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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.

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Season Finale: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Subway/Chuck vs. The Ring: Part II”

“Chuck vs. the Subway/Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II”

May 24th, 2010

I don’t know if I have that much to say about the Chuck finale, primarily because it isn’t a finale to anything in particular. It’s intelligent for Schwartz and Fedak to draw from the series’ overall premise and mythology to drive this two-part finale, as “Chuck vs. the Subway” and “Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II” are both emotionally satisfying, intelligent hours of television, but it means that it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s bringing anything to a close so much as it’s finally addressing long-standing issues.

The plot of the two episodes draws from elements earlier this season, like our discovery that John Casey has a daughter, the return of Brandon Routh’s Daniel Shaw, or the potential damage done by the Intersect for the human psyche, but it also makes the argument that fairly substantial chunks of the season (and, arguably, earlier seasons) were not what we thought they were. The conclusion to the episode, more than ever last year’s cliffhanger, introduces the idea that Chuck was destined to be this way, and that the circumstantial elements of the series have all been part of a broader function and purpose.

This makes this much more of a premiere than a finale, using what little momentum the pacing-challenged third season could muster in order to launch the series on a much more interesting trajectory. The result has me much more excited about a fourth season than I was when it was announced a few weeks ago, although no more appreciative of the third season’s narrative stumbling blocks – so long as next season lives up to the hype, though, I’m willing to forgive them for the year’s struggles.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Beard”

“Chuck vs. the Beard”

March 8th, 2010

Tonight, apparently, was a night where television appealed to the Myles demographic. After watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother that dealt with my lingering frustration over events earlier in the season, Chuck delivers an episode which confirms everything that I’ve said since the beginning of the season in terms of how the Intersect 2.0 operates, how Chuck is evolving as a character, and how that affects the world around him.

And yet, sort of like with HIMYM, I’m left somewhat underwhelmed by “Chuck vs. the Beard” even though it went down a checklist of many of the things that I like so much about this show. The problem, I think, was that it tried to do so many of them simultaneously without any really grounding the episode in any particular threat. There were too many coincidences, too many contrivances, and too many scenarios where the fun of “Viva Buy-Moria” took over from (rather than added complexity to) the fairly serious consequences of The Ring’s latest plan to take down our intrepid heroes.

The episode takes the show to places it should have gone sooner, and places that give the show a lot of great material heading into the rest of the season, and does so within the guise of what seems like an all-time classic episode of the series. And while there’s a compelling case to be made that Chuck, as a character, requires the support structure that the ensemble cast and its different spheres offers, I’m not sure that the episode itself was strengthened by that diversity.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler”

“Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler”

February 1st, 2010

We like to talk a lot these days about shows in which the creators take control of their own destiny: Lost, for example, decided it was going to end the show at a certain point, and it gave them a clear goal to work towards, leading to some great dramatic television. It’s one thing to laud a show for making the right creative decisions in the moment, writing good plots and the like, but it’s another when they make decisions that affect the show as a whole in a way that helps steer the ship as they sail onwards.

“Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler,” while a somewhat weak episode in many ways, signals the start of the period where Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz are making a move to take control of their destiny. While the story of Chuck stepping further into the world of being a spy, in the process reflecting back on his own experience as an asset in his earliest days with the agency, is a bit on-the-nose thematically speaking, the episode lays the groundwork for the show’s biggest secret to be revealed.

Whether they actually go through with it is a completely different question, but the setup is under way, and it raises some questions of how the show plans on ending its third season, and whether the show will have the narrative drive to move onto a fourth.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. First Class”

“Chuck vs. First Class”

January 25th, 2009

One of the things that Chuck has always been good at is effectively telling the same stories without actually, you know, telling the same stories.

