“Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler”
February 1st, 2010
We like to talk a lot these days about shows in which the creators take control of their own destiny: Lost, for example, decided it was going to end the show at a certain point, and it gave them a clear goal to work towards, leading to some great dramatic television. It’s one thing to laud a show for making the right creative decisions in the moment, writing good plots and the like, but it’s another when they make decisions that affect the show as a whole in a way that helps steer the ship as they sail onwards.
“Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler,” while a somewhat weak episode in many ways, signals the start of the period where Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz are making a move to take control of their destiny. While the story of Chuck stepping further into the world of being a spy, in the process reflecting back on his own experience as an asset in his earliest days with the agency, is a bit on-the-nose thematically speaking, the episode lays the groundwork for the show’s biggest secret to be revealed.
Whether they actually go through with it is a completely different question, but the setup is under way, and it raises some questions of how the show plans on ending its third season, and whether the show will have the narrative drive to move onto a fourth.
As you may know, Chuck was initially renewed for a “miracle” third season of thirteen episodes, which most viewed as the last chance for the show to wrap up its stories. Of course, the show was then given an additional six-episode order (to fill gaps in NBC’s schedule that, considering the death of the Jay Leno show, only grew after the announcement), so the initial plans (which were already in production) had six episodes added onto it. And then, the show debuted to numbers solid enough to place the show comfortably near the top of NBC’s scripted offerings, which means that the show could well return for a fourth season.
That’s important to “Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler,” because we start to see Ellie and Morgan (with the help of Devon’s inability to lie and Hannah’s frustration over Chuck’s absence) putting together the pieces which could reveal that Chuck is actually a secret agent. Now, the show could well be heading for a bait and switch, and could come up with some sort of lie to throw Morgan and Ellie off the trail, but considering that this year was originally conceived as “potentially the last,” this seems like the kind of thing that they might have been interested in moving past. It’s not something that actually kills the show dead or anything: the show could easily survive if Ellie and Morgan were aware of Chuck’s secret, so long as the show handles it efficiently. But it is something that, if Chuck was currently at the midway point of its swan song rather than a third of the way through what might be “just another season,” I think fans would expect the show to deal with.
Personally, I don’t entirely think it’s necessary, but it’s interesting how the show approached the issue here. While it makes sense that Ellie and Morgan, the two people closest to Chuck who don’t know his secret, would come together to discuss the issue, it seems odd that Morgan didn’t discover this through living with Chuck (wherein Chuck’s absences would seem even more apparent) as opposed to through his interactions with Hannah, especially when we’ve never seen Morgan have much in the way of suspicion before (at least not this season). And why is it that the CIA isn’t stepping in to offer Chuck some sort of alibi now like they did before, such as his sudden college diploma that showed up in the mail? And why would Ellie and Devon be forced into protective custody if they both knew, but Devon is able to walk freely despite knowing just about everything about Chuck’s vocation? There’s a whole mix of potential consequences that they evoked in terms of why Chuck can’t actually tell anyone about what he does, but the show has played around with the idea enough that they seem like manufactured obstacles rather than organic observations, which leads me to presume (combined with Josh Schwartz’s tweet that this episode sets up major plots for the season ahead) that the show actually wants to go there.
I may sound negative about how the story was introduced, but I think it’s a good idea: keeping Chuck’s world separate has made for some nice character work from Zach Levi and the actors involved, but there will come a point where that well will run dry, and I want to see how the show contends with the people around him being all too aware of who and what Chuck is. While Awesome’s position in the show (which I thought was put to good use earlier this season) is a sort of microcosm of the potential for a broader awareness of Chuck’s identity, I think having everything in the open would really free up the writers, and potentially take the show in some exciting new directions.
I hate to segue into the episode from that, but there really wasn’t anything that exciting in “Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler.” While the episode continues the good trend of Chuck seeing things from the other side, taking on Manoosh as an asset in much the way that Sarah took him in three years ago (a comparison made by the episode through flashbacks), it felt like the show already walked that ground with Chuck guiding Awesome through his ordeal a few weeks ago. I didn’t think the story was bad, per se, but without Shaw around it felt as if the story was aggressively small despite seeing the group travel to Dubai and confront what seems like a pretty substantial technological development for the Ring (in that they were able to build another intersect). It’s a good character beat for Chuck, in terms of being able to burn an asset, but I don’t know if the story they built for it really hit home like it could have – I understand that they made Manoosh into a greedy opportunist to make Chuck’s burn more acceptable, but it made it so that the “tragedy” part of things never really stuck, and to be honest I didn’t actually like the guy that much so I couldn’t have cared less what happened to him.
The episode also struggled because all of the momentum out of last week with Shaw and Hannah was entirely lost. I thought Kristen Kreuk was strong in “Chuck vs. First Class,” but I felt like the story with Jeff and Lester stalking her felt like a complete waste of time, and the same goes for her time with Morgan. Her chemistry was with Levi, not with the Buy More environment, so while separating her from Chuck made story sense it made for a less engaging episode for the character. I like Jeff and Lester, but we didn’t actually get to see them do that much stalking, and the “idea” of them stalking isn’t enough to sell what otherwise felt like a pretty worthless Buy More plot.
I didn’t react that negatively to the episode when I watched it: it had some fun scenes (Casey with the tranquilizer gun in the fake bedroom, for example), and some enjoyable lines, so it’s not as if I didn’t enjoy the hour I spent watching it. However, I had enough questions about logistics (like since when was there a fake bedroom in Castle?) and the shortcuts the show seemed to take in order to create the story that in writing down those thoughts things probably came across pretty negatively. “Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler” underwhelmed not because it was a smaller story, as the show is often quite good at those, but rather because it sort of stumbled its way towards larger stories without organically laying out how they plan on going from Point A to Point B. It’s not a bad transition episode, but it felt rushed, perhaps one more sign that the narrative stops and starts of the season ahead are going to be somewhat tumultuous.
- I know Chuck was nervous about his first time courting an asset, but to be honest with you I think Chuck’s incompetence was severely oversold in that scene. I get that the added pressure of having to befriend him would make him doubt himself, but if he managed to talk to Hannah in the middle of his first solo mission, I think he should have understood how being friends with someone works (especially since, before the whole Bryce situation, Chuck seemed to have been someone who knew how to converse with other human beings just fine).
- I may have found the Jeff and Lester stuff pointless, but Lester desiring the new hire to be his wife, and for that wife to be Padma Lakshmi, got a chuckle out of me.
- I know that I’m supposed to get really excited about Sarah in a “Frak Off” cut-off T-shirt or in her lingerie in a fake bedroom, but I thought the scenes lacked any sense of honesty: we knew they were just false fronts in both situations, and she never had to really commit to either of them, which makes it seem more gratuitous (and yes, this is the point where you wonder who spit in my corn flakes, considering I’m complaining about the sense of honesty within the gratuitous sexuality).
- Weap-Con was a fun idea, but I thought the show’s budget limitations really hurt them once they actually got to the convention – it just felt a percentage too small to sell Casey’s excitement the way it did, and I’d rather they have skipped the floor show in favour of using a separate conference room for the presentation or something similar.