Season Premiere: Chuck – “Chuck Versus the First Date”

“Chuck Versus The First Date”

September 29th, 2008

When the TV critics started receiving their screeners for the first three episodes of Chuck’s first season, there was a lot of very positive things being said about the show really flourishing in its sophomore episodes. When the first six episodes were watched by NBC, they saw enough growth to give the show its Back Nine before it even aired an episode. And when the first episode streamed on Hulu.com, iTunes and Amazon a week ago, reviews were simple: this is a show that knows where it’s going.

For those of us who followed it last year, this news is that much more welcome. This was a show that everyone kind of appreciated, whether it was Adam Baldwin’s angry John Casey, the charm of Zachary Levi’s Chuck Bartowski, or the beauty of Yvonne Strakhowski’s Sarah. The problem was that it felt like we were appreciating parts and not the whole: while there were building blocks that really clicked on an individual level, trying to find a balance between the spy antics, the interpersonal team dynamics between Chuck/Sarah/Casey, Chuck’s relationship with his family, and the antics of the Buy More employees was something that couldn’t be done in only twelve episodes of a strike-shortened season.

But Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak went back to the drawing board over the lengthy break, and they’ve come back with a bang: even with an “imposing” guest star, the need for heavy exposition to welcome back (or welcome in) viewers, and a lot of emotional baggage from last season, Chuck is at its finest for its premiere – if it can continue on this trend, this is (as many have called it) the show to watch in the coming season.

In what one has to take as one of the most ingenious ways of bringing exposition into the action itself, we open on Chuck being held over a ledge by the monstrous and quite funny Michael Clarke Duncan. He goes through and explains the setup: he saw government secrets, he’s an important spy/agent, and he isn’t actually very good at the stealth parts of this job. Of course, we know all of this as fans, but it’s a solid introduction. The episode as a whole surrounds this basic idea: with the new intersect about to come up and running, Chuck is starting to move away from the job as he knew it before in favour of a new life.

The new life is complicated, of course, and for good reason: Sarah and Casey are going to get resassigned, and we are aware that Casey is under strict orders to kill Chuck as soon as it goes online. Now, anyone with half a brain should surely realize that Chuck won’t be dying, nor will Sarah and Casey be leaving the series, so there’s little surprise when at episode’s end the new Intersect explodes, Sarah will need a new CIA supervisor, and we still have ourselves a show. But allowing Chuck to have this glimpse of a normal life allows them to ratchet up the romantic tension between Chuck and Sarah, to focus on his role at the Buy More, and even his relationship with his sister and Captain Awesome.

The episode is smart like this, as it does lay things on thick otherwise. The episode has the most simplistic of MacGuffins, and it is more about being clever than about being action-packed or suspenseful. One of the smartest things is the episode is the neat integration of Morgan’s Call of Duty game plan, a part of Chuck’s life that he is trying to put behind him on his path to something bigger than the Buy More, into his predicament in the spy game. It’s the kind of thing that represents the kind of balance the show has strived for: where the events that can seem comic and frivolous in the context of the Buy More can come full circle to present nice cohesion to each individual episode.

Nothing about the show has changed, but something about its overall quality has: Casey still loves Ronald Reagan (Love him hiding the antidote behind Reagan’s picture), Sarah still fights bad guys (the choreography with her and Clarke Duncan was inspired), and Chuck still gets in over his head at work, at the spy game, and with the genius of Captain Awesome. But something about all of these elements work better in their new forms: the show seems to be taking the responsibility of getting a second season at all to heart, focusing on what works best when it matters most.

That critics are claiming this as the start of a trend is all the more welcome – it shows that the show isn’t just using this relaunching pad to head onto the same old path, but really using the lessons we saw in place here to advance the series even more. When it comes to these shows stopped early by the strike, there was every chance they’d come back feeling limp and underdeveloped: instead, Chuck feels like it is on a sophomore surge (credit for the politically relevant term goes to Alan Sepinwall), and one that I can wholeheartedly say is working wonders for Monday night television.

Cultural Observations

  • The Buy More comedy is solid in this episode, as we see Lester take over as Assistant Manager and Morgan having to come to terms with a bit more responsibility and devolving into pure chaos in the jumping suits. Note also that Jeff, Lester and Anna have all been added to the main credits – while too much Buy More is never good, being added to the cast reflects the new balanced approach the show is making.
  • Zachary Levi played this episode very well, from Chuck’s date with Sarah (Which nicely called back to their first date in the pilot), to his very real emotional struggle coming to terms with a potential future that includes travel, and education and personal achievement.
  • Really liked Michael Clarke Duncan’s guest spot, but I liked more the great scene where Casey drove into the restaurant, and the requisite line from Chuck chiding him for thinking up the one-liner and not saving them a bit sooner.
  • Completely forgot to mention the awesome use of Huey Lewis to signify Chuck’s various wake-up moods. Wonderful.
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3 Comments

Filed under Chuck

3 responses to “Season Premiere: Chuck – “Chuck Versus the First Date”

  1. Nikki

    I just watched it and totally agree with your review. I’ve been a fan since the first episode because the show’s formula is really addictive.
    Brainy sensitive guy who’s definitely not ugly+a so-weird-it-works CIA duo+ almost as funny as The Office co-workers+super cool action scenes+moments of bittersweet yearning= A show that keeps me coming back for more!
    Okay, I know thats really cheesy. By the way, showing Sarah in her underwear ALL THE TIME is really sexist…I guess they tried to make up for it by showing Captain Awesome working out and in the shower.

  2. scenescreen

    Very nice review, though all of yours are, and I couldn’t agree more on pretty much everything. And thanks for linking to mine also.

    To Nikki: TV shows will probably always be using their hot actresses to rope in more viewers, and the more of their bodies in sight, the better. But like you said, Captain Awesome and his awesome body and thrown at you even more often, so you can’t really say this show is taking a sexist approach.

  3. I’m so glad to have Chuck back. This episode reminded me of all the reasons why I love Chuck.

    http://redlightnaps.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/chuck-vs-the-first-date/

    Starting with Adam Baldwin. His dry humor cracks me up. And I knew he wouldn’t be able to kill Chuck.

    And the Buy Mores scenes were top notch. Hmm . . . Performance reviews are due soon. Maybe I can set up my own cage match here at the office.

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