'Chuck': 'Chuck' hits a new high
I feel like I say this every week here, but "Chuck Versus First Class" is one of my favorite episodes of the series ever, a terrific example of how sometimes a show limiting itself can be the best way to go. "Chuck" does a story that features a minimum of sets (off the top of my head, I could count only five, and three of them are standing sets the show already has in its wheelhouse), fewer characters than normal (Ellie, Awesome and Big Mike all sit this week out) and a story that's neatly self-contained but for a few tiny tendrils sticking out into other upcoming storylines. And it's wonderful! It's a perfect example of how a show can sometimes get a big step up by going very small.
The story is simple as simple can be: Shaw (the still very good Brandon Routh, tonight showing off his inside joke-y Clark Kent glasses to good effect) sends Chuck off on his first mission alone. This leaves Sarah to wait by the phone beneath the Orange Orange, hoping that he's OK, and it puts Casey in the unusual position of having to talk Chuck through what he's doing while working at the Buy More. It's a great device that solves one of the increasing problems with the show's formula. The series has occasionally strained to figure out a way to get all three characters going on a mission, particularly since Chuck has embarked on his mission to become a "real spy." By having Chuck go off on his own training time, the series believably creates conflict between Chuck and his worst self, between Sarah's professional instincts and her personal ones and between Casey's barely suppressed wish to see Chuck get killed and his sense of duty.
What makes the rest of the episode work is that once Chuck gets on the plane to Paris (where his mission is, or so he thinks), there's a number of great twists and turns. First, Chuck learns that his mission isn't in Paris; it's on the plane. He learns that first by flashing on a Ring operative on the plane (a very game and very fun Steve Austin -- as in "Stone Cold") and then by Shaw's instructions to him that, well, the mission's on the plane. Throughout all of this, the episode has placed former "Smallville" star Kristin Kreuk in a position as Chuck's seat mate, Hannah, a bright, kinda nerdy girl who loves computers and flies around the world dealing with computer systems. A girl made for Chuck? Absolutely. And yet, because of her seeming perfection for the guy and because of the way this show plays so casually with making innocent seeming characters bad guys, it seems that she could turn absolutely evil at any given moment.
The great thing about the episode is that she doesn't. She ends up fulfilling the typical role that Ellie and Morgan play in the episode -- the people Chuck has to come up with a silly cover story for what he's doing to fool -- but she also ends up letting Chuck be just a normal guy for once. The series is always good when it confronts the limits of the kind of life Chuck can live thanks to the Intersect, particularly when dealing with his love life, and here's hoping that Hannah is more like Season 1's goofy, glorious sandwich shop girl Lou in not being a bad guy rather than Season 2's treacherous Jill, who broke his heart and put the country at grave risk. But even if she ends up being a bad guy, Hannah's sweet and winning enough in this episode that it lets you imagine just how Chuck's life might have been different without the Intersect.
But that's always the thing, isn't it? The Intersect is the thing that has made Chuck who he is, more than any other event that's happened to him in his life. Without the Intersect colonizing his brain, Chuck never would have been the suave, confident guy who can talk to a pretty girl and win her over so much that she does indeed look him up when she's in Burbank. He wouldn't have been the guy who's the person everyone at the Buy More can turn to when they have a problem, the guy who can give them all good advice. And he wouldn't have been as good of a family member to Ellie and Awesome either. One thing vaguely irritating about the first season of this show was that the series played Chuck as completely and obviously out of Sarah's league, even though the chemistry between Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski suggested otherwise. As the show has progressed, though, it's made the wise choice to show how Chuck is progressing, slowly but surely, into the guy he was always meant to be.
Everything else on the plane? Good, action-packed fun. I love that Chuck has to turn to Casey on the phone and Casey tells him that if he doesn't flash, he'll be dead. I love the sword fight with the operative (exactly the opposite of what you'd expect the show to do with Austin). I even love the great, anticlimactic gag of both the operative and his fake flight attendant helper getting conked out by the luggage while Chuck takes his lengthy preparation time to get ready with the nunchucks. And I especially love that Shaw knows who the attendant is, calling her Serena and intimating that the two have come in contact before. Shaw was another candidate for the "HE'S EVIL!" sweepstakes, but this episode goes out of its way to show that he's not evil, just professional, still mourning the woman he loved, who died because he was unprofessional, unable to protect her. Hence, the caution he gives Sarah.
The Buy More stuff wasn't as good as the main plot, though to be fair, what could be? I'm a sucker for a gag where somebody falls over, and the joke where Morgan drank the drugged beverage and passed out was great. I'm less certain about Casey brainwashing Lester to think that Morgan is just the best ever. (It seems a little too close to him exposing his cover for the normally careful agent, and I don't buy that he'd be so attached to Morgan as to help him beyond generic advice and platitudes.) But that's the most minor of minor complaints in an episode filled with great, essential "Chuck" moments.
There are episodes of TV shows that you can sit nonfans down in front of and say, "See, this is why I like this show," and "Chuck Versus First Class" is just such an episode. Indeed, it's the episode that finally persuaded my "Chuck"-skeptic wife to come on board the show's bandwagon and join the fun. Here's hoping that the tight plotting of the episode, combined with the great character moments (particularly between Chuck and Hannah, whom I'm already a little in love with) will bode well for the rest of the season to come. If these first five episodes are any indication, this one's going to be just as good as the second season -- if not better.
Some other thoughts:
- I love that they brought on Stone Cold Steve Austin and pretty much just had him throw a couple of punches, declaim about how air pressure can affect pen usage and then get in a sword fight. Good stuff.
- I also loved the antidote skidding around the floor of the plane as Shaw's back-up plan for if Chuck got in danger kicked in (and, yeah, I really like this guy right now). Shades of the opening of "Temple of Doom"!
- Finally, this is the last episode of "Chuck" I've seen in advance. While I may get more screeners, expect later "Chuck" write-ups to go up in just a bit less timely fashion than these have.
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Kristin Kreuk joins Zachary Levi's Chuck in first class. Credit: NBC.