Chuck – “Chuck vs. The Sensei”

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“Chuck vs. The Sensei”

December 1st, 2008

Any show coming out of a major story arc is going to have a bit of a tough time of their next episode. This isn’t to say that the episode is going to be bad, but rather that it’s inevitable: whether Lost after their premieres or Battlestar Galactica after its inevitable midseason pit stops, there’s going to be a point when the rising action has reached its climax and it’s too soon for the next story to really pick up.

This was, for Chuck, as good a time as any to return to the past of one John Casey, stern-faced Buy More employee in one life and…stern-faced NSA agent in the other. While I like seeing more of Casey, the episode spends a lot of time plainly stating that John Casey only has one speed: mad. There is no inner calm in John Casey, and while we get one moment of unquestioned humanity in the episode there is, for the most part, not going to be something approaching the emotional side that we get so often from Sarah.

But Adam Baldwin knows how to play mad, and the show knows how to balance an episode like this; while it doesn’t help it rise above the show’s standard this season, the choice to parallel Casey’s past with Ellie’s upcoming wedding and the pressures of in-laws offered a good chance for the storyline to slowly move forward even as Casey faces off against a familiar face from his past (and ours, as far as the TV spy game goes).

While I think Casey is an important part of this show, the show has an inner calm and he doesn’t – it’s what sets the show apart from other shows that have tried this quasi-procedural genre show (Fringe is growing out of it, but it struggled for such peace in the beginning), and is something that both Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have been able to display this season. Adam Baldwin is a great actor, but the role doesn’t ask for him to do the same: he’s there to have questionable motives, to present a threat to Chuck’s nerdy banter, and to offer some hilarious quips and one-liners of his own. While it seems odd that the most serious character on the show, personality-wise, is as much a sidekick as Morgan, he’s the action/spy equivalent.

The big issue in this episode is that the stakes were only high for Casey: after we saw Chuck in such immediate danger in last week’s episode, both physically and emotionally, it seemed that by the end of this episode I had no real emotional attachment to his situation. This isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just inevitable in an episode focused around Casey. It just felt like Chuck taking a backseat felt weird: when he was in the truck opening doors, he felt like a sidekick, and it’s been quite a few episodes since Chuck has been in that role. Even in Sarah’s flashback episode, Chuck was the lead negotiator thanks to his relationship with…Cory from Boy Meets World, and here it felt weird for him to take such a backseat.

Still, compared to last season’s less consequential episodes, this was a huge improvement – having a central and interesting villain makes all the difference, and was one of the things that the show chose to focus on this year. It led to some early stuntcasting, but it all worked out really well. Carl Lumbly (Dixon on Alias) fit right in here, even if the role was a little bit thin. We know Casey’s loyalty to the government is never really a question (except when driven by revenge or anger in situations when he can use Chuck to his advantage), but I would have liked to see his former Sensei actually almost sway him over to his side for some form of rhetoric. Instead, while we got some good looks at Ty Bennett’s past life, we didn’t really get to see how he built up this stable of agents, and the MacGuffin was not particularly inspired.

Regardless, it came together in that final scene: while it felt weird to see Chuck so marginalized, I thought that his role in provoking Mad Casey in order to finish the fight was a nice touch, and the final “Thanks” at episode’s end was the right combinining of begrudging and, well, a grudge. I don’t necessarily know how many Casey episodes the show can really sustain, but I thought that this was a fairly solid outing for the character and the show.

What perhaps helped that was the other side of the story, with Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner arriving as The Awesomes, Devin’s parents. Sarah Lancaster has been pretty marginalized all year, but she did some good work here as the in-laws became progressively more controlling and, most importantly, started to make presumptions about some things that she had thought about more than others. Returning to the question of Chuck and Sarah’s father is an interesting turn of events, and perhaps a necessary one: the show has never really addressed what happened to him (although past events referred to him as more aloof than absent, in sharp contrast with their mother who seems to be either deceased or fully departed).

Privileged just did a storyline somewhat similar to this one, and I’m glad that Chuck has taken its time getting there: while we haven’t yet met Mr. Bartowski, I have faith that the casting department will grab someone great, as both Fairchild and Boxleitner were perfectly cast (if underused) as Awesome’s parents. Really, though, the storyline wasn’t about Awesome so much as that final scene with Chuck and Ellie. Levi and Lancaster got to do some strong work there, and their sibling bond is one of the show’s best qualities. While last season it was an Alias-like bond to a more human world, this seasn it hasn’t felt as special due to the strong emotional content within the spy stories themselves. It was kind of nice to return to it here, and likely in the future as well.

There was also a Buy More storyline in here, but it was pretty slight: Morgan decides to play off Chuck’s disinterest in Buy More affairs to play spoiler to Emmett’s Employee of the Month program, and in the process screws himself, Jeff and Lester out of a chance for a big screen TV. It was a storyline, like all Buy More storylines, about small moments: Jeff’s insistence that Saturdays were date night, Jeff’s angry tirade at the customer, the idea of Commando Wednesdays ever being instituted at all, yet alone reinstituted, and just the general fun stuff they’ve been doing with the store this season. I am disappointed that Anna still isn’t back, as it would be nice to have a female perspective on some of these things, but I understand the issues of casting balance (and she appears to be filming a movie as well).

Overall, an episode that certainly felt less powerful than the Jill Roberts trilogy but, ultimately, regained its footing and has the show still very much on even ground.

Cultural Observations

  • Carl Lumbly looks darn good for a man pushing 60, even if he was likely body doubled for most of his martial arts work. He is still in great shape, probably partially from his Alias days, and it was great to see him back in form. Still, much with Melinda Clarke’s guest spot earlier this season, the accent and stoic personality kept him from embracing by favourite side of his former character: Dixon’s hilarious disguise/accent combinations designed to let Sidney do her business.
  • One of the best scenes in the episode was Chuck’s MacGuyver-esque escape from his handcuffed state – it was the one time in the episode where Chuck was left to just kind of be Chuck, and as a result it really stood out. I wanted a bit more of that in the rest of the storyline, but the show did a decent job in that scene of transition from “Chuck as Center of Attention” to “Chuck as Entertaining Part of an Ensemble.” Rest of the episode was a bit rougher, but it’ll iron itself out.
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