“Chuck vs. the Tooth”
May 10th, 2010
So far in this six-episode miniseason, Chuck has been barreling along not unlike the train in the “premiere” of sorts: the destination isn’t particularly important, we’re just along for the ride as Chuck and Sarah adjust to being a couple and fighting evil at the same time. It’s been a nice change of pace in a season which felt like it was so clearly driving towards the triangle between Chuck, Sarah and Shaw that none of the show’s other elements really got to shine, and I’ve been enjoying these episodes quite a bit.
However, with “Chuck vs. the Tooth” that train has put on the brakes, and you can very clearly see the switch turning to send the train in a certain direction. I understand why this is (we only have two episodes left this season), and I also understand the long-term plans at play within this solid if not spectacular episode. The problem is that the show manipulates short term reactions in order to establish potential consequences regarding the intersect, leading to an episode which plays out as Chuck’s worst nightmare when, in reality, I think the episode would have played out in a more logical and less dramatic fashion.
It gets the point across, no question about that, but it does so in a less than elegant fashion which hearkens back to the original 13 episodes more than this more recent run.
“Chuck vs. the Honeymooners”
April 26th, 2010
“Chuck vs. the Honeymooners” is not an episode about “Chuck and Sarah.” It is an episode about Chuck, and Sarah, and their independent personalities; the argument the show makes is not that they should be together (although it does sort of implictly make this argument through its quality), but rather that they each independently want to be with the other, and that this is a conclusion which they have come to as human beings rather than as much-shipped television characters on a network series.
I’m not one of those people who particularly cares about “Chuck and Sarah,” but I am one of those people who cares about Chuck, and Sarah, and their own journeys through this crazy life they’re living. In an episode which has a lot of fun moments which play into the lengthy period of romantic tension which led to this inevitable conclusion, there are also a lot of fun moments which are just the result of how much chemistry that Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have independent of a relationship, and how great the show’s stunt team is at making a low budget show look like an action film when it comes time to throw down.
The show can never be exclusively “about” Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, but so long as the show’s investigation of its potential results in episodes like this one which are damn entertaining entirely independent of the shipper mentality, I’d say that this little six-episode mini-season could be quite the ride.
“Chuck vs. the Other Guy”
April 5th, 2010
I’ve taken to referring to “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” as the “FormerFinale,” if only because I want to bring as much attention as possible to the fact that this week’s episode was written as the final episode of the show’s third season. The thirteen-episode order has been the cause of most of the show’s problems: the limited characterization of Daniel Shaw, the sporadic motivations of Sarah Walker, the forced characterization of the “changes” in Chuck’s personality, and the disappearing and reappearing cast members have all been a result of the original episode order and the budget cuts that came with it.
None of these problems, individually, have taken this season down, or fundamentally ruined the show’s premise or anything of that nature – I’m not the person who threw a stink when Chuck/Sarah weren’t immediately brought together, or someone who has been entirely against the character of Daniel Shaw (or Brandon Routh’s work in the role). However, collectively they have formed a sort of distance between the show and I, both as a critic (where certain episodes have struggled to pull things together) and as a fan (where the “fun” of the show has sort of disappeared in the rush to advance the show’s plots).
And so the “FormerFinale” was always going to be a turning point: before it was the point where the show would enter into the limbo of whether or not it would get an unlikely fourth season, and now it’s the point from which the final six episodes of the season will depart from. And for the first time all season, “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” lives up to every possible point of evaluation: as a “FormerFinale,” as a launching pad for the rest of the season and as an episode of the show overall, it delivered enough to turn a somewhat shaky start into an extremely promising future.
But it wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t enough to make me forget some of the missteps earlier this year.
“Chuck vs. the American Hero”
March 29th, 2010
Sometimes, when critics receive episodes in advance and when previews run rampant online, those of us without those episodes and who choose not to watch those previews nonetheless hear the basic content of an episode. And when it comes to this week’s episode of Chuck, it was absolutely impossible to ignore the subject matter of this week’s episode.
What’s interesting is that these responses were both positive and negative: news that this episode would directly speak to Chuck and Sarah’s relationship tends to divide the Chuck viewership between those who are excited about it because it’s the reason they watch the show and those who are excited about it because it means they might finally get around to resolving this issue. While some live or die based on this story, most viewers tend to view it as a part of the show that’s fine in small doses, and fine in theory, but occasionally overpowers the rest of the show’s narrative.
And so episodes like “Chuck vs. the American Hero” are either the highlight of the season or a necessary evil in order for the show to keep on track heading into the rest of the year; in this case, after a bit of a rough start, the episode manages to prove engaging enough and twisty enough that any of my concerns with their relationship were (mostly) pushed aside for the time being.
“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.
“Chuck vs. the Tic Tac”
March 15th, 2010
There have been numerous traces throughout Chuck’s third season that the producers were really working overtime in order to get all of this material into thirteen episodes. This has been a tremendously consistent season from a thematic standpoint, to the point where it’s almost overwhelming: in case you haven’t realized it, the season is about Chuck’s changing identity and notions of trust and belief within our group of individuals.
