“Chuck vs. the Final Exam”
March 22nd, 2010
At its best, Chuck is a show where the stakes of a traditional spy show feel extraordinarily real: the whole point of the premise is that the things that happen in the show’s universe are dangerous and larger than life, but our protagonist is a regular guy who has a computer in his head that makes him a far more important asset than he was born to be. The show’s second season, where it reached the peak of its creative success, captured Chuck Bartowski coming to terms with the idea that being a spy might be what he was meant to be, and that there was the potential for the world of espionage to become “real” in a way he had never imagined.
But something went wrong at the start of the third season, to the point where I would argue that the show has diverged from the “real” not only in terms of believability (which isn’t new, considering the suspension of disbelief necessary in many of the spy stories) but also in terms of character. And while some would point to the Intersect 2.0 as a dehumanizing factor or the forced separation of Chuck and Sarah against the wishes of die-hard fans as reasons that the show is becoming less grounded, I would argue that it is something more substantial than that.
“Chuck vs. the Final Exam” is supposed to feel as if the stakes are higher than ever, even arguing that if Chuck fails this series of tests he will return to his normal life. However, it doesn’t feel like the stakes are higher than ever – things felt much more real, much more life-changing, when Chuck was reconciling family and country, when he was fighting for something beyond getting to be a “real spy.” The problem with this episode, and much of the third season, is that the struggle between who Chuck is and who Chuck is on the path to becoming has been said instead of shown, implied rather than demonstrated. And so rather than the show confidently or subtly introducing this tension, the show has thrown out the “real” Chuck and moved quickly and efficiently towards something that, while interesting, just isn’t as engaging.
It’s a move that would be necessary to cram this story into thirteen episodes, which may well be the root of my frustration with the show’s current trajectory.
“Chuck vs. the Tic Tac”
March 15th, 2010
There have been numerous traces throughout Chuck’s third season that the producers were really working overtime in order to get all of this material into thirteen episodes. This has been a tremendously consistent season from a thematic standpoint, to the point where it’s almost overwhelming: in case you haven’t realized it, the season is about Chuck’s changing identity and notions of trust and belief within our group of individuals.
“Chuck vs. the Tic Tac” is one of the most direct examples of an episode that isn’t about Chuck, perhaps, but is unquestionably part of this ongoing development. This is a Casey episode, and quite a good one, but it is actually probably the most subtle and effective movement in the Chuck/Sarah story that we’ve had in a while. When the show becomes “about” Chuck and Sarah, it sort of slows to a crawl; when it uses other stories to bring to light issues that help offer depth to that whole situation, it seems more natural, comes across as less dominant within the show’s universe.
This is a highly micro-managed episode, one which resists any sort of subtlety in its core story, but it does some nice work where it needs to, and I’ll forgive its bluntness due to its success at setting the show on the right course heading forward.
“Chuck vs. the Beard”
March 8th, 2010
Tonight, apparently, was a night where television appealed to the Myles demographic. After watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother that dealt with my lingering frustration over events earlier in the season, Chuck delivers an episode which confirms everything that I’ve said since the beginning of the season in terms of how the Intersect 2.0 operates, how Chuck is evolving as a character, and how that affects the world around him.
And yet, sort of like with HIMYM, I’m left somewhat underwhelmed by “Chuck vs. the Beard” even though it went down a checklist of many of the things that I like so much about this show. The problem, I think, was that it tried to do so many of them simultaneously without any really grounding the episode in any particular threat. There were too many coincidences, too many contrivances, and too many scenarios where the fun of “Viva Buy-Moria” took over from (rather than added complexity to) the fairly serious consequences of The Ring’s latest plan to take down our intrepid heroes.
The episode takes the show to places it should have gone sooner, and places that give the show a lot of great material heading into the rest of the season, and does so within the guise of what seems like an all-time classic episode of the series. And while there’s a compelling case to be made that Chuck, as a character, requires the support structure that the ensemble cast and its different spheres offers, I’m not sure that the episode itself was strengthened by that diversity.
“Chuck vs. the Fake Name”
March 1st, 2010
Reviewing Chuck isn’t quite as fun anymore.
That pains me to write, in a lot of ways, but there’s something about the show right now which has made the past few episodes seem particularly difficult to sit down and discuss. I’d love to say that it’s just residual effects of the Chuckpocalypse, so that I could blame that particular group of fans for my struggles, but I don’t think that’s all it is.
There is something about the show that’s missing right now, something that has little to do with Chuck/Hannah or Sarah/Shaw or any of the relationship drama that some seem so concerned about. And I don’t even think my problem has to do with character consistency, like the complaints that Chuck and Sarah are acting differently than they have in the past. I think the show has earned our patience on the former front, and in terms of the latter I think that it’s unrealistic to believe that these characters wouldn’t occasionally bottle up their feelings in a way that’s destructive in the long term but easier in the short term.
Rather, I think my problem has to do with the fact that this season has fingerprints all over it, too purposefully designed to drive the show to a particular point instead of allowing it to get there on its own. “Chuck vs. the Fake Name” has some nice comic moments, and sells its emotional side fairly well, but it’s one of many episodes this season that end up a bit anvil-like in terms of explaining the season’s central themes, while proving too subtle when it comes to actually justifying those themes from a plot or character point of view.
Irrational Actors: Chuck/Sarah Shippers
February 9th, 2010
There’s been a lot of talk on the Twitter today regarding the storm of angry comments about last night’s episode of Chuck, in particular what some fans are viewing as a betrayal of the relationship between Chuck and Sarah (the comments on Alan Sepinwall’s post are the most telling).
Now, I have two immediate impulses in response to these comments:
- Write a lengthy treatise on the inherent positivity found in “shipping” a particular couple, arguing that the practice turns ugly when it shifts from celebration of a couple’s promise to anger over that couple remaining apart.
- Slap these people upside the head.
Since I don’t quite have time for the former, and technology has not advanced far enough for me to dole out the latter electronically, I’ll settle for an amalgamation of the two: let’s look at the three reasons why these fans are being entirely irrational, both in terms of general shipping logic and in terms of the content of the actual storyline.
“Chuck vs. the Mask”
February 8th, 2010
I was pretty down on “Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler,” and I was in the minority on that one: many called it one of the best episodes of the season, and I’ll admit that I just don’t see it. I had a day to sit on the episode, which meant that my concerns festered overnight, but I do think that it failed to really capture the show at its strongest, losing a lot of its momentum by keeping Chuck and Hannah apart, and by sidelining Shaw in an effort to keep things moving. The Manoosh story was solid, but it seemed like it wasn’t saying anything new, and the story seemed to be actively delaying the inevitable (with Hannah) rather than integrating her into the stand-alone story.
And based on some early responses, I might be alone yet again in much preferring “Chuck vs. the Mask” to last week’s episode. While it wades into dangerous waters with its engagement with romantic entanglements, it uses that drama to its advantage, and crafts a story that sells some pretty important transition points as the show heads into an Olympics hiatus. The episode is a bit insulated, and it resolves one of its potential long term story threads a bit too quickly, but it’s all extremely well executed, and continues a string of good episodes that gives me plenty of creative faith in the show heading into the post-Olympics episodes.
“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.