“Chuck vs. the Helicopter”
Season One, Episode Two
There was a time when I wasn’t sure if Chuck was going to work, and I’ll admit right now that Chuck vs. the Helicopter was the beginning of this feeling. As I noted last week as we started this Chuck Me Mondays project, I really liked the pilot, but this episode kind of lost me due to a few little plotting quirks, some of them the result of the traditional post-pilot adjustments and others a problem of definition. It may seem odd now that we’ve seen two seasons worth of the show, especially the amazing work in season two, but there was a time when Chuck was really struggling to find its footing.
That said, there are plenty of things to like about this episode that, if suffering from a bit of a necessary but offputting crisis of character, nonetheless send the show on the right path moving forward.
The biggest problem with this episode is that it spends its entirety pitting Sarah and Casey against each other, playing up the CIA/NSA tension that honestly never did the show any good. It was an overcomplicated bit of character development: Sarah and Casey are already opposites due to one being a killer and the other being more emotional, and it was possible for this to emerge in cooperation rather than opposition. The story of the good doctor trying to kidnap them and learn the identity of the Intersect was muddled at best, a simple excuse to create paranoia that never really reaches a worthwhile conclusion. Because of this, it feels like exactly what it is: a mission that both moves Chuck further away from solving his predicament and that establishes Casey and Sarah as very different personalities.
It just seemed like the entire episode was a response to a network note that they needed to do more to expand on their characters, rather than actual organic development; it’s a second pilot, this one ignoring Chuck’s development in favour of giving a sense of his dynamic with his new handlers. But the show goes into such better detail later (Sarah’s back story, Casey’s car, etc.) which give them much greater definition. They just tried to do too much in this one by handling the Sarah/Casey storyline while trying to position this as plot movement on the question of the intersect. The show did so much better with these kinds of stories later on that to see Schwartz and Fedak struggling a bit is a real testimony to how far the show has come.
The episode introduces a lot of fan favourite elements: the geek references (Chuck details the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 during his flashes), the Wienerlicious uniform, “Stay in the Car, Chuck,” as well as John Casey’s penchant for one-liners (“I don’t kid about quiche” is a classic). At the same time, it also introduces an element that has always felt particularly clunky and almost lazy, which is Chuck’s nerd credibility proving highly valuable in the middle of high calibre spy missions. The show does this much better later on (Michael Clarke Duncan comes to mind, first and foremost), but then there’s an awareness to it in Chuck. Here, it’s dumb luck he ends up flying the helicopter, an excuse for them to make Chuck more central to the mission. There’s just a nuance missing here that the show eventually discovers, much to my delight as a critic considering the parts themselves are strong.
The acting remains strong across the board here. Sure, the show didn’t figure out what to do with Joshua Gomez all season, and the Buy More folk remain criminally underdeveloped, but Baldwin and Strahovski get to nail some dramatic beats as well as a kickass fight scene, and Sarah Lancaster and Ryan McPartlin get to come into focus a bit more. Similarly, while McG might have run off to direct something else, I thought that the direction held up pretty well, as the fight scene was well shot and the opening action beat was similarly sharp (plus John Casey tackling people is pretty fun in general).
It’s really weird revisiting this one for a lot of reasons, but perhaps most profound is the visit to Bryce’s funeral at the end of the episode. There are two reasons this is awkward, and I’ll focus only on the non-spoilery one: simply put, it doesn’t feel like a realistic note for this episode. We don’t even know Bryce, and the episode spends so little time focusing on Bryce outside of some awkward dinner conversation, so why is his funeral such a centerpiece of the story? If the first episode had made him into a real character, and made his death more of a tragedy, I can buy its role here, but it’s a reall awkward coda that I think could have quite easily been excised without much of a loss to Sarah’s character or any other.
Overall, it’s a solid enough episode (with some great physical comedy, fun performances, fun lines, etc.) overall, but it just pales in comparison to what comes after (especially since next week’s episode is particularly great).
Cultural SPOILER Observations
- What I’m curious about is how this doctor connects with Alpha – we never got a full understanding of the creation of the computer, and it definitely seems like the back story was re-written slightly to include a few other people as time went on. That’s the joy of a nebulous target: anyone and everyone can be connected in ways you didn’t imagine.
- It’s odd, though, that we don’t get any of that here: Fulcrum has yet to be defined, and that seemed like it would have been a more logical way to broach the subject of Sarah and Casey’s differing opinions here. But, then again, I don’t run TV shows.