Chuck – “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer”

“Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer”

October 27th, 2008

With some shows, enjoyment is just enough.

Chuck is in a unique position this season, already given a full season order even while its ratings are struggling. That NBC was willing to shell out a back nine for a show based on quality alone does, indeed, say something about its rather dire pilot situation, but more importantly it says something about the show’s quality: in the early part of this season, Chuck is perhaps the most “on” series of all.

So while I haven’t been dissecting each individual episode like I have been with Mad Men, know that I’ve been spending the past few weeks enjoying the wonderful world of Chuck Bartowski. With “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer,” it’s a much smaller world than we’re even used to: it takes place almost exclusively in the Buy More (Outside of one particularly stimulating excursion), it features no fancy new identities, and has nothing cluse to what you might call stuntcasting.

However, it has everything else: it has tension between Chuck’s two lives, it has some great integration of the Buy More crew, it has the emphasis on Sarah being placed into attractive costumes and shown in slow motion, and ends with moments of meaningful (and awesome) moments of character achievement. I don’t know what kind of frequency Chuck is operating on this year, but “Tom Sawyer” is as good a choice as any.

Truth be told, I would have been completely ignorant to the genius of “Tom Sawyer” (the song by 70s Progressive Rockers Rush) if not for the joys of Rock Band, the music video game that features a cover (and, later, a master copy via Download) of the track. But here, it plays the perfect role of something that would be just complex enough rhythmically to exist within this conceit. The idea that the code could be hidden in the video game is a bit far-fetched, and Atari hasn’t existed as a corporate entity for years now, but what makes the story work is that there’s something just plain cool about the idea. It integrates music (already a key theme this season, and used with great focus throughout the episode) with the story itself, and eventually gives Chuck to save the world through a very Chuck-like medium.

What’s made Chuck work so well this season is its ability to slow down. Both of Josh Schwartz’s shows (this and The CW’s Gossip Girl) are in a period of transition, but with Gossip Girl everything goes from 0-60 within a single episode. Here, we get a slow introduction to the new Assistant Manager (played as an intelligent rendition of Buster Bluth by the awesome Tony Hale), who isn’t immediately this super villain figure within our storylines. Similarly, the first few episodes haven’t used Chuck’s lack of direction as a crutch, but let (after the intersect was destroyed) him get settled before Sarah raises the concern here and, eventually, it is settled in a highly satisfying fashion.

It’s like the entire show is a pay-off for things we didn’t know we wanted: did we know that Jeff would serve as such a genius comic device, whether through his hair, his drunken passing out in Chuck’s Apartment (“You take the brunette, I’ll take the blonde, *falls on floor*”), his “I’m Lost” card, or his eventual return to the glory of Missile Command in the episode’s final coda? And, were we really hoping for a “King of Kong” inspired montage of 40-something nerds all descending on the Buy More for an epic stage-twirling showdown organized by “4-time Mamma Mia! roadie” Morgan?

The episode was a great collection of little moments that felt more in vein with the show’s M.O. (Sarah in the Nerd Herd outfit is perhaps the finest example, Captain Awesome’s “wang” line being another) and then this totally out of left field collection of fantastic ideas. I guess we should get used to this: greatness is no longer some surprising improvement over an uneven first season, but a consistent reminder that Chuck may well be the most fun you can have this season.

Cultural Observations

  • There was some good use of Chuck as Interesect tonight: the flashes moved the plot along without the need for any big moments, and while it could have limited the impact of the near-world-ending satellite issue I think that the smallness (mostly for budget reasons) felt justified within the story of the episode. I do wonder whether the intersect really works as it did when Chuck flashed on the TV station (I know he just got it updated, but that seemed to be on-the-fly information) through the TV, but I’m willing to go with it.
  • The show had a lot of fun with a lot of the little things in this episode: Jeff’s amazing Anna-stalker video (lame use of musical montage, Tony Hale? I think not!), Anna’s hula outfit, plus the great little introduction to the episode where it appears that there was a mission we didn’t get to see. The fake moustache/cover identities bit was really neat, as it gives us a sense that there’s things we’re not seeing.
  • And yes, it was impossible to look Captain Awesome in the eye knowing what he did when he was on Mad Men on Sunday night (No spoilers for those who haven’t watched the latter yet, but Ryan McPartlin shows up in a key guest role).
  • I can’t believe I (at first) forgot to mention the joke that made my tech geek side laugh the hardest: the Zune/iPod line was executed with sheer brilliant timing, and with a sense of geek culture so strong that I don’t know if this show can be topped in that department.

2 Comments

Filed under Chuck

2 responses to “Chuck – “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer”

  1. Pingback: The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Chuck - “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer” « Cultural Learnings

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