The show has always been about a hapless spy who oscillates between, to quote Daniel Shaw, “Bond and a Jerry Lewis Movie,” and whether or not Chuck is capable of handling himself has always been a point of tension. And yet after slightly more than two seasons, I still enjoy that dynamic, and feel as if the show has maintained the charm of Chuck’s incompetence without feeling as if he has made no progress. While Chuck has grown progressively more competent with time, including with his recent developments made possibly via the Intersect 2.0, his response has more or less been the same, and it’s allowed the character to grow without fundamentally changing.

So when “Chuck vs. First Class” starts with Shaw announcing that Chuck would be going on his first solo mission, I had to wonder whether the show was interested in upending the balance of these efforts, and whether Chuck’s success (since we knew he’d be successful) would lead to a newfound self-confidence or even cockiness.

However, the episode manages to offer a series of events that are absolutely familiar and yet which surround emotions and responses that reflect a growing emotional complexity in Chuck that shows maturity without taking away what makes the show work so well.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. Operation Awesome”

“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome”

January 18th, 2010

Chuck, like any person with a secret identity or someone who lives a double life, is constantly forced to balance his friends and family from his normal life with his work for the CIA. And early in the show’s third season, the show has made this point especially clear with the integration of his brother-in-law Devon into the show’s espionage, which really highlighted how much more effective Chuck is because of the fact that he has a personal connection with particular missions. When he’s saving himself he overthinks and gets flustered, but when he’s saving someone he loves he is focused and capable of accessing the intersect and saving the day.

“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome” is positioned as the second part of last week’s investigation of these types of questions, and while there’s some leaps taken by the show’s writing staff in terms of getting the action rolling, the episode confirms how important those themes are going to be for the remainder of the season. Showing a tight narrative drive inspired, one presumes, by the initial short episode order (which was extended from 13 to 19 after these episodes were already finished and the season had been plotted out), the show intelligently positions a new character as a mediation on the same themes that matter most to its regular characters, and uses an exciting episode to introduce him into the fold.

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Season Premiere: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Pink Slip”/”Chuck vs. the Three Words”

“Chuck vs. the Pink Slip”/”Chuck vs. the Three Words”

January 10th, 2010

“Trust me, Chuck – it’s all going to work out fine.”

The title of every episode of Chuck implies a conflict. It tells us that Chuck is in a constant state of opposition, and that this show is defined by the adversarial life Chuck lives, trapped between the job the supercomputer in his head forces him to do and the life he would be leading if it were not for that supercomputer. Much of the show’s best material, both comic and dramatic, comes when world collide, when the Castle invades the Buy More and when Ellie and Awesome become acquainted with Sarah and Casey.

And yet, so much of what makes the show work from a creative standpoint is that these elements aren’t in conflict at all. Although it may be tough for Chuck to reconcile these elements, keeping secrets from the people he loves most, the show has always been at its best when these worlds seamlessly become one and the show reflects the beautiful concert of spy and nerd, of friend and friendly foe (Casey), of real family and work family. And what holds it all together is that these are characters who have relationships, who relate to one another in ways that feel funny when they need to be funny, meaningful when they need to be meaningful, and difficult when they need to be difficult. This is a show that wouldn’t work were it not for these characters feeling part of the same world: a world with conflict, yes, but a world which never feels defined by that conflict, episode titles aside.

I say all of this both to celebrate the return of Chuck, and to recognize that the season’s key theme seems to be the characters themselves coming to term with the role that emotional connection plays in this universe. While some feared the show’s game-changing twist would fundamentally change the series’ DNA, it has instead done quite the opposite: the series’ DNA has stayed quite the same, and what’s changed is how aware the characters are of the ties that bind them together which go beyond job descriptions. In “Chuck vs. the Pink Slip” and “Chuck vs. the Three Words,” we discover that for Chuck to tap into all of the knowledge he has available, and for Sarah to discover what she wants to do with her life, all they need to do is realize that the very thing that they believe to be a source of conflict between them may be the one thing which solves their problems.

Which perhaps, in the process, solves the show’s biggest problem, at least for now, and gets Season 3 off to a rollicking start.

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