“Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”
April 23rd, 2010
“It’s no picnic being the boss, huh?”
When we write about Party Down, we tend to focus on the premise over the characters. Part of this has to do with the fact that we’re all preparing for the fact that the show might lose many of its characters if it gets a third season, so there’s a vested interest in emphasizing its revolving locations and the general focus on struggling actors/writers/show business folk working to support their dreams over Henry or Casey. While we’re attached to the characters, who were certainly one of the most important parts of the hugely enjoyable first season, it’s the diverse engagements that really set the show apart, and which have formed the basis for its most enjoyable episodes.
“Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” reminds us that these characters are very funny, but it also reminds us that the show isn’t used to handling quite this much character. While the dynamics of the first season cast took some time to develop, they eventually formed into something truly fantastic; however, it was rare that the show seemed like it was really spending a lot of time introducing, or renintroducing, or “changing” character dynamics. The second season premiere has to go through a lot of exposition, which keeps the humour from rising to the level achieved last season, but the central premise remains strong, and the changing dynamics work in the show’s favour at the end of the day.
“Chuck vs. the Other Guy”
April 5th, 2010
I’ve taken to referring to “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” as the “FormerFinale,” if only because I want to bring as much attention as possible to the fact that this week’s episode was written as the final episode of the show’s third season. The thirteen-episode order has been the cause of most of the show’s problems: the limited characterization of Daniel Shaw, the sporadic motivations of Sarah Walker, the forced characterization of the “changes” in Chuck’s personality, and the disappearing and reappearing cast members have all been a result of the original episode order and the budget cuts that came with it.
None of these problems, individually, have taken this season down, or fundamentally ruined the show’s premise or anything of that nature – I’m not the person who threw a stink when Chuck/Sarah weren’t immediately brought together, or someone who has been entirely against the character of Daniel Shaw (or Brandon Routh’s work in the role). However, collectively they have formed a sort of distance between the show and I, both as a critic (where certain episodes have struggled to pull things together) and as a fan (where the “fun” of the show has sort of disappeared in the rush to advance the show’s plots).
And so the “FormerFinale” was always going to be a turning point: before it was the point where the show would enter into the limbo of whether or not it would get an unlikely fourth season, and now it’s the point from which the final six episodes of the season will depart from. And for the first time all season, “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” lives up to every possible point of evaluation: as a “FormerFinale,” as a launching pad for the rest of the season and as an episode of the show overall, it delivered enough to turn a somewhat shaky start into an extremely promising future.
But it wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t enough to make me forget some of the missteps earlier this year.
“All Children Grow Up”
March 29, 2010
Despite having been in college when the show began, I have never really “related” to ABC Family’s Greek in the way that you might expect. While I certainly have met people like the characters in the show, I went to a school without a greek system, and so I was sort of like a pledge myself when the show began. One of the show’s best qualities is how they’ve managed to turn the fraternities and sororities into an integral part of not only the show’s universe, but also each individual character: while no character is solely define by their position in a fraternity or sorority, it remains an integral part of their identity that the show has given depth over the course of three seasons.
While the show has its love triangles and its relationship drama, and its fraternity drama can sometimes boil down to simple concepts of revenge or rivalry, at the core of the series is a sense of belonging, a community that is powerful enough to want Cappie to never leave college, for Casey to abandon the opportunity to go to law school, and for Dale to want to be a part of it even with his moral reservations. And while I may not have been part of a fraternity, I fully understand the characters’ anxiety about leaving all of that behind, abandoning all of that for the great unknown. While the machinations of a show working to set things up to potentially continue in the future despite lead characters graduating are apparent in “All Children Grow Up,” the drama is driven by a nuanced and subtle portrayal of the struggles which come with leaving everything you know behind for something new; that we so wholly believe their concerns demonstrates the effectiveness of the show’s world-building over the past three seasons.
“Chuck vs. the American Hero”
March 29th, 2010
Sometimes, when critics receive episodes in advance and when previews run rampant online, those of us without those episodes and who choose not to watch those previews nonetheless hear the basic content of an episode. And when it comes to this week’s episode of Chuck, it was absolutely impossible to ignore the subject matter of this week’s episode.
What’s interesting is that these responses were both positive and negative: news that this episode would directly speak to Chuck and Sarah’s relationship tends to divide the Chuck viewership between those who are excited about it because it’s the reason they watch the show and those who are excited about it because it means they might finally get around to resolving this issue. While some live or die based on this story, most viewers tend to view it as a part of the show that’s fine in small doses, and fine in theory, but occasionally overpowers the rest of the show’s narrative.
And so episodes like “Chuck vs. the American Hero” are either the highlight of the season or a necessary evil in order for the show to keep on track heading into the rest of the year; in this case, after a bit of a rough start, the episode manages to prove engaging enough and twisty enough that any of my concerns with their relationship were (mostly) pushed aside for the time being.
“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 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.