“Chuck vs. the Honeymooners”
April 26th, 2010
“Chuck vs. the Honeymooners” is not an episode about “Chuck and Sarah.” It is an episode about Chuck, and Sarah, and their independent personalities; the argument the show makes is not that they should be together (although it does sort of implictly make this argument through its quality), but rather that they each independently want to be with the other, and that this is a conclusion which they have come to as human beings rather than as much-shipped television characters on a network series.
I’m not one of those people who particularly cares about “Chuck and Sarah,” but I am one of those people who cares about Chuck, and Sarah, and their own journeys through this crazy life they’re living. In an episode which has a lot of fun moments which play into the lengthy period of romantic tension which led to this inevitable conclusion, there are also a lot of fun moments which are just the result of how much chemistry that Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have independent of a relationship, and how great the show’s stunt team is at making a low budget show look like an action film when it comes time to throw down.
The show can never be exclusively “about” Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, but so long as the show’s investigation of its potential results in episodes like this one which are damn entertaining entirely independent of the shipper mentality, I’d say that this little six-episode mini-season could be quite the ride.
At its best, Chuck tends to strike a balance between a compelling mission and a compelling dynamic inherent to completing that mission: there are some situations where the actual task takes center stage (like the video game showdown in “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer,” for example), while there are others where the fun comes from the dynamic between the characters (or related to the characters, like Chuck being on his own in “Chuck vs. First Class”). In the case of “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners,” the former point remains sort of nebulous, the Basque terrorist ending up a sort of wishy-washy chorus and the other terrorists ending up lacking much in the way of personality beyond a vicious attack on my beloved country’s reputation. However, the dynamic with Chuck and Sarah sort of stumbling their way into the mission, and Casey and a stumbling Morgan arriving i France to first apprehend and, eventually, assist them was so much fun that it didn’t matter if we never really felt any sort of threat from the terrorists involved. The story was made up as it went along, but so was Chuck and Sarah’s decision to get involved, giving the entire episode a loose feeling which perfectly captured the joys (and uncertainties) of a new relationship.
After a third season where both Chuck and Sarah have felt burdened by emotions, the opening of this week’s episode was a reminder of just how gosh-darn fun this show can be. Part of the problem of having Chuck and Sarah embroiled in romantic conflict is that it sort of disassociates them from the fun side of things: when the show becomes “Dark and Mysterious Spy Story with a fun, bouncy Buy More romp,” the dynamics just don’t work the same way. I don’t care that the show kept Chuck and Sarah apart, but the fact that they kept them all moody about it is the real problem. While the opening, implying that they spent quite a few days enjoying some quality time in their compartment while getting to know the room service attendant quite well, was a bit cutesy, the show needs more of that: when they eventually started each independently trying to apprehend/discover the identity of the terrorist in question, the show knew that it was something fun and went with it. The result was Chuck terrified on top of a moving train and Sarah’s gosh darn adorable Texas accent, both things which really bring out the best in these characters and their dynamic.
Once Casey and Morgan arrive, things work even better: the handcuffs were turned into quite a fantastic little gimmick (which works for this show, considering its tone), Morgan’s haplessness was both present and mitigated by his cleverness in terms of locating Chuck and Sarah and eventually figuring out that the terrorists weren’t really from Interpol, and the ongoing “will they, won’t they” surrounding Chuck and Sarah running away never felt like it was actually being used as a point of suspense. We knew they weren’t going to run away, so it came down to how effective the story was at getting to the real issue: having believed that they would never be able to do both, and their lives would never work if they tried to be spies and lovers at the same time, they were slowly coming to the realization that being together made them a better team, and that being in love and being a spy were independent, and mutual, goals. By highlighting that process for its emotional resonance, rather than something which could break them up or break up the show, meant that the stakes in the episodes never felt too high. This was a light, airy episode, and the lack of drama was a welcome change of pace after what has been a dour season overall.
The stuff on the home front didn’t work quite as well, if we’re being honest: Ellie and Awesome were so marginalized once Awesome’s involvement with Operation Bartowski came to an end that their trip to Africa hasn’t really resonated, and I felt like too much of Ellie’s emotional state was being explained rather than demonstrated (at least until the end of the episode, at least). However, I thought the story did a few important things well: by having Jeffster’s performance actually be quite an understated acoustic performance of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” it separates the joke of Jeffster (still present in their rehearsal struggles) from the performances, allowing them to be used as events rather than as bombastic pronouncements of greatness. It’s not that the show can’t go in the latter direction, but there are times when I wonder whether Jeff and Lester could really be part of the “other” side of this show in the way that Morgan is able to, and that was an example of using Jeffster for ambiance more than attitude.
Really, the only dark note in the episode came at the end: when General Beckman went off the record to say that “it’s about damn time” Chuck and Sarah got together, it was like the last line in 500 Days of Summer (you know the one). It’s one thing for the episode to have a romantic streak, as it’s something the show has always acknowledged and which is obviously central to this storyline, but it’s another for something which seems outside of the inner circle to respond in the same fashion. I don’t believe that General Beckman cares about Chuck and Sarah, so why not just have the woman keep not caring: for her to break character, at least as far as I’m concerned, and commend them for finally realizing their true feelings for one another seems like something that’s there to confirm some shippers’ notion of this couple, and this idea that everyone in the known universe needs to accept their love simply because of how gosh darn beautiful it is. While Casey’s acknowledgement of their relationship was understated and meant something for the character, Beckman’s seemed like a treacly, saccharine note which soured me on parts of the episode which were far more subtle and far more successful.
However, that wasn’t intended for me. In an episode which largely stuck to Chuck and Sarah reaching independent conclusions and proving through some engaging television and some really fun sequences that these two characters should be together because it’s just more fun to watch, there were some who needed those definitive “Chuck and Sarah” moments like Beckman giving them the all clear, or the two cuddling as they listen to Sarah’s new favourite song, “Feeling Good.” And I guess I’ll call it a trade-off: if the occasional moment which makes me gag does nothing to mar the sense of energy and momentum that this development has given the series and its characters, then I’m willing to contend with it. “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners” doesn’t try to ascend to the heights of some of the show’s “big” episodes, but it has so much fun finding new life in a long-standing relationship that it turns small into big, and good into great, in the process.
- True story: I first listened to the opening song in the episode, Vampire Weekend’s “Holiday,” on a train. Clearly, you needed to know this.
- I enjoyed that Chuck’s cover was Charles Charles, although I was disappointed that Sarah’s name wasn’t named Charlotte. I only wish the train could have stopped at Coeur d’Coeurs.
- I’d say that the show is due for another stunt Emmy – the handcuffs stuff was pretty inspired, and the fact that it managed not to feel old (due to creating two separate gimmicks, first the separation with the door and then the tandem fighting) was a real testament to the work involved. It also helped that there was some nice comedy in there, in particular Chuck’s unwillingness to hit a girl.