“Chuck vs. the Tango”
Season One, Episode Three
In its pilot, Chuck was a show with a great deal of potential. In its second episode, it was a show that still hadn’t quite pieced together its dynamic. And, when it first aired in 2007, I won’t tell a lie: through two episodes I was not quite sold.
And then came “Chuck vs. the Tango,” an episode that is the earliest sign of the show that this would eventually become. It’s the moment when the Nerd Herd would come into its own as a legitimate source of comedy and antics, when Chuck would enter the field as Charles Carmichael, and when nearly every sphere of the series would come into its own simultaneously.
In revisiting the episode, and revisiting my own comments, it is clear that this is the moment that I officially made the leap from an interested party to an outright fan of Chuck Bartowski and the world that surrounds him.
When I wrote a quick review (of sorts) in October 2007, I said the following:
The situations in the episode, while technically stretching the show’s premise, were perfect: it put Chuck in conflict with his friends, in awkward and new situations with the tango, and to new points in his relationship with Sarah. It was essentially an episode of Alias but played for comedy. Chuck had to learn new skills and techniques, but instead of doing so to great effect he klutzed his way throught it. And it was funny: Alias always had its humorous side, and played to full effect it’s allowing Chuck to come into its own. Having never purported to being a plot-driven series, the character-building is great: the villainness was portrayed well, the plot was simple enough to follow, and it felt like the kind of adventure that we actually like watching.
What’s funny about this comment is that I thought this was stretching the show’s premise, which was the exact opposite of what was going on here. This was an extension of the best variety, a show that desperately needed such a stretching to best utilize its resources. It’s the first episode that really took the show intro procedural territory, but in doing so is able to more effectively define its characters than any of the previous episodes. With the setup all out of the way, the show doesn’t need to pit Sarah and Casey against each other, or have Chuck struggling to face the existential scenario that faces him. Instead, the focus is on letting these characters free, and by god it’s fun.
Starting with Devon teaching Chuck the female part of the Tango, a visual and music sequence that sets the tone, the episode does what the best episodes of the show do: it integrates Chuck’s family and friends into his spy existence, and the Buy More becomes an intricate (and in this case clever) element of the episode. When things come together in the end, as La Ciudad takes the fight into the store, the bit about the lock becomes a story point, and microwave ovens become an awesome, awesome punchline (“That’s what I call moving some merchandise?” Still amazing). It’s just a great way to keep everything from feeling like separate storylines, and offers a complex and satisfying conclusion.
Along the way, there’s some great work all around, especially from Zachary Levi. He’s always been strong in the role, but here he was a little bit less frantic than he was out of his element, comfortable with playing the role on one level (Charles Carmichael is, after all, an alt universe version of himself) but also not prepared for knives or anything else. It wasn’t entirely played for laughs, though, as Levi also got to handle meeting up with a (more successful) classmate during the mission. I had forgotten about that runner entirely, but it really speaks to his anxiety at this point, especially when at episode’s end he notes that even when he helps apprehend a notorious arms dealer the next day he’s still going to be fixing computers (I’ll discuss a bit more on this in spoilers below).
It was also the first episode where we got to see Jeff and Lester, and the rest of the Buy More crew, start to emerge from their shells, and it resulted in Morgan’s most tolerable episode yet. The idea that the Buy More is a drain on Chuck’s life has never entirely gone away, but the show has balanced this by making it a funny and enjoyable place for us as viewers to spend our time, regardless of whether Chuck is present. We get more definitive moments of Lester being full of himself and Jeff being totally off-the-wall in their responses to what gender-neutral terms he could use to call his team: Lester goes with “the Lesters,” while Jeff goes with “Chuck’s stable of Ho’s.” Morgan, meanwhile, is not exactly what one would call likeable here, but his devotion to Chuck feels more logically placed, and his fear of computers was a quirk that wasn’t designed to annoy, which is a step in the right direction.
The entire episode is a step in the right direction: it takes a straightforward plot, lets its characters loose in it, and the result is just as exhilarating as the finale with less explosions. This is the show that would eventually emerge in the second season, and for me this episode could stand alongside some of the best of those later episodes.
- One has to wonder if episodes like these will be a thing of the past now that Chuck knows kung-fu, but at the same time Chuck wasn’t entirely out of his element here: he did know how to Tango, and that still didn’t make him any less terrified or awkward. As long as the show continues to treat his “powers” as something that is a bit beyond his grasp, it should be able to have episodes like this one which work so well.
- This isn’t really a spoiler, but I kind of miss Harry Tang – I know he had to go back to Dexter, and sure Tony Hale was a fun replacement, but C.S. Lee’s character was a lot of fun in these early episodes and I wish he had stuck around a bit longer so Lee could evolve him into something a bit wackier rather than having to parachute in Millbarge.