'Chuck': Captain Awesome just gets awesomer
I sometimes get the sense that the Chuck and Ellie relationship, much less Ellie's relationship with her husband, Devon "Captain Awesome" Woodcomb, is not the favorite thing about the show among the series' fans. It seems like the show's fans respond to the spy missions and the Chuck and Sarah angst and the story lines set at the Buy More, but they're often not quite sure what to do with the domestic stories at the heart of the show, with the way that Chuck and Ellie are always there for each other because that's the only way they know how to be. Me, I'd almost say that the domestic stuff is more important to the series than just about any other element. To me, "Chuck" works because of its characters, and any time Chuck's hanging out with his sister, it gives the show just that extra ounce of soul it's sometimes missing.
"Chuck vs. the Angel De La Muerte" is my favorite episode in the series' third season so far. A big part of that stems from the fact that the episode grounds all of the wacky spy stuff in a very real, very present story line that could be dropped in from any series where a newlywed couple starts to wonder if this is really all they have to look forward to for the rest of their lives. Ellie and Awesome still love each other very much, of course, but they're also encountering the slowdown that comes inevitably after the honeymoon, the post-wedding crash. By flashing back to how it all began (with the two hooking up in a janitor's closet at med school), the episode further grounds this marital malaise. Yes, it says, even these two crazy kids could grow up to be an old, boring, married couple.
One of the things that's great about "Chuck" is that it understands that being an old, boring, married couple is something that's preferable. Now, granted, that might be an outgrowth of the fact that the series needs a few places where there can be moments of respite. There has to be that oasis of domesticity in the series, lest the spy stuff get so insane that it flies off the rails. So "Chuck vs. the Angel De La Muerte" ends up being about a lot of things (including Casey's attempts to single-handedly re-win the Cold War), but it mostly ends up being about a married couple trying to rekindle the spark and then realizing that excitement is perhaps overrated, right before something very, very bad happens.
Now, granted, if this show kills off Captain Awesome, it would be one of the more egregious mistakes the series could make. It would reduce Ellie to a mess, and the series would feel callous if Chuck was off on spy hijinks when his sister would never know just why her husband was involved in the world of spycraft to begin with. I don't actually think the series will go there (since being dead on TV generally requires seeing a body, and we see no such thing), but there's one reason I feel confident we'll be seeing Awesome back next week: He's become the show's conscience.
Every goofy genre show needs a character who can say the things that need to be said, the things that will get the main character back on the straight and narrow. "Buffy" had Willow. "Alias" had Will (until it didn't). "Lost" has Hurley. And "Chuck," increasingly, has Awesome, the guy who can tell Chuck that his feelings for Sarah are really real (even if it's irritating to see the series hit this beat again and again and again in its return) but also the guy who can tell Chuck that, really, the world of espionage isn't exactly all that it's cracked up to be. In some ways, "Chuck" is a goofy spin on masculine ideals, a show about a bumbling guy who just wishes he could be ultra suave like his old roommate, or a grizzled battle-hardened veteran like one of his protectors, or even a seemingly perfect throwback to old Hollywood like his brother-in-law. Ryan McPartlin (who plays Awesome) looks like he belongs in one of those old movies about a college football star who makes good by opening a hat shop or something, and the show uses his seeming perfection to good effect, creating a guy who doesn't have to strain, where his brother-in-law knows nothing other than straining very hard to be anything other than what he is.
This is not to say that the spy stuff in this episode doesn't work. Indeed, it works very well. Casey's reluctance to protect the guy he spent most of the '80s trying to kill was funny throughout and was just the latest in the show's sly digs at how Casey, with his Reagan love and Cold War nostalgia, longs for a return to the days when enemies were more easily defined. If Awesome's the guy who doesn't have to try, Casey's the guy who used to not have to and now is having to adjust to a world where he's older and the ground has shifted beneath him and everything isn't the way it was. Casey's grudging attempts to protect the leader of Costa Gravas were amusing but also weirdly poignant, a man growing older and trying to figure out where he fits in the world. With fistfights! And a great scene where Casey had to keep the general from accidentally poisoning himself!
Even the Intersect got more of a workout tonight, as it taught Chuck ballroom dancing, then how to stop Casey's arteries from bleeding out. That said, it may be time to drop the rapid flashing effect that happens every time the Intersect kicks in. All we really need is to see Chuck's eyes flutter as he gets the download of information, and we'll know what's happening. Granted, this might end up seeming too odd, but the Intersect flashes are one of the things I increasingly like least about the show. They too often feel like the show is spoon-feeding the audience.
But that's a minor quibble against an episode that was very, very enjoyable throughout. There are so many great moments in the episode: Casey kicking the general in the face, Awesome's excitement at seeing the secret base beneath the Orange Orange. Even the weekly sexy Sarah outfit -- a ludicrous nurse's costume -- was more funny than exploitative. "Chuck vs. the Angel De La Muerte" is a great example of just about everything "Chuck" does well, and if the new, additional viewers who tuned into the show last night came back for tonight's episode, I can't imagine them not being sucked in by the show.
Some other thoughts:
- As mentioned immediately above, the ratings for "Chuck" were up in the Sunday night event. I'll get up a post tomorrow talking about the show's opening week ratings and what they mean for the series going forward.
- We also talked to McPartlin about his work in this episode and what his role in the series might be going forward, and you can look forward to that interview sometime on Thursday.
- Costa Gravas? I get it!
- "Well. Lucky for me, I'm a Marine."
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin) gets his day in the sun and the love of his wife, Ellie (Sarah Lancaster). (Credit: NBC)