should try to work within the potential of those two as lovers who have to hide their relationship from the government. If they do that, then they can always break it off when the heat gets on them too much and work within that story line.

    But I truly loved this episode, even though they used the same tired thing to keep them apart.

  2. Great summary. I agree with basically everything you said here, with one minor nit. I didn’t love the music this episode. I thought it was one of the weakest musical experiences of the entire series.

    An awful lot went right. But it’s hard not to focus on what could be done better. Chuck is in danger of slipping from fantastic/must-watch to just another show — a good one, but one that it is eminently missable.

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