“Chuck vs. the Fake Name”
March 1st, 2010
Reviewing Chuck isn’t quite as fun anymore.
That pains me to write, in a lot of ways, but there’s something about the show right now which has made the past few episodes seem particularly difficult to sit down and discuss. I’d love to say that it’s just residual effects of the Chuckpocalypse, so that I could blame that particular group of fans for my struggles, but I don’t think that’s all it is.
There is something about the show that’s missing right now, something that has little to do with Chuck/Hannah or Sarah/Shaw or any of the relationship drama that some seem so concerned about. And I don’t even think my problem has to do with character consistency, like the complaints that Chuck and Sarah are acting differently than they have in the past. I think the show has earned our patience on the former front, and in terms of the latter I think that it’s unrealistic to believe that these characters wouldn’t occasionally bottle up their feelings in a way that’s destructive in the long term but easier in the short term.
Rather, I think my problem has to do with the fact that this season has fingerprints all over it, too purposefully designed to drive the show to a particular point instead of allowing it to get there on its own. “Chuck vs. the Fake Name” has some nice comic moments, and sells its emotional side fairly well, but it’s one of many episodes this season that end up a bit anvil-like in terms of explaining the season’s central themes, while proving too subtle when it comes to actually justifying those themes from a plot or character point of view.
Look, I liked Zachary Levi talking about cupcake stores in a deep Batman voice as much as the next guy, but this episode was way too overstuffed for my tastes. If I were to take the story featuring Edgar, Paulie Walnuts and Julie’s porn producer ex-boyfriend from The O.C. on its own as a fun bit of spy work, then I think the episode was pretty successful: I laughed, I enjoyed Levi’s performance, and Casey getting his moment to prove himself an excellent marksman was a nice use of the character. I’m not made of stone here, nor am I suggesting that Chuck has entirely fallen off creatively or anything like that.
My issue is that the show has been quite clear from the beginning of this season that we would be investigating how Chuck’s new life as a real spy would affect his existing relationships, and the way that has been handled has been simultaneously less subtle and more subtle than I would have hoped. I get what the show is going for: Chuck is changing, which freaks out his friends and family and makes them worry about him, which leads to weird relationships that take away Chuck’s support system, which freak him out more than any difficult mission ever could. That’s a good direction for the season to go, and I certainly feel that it works with what the show has established with the Intersect 2.0 and the like.
I think the problem, for me, is that Chuck hasn’t actually changed that much. Now, his perspective on life is certainly changing, but the show is largely still playing his efforts for comic effect, which means that Chuck’s actual demeanour is not changing in any really clear fashion. Zachary Levi is still playing Chuck as a reluctant participant in the dirtiest of dirty work (he pulls Casey’s tooth, sure, but he also feels really bad about it), and so there’s no real sense that the character is actually heading down a particularly dark road. Instead, we get people telling us that he could be heading down a dark road, and we get characters like Devon and Hannah psychoanalyzing Chuck’s ability to lie as if dishonesty is the ultimate sign of someone falling into a life of espionage from which their empathy and humanity will never be able to escape.
And maybe my issue is that I don’t buy the threat that supposedly represents. I’m remembering back to “Chuck vs. Santa Claus,” and Chuck’s reaction to Sarah killing that Fulcrum operative in cold blood, and I’m trying to figure out why Chuck being able to pull out a tooth, put on a Batman voice and lie to people is so terrifying. I feel like they’re violating the “Show, don’t tell” policy here, in that I’m being told that Chuck’s on a bad path instead of actually seeing anything bad that should make me concerned as a viewer. This wasn’t so much of a concern, perhaps, in the second season when the focus was on challenging Chuck to “find himself” within his new job of sorts, reconciling his own personal goals with that of his new position. Now, that reconciliation is at risk of falling too far to one side, but that side has been relegated to shortcuts instead of real consequences of his actions. In other words, I wanted to see Chuck putting Hannah in jeopardy to protect his cover instead of just dumping her for dishonest reasons in front of her parents.
In his review of the episode, Alan Sepinwall points out that how they’re handling Sarah’s character is quite subtle, in that Sarah is anxious about seeing the guy she fell in love with changing into something which scares her a little. My issue is that while I like that story, and the direction it takes their relationship, I don’t necessarily see anything in Chuck that is that terrifying. The show isn’t subtle about what it wants its thematic content to be, but it’s being too subtle when it comes to the way those changes manifest themselves, too afraid to let the audience figure it out for themselves but simultaneously too unwilling to change Chuck enough to really sell the transformation. I like what the “ideas” at play do to the various characters, but those ideas are emerging as ideas instead of plots, character observations instead of character actions.
It’s not that I no longer enjoy the show when I suggest that reviewing it isn’t fun anymore, but rather that we’re at the stage in the original 13-episode order when you can see the wheels turning a bit too much to review each episode. I think critics who had screeners ahead of time had a distinct advantage in being able to screen the next four episodes as a whole, able to see just how this is going to be handled in the weeks ahead. If the payoff is good, the problems I have with “Chuck vs. the Fake Name” will be water under the bridge, just as the brief hiccups of Shaw and Hannah will eventually be just another stage in the Chuck/Sarah romance.
But for now, something just isn’t sitting right, and I’m not sure the above was really able to explain it as well as I’d have hoped.
- The crockpot story never got any big laughs, but it felt consistent with Big Mike and both Jeff and Lester, and made for a nice few moments of Buy More antics to break up the episode a bit.
- Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed a bit early for Hannah and Chuck to be engaging in that much PDA at the Buy More; I’m no prude, but it was one of many parts of their relationship that felt sped up to try to make the ending that much more sudden and hurtful.
- Josh Schwartz actually sold the episode on Twitter based on shirtless Brandon Routh and Kristen Kreuk in a towel, and to be fair those particular states of undress were integral to those scenes plot wise. Shirtless Captain Awesome, of course, was entirely gratuitous, but that’s par for the course.
- It didn’t really fit into the above, but it’s interesting that Sarah tells Shaw her real name (“Sam”) in the way that she does: it feels like she wants to tell him because it in some way breaks down the spy/spy relationship between them, the idea that his ability to keep a secret inspires her honesty. Like Alan points out, I totally get why he would fall into his arms, and the real question is now how she falls out of them, since there’s a certain inevitability about that.