“Chuck vs. the Final Exam”
March 22nd, 2010
At its best, Chuck is a show where the stakes of a traditional spy show feel extraordinarily real: the whole point of the premise is that the things that happen in the show’s universe are dangerous and larger than life, but our protagonist is a regular guy who has a computer in his head that makes him a far more important asset than he was born to be. The show’s second season, where it reached the peak of its creative success, captured Chuck Bartowski coming to terms with the idea that being a spy might be what he was meant to be, and that there was the potential for the world of espionage to become “real” in a way he had never imagined.
But something went wrong at the start of the third season, to the point where I would argue that the show has diverged from the “real” not only in terms of believability (which isn’t new, considering the suspension of disbelief necessary in many of the spy stories) but also in terms of character. And while some would point to the Intersect 2.0 as a dehumanizing factor or the forced separation of Chuck and Sarah against the wishes of die-hard fans as reasons that the show is becoming less grounded, I would argue that it is something more substantial than that.
“Chuck vs. the Final Exam” is supposed to feel as if the stakes are higher than ever, even arguing that if Chuck fails this series of tests he will return to his normal life. However, it doesn’t feel like the stakes are higher than ever – things felt much more real, much more life-changing, when Chuck was reconciling family and country, when he was fighting for something beyond getting to be a “real spy.” The problem with this episode, and much of the third season, is that the struggle between who Chuck is and who Chuck is on the path to becoming has been said instead of shown, implied rather than demonstrated. And so rather than the show confidently or subtly introducing this tension, the show has thrown out the “real” Chuck and moved quickly and efficiently towards something that, while interesting, just isn’t as engaging.
It’s a move that would be necessary to cram this story into thirteen episodes, which may well be the root of my frustration with the show’s current trajectory.
Daniel Shaw is a completely uninteresting character, if we’re being completely honest. This is not to say that Brandon Routh is not living up to the role, but rather that the role does not ask for much more than an authoritative posture and a slight bit of mystique. The character is about utility and little more: he is there to drive a wedge between Chuck and Sarah, yes, but he is also there to push Chuck towards life as a spy with no real regard for the Chuck we knew before. He is not entirely dissimilar, in fact, from the corrupt NSA agent Robert Patrick played last week, someone who is trained to forget about feelings and focus entirely on the mission at hand and what needs to be done in order to make that mission work.
The problem is that the show doesn’t have time to stop and show another side to Shaw, nor does it have time to make his relationship with Sarah feel like anything beyond perfunctory. Rushed by the initial 13-episode order, you can sense the show pushing characters towards certain conclusions through grand gestures as opposed to subtle developments, and it seems like characters do and say things when it’s the most efficient rather than when it would be the most effective. The actors are selling everything as best they can, and I don’t think the show is entirely off the rails or anything, but you can feel the cue cards getting moved around on the board as the episode progresses, and even when something surprises you (like learning it was Casey and not Sarah who shot Hunter Perry) it’s followed by an expositional scene where the meaning and consequences are neatly laid out (Casey explaining that no one can know about it because it was murder, and that Chuck will never truly be a killer). The “Chuck becomes a Real Spy” story is like a runaway freight train, and while I don’t want to get off I do want it to bloody well slow down already.
It doesn’t help that, frankly, the show’s production scale is becoming smaller just as its story scale is expanding rapidly. “Chuck vs. the Final Exam” felt enormously cheap, especially the use of slow-motion in the fight sequence. This is a financial reality, I understand, so I’m not suggesting that the episode should be written off as a result. However, it’s unfortunate timing that the show’s world seems quite so claustrophobic (and, in the case of Subway, manufactured and “unrealistic”) at the same time that we’re supposed to be feeling the substantial consequences from Chuck’s actions. The entire Casey story, in fact, felt like a distraction, and I wonder if the episode would have been better if it had cut Jeff and Lester in favour of Awesome, Ellie and Morgan, characters who actually mean something to Chuck and who would be left behind should he end up on that plane to Rome on his first CIA mission.
In an ideal world, I’d love if “Chuck vs. the Final Exam” could be followed up by an episode that Chuck doesn’t appear in, where everyone else in his life struggles with his absence in various different ways. But with a thirteen episode order, that simply isn’t possible, and all of the dramatic potential of this development seems like it has been lost to time. I’m not suggesting that the show shouldn’t have gone in this direction, but rather that they needed to spend more time showing us Chuck’s transformation as opposed to having Sarah and Hannah talking about it for weeks for me to really feel the suspense of this moment. I never felt any tension about whether or not Chuck would kill that character, the in media res opening feeling just as perfunctory as the rest of the episode, and the climax felt like a restatement of the season’s omnipresent thematic considerations rather than the culmination of a slow build towards self-realization.
I don’t like that I’ve become this cynical about a show I really love, but it’s just the way things are. When Sarah tells the story of her Red Test, I can’t help but shrug my shoulders at the blatantly obvious identity of her victim, and even though Yvonne Strahovski gave a pretty great performance in this episode I felt nothing as she placed all of the blame for Chuck’s position on her own shoulders because it makes no actual sense if you stop and think about it…which, unfortunately, the show doesn’t have time for or, more accurately, didn’t have time for. They ended up getting six episodes, but due to the lateness of the order they were forced to create a new arc to extend the season rather than fleshing out what they already had to keep things from moving at the speed of light.
Basically, the subtlety is gone: having Shaw boss Chuck around while he tries to romance Sarah was the most blatant example of the anvil-like setpieces the show has designed to speed their way towards their conclusions, and the show is becoming dominated by those kinds of stories. And while I appreciate Jeff and Lester and the Buy More for what it brings to the show, it seemed like the trifle that was “Casey drops the Crazy” was simply a waste of time when there were more important (apparently hugely important) things afoot in spy world. I just wish that I knew those events were important because they felt “real,” not because I was told that by numerous pieces of expository dialogue.
- The episode had a definite Alias vibe to it, both with the “Three Days Earlier” opening and the trainyard sequence, which reminded me of the Ethan Hawke episode in Season Two that was initially intended to be the Super Bowl episode.
- Say what I will about the show’s overall execution, but small scenes like Sarah trying to proctor Chuck’s test work entirely based on the chemistry between the two actors; when you create the overdone scene with Chuck recreating their first date, that chemistry starts to feel forced, but part of the fun with these two is seeing them interact through nondescript mission elements, and that was nicely captured as Chuck fumbled with the video message.
- The idea of Big Mike mentoring Casey on fashion and business was a fun one, but it just never went anywhere: I would have rather dumped that story in favour of more scenes with Casey trying to guide/look after Chuck despite being relieved of his duty.
- Kyle Bornheimer got no material as Hunter Perry, but I’ve always liked the guy: he’ll next appear on ABC’s Romantically Challenged, and if that fails he has the leading role in Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ pilot for CBS.
- For alternative takes on the episode, Alan Sepinwall is on the positive side, while Todd VanDerWerff is a little closer to my own disappointment.