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Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Final Exam”

“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.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. Operation Awesome”

“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome”

January 18th, 2010

Chuck, like any person with a secret identity or someone who lives a double life, is constantly forced to balance his friends and family from his normal life with his work for the CIA. And early in the show’s third season, the show has made this point especially clear with the integration of his brother-in-law Devon into the show’s espionage, which really highlighted how much more effective Chuck is because of the fact that he has a personal connection with particular missions. When he’s saving himself he overthinks and gets flustered, but when he’s saving someone he loves he is focused and capable of accessing the intersect and saving the day.

“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome” is positioned as the second part of last week’s investigation of these types of questions, and while there’s some leaps taken by the show’s writing staff in terms of getting the action rolling, the episode confirms how important those themes are going to be for the remainder of the season. Showing a tight narrative drive inspired, one presumes, by the initial short episode order (which was extended from 13 to 19 after these episodes were already finished and the season had been plotted out), the show intelligently positions a new character as a mediation on the same themes that matter most to its regular characters, and uses an exciting episode to introduce him into the fold.

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Season Premiere: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Pink Slip”/”Chuck vs. the Three Words”

“Chuck vs. the Pink Slip”/”Chuck vs. the Three Words”

January 10th, 2010

“Trust me, Chuck – it’s all going to work out fine.”

The title of every episode of Chuck implies a conflict. It tells us that Chuck is in a constant state of opposition, and that this show is defined by the adversarial life Chuck lives, trapped between the job the supercomputer in his head forces him to do and the life he would be leading if it were not for that supercomputer. Much of the show’s best material, both comic and dramatic, comes when world collide, when the Castle invades the Buy More and when Ellie and Awesome become acquainted with Sarah and Casey.

And yet, so much of what makes the show work from a creative standpoint is that these elements aren’t in conflict at all. Although it may be tough for Chuck to reconcile these elements, keeping secrets from the people he loves most, the show has always been at its best when these worlds seamlessly become one and the show reflects the beautiful concert of spy and nerd, of friend and friendly foe (Casey), of real family and work family. And what holds it all together is that these are characters who have relationships, who relate to one another in ways that feel funny when they need to be funny, meaningful when they need to be meaningful, and difficult when they need to be difficult. This is a show that wouldn’t work were it not for these characters feeling part of the same world: a world with conflict, yes, but a world which never feels defined by that conflict, episode titles aside.

I say all of this both to celebrate the return of Chuck, and to recognize that the season’s key theme seems to be the characters themselves coming to term with the role that emotional connection plays in this universe. While some feared the show’s game-changing twist would fundamentally change the series’ DNA, it has instead done quite the opposite: the series’ DNA has stayed quite the same, and what’s changed is how aware the characters are of the ties that bind them together which go beyond job descriptions. In “Chuck vs. the Pink Slip” and “Chuck vs. the Three Words,” we discover that for Chuck to tap into all of the knowledge he has available, and for Sarah to discover what she wants to do with her life, all they need to do is realize that the very thing that they believe to be a source of conflict between them may be the one thing which solves their problems.

Which perhaps, in the process, solves the show’s biggest problem, at least for now, and gets Season 3 off to a rollicking start.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. The Predator”

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“Chuck vs. The Predator”

March 23rd, 2009

When we last left Chuck, Josh Schwartz had revealed that our protagonist had been, without our knowledge, compiling information about the mysterious Fulcrum in an effort to get the intersect out of his head. It was a smart reveal because it does a lot to enhance Chuck’s character in terms of his determination, not just a weak innocent but someone who is trying to take an active role in his future. And it also felt like the kind of thing that could create realistic tension in Chuck and Sarah’s professional relationship, which is a smart choice in diversifying their interactions after they’ve been coming up a bit stale.

And yet, the show surprised me by immediately blowing Chuck’s cover, bringing his investigation and Orion himself out into the open and ultimately “resolving” it in the span of a single hour. I felt the show was lazy with Chuck and Sarah, dragging it out with storylines too similar to one another, but “Chuck vs. the Predator” shows that they’re not making that mistake. While the episode eventually circles back around to where we started, it’s in a whole new way, which is far more complicated in its themes of mistrust and subterfuge than a simple “Chuck grows a pair” narrative.

