“Chuck vs. the Role Models”
May 3rd, 2010
I wasn’t actually in the writer’s room when it happened, but the more I watch of Chuck Season 3.5 (the six episodes ordered after the first thirteen were broken/written as a conclusive story) the more I feel like the writers quite literally went back to the drawing board. In some ways, this set of episodes is like a whole new spinoff series, starting with last week’s pilot-like “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners,” and now these are the episodes where the show taps into various situations that seem to stem logically from the central premise.
In this case, Chuck has been reimagined as a series about two spies in love trying to make it work, so “Chuck vs. the Role Models” trots out an older married couple within the CIA to offer Chuck and Sarah a glimpse of their future, and to test their long term compatibility (after their short-term teamwork was proven in last week’s episode). Similarly, after last week’s episode introduced us to Morgan as a member of Team Bartowski, this week had Casey run him through his paces by offering some field training. They’re stories that feel like sitcom pitches based on where the show was situated after the end of last week’s episode, logical avenues for the show to investigate that could feel perfunctory is not executed well.
Fortunately, “Chuck vs. the Role Models” is a regular hootenanny (bonus points to who can tell me what episode of Buffy I watched today which has this word stuck in my head), taking full advantage of a couple of great guest stars and some nicely drawn situations to really get the most out of these central storylines. Throw in some nice subtle serialization, both through Ellie and Awesome’s time in Africa and through the consistency of character/tone throughout, and you have a show which continues to feel re-energized after a downer of a season.
Swoosie Kurtz and Fred Willard were really perfectly cast here, and not in the “no one else could have played these characters” sort of situation that Modern Family ran into (not necessarily in a bad way) with Willard on Wednesday. The Turners are not characters that rely on one-liners or over-the-top situations, but rather characters who have that sense of being “lived in” that you don’t always get with guest stars. Kurtz and Willard really capture the conflict of their relationship, and there was a lot of nice layering going on: on the one hand they reveal that their really over-the-top bickering at Otto’s party was a source of misdirection, but then they reveal that those tensions really do exist within their relationship. Their triple-crossing nature nicely fits in with their complicated relationship, never crossing into saccharine “look how in love we are” territory but also remaining a believable connection that could in some capacity inspire Chuck and Sarah to move in together and start their complicated lives as spies in love.
Yes, they decided to move in together way too quickly (and with no respect to Morgan, who becomes a third wheel in his own apartment), but the show is playing out logical stories that stem from them coming together. If anything, this will make a fourth season (not to jinx things, but just speaking in hypotheticals here) a little bit easier, as the show can get past the dramatic stuff and simply “live” within this relationship. The show was also smart to show this playing out within a spy case that was more than a bit light-hearted, creating tension within their relationship which originates from the Turners but then bleeds naturally into their conflict over their future. It never felt too overstated, probably because the show isn’t in a position to really introduce conflict with so few episodes, but the quick resolution allowed the show to stick to what it knows best (like, for example, endangered and majestic Bengal tigers).
It was also nice to have an ultimately low stakes assignment so that Casey and Morgan’s storyline didn’t feel like a tonal shift. The story is very simple, Casey training Morgan through a low rent Buy More-centered field course, but Baldwin and Gomez have some tremendous chemistry as they play out the mutual respect between the two characters (or Casey’s grudging respect and Morgan’s fearful idolization, I guess). The transitions between Morgan and Chuck/Sarah were a nice way to bring the two stories together as they tested out the field basics, and bringing the two together at the apartment complex made for Morgan’s fun scene with the Tiger and a really heartwarming conclusion for the two characters. It’s not really fair to call it a Buy More story, but I’d much prefer this sort of light-hearted fare with a cameo by a non-Team Bartowski Buy More employee (here the ferocious(ly snoring) Big Mike) than an elaborate Buy More story which doesn’t fit in with the main themes of the episode.
The one part of the episode which didn’t fit in with this was the start of Ellie and Awesome’s journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of Doctors without Borders. The story wasn’t complex, but it made sense that Ellie would struggle while Awesome fits right in, and I thought Sarah Lancaster did a nice job with very little screentime in terms of selling her personal transformation from terror to pride in her work. I was fine with the story being part of the episode even before it was revealed that the head of security was actually a Ring operative, a cheat which I’ll accept for the sake of ramping up dramatic tension. It’s the one thing the show has sort of been missing in these episodes, and while that’s fine with me (who likes Chuck light and breezy) I do think the show needs to build to something by the point of the season finale. Awesome’s poisoning and Ellie’s position in danger is going to make for a nice way to ramp into that tension, as the show has always been on more stable ground when the show’s drama surrounds Chuck’s family rather than Chuck’s romantic connections.
When I say that this season is in some ways like the start of a new series, I don’t mean to suggest the show has changed: its characters remain consistent, and this is very similar to episodes in the show’s second season. However, it seems like the show is really running with the Chuck and Sarah pairing, playing out new scenarios that are very specific to their new dynamic rather than just testing the new dynamic in similar scenarios. After a season that became mired in romantic entanglements, these episodes are really a breath of fresh air; the question now becomes how Ellie and Awesome being in danger plays into the season’s endgame, and more importantly whether it can keep up this momentum.
- I enjoyed the brief glimpse of Chuck and Sarah bickering not unlike the Turners during the final sequence as Chuck realizes that Sarah really did get rid of her backup guns – I don’t need their relationship to be perfect, just manageable, so touches like that are key.
- I think the one problem with this current structure is that General Beckman’s mission offer seemed to be working overtime to establish the theme of the episode as opposed to sounding like what a human being would say. It’s one thing to create a scenario to act like a test of their relationship, and it’s another for Beckman to say “if you two kids are going to shack up, you should see how the real professionals get it done.” I’m not so sure I’m comfortable with these sorts of parallels being made quite that clear within the story itself, but it was certainly efficient.
- For those like me who don’t watch enough classic TV, the opening was a play on the opening credits of Hart to Hart.
- Jaime Weinman has some interesting thoughts on whether Sarah’s character is a problem for the series – my answer is yes, but I think he’s a bit off regarding Strahovski being part of the problem. I think that her understated performance perfectly suits the character of Sarah in those episodes that allow her to be a real human being, but she just isn’t given that opportunity often enough. The third season was particularly bad for this, as she was asked to have a romantic interest with someone with whom she had no romantic past (which is what made Bryce work), which resulted in a lot of fans being frustrated mostly because the characters’ motivations were given no screentime.