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'Chuck': Here come the Bickersons

May 3, 2010 |  9:06 pm

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Did I miss a scene in Monday's episode of "Chuck" where Chuck said, "I'm sure nothing could go wrong!" and then the camera panned across some shelf full of computer manuals, only to glide back down onto the face of Morgan sporting a Rip Van Winkle beard as text appeared at the bottom of the screen reading "FIVE YEARS LATER"? And did I miss how we then saw after that exactly HOW everything could go wrong? Because there was a lot of stuff in this episode -- which was otherwise pretty enjoyable -- that seemed to be coming up awfully abruptly and only to tweak the drama in some cases. Chuck and Sarah dating? Great. Chuck and Sarah automatically jumping to moving in together? A little out of nowhere, I gotta say.

But it wasn't just that either. I realize that Ellie and Awesome aren't going to be in Africa forever, but by coming up with a scenario where they head back to the States after just one episode being there, it feels a little anticlimactic to have the whole story line even be there. Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, but when you have a season finale and then a summer gap -- as the show originally thought it was getting -- it feels a bit more explicable to have the characters embark on a major lifestyle change, then decide it's not really for them after a few months of actually giving it a shot. A case in point, from this very show, no less, would be Morgan's abrupt departure from the Buy More to be a Benihana chef at the end of Season 2. He came back in the third season premiere, but because the show had been gone so long, it felt less bizarre than Ellie and Awesome seemingly spending three hours in the Congo and deciding it just wasn't their thing.

It feels wrong to open this review with nitpicks, particularly when the episode as a whole had some very funny moments, but the funnier, less overtly dramatic episodes of "Chuck" often bring out my inner scold for some reason. I mean, I really love Fred Willard and Swoosie Kurtz, and I love the idea of them as the nightmare future version of Chuck and Sarah, but I never really bought their elaborate plan, nor did I think it made a lot of logical sense. I get that making sense isn't always what "Chuck" is aiming for, that it's sometimes just aiming to leap over the logic gaps and make it across by the seat of its pants. But I don't know if the constant double and triple crosses by the Willard and Kurtz characters worked beyond the sense that they were there to keep us guessing.

Other than that, though, this episode was light and fun and goofy, all of the things that the series was not back in the bulk of its third season, when it briefly seemed to be trying to make a run at being "Breaking Bad" or something. I don't think this was the wrong idea, necessarily, since I think one of the things that would take "Chuck" from a very fun, very light entertainment to a genuine can't-miss, stop-everything-you're-doing-to-watch-it show is a better sense of the emotional stakes that are present for all of the characters. At the same time, though, it felt very un-"Chuck" to suddenly descend into a world of turncoats and dark espionage. It was "Chuck," but it also wasn't, and I can see why some fans were up in arms, even if I rather enjoyed the series' ambition at even trying it in the first place.

The first two episodes of the "back six," then, have both been very silly romps that seem designed to show us that the series can still pull off something as funny as Chuck and Sarah getting trapped in a hotel closet by a Bengal tiger and come out seeming like it more or less takes place in a slightly heightened version of our world. I generally haven't preferred the silly romps of this series, a few episodes aside (like the one where Jeff had to save the world by playing Missile Command). They often strike me as a little strained, detracting from what I really enjoy about the show -- which is the story of a slacker who becomes a real boy, more or less -- and often seem hindered by the fact that the missions are all fairly similar, usually involving Chuck joining up with a guest star or two (or doing battle with a few) and then saving the day via the least likely means possible. He usually needs to get an object or two that will help the CIA uncover the true source of the Ring or something. The plots almost never stand in for the emotions Chuck is feeling, and that keeps the show from being as awesome as it could be. Tonight's attempts to weave emotional conflict out of Sarah and Chuck moving in together fell flat, simply because the whole thing is coming up so suddenly and mostly just seems to be there to toss in conflict between the two.

That said, while I didn't like "Chuck vs. the Role Models" as much as "Chuck vs. the Honeymooners," I did find it to be a mostly enjoyable episode. Willard and Kurtz had a great chemistry that suggested they really had been married multiple times, gradually falling out of love with each other and then back into it over the years, and I really liked the way the show built the parallels between Casey training Morgan and Chuck and Sarah trying to learn how to blend their personal and professional lives more skillfully from watching the Turners and gradually realizing it might not be so good as to be those two when they grew up after all. My favorite sequence in this? Chuck trying to get the week's Macguffin off the snoozing tiger's collar while Morgan tried to get Big Mike's keys out from under his nose. It was a pretty obvious bit of cross-cutting, but it was really deftly handled.

In Africa, the show mostly just seemed to be trying to find a way to get out of its Ellie and Awesome story line as gracefully as possible. I wouldn't say this was the best way to handle it, but I am glad the two will be headed back to the States to be near Chuck (even with a destroyed apartment), and the final twist that their new friend was actually a Ring operative was nicely done. Heck, I wasn't expecting it, and I usually have a pretty good nose for these sorts of things. This wasn't the show's finest hour in regards to servicing these two characters, but given how obviously the series wanted to get Ellie and Awesome back with her brother, it could have been a lot worse.

But, look, it doesn't matter if I complain about "Chuck." The series is always going to have some of the same problems it perpetually has, but the good stuff -- the vastly entertaining stuff, no less -- is always going to outweigh those problems. This is a show that gets great comic weight out of Adam Baldwin just SEEING a tiger heading toward him or out of the way Fred Willard and Swoosie Kurtz can barely even stand to look at each other, until they feel the rekindling of that love all over again. It's a show built out of old elements, but it somehow always makes them feel enjoyable. Even when I'm not feeling it, I'm laughing, and that's hard to do.

Some other thoughts:

  • * Today, NBC picked up a new light spy action thing called "Undercovers" from J.J. Abrams. Now, the Internet is freaking out that this spells the end of "Chuck." I, honestly, think it might help the show, which has always felt a little underwatched. It seems likely that people will at least sample a new J.J. Abrams light spy action thing, and if that's paired with "Chuck," it could work wonders for the other show. Remember: The reason "Alias" got a fifth season was because "Lost" gave its fourth season a substantial boost. NBC just has so many holes that I don't think this pickup affects "Chuck" one way or the other.
  • * On the other hand, I was interested in this piece by Jaime Weinman, where he says that NBC had to have known it was going to pick up a new J.J. Abrams show (who wouldn't?) and that that hasn't seemed to hurt "Chuck" prior to this. I'm also interested in Weinman's thesis that the biggest problem with the series is Sarah. I, obviously, disagree, since I'm a pretty big Sarah/Yvonne Strahovski fan, but I think it's a pretty good piece of writing at detailing just why this particular person can't get into the series (a question more and more fans should be asking themselves as the series continues to have trouble in the ratings).
  • * I mentioned last week how much I enjoy the "Hart to Hart" parody that opened Monday's episode, but it probably bears repeating.
  • * Anybody go to one of those flash mobs? Anything cool happen? And why didn't you have one here in L.A. or in New York?
  • * I DID like the meta-commentary inherent in the Turners basically being what many feared Chuck and Sarah would become if they hooked up -- old, bickering fuddy-duddies.

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Chuck and Sarah are trapped in the closet. OK, that joke is at least five years out of date, no? (Credit: NBC)

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