Season Premiere: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Anniversary”

“Chuck vs. the Anniversary”

September 20th, 2010

I didn’t realize it until I sat down to write this review, but I think this might be the last weekly Chuck review for quite some time here at Cultural Learnings.

This is not so much a reflection of the relative quality of “Chuck vs. the Anniversary” as it is a reflection of what kind of show Chuck has become over the past season. When I posted my review of NBC’s Chase earlier today, someone commented that Chuck similarly lacks character and consequence: they were joking, of course, but the latter point (consequence) stuck with me heading into tonight’s premiere.

This is still a show I enjoy, and a show I plan on continuing to watch, but I think Chuck has reached the stage where it no longer interests me critically. The season seems like it is onto a solid start, but it is a start which takes absolutely no risks, taking some potentially interesting new ideas and quickly absorbing them into the show’s existing structures.

And as pleasant as that is, I think it might be the point at which weekly reviews no longer feel like a good use of my time.

The problem with “Chuck vs. the Anniversary” isn’t the same sort of problem the show faced in its third season. There, the show seemed out of sorts and struggling to find itself amidst a shortened episode order, and so there was a clear narrative of creative sacrifices and the effects it had on the show’s narrative and its characters. When the show returned for its final six episodes (an extra order after the season was planned out), it was interesting in terms of how they course corrected: things were lighter, and more confident, and it resulted in a more pleasant experience. The third season finale, also, did some nice work stretching out the mythology and adding Chuck’s mother to the mix, giving the impression that the show was going to use this momentum to take things to the next level.

Instead, the show returned with more of the same, which pleases me as a viewer and bores me as a critic. Linda Hamilton is inspired casting, and the badass moments she gets at the end of the episode are enjoyable, but none of it seems to offer any sort of complexity. If anything, the world of the show has only gotten smaller with the CIA/NSA taking over the Buy More, and with Morgan now decidedly within the spy organization side of things. The episode tried to suggest that Chuck was feeling tension about being separated from Sarah and the spy game, but I didn’t feel any of that tension when the episode began: while separating Chuck and Sarah gave us the really fun sexting storyline, it didn’t give us anything more substantial than that, which feels a bit weird.

The episode had some serious issues with not quite resonating, in my books: the opening jaunt around the world may be easier to deal with when condensed into a red line jumping around on a map, but it makes it seem like no time has passed at all. And so it seems odd that Morgan would be a “real” spy, or that the Buy More would be fixed that quickly, or that Ellie could become pregnant. Chuck and Sarah’s separation doesn’t resonate either, which makes the entire episode feel more manipulated than usual. The show usually has a nice flow to it, where a single situation unfolds in predictable, and perhaps a bit silly, fashion, but here there was too much work being done in the script which didn’t resonate on screen. Moments like Chuck almost dying, or Chuck not having used his intersect powers in a long time, lacked meaning in the absence of this sort of resonance, which kept the episode from feeling like more than a pleasant introduction to the year ahead.

Everything just goes back to normal so quickly: Chuck’s back at the Buy More, the entire gang knows about the search for Chuck’s mother, and Chuck is back to lying to Ellie about his profession. The issue is that, despite the presence of new elements, this is really the status quo: none of these stakes are particularly new, and Chuck’s Mother is more personal but not necessarily more complex than any previous overarching serialized storyline that will be interwoven into the season. And while my love for the show’s characters will keep me watching despite this sort of similarity, as a critic I just don’t know if there’s anything more to say.

Perhaps the show will surprise me in the weeks ahead, but when I’m as busy as I am I think that Chuck is a logical blogging casualty – with Alan Sepinwall writing the seminal texts on the series each week, and with numerous other sites creating environments where fans of the show are able to discuss it in greater detail, I feel comfortable returning to the role of spectator with a show that might lose its lustre if I continue to hold it under the microscope in written form each week.

“Chuck vs. the Anniversary” is a solid premiere for a solid show, and that might just be the end of the story, for now.

