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Chuck – “Chuck vs. First Class”

“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.

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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 Beefcake”

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“Chuck vs. the Beefcake”

March 2nd, 2009

Two weeks ago, I spent a great deal of my review discussing what I feel is Chuck’s achilles heel, the relationship between Chuck and Sarah. I want to clarify that I am not against their pairing: Levy and Strahovski have great chemistry, both actors can bring great dramatic material to the table, and the show is often at its best when it is delving into their relationship. No, the problem is not the characters themselves, but rather the show’s lack of movement in terms of their relationship.

It’s becoming a cliche, in other words, and this episode was ultimately no different: just as Bryce interrupted their relationship by returning to the scene, and just as Jill’s return earlier in the season turned the tables on Sarah, here we saw an MI-6 agent weasel his way into their lives and offer a more accomplished, more suave and potentially more realistic pairing for Sarah Walker. There will come a point where they are going to have to actually fundamentally change their relationship in order to keep things interesting.

But I spent enough time two weeks ago complaining about this, and the end of this week’s episode seems to indicate that some changes are on the way. While I remain wary, I also have to be honest: the show has so much working for it right now that even episodes that feel like they’re relying too heavily on one of the show’s elements end up coming out, if viewed in isolation of recurring trends, pretty solid.

And this is no exception.

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