Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Fake Name”

“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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Fake Name”

  1. Steve

    I think the reason why “OMG! Chuck is going to the dark side” stuff that various characters are spouting doesn’t work is that Chuck as a show doesn’t have high enough stakes to earn that sort of a feeling from the audience. We all know that missions are going to be relatively light and no one major is going to get hurt hence it is difficult to buy that Chuck will turn into a cold dark character. Whereas on other spy shows like Alias & 24 our protagonist becoming too dark is a legitimate concern as we see them going up against different problems in a way that there are legitimate real world consequences of them failing, and to survive against these problems they may have to put their morals on the line. Indeed 24 has done that with Jack Bauer and Renee Walker in a way that it seemed credible. But on chuck there is no serious threat and from what they have shown so far there is absolutely no reason to believe that chuck will do ruthless stuff on a grander scale just to deal with relatively light problems

  2. Filipe Furtado

    Steve I don’t think it is a matter of stakes as much than just of tone. Chuck is too much of a light hearted show to deal with “dark Chuck”, they can’t really change his character without changing the show in too big a way, so we get this weird compromised version where people keep saying Chuck is going dark while the writers and Levi play him the same way they always did. So far the signs that Chuck went dark are:

    – He keep telling lies to family and friends.

    Something he has done since day one. He might be getting much better at it, but that might have as much to do with the fact that he is telling lies for 2 years already than with him “going dark”. The Awesome plot essentially had nothing to do with Chuck becoming serious about being a spy, the only reason it couldn’t happen last season is that it needed Awesome to know Chuck’s secret. And Chuck didn’t tell anything worse to Ellie or Morgan than he did in the last couple of years.

    - He burned a guy he had some simpathy for.

    True, but the show went the safe way and made the guy be guilty. The punishment might not fit the crime, but is hardly like Chuck was doing it to an unlucky tech guy that just happened to be in the wrong place.

    - He used and dump Hannah.

    Which is true and actually the worst thing he did this whole season, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the “dark Chuck” arc. Hannah was ultimately disconnected from the spy plot, he neither hook up with her because of it nor dump her in a insensitive way because he was one.

  3. SteveL

    I agree that Chuck has lost some essential element that made it so much fun in the past. I think you raise a good point about not having access to the screeners and instead watching this show one week at a time. To me it feels like the show is just not moving forward. I don’t care if if Chuck and Sarah get together or not but watching this show one week at a time makes that storyline painful.

    Also I feel like they totaled dropped the ball with the big reveal from the end of last season that Chuck had these new abilities. It seems very inconsistent that you give an uber-nerd access to the coolest software ever written and he displays no interest in figuring it out or playing with it?

    I am sorry to say that Chuck has moved out of my must see TV rotation and onto my will try to catch it on Hulu rotation.

  4. Erica

    Sarah/Sam’s reaction to Chuck’s darker spy side feel like misgivings about her own spy life. Back in the first season, she would often grit her teeth and fret about lying to Chuck to protect him, and the sacrifices she had to make to live the spy life. She was ready to run away from it all, right? Now she’s working to protect Chuck’s support system (dinner for Hannah et al.) and furrowing her brow every time Chuck chooses to dig himself in a little deeper. I’m not sure that Sarah has ever been all that good at being a cold-hearted spy.

    (She’s right that she REALLY needs to stop dating her dashing co-workers, though. And Shaw needs to be a little less brazen in his pursuit of Sarah – this parading around in a towel stuff doesn’t mesh with all that wedding ring melancholy)

  5. Josh

    I just wanted to thank you for pointing out whats been bothering me this season. And it really stood out when Sarah confessed her feelings about Chuck changing. I just haven’t seen anything she was talking about. He’s just become more competent and cocky but that’s all. I actually expected a darker Chuck in this episode but even the punch wasn’t that. He was still being the good guy.

  6. The changes in Chuck have mostly been relegated to the spy word. Sure, he hated pulling out Casey’s tooth but he did it and without a whimper. He maintained his presence. He was quick-thinking and lies with ease. This is the stuff Sarah sees most often now, the “monster” he has become. Sarah isn’t so much in his personal life anymore so his connection with Hannah, Buy More, and his family go unnoticed, unless you count the black and white display trained on Chuck and, even if you believe in the the “off-screen events,” you can’t assume Sarah is watching 24/7.

    One of the reasons why we might not notice this monster infiltrating Chuck’s personal life is that Chuck has always been a selfish brat. Think about the stuff with Jill — almost all of it self-serving. It’s a miracle Morgan is still talks to him let alone proclaims himself to be his best friend with how Chuck has treated the little bearded man over the past three years. He’s had little glimmers of selflessness (Ellie’s wedding, etc) but mostly that was to keep/get himself out of trouble. Chuck hooking up with Hannah despite Morgan’s obvious (and stated) interest in her is testament to his self-centered behavior and, while some might blame it on his dedication to the spy-life, it follows his pattern of behavior. He looks sweet and may have good intentions but he’s still kind of a jackass.

  7. Samm

    I know this is a short statement, but I just wanted to point out..Chuck met Hannah first. He liked her first. Morgan met her BECAUSE of Chuck. So calling foul there isn’t fair. I actually..missed the second half of the first season, and all of season two, but I never found chuck to be SELFISH. a bit needy, yeah, selfish, no.

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