“Chuck vs. the Subway/Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II”
May 24th, 2010
I don’t know if I have that much to say about the Chuck finale, primarily because it isn’t a finale to anything in particular. It’s intelligent for Schwartz and Fedak to draw from the series’ overall premise and mythology to drive this two-part finale, as “Chuck vs. the Subway” and “Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II” are both emotionally satisfying, intelligent hours of television, but it means that it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s bringing anything to a close so much as it’s finally addressing long-standing issues.
The plot of the two episodes draws from elements earlier this season, like our discovery that John Casey has a daughter, the return of Brandon Routh’s Daniel Shaw, or the potential damage done by the Intersect for the human psyche, but it also makes the argument that fairly substantial chunks of the season (and, arguably, earlier seasons) were not what we thought they were. The conclusion to the episode, more than ever last year’s cliffhanger, introduces the idea that Chuck was destined to be this way, and that the circumstantial elements of the series have all been part of a broader function and purpose.
This makes this much more of a premiere than a finale, using what little momentum the pacing-challenged third season could muster in order to launch the series on a much more interesting trajectory. The result has me much more excited about a fourth season than I was when it was announced a few weeks ago, although no more appreciative of the third season’s narrative stumbling blocks – so long as next season lives up to the hype, though, I’m willing to forgive them for the year’s struggles.
“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.
“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 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. First Class”
January 25th, 2009
One of the things that Chuck has always been good at is effectively telling the same stories without actually, you know, telling the same stories.
The show has always been about a hapless spy who oscillates between, to quote Daniel Shaw, “Bond and a Jerry Lewis Movie,” and whether or not Chuck is capable of handling himself has always been a point of tension. And yet after slightly more than two seasons, I still enjoy that dynamic, and feel as if the show has maintained the charm of Chuck’s incompetence without feeling as if he has made no progress. While Chuck has grown progressively more competent with time, including with his recent developments made possibly via the Intersect 2.0, his response has more or less been the same, and it’s allowed the character to grow without fundamentally changing.
So when “Chuck vs. First Class” starts with Shaw announcing that Chuck would be going on his first solo mission, I had to wonder whether the show was interested in upending the balance of these efforts, and whether Chuck’s success (since we knew he’d be successful) would lead to a newfound self-confidence or even cockiness.
However, the episode manages to offer a series of events that are absolutely familiar and yet which surround emotions and responses that reflect a growing emotional complexity in Chuck that shows maturity without taking away what makes the show work so well.
“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.