Cultural Observations

  • The Sexting storyline was a very smart choice, and it was integrated well into the episode: starts as humour, becomes about eye candy, and then becomes humour again for the climax.
  • Bold choice to cut Jeffster out of the premiere, but it was one part of the episode I enjoyed: the show has bought into the hype with those two way too much over the past season, so I’m glad to see them dialed back (or out, in this case).
  • That Chuck would be unaware of how much money was being spent seemed bizarre and silly: while his quest to find his mother showed devotion, perhaps cutting that trip as a desperate search instead of a comic excursion might have made Chuck’s blinders more logical.
  • Not sure why Harry Dean Stanton and Dolph Lundgren needed to be cast in these roles, but both were quite fun.
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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Season Premiere: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Anniversary”

  1. Harry Dean Stanton playing a repo man is necessary due to his role in the cult classic Repo Man in which he played a repo man.

  2. KungFuDrew

    For the past couple years, Chuck has been my favorite tv show, so it was with great anticipation that Monday at 8 finally came around. However, I was quite disappointed, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why exactly. I think your analysis sums it up pretty well. Now that everyone in his life knows about his secret (on some level) and he doesn’t even have to hide at work, it’s lost some of its charm.

    The scene that really got to me was when they get on the bus in Moscow. It seemed overly staged and scripted, just like in any run-of-the-mill sitcom. It made me roll my eyes, instead of actually laugh at the clever humor that has been a mainstay over the past three seasons.

    I’ve said this since the end of the first season: I hope they end the show while it’s still fun and exciting, before they jump the shark. I’m afraid they may have done just that with this season.

  3. Mel

    I think they put their eggs a little too much in the “cool gueststars” basket on this one. I love Harry Dean Stanton and it seems totally obvious that at some point Dolph Lungren would be on the show but I feel like the show coasted on them and wasted them (sure its cool that HDS was, once again, a repo man, but really? two scenes?) I look forward to more Linda Hamilton ass kicking, however, and if this season of Chuck is so much reheated plot, I’ll enjoy it for that alone.

  4. CJ

    This is funny to watch when low budget shows try to go around the world and show the foreign life.
    In this case it is Moscow, Russia. I was expecting a little more reality than fantasy.
    First of all I did not know that Moscow is a North Pole :) It is not winter year round over there. They could have cued on recent news that were all over the world all this summer, talking about heat waves and fires much like those in South California. It is not snowing in Cali …
    Another funny thing is of course a bus! Where did they dig up this antique 1930s-40s bus?! Ok, the bus and the background decoration all are just out of the phase, but they could have at least show real people not bums in a bus :) I did not know that Moscow is that behind in terms of everything :)
    Nice educational episode, what can I say :)
    I hope show’s fans do realize all this… And I also hope that producers and writers occasionally do use books and search engines to be closer to reality. Unless of course this was the whole satirical point of this episode.

    -CJ

    • skittledog

      I gave up all hope of realistic depictions when I saw what they did to “Prague” last year. Bwahaha.

    • troublein212

      thought exactly the same things. it was like they were showing us moscow 1980. the only thing missing were kgb agents and samovars. can’t imagine that it’s anything like that now. and the snow…. wtf?

  5. I too found myself disappointed at the status quo of the episode. They tried to make the episode often feel “epic” or that the stakes where high like with Chuck’s “death”, yet it never felt dramatic. It was very run of the mill stuff. Maybe if they had the super long wait like last year it’d resonate more, but the time lapse didn’t resonate. The whole episode felt very “scripted”, more so than usual.

    A concern I have with Chuck more and more is the ridiculousness of the spy/gadget stuff. Obviously Chuck was never realistic, but it seems like each season now it’s more “high tech” and now it’s kind of annoying. The CIA/NSA Buy More base irked me with it’s hidden computers and random traps everywhere. It was always unrealistic, but the show made me buy into it. Now it’s starting to get to the point where I just roll my eyes at the tech used.

    Granted I’m still a Chuck fan and enjoy each episode very much, just I wish we could go back to end of season 2 Chuck. Though I suppose that’s impossible to beat at this point.

  6. Evamarie

    Am I the only one who thought he wasn’t really a repo man, but a thief? He had a gun and came upon them in the dark in the middle of nowhere. Seems less repo and more theft. Then they found the car in that lot. It felt very fake and contrived.

    Otherwise I loved the episode, but I agree with Myles – we’re right back where we started. I’m prepared for Jeffster and others to be reincorporated into the show shortly.

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