“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.
March 18th, 2010
My lack of knowledge about the Community College system is something that Community takes advantage of quite often: I don’t know if they’re being accurate, but it’s clear that the show isn’t concerned about it. The show wanted to do an episode about “blowoff” classes, and it wanted one of those stories to be about a sailing class being held in a parking lot, so who are we to stop it?
At this point, the cast is gelling enough that just about any story is going to work so long as it doesn’t force the characters too far into a particular mould. “Beginner Pottery” isn’t one of the show’s best efforts from a conceptual standpoint, but its stories are full of either some fun running gags or some strong one-liners that make this a really enjoyable half-hour of television.
March 4th, 2010
This is going to sound like an insult, but every now and then my reviews of Community might as well be like a focus group response from small children. Every sentence would start with “I like the part where…” or end up devolving down to “It was funny when the _____ did that thing with the _____,” and that’s probably not all that fun to read.
However, it really does reflect my love for this show: while I might be able to analyze individual plots, I’m rarely that concerned about particular plots, as in I don’t learn what an episode is about ahead of time and fear that things might go off the rails. I have an inordinate amount of confidence in the show’s ability to turn just about anything into comedy, a confidence justified this week as Dan Harmon turned his own personal shame and billiards dress code into top-notch comedy.
And so some part of me truly would be entirely content to respond, in my best impression of a five-year old, that “I liked everything” and grin wildly while shifting awkwardly in my seat. However, since I was probably already long-winded and overly analytical at the age of five, let’s stick with some more detailed thoughts after the break.
February 11th, 2010
There’s a scene early in “Communication Studies” where Jeff is asking Michelle about her Valentine’s Day expectations. What he wants to know is whether he has to change anything to make the day more special, whether there is something he can do (flowers, chocolates, etc.) to better fit her expectations. However, she says she wants things to remain the same, even though we later learn that she would like some small changes (like Jeff being willing to pick up ice cream before Law & Order nights).
In this metaphor, Jeff is the show’s writers, Michelle is the audience, and their relationship is Community. Like Michelle, as an audience member, I don’t want the show to change in any major way to improve upon itself, as I quite like the show it has become, and it certainly doesn’t have to go out of its way to be quite clever with its attention to Valentine’s Day (the Cupid Being was more than enough). However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, even if “Communication Studies” ended up pretty satisfying.
“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.
January 21st, 2010
After a particularly noteworthy return last week, where the show played with some very dangerous material with Jack Black and came out of it funnier than ever, there’s no question that “Interpretive Dance” is a step backwards. This isn’t to suggest that the episode is unfunny, and if we’re judging purely on the level of character development there’s some nice stuff going on here.
It seems like a bit of a sudden turn for the show, however, especially since a lot of the issues it is working with here haven’t popped up in a while. I like to see shows like Community engaging with more long-term character arcs and development, but the show has to avoid seeming like it is just going to stop in on occasion: there’s some subtle stuff here which indicates that this is not necessarily the show’s strategy, however at the same time they stayed away from these stories long enough that it felt like the show had to take some time to rediscover the rhythms of those interactions, leading to a weaker episode if one that could prove beneficial in the long term.
“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.
“Advanced Criminal Law”
October 15th, 2009
I am not one of those people who needs every episode of a comedy to establish something new about the show, but early on in its run Community has actually done a pretty good job of expanding its collection of stock characters into something more diverse than I expected. As a result, “Advanced Criminal Law” is a step back not in terms of quality (it’s still a fine episode) but in that it relies on basic stereotypes and offers us combinations that either have already been done or were not given enough time to really click.
And yet, for the most part, I think the episode succeeded in finding humour in each of the storylines, something that should really be the goal of any comedy early on its run. Even if the storylines didn’t feel like they were bringing anything new, the various situations fit into these characters very well, giving us new takes on old dimensions and making me laugh enough to look past the relative simplicity compared with some of the show’s better segments.
September 24th, 2009
While I love being able to follow and communicate with TV critics when it comes to the Fall TV season, sometimes they ruin some pleasant surprises. I don’t mean that they spoil episodes or anything of that nature, but rather that they ruin the pleasant feeling you get when you watch “Spanish 101,” an episode which confirms that Community’s pilot is not a one-hit wonder and that this is a very funny, very well-constructed series. By learning that the second episode lived up the expectations of the first ahead of time, I knew going in that this was going to be an entertaining half hour of television, so I don’t have some sort of catchy opening about how this broke down all of my apprehension.
What it did do, though, is make me laugh a whole lot. In many ways working like Modern Family’s pilot and many episodes of 30 Rock where the final sequence is a lavish and bombastic affair which has enough laughs packed into it to fill an episode of a lesser sitcom, in others it did still manage to surprise me by taking characters in directions I didn’t expect them to go. By only visiting the study group session once, and yet remaining central to the shared experience of these characters, it humanizes the characters who needed to be humanized while lampooning (but not insulting) those who are still rife for some simple comic pleasure.
The result is a fast-paced episode of comedy which out-paced The Office for me tonight, although the two shows are obviously peddling different styles of humour.
“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.