It’s another sign that this show is operating at a different narrative level than you would have expected when it first premiered, and another element that NBC brass are hopefully paying attention to as they map out next year’s schedule.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Suburbs”

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“Chuck vs. The Suburbs”

February 16th, 2009

“We can’t go back there – it was just a cover.”

There has always been a certain question of how, precisely, Chuck is going to be able to manage to draw out the relationship between its eponymous hero and his handler/cover girlfriend Sarah. The “will they/won’t they” of the scenario could get old quickly, something that nobody really wants to see happen when Levy and Strahovski actually have a lot of chemistry and the episodes that focus on the intricacies of their relationship, like “Chuck vs. The Suburbs” are amongst the show’s most resonant.

The episode is a sign, though, that there is going to come a point where we can’t keep getting the same memo over and over again. While bringing Chuck and Sarah to the brink of a real relationship before tearing it away from them might have worked the first time around, or even the second, we’re getting to the point where it doesn’t really have the same impact. Changing their cover from “dating” to “married” and placing them in the confines of a happy suburbia with a golden retriever and a whole bunch of photoshopped photos of a happy couple is a pretty good setup for this part of the series’ identity, but I feel as if things are beginning to wear somewhat thin.

And yet, this is all in theory: in theory this episode shouldn’t work, its central theme of “we can’t return to something that wasn’t real” being something that the show has dealt with numerous times, but in practice Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski bring so much pathos to these scenes that it feels like the honeymoon is still ongoing long after the post-wedding bliss should have ended. And that’s a testament to the show’s quality, even if I feel they’re tempting fate at this point in the show’s run.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. Santa Claus”

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“Chuck vs. Santa Claus”

December 15th, 2008

When someone thinks of what a good Christmas episode should be, “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” will meet many of these criteria. It has plenty of jokes within the holiday spirit, characters dressed up in seasonal garb, generous samplings of Christmas-themed music, and the absolutely genius decision to have Reginald VelJohnson reprise his role as “Big Al” from Die Hard to go with the episode’s Christmas-themed hostage situation. In these moments this episode felt like what we all expected: one of the most funny and enjoyable shows on television delivering a note of holiday cheer.

But what we got was less an example of a good Christmas episode than it was a demonstration of Chuck’s ability to balance the emotional with the hilarious, the dramatic with the comic, and the danger with the laughter. When things seemed to be wrapping up too neatly at the halfway point of the episode, it became clear this was about something more: it was about learning how far people were willing to go to protect those they loved, and continued a long streak of fantastic dramatic work from both Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski.

It’s another fantastic episode, if not quite the one we expected, from a show that put together quite a great opening to the season.

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Chuck – “Chuck vs. The Gravitron”

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“Chuck vs. The Gravitron”

November 24th, 2008

The Jill Roberts-arc of Chuck was not what one would call new territory for the series, considering that Chuck’s past relationships from Stamford was such a focus of parts of the first season and earlier this season with the return of Bryce Larkin. The different of degrees, however, is that this is entirely Chuck’s burden: while Bryce had equal parts baggage as it related to Chuck and Sarah, Jill is all Chuck and therefore presents itself as his problem to handle. For two episodes, though, he’s melted into her arms only to have it all thrown out the window when he learns, as we did last week, that she is in fact a Fulcrum agent.

What “Chuck vs. the Gravitron” does so well is pit Chuck as much against himself than it does against Jill or against Fulcrum. While this entire season has been quite a fine showcase for Zachary Levi, this episode is a prime example of the kind of dramatic work that he is often required to bring forward in this type of role. His scenes with Jill this week followed exactly the arc they needed to: starting with terrified at the secret between them, moving into simple awkwardness, and then eventually turning into a realization that “the past is the past,” something that he hasn’t quite been able to do before.

And unlike some other shows, where burning through the built-in dramatic storylines leaves them nothing to accomplish, I get no sense from this episode that Chuck’s journey is complete, or that the season has no further direction. As it concludes Jill’s storyline on a high note, I have complete faith that they’ll find another one in a week’s time – and that’s the joy of Chuck right now.

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