A Case of Deja Vu
July 3rd, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
As I get closer to the end of Angel and Buffy’s first and fourth seasons, respectively, the two shows are suffering from opposite problems when it comes to writing about them. While Buffy has gone through a lot of plot development which makes it difficult to write about a single episode as opposed to an arc, Angel is so devoid of plot development that nothing is really jumping out at me. It’s not that either show is depreciating in quality, but rather that Buffy is barreling through while Angel remains in the logical first season holding pattern (albeit with a twist, due to the events of “Hero”).
And so, while it isn’t ideal, I figure it’s best if I offer some quick comments on a large series of episodes for each show as opposed to trying to review them individually. These aren’t really thematic pieces, but more a grab bag assortment of comments regarding particular episodes. Now, I have some reservations about doing this for Buffy, and when that piece goes up later in the weekend I can assure you that it will go a bit more indepth with the growing arcs and some of the character work ongoing in the episodes leading up to the two-parter – however, for Angel, these episodes standalone in such a fashion that a quick paragraph on each seems like a nice way to capture the series’ progress of sorts.
If we can call it that, considering how much of it feels like a case of Deja Vu.
“Chuck vs. the Tooth”
May 10th, 2010
So far in this six-episode miniseason, Chuck has been barreling along not unlike the train in the “premiere” of sorts: the destination isn’t particularly important, we’re just along for the ride as Chuck and Sarah adjust to being a couple and fighting evil at the same time. It’s been a nice change of pace in a season which felt like it was so clearly driving towards the triangle between Chuck, Sarah and Shaw that none of the show’s other elements really got to shine, and I’ve been enjoying these episodes quite a bit.
However, with “Chuck vs. the Tooth” that train has put on the brakes, and you can very clearly see the switch turning to send the train in a certain direction. I understand why this is (we only have two episodes left this season), and I also understand the long-term plans at play within this solid if not spectacular episode. The problem is that the show manipulates short term reactions in order to establish potential consequences regarding the intersect, leading to an episode which plays out as Chuck’s worst nightmare when, in reality, I think the episode would have played out in a more logical and less dramatic fashion.
It gets the point across, no question about that, but it does so in a less than elegant fashion which hearkens back to the original 13 episodes more than this more recent run.
“Chuck vs. the Role Models”
May 3rd, 2010
I wasn’t actually in the writer’s room when it happened, but the more I watch of Chuck Season 3.5 (the six episodes ordered after the first thirteen were broken/written as a conclusive story) the more I feel like the writers quite literally went back to the drawing board. In some ways, this set of episodes is like a whole new spinoff series, starting with last week’s pilot-like “Chuck vs. the Honeymooners,” and now these are the episodes where the show taps into various situations that seem to stem logically from the central premise.
In this case, Chuck has been reimagined as a series about two spies in love trying to make it work, so “Chuck vs. the Role Models” trots out an older married couple within the CIA to offer Chuck and Sarah a glimpse of their future, and to test their long term compatibility (after their short-term teamwork was proven in last week’s episode). Similarly, after last week’s episode introduced us to Morgan as a member of Team Bartowski, this week had Casey run him through his paces by offering some field training. They’re stories that feel like sitcom pitches based on where the show was situated after the end of last week’s episode, logical avenues for the show to investigate that could feel perfunctory is not executed well.
Fortunately, “Chuck vs. the Role Models” is a regular hootenanny (bonus points to who can tell me what episode of Buffy I watched today which has this word stuck in my head), taking full advantage of a couple of great guest stars and some nicely drawn situations to really get the most out of these central storylines. Throw in some nice subtle serialization, both through Ellie and Awesome’s time in Africa and through the consistency of character/tone throughout, and you have a show which continues to feel re-energized after a downer of a season.
“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 Beard”
March 8th, 2010
Tonight, apparently, was a night where television appealed to the Myles demographic. After watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother that dealt with my lingering frustration over events earlier in the season, Chuck delivers an episode which confirms everything that I’ve said since the beginning of the season in terms of how the Intersect 2.0 operates, how Chuck is evolving as a character, and how that affects the world around him.
And yet, sort of like with HIMYM, I’m left somewhat underwhelmed by “Chuck vs. the Beard” even though it went down a checklist of many of the things that I like so much about this show. The problem, I think, was that it tried to do so many of them simultaneously without any really grounding the episode in any particular threat. There were too many coincidences, too many contrivances, and too many scenarios where the fun of “Viva Buy-Moria” took over from (rather than added complexity to) the fairly serious consequences of The Ring’s latest plan to take down our intrepid heroes.
The episode takes the show to places it should have gone sooner, and places that give the show a lot of great material heading into the rest of the season, and does so within the guise of what seems like an all-time classic episode of the series. And while there’s a compelling case to be made that Chuck, as a character, requires the support structure that the ensemble cast and its different spheres offers, I’m not sure that the episode itself was strengthened by that diversity.
“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. 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.
“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.
“Chuck vs. the Ring”
April 27th, 2009
“Go with your heart, buddy – our brains only screw things up.”
In considering “Chuck vs. the Ring,” a title with two very different meanings, I think it’s important that we acknowledge just how amazing the accomplishment of the Chuck staff is when it comes to pulling off some of the most expansive material for a dramedy of this nature.
The first half of this episode is more or less an episode in its own right, one laden with numerous jokes, an amazing appearance by Jeffster, and what feels like a climax in and of itself. What is interesting is that, by the end of the episode, that storyline felt miles away, overshadowed by an amazingly epic conclusion that potentially changed everything. However, simultaneously, it was highly memorable and containing some of the best jokes in the episode. But when those elements would have felt overbearing, such as during that epic conclusion, they faded effortlessly into the background, never feeling separate but also never feeling like they were fighting in the same space.
It’s such an amazing balancing act, and when everyone in the cast is on fire, and when the writing is off the charts, and when Jeffster soundtracks an entire sequence with “Mr. Roboto,” it’s an example of how Chuck may not aim as high as some of the stronger dramas on television, or embrace absurdity as much as some of the biggest comedies, but in doing what it does I don’t feel there is a single other show that is this capable of executing this level of brilliance.
Forget about save Chuck – let’s praise Chuck for a while, and think with our hearts instead of our brains.