“Chuck vs. the Beefcake”
March 2nd, 2009
Two weeks ago, I spent a great deal of my review discussing what I feel is Chuck’s achilles heel, the relationship between Chuck and Sarah. I want to clarify that I am not against their pairing: Levy and Strahovski have great chemistry, both actors can bring great dramatic material to the table, and the show is often at its best when it is delving into their relationship. No, the problem is not the characters themselves, but rather the show’s lack of movement in terms of their relationship.
It’s becoming a cliche, in other words, and this episode was ultimately no different: just as Bryce interrupted their relationship by returning to the scene, and just as Jill’s return earlier in the season turned the tables on Sarah, here we saw an MI-6 agent weasel his way into their lives and offer a more accomplished, more suave and potentially more realistic pairing for Sarah Walker. There will come a point where they are going to have to actually fundamentally change their relationship in order to keep things interesting.
But I spent enough time two weeks ago complaining about this, and the end of this week’s episode seems to indicate that some changes are on the way. While I remain wary, I also have to be honest: the show has so much working for it right now that even episodes that feel like they’re relying too heavily on one of the show’s elements end up coming out, if viewed in isolation of recurring trends, pretty solid.
And this is no exception.
You can go read my review from two weeks ago for the Chuck and Sarah stuff: this is a direct sequel to that storyline, and it more or less treads the same material. Chuck is still in love with Sarah but can’t stand being just her cover boyfriend, his family and friends waffle between telling him to follow his mind or his heart’s true feelings without realizing the complicated nature of their situation, and Casey just wishes that he didn’t have to deal with the most awkward romance of all time happening right in front of him. None of these things are bad, and in fact I’d argue this is a better episode (in and of itself) than many others that delved into this relationship: by bringing Ellie and Awesome, and even Morgan, into the picture, you get a better sense of how their relationship looks to others and how their jobs are a complication.
The week’s storyline, also, nicely intersected (I made a funny!) with the storyline when its consequences (which are finally ratcheting up a bit more) designate that Sarah and Chuck are to spend a lot more time together as “roommates.” It wasn’t made entirely clear whether or not Chuck was actually made, or if the threat had just increased substantially, so we don’t really know if “foreseeable future” means that this is going to become something permanent or whether it’s just going to be another bump in the road, not that dissimilar to the one in “Chuck vs. the Suburbs” that started this whole awkwardness off in terms of marriage. I feel like the two episodes would have worked better back-to-back for this season, but understand their decision and feel like we’re still headed into a new range of their relationship at this point.
The way we got to that point, of course, was through the introduction of Cole Barker, who Alan Sepinwall describes as “Bryce Larkin with an accent and a five o’clock shadow.” It’s a very apt description, and he really doesn’t do anything fundamentally different. However, he does live a life of adventure: Sarah trying to seduce him and getting herself in a tight spot, Casey shooting it out with the fake mother and the Fulcrum men, a helicopter exploding: all of it was exciting, and unlike season one’s weaker episodes felt connected to our characters. When Chuck hacked into the chip, it was for character reasons, having been written off as a technician and not even given a chance to take a crack at showing he could do more. On that level, the episode felt like it was still operating with the right characters in the right setting.
The torture scene at the end actually felt pulled from one of those early episodes (I believe it was “Chuck vs. The Helicopter,” which as the sophomore episode was quite maligned and which, considering Chuck faced off with a helicopter in this episode, an apt comparison), but this time around it felt so much more vibrant: Chuck fainting at the sight of the needle or being queasy about torture could have felt off early in the series, but here it wasn’t just about his weaknesses and more about his desire to be brave, his desire to be given some sort of credit for who he was. There was something underlying his behaviour, and while I felt he was a bit more whiny than he’s been the rest of the season (complaining about the pre-torture seemed a bit off considering that he’s seen a lot of torture) it was nonetheless an enjoyable few scenes.
But the show is capable of more than that, when they want to branch into new territory. The Buy More stuff was a bit sharper, but even it fell a bit too hard on the show’s cliches: Jeff hatching the plan to get creepy swimsuit models with Lester is one thing, but when he is naked under a robe and pulling a Basic Instinct? I dunno, something just lost me there, even though there was some clever (but not as broad) stuff in their actual dialogue (I really enjoyed “Four to Seven Figures” as a way to entice people to come). Similarly, Morgan’s trauma at the idea of Big Mike and his mother being together was well-played, and Morgan and Chuck as roommates would certainly be interesting if they go through with it and Sarah is involved.
For me, Chuck is a show that can get away with episodes like this: you spend so much time enjoying what you’re given that the inevitable sense that this is a holding pattern, that it was one last grasp at this now overdone dynamic before they move onto something new, doesn’t bother you as much as it might on another show where you aren’t enjoying yourself, where there isn’t some chemistry between the characters involved, and where you are growing more impatient than, well, slightly concerned. And I certainly don’t consider myself impatient with Chuck, just that I want the best for its future and hope they get to it sooner rather than later.
- A lot of Casey in this episode, which is surprising because it largely has nothing to do with him – he didn’t get too much action, and not even that many quibs, but you got a real sense of how frustrating it must be to have to deal with this on a regular basis.
- The episode got a bit of an uptick in the ratings, but it might have taken the advertised “Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models” in order to get it. The show also didn’t have a new episode of House to go against, so its future remains in doubt but there’s some strong support behind the show.
- Morgan showing up naked in Ellie and Awesome’s apartment was kind of terrifying, to be entirely honest with you, only because the show seems to imply that we could be seeing more of it in the future. Also, this seems like something Chuck should have known, and that he should have warned both Ellie (and we, the viewer, about).