“Chuck vs. the Tic Tac” is one of the most direct examples of an episode that isn’t about Chuck, perhaps, but is unquestionably part of this ongoing development. This is a Casey episode, and quite a good one, but it is actually probably the most subtle and effective movement in the Chuck/Sarah story that we’ve had in a while. When the show becomes “about” Chuck and Sarah, it sort of slows to a crawl; when it uses other stories to bring to light issues that help offer depth to that whole situation, it seems more natural, comes across as less dominant within the show’s universe.
This is a highly micro-managed episode, one which resists any sort of subtlety in its core story, but it does some nice work where it needs to, and I’ll forgive its bluntness due to its success at setting the show on the right course heading forward.
“Chuck vs. the Ring”
April 27th, 2009
“Go with your heart, buddy – our brains only screw things up.”
In considering “Chuck vs. the Ring,” a title with two very different meanings, I think it’s important that we acknowledge just how amazing the accomplishment of the Chuck staff is when it comes to pulling off some of the most expansive material for a dramedy of this nature.
The first half of this episode is more or less an episode in its own right, one laden with numerous jokes, an amazing appearance by Jeffster, and what feels like a climax in and of itself. What is interesting is that, by the end of the episode, that storyline felt miles away, overshadowed by an amazingly epic conclusion that potentially changed everything. However, simultaneously, it was highly memorable and containing some of the best jokes in the episode. But when those elements would have felt overbearing, such as during that epic conclusion, they faded effortlessly into the background, never feeling separate but also never feeling like they were fighting in the same space.
It’s such an amazing balancing act, and when everyone in the cast is on fire, and when the writing is off the charts, and when Jeffster soundtracks an entire sequence with “Mr. Roboto,” it’s an example of how Chuck may not aim as high as some of the stronger dramas on television, or embrace absurdity as much as some of the biggest comedies, but in doing what it does I don’t feel there is a single other show that is this capable of executing this level of brilliance.
Forget about save Chuck – let’s praise Chuck for a while, and think with our hearts instead of our brains.
“Chuck vs. The Predator”
March 23rd, 2009
When we last left Chuck, Josh Schwartz had revealed that our protagonist had been, without our knowledge, compiling information about the mysterious Fulcrum in an effort to get the intersect out of his head. It was a smart reveal because it does a lot to enhance Chuck’s character in terms of his determination, not just a weak innocent but someone who is trying to take an active role in his future. And it also felt like the kind of thing that could create realistic tension in Chuck and Sarah’s professional relationship, which is a smart choice in diversifying their interactions after they’ve been coming up a bit stale.
And yet, the show surprised me by immediately blowing Chuck’s cover, bringing his investigation and Orion himself out into the open and ultimately “resolving” it in the span of a single hour. I felt the show was lazy with Chuck and Sarah, dragging it out with storylines too similar to one another, but “Chuck vs. the Predator” shows that they’re not making that mistake. While the episode eventually circles back around to where we started, it’s in a whole new way, which is far more complicated in its themes of mistrust and subterfuge than a simple “Chuck grows a pair” narrative.
It’s another sign that this show is operating at a different narrative level than you would have expected when it first premiered, and another element that NBC brass are hopefully paying attention to as they map out next year’s schedule.
“Chuck vs. The Lethal Weapon”
March 9th, 2009
Well, the second time’s the charm.
See, immediately upon watching last night’s episode of Chuck, I found myself preoccupied with just how similar it was to last week’s episode: it involves the same guest character (MI-6 agent Cole Barker), and the ways in which that character interacted with the group were more or less along the same lines. However, I soon realized that the sense of deja vu I was getting wasn’t making me think less of “Chuck vs. The Lethal Weapon,” which came together as a rather great episode by the end of the day, but rather I was kind of even more frustrated with “Chuck vs. the Beefcake,” last week’s tepid and repetitive story.
That’s not fair to “Chuck vs. the Lethal Weapon,” where everything from last week is that much better due to a decision to pair Chuck’s efforts to get Sarah Walker out of his head with his equally strong desire to get the intersect out of there as well. It means that Chuck isn’t just lovelorn or sad about his current existence, but rather that he is striving for a future, hoping for a chance to be normal. It’s something the show felt like it put on the backburner recently, and returning to it in earnest (and, at episode’s end, with a pretty substantial reveal) makes yet another trip to the relationship well completely justified.
“Chuck vs. the Best Friend”
February 23rd, 2009
Utilizing every one of its regular cast members other than Big Mike, “Chuck vs. the Best Friend” is the kind of episode that demonstrates the show’s confidence within its second season. It connects all of Chuck’s various world in numerous different ways, allowing for the Buy More storyline to intersect with Awesome and Ellie while Chuck’s spy storyline intersects with Morgan and Anna’s on and off relationship that is currently in the decidedly off position.
And although the episode doesn’t deal with the show’s ongoing mythology, or introduce a new dynamic into Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, this is an example of a show that knows its identity and knows it well. To be fair the episode, it actually did some of the show’s best Chuck and Morgan material to date, and at a certain point you start to realize that even their mostly perfunctory bromance can be milked for some considerable drama in scenarios like this one.
If a show is going to have a “Flash of the Week,” it needs to do one of two things: make it stand out from an action/suspense point of view or connect it to the show’s characters. What Chuck has decided to do this season is show up every other show by doing both at the same time. It’s made for some darn great television.