Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Dream Job”

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“Chuck vs. the Dream Job”

April 6th, 2009

Chuck Bartowski really only wants one thing in life: to get the intersect out of his head. However, at the same time, there are things that he needs in his life that always take precedence, his relationship with his sister being one of them. The show has always played it fast and loose as it relates to the way in which Chuck’s life as a CIA asset interacts with his domestic sphere, but in this episode there is little to no Buy More, and we find instead the convergence between Chuck’s most pressing desire and his most constant duty.

The way “Chuck vs. the Dream Job” handles this is, for the most part, predictably solid: this is not a revolutionary hour for the series, both in how the episode was plotted and the level to which anyone with half a brain called its “big reveal” as soon as Orion came on the scene. However, the show deserves a lot of credit for turning the predictable into the effective, and for doing a bangup job with casting as expected: both Scott Bakula, late of NBC’s Quantum Leap, and Chevy Chase provide that ideal combination of levity and potential menace to their respective characters.

It’s also another sign that Zachary Levi perhaps deserves more credit than he gets for his role on the show – that he is able to switch from comic pratfalls to realistic romantic drama to this week’s quite nuanced self-discovery demonstrates that the show’s star is far from a one-trick pony. And while I love the show’s comedy, and appreciate its romance, I often like it best when it finds itself in the family dynamics, the drama built less on drawn out tension and more on the idea that this character was someone before he was the intersect, before his life was a TV show; and it’s that sense that convinces me above all else that a TV show should be his future as well.

I will be honest in saying that this hour had almost zero suspense for me: while there was always the possibility that Chase’s Ted Roark would end up being an unwitting participant in the whole shebang, it was pretty clear as of Orion’s first appearance (and even before when the search for Orion coincided with the foreshadowing of the search for Chuck’s father) that Bakula would end up being something more than just Chuck’s father, and the episode did nothing to hide this fact. Other than reminding me a bit too much of Fringe (two research partners, one becoming insane and the other becoming a billionaire developer?), the storyline just really felt like more of a frame: it was a way to provide for Chuck the simultaneous emotions of hope (of a new job, of a new life) and eventually despair (the loss of his father and the loss of any hope that things will become normal).

That’s always the toughest part of the series to watch: when the show becomes about how much Chuck has suffered, how much he has been held back or beaten by his position and everything that has happened to him, you just become sad. There was something so freeing about seeing Chuck at Roark Instruments, giddy at the bathrooms and struggling to sit on an exercise ball, but we also know that it’s all a mirage: yes, he earned the job on his own credentials and an alumni connection, but he also only had an interview because the CIA organized it. That is hardly a positive message, and who can blame Chuck for bolting the second he re-entered the Buy More; going back there would be admitting defeat in a way, and Chuck deserves the chance to do something for himself for a change.

And the episode gave him that opportunity: Sarah and Casey were almost entirely out of the picture in this one, partly due to Chuck tranquilizing Casey in a hilarious scene and partly thanks to the way the episode operated, and it allowed him to come to terms with all of this on his own terms. Chuck is dealing with everything from all sides, and the episode was smart to keep the focus there: there was the small moment with Morgan but nothing too distracting, and even Jeff and Lester’s involvement was kept to a minimum if only to allow for everything to return to a simpler relationship for Chuck. He can’t deal with Morgan, his father, Roark and Ellie/Awesome, and the episode is smart to limit their influence, making his struggle more existential than interpersonal.

There was plenty of the latter elsewhere, all handled with deft touch by the strongest dramatic parts of the cast: Sarah Lancaster is often given too little to do, but she proves here that she is fully capable of transitioning into more of a lead role when she needs to. The show has come so far with Ellie and Awesome that breaking them up was never going to happen, but the way in which they resolved things felt organic and a nice sort of side effect of Papa Bartowski’s return. Chuck’s domestic life is really the heart of the show, and I really hope they never lose that: the thing which eventually killed Alias in some ways was when it dumped Sydney’s domestic life in favour of a balance of only work and romance, something which never clicked because there was no tie to a former life. Ellie and Awesome are that tie for Chuck, and here they were a nice antidote to the more serious spy drama with something a little less complicated but perhaps more human.

This isn’t to say that the ending, with Chuck being pulled back by Sarah and Casey as his father sacrifices himself to build an intersect in order to keep Chuck alive, isn’t effective: sure, we knew that Chuck couldn’t have the intersect removed from his head since it would effectively end the show, but the slow motion sequence had the right level of emotional levity for this point in the season. Bakula was strong in the role of Orion, balancing crazy and genius as well as you could expect, although I have my usual qualms about someone seeming suddenly 99% less crazy as soon as we know their true identity, without any real acknowledgement that they had been acting crazy on purpose before. Beyond that, though, I thought the resemblance to Levi was closer than I expected, and it’s another casting coup.

As for Chevy Chase, I look forward to seeing more from him: pairing him off with Arnold Vosloo gave him a good sense of evil mastermind, but I feel like we have more to learn about Ted Roark – I don’t know what next episode’s mission is really going to involve, but I do hope that we get a better sense of how Roark got into Fulcrum, how it began, and whether he’s someone who has been corrupted by their influence or has been doing the corruption. Chase has left enough wiggle room in the character for him to go either way, so that’s something for the show to build on.

I’ll admit right now that this episode was no revolution for me: I like this show a lot, love it quite often, but an episode like this was a bit too predictable for me to view it as a real revolution for the series. However, at the same time, it’s the closest thing to a really dramatic hour the show has done, and on that front they deserve a lot of credit: the balance they pull off every week is tough enough, but to suddenly switch gears to an almost entirely dramatic hour is not something more hour-long dramedies can do this effectively. I think a lot of the enormously positive reaction to this episode are fans pre-empting its potential cancellation, and I am entirely in support of that initiative; at the same time, part of me hopes that the show is able to use this as a launching pad to something which blows away my (admittedly high) expectations as opposed to just fulfilling them in fine form.

Cultural Observations

  • The scene with Chuck tranquilizing Casey was really the episode’s only piece of broad comedy: it was a smart choice, as it served as a nice moment where Chuck’s drive to succeed forced him to make some tough decisions. It was smarter to make this about Casey as opposed to Sarah: the latter would have been too awkward, too mired in romantic tension, and as noted above the show has done enough of that to last all season. Focusing on the more visceral relationship Chuck shares with Casey made for better comedy and less emotional complication, which was the ideal combination.
  • The song which recurred at the end of the episode was Glasvegas’ “Daddy’s Gone,” and definitely seemed like another really smart music choice for the show.
  • I’m aware that the trope of two partners splitting and one becoming more successful is quite common, so Chuck wasn’t “ripping off” Fringe, but the ways in which the two storylines manifested really reminded me of that FOX series, which coincidentally returns with new episodes tomorrow night.
  • The preview for next week indicates that we’re seeing a returning guest star, and all I’ll say is that I’m pleased to see that one come back around, especially since it indicates this Chuck-centric focus will remain in place.
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