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'Chuck': Hush little Chucky, don't say a word; Papa's gonna get you an Intersect

May 18, 2010 |  8:40 am

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After watching almost a full season of "Chuck" and thinking about it critically -- something I've never done before -- I think I've reached a conclusion about what I like "Chuck" to do best: I like "Chuck" best when the show does crazy stuff. I like insane plot twists and random turns into darkness and big, operatic moments. I feel like the show could afford to be a whole lot weirder much of the time, as though the fact that it's just generally likable and enjoyable and cute is what's keeping me from really loving it, even as I do vastly enjoy the show as it is. "Alias" burned out quickly, but, man, it was good with just completely random stuff happening and then the writers vamping to justify it. It often feels to me like "Chuck" isn't really risking anything, I guess, and while I think that keeps it consistent -- the show rarely has a bad episode -- it can also make it kind of boring.

So all hail episodes featuring Scott Bakula as Chuck's dad. Bakula is just playing your standard tortured genius, but he plays that part very, very well. You really feel his concern for his son and daughter, even in the gooier, overwritten scenes, and you also feel like he's completely nuts, like he might do anything at any moment. "Chuck" is at its best when it's being unpredictable, and Bakula introduces a big old note of unpredictability into the show every time he turns up. By the end of the episode, I was really psyched for the finale next week, and I was getting into the story of how Chuck and his dad are going to stop a resurgent Ring that Ellie is inadvertently helping by letting them keep tabs on her dad and by taking out Casey with a frying pan.

Unfortunately, it took a little while to get there. I hate, hate, hate, hate story lines in which someone is telling a lie to someone they love for largely stupid reasons. (In fact, you can hear me talk about it at length in one segment of this episode of my podcast.) "Chuck" actually doubled up on these types of story lines as the episode began. Now, the reasoning for why Chuck was lying was better than the reasoning would have been in any standard episode of a family sitcom, but it still didn't make nearly enough sense to go to that well. When Chuck lied to Sarah briefly about his dreams about Shaw (a conceit the show mercifully abandoned fairly quickly), I got why he was doing it but I still wanted him to not worry about his girlfriend's relationship with the guy and start worrying about the fact that his dreams were saying Shaw was alive. 

What really bugged, though, was the fact that Chuck chose to not tell his dad the Intersect was still in his brain and that he was still in the CIA. Pops obviously knew that Chuck hadn't left the agency, and I just didn't buy that a Chuck who was worried the Intersect was doing crazy things to his brain wouldn't tell his genius father -- the inventor of the Intersect, for God's sake -- of his worries, no matter how much he didn't want to disappoint his dad.

I absolutely get not wanting to tell your parents the truth about things that might upset or sadden them. But there are times when you need to call in all the help you can get, and this was one of those times. The show compounded this problem by having the whole secret of just what Chuck was up to come out sooooo sloooooowly, with Steve first finding out that his son was still in the CIA -- but only as an analyst -- then finding out that Chuck still went on missions -- but didn't have the Intersect in his brain, no sir -- then finding out that, yeah, the Intersect 2.0 was in the kid's brain. And once he found out all this? He was upset, but only because Chuck was endangering his sanity and safety. But he still helped out, because that's what family does, especially on "Chuck."

Fortunately, most of the rest of the episode was good fun, particularly the action sequences. I liked the way the show disguised that the guy in Shaw's apartment wasn't Shaw by having Sarah and Chuck watch him via thermal vision. (At first, I thought this was just a cool way to have Shaw in the show without paying Brandon Routh, but later developments showed this to be the wrong way to approach things.) I loved the fight scene in Chuck's dad's cabin, where Chuck used the arms of the chair he had been in for more creative pursuits. Sarah taking out a knife thrown at Chuck's head by hitting it with an ax? Pretty cool. And Steve finding out his son still had the Intersect inside of him by throwing a knife at his son's face? Even cooler.

It also helped that the antics at the Buy More were making me laugh more often than not. I'm uniquely susceptible to story lines in which someone makes awful music, and the debut of Jeff's solo act was just such a scene. His improvised lyrics and keyboard noodling were very funny, and I also really liked the scene in which Big Mike talked Lester into joining Jeffster again by telling him about his short-lived time in Earth, Wind, Fire & Rain. ("I was rain!" was one of the best lines of the night and perfectly delivered.) And although the attempts to keep Morgan involved in the story line were mostly non-starters, I did find a lot of the stuff he did pretty amusing, particularly when he seemed to fall a little bit in love with Awesome after hearing about Awesome's dream date with Ellie.

Unfortunately, the Ellie story line was not as good. Normally, I hate these kinds of story lines, in which a character does something stupid to hold back the hero because they haven't been clued in to the hero's secret life. But I mostly bought Ellie's motivations in this episode. Literally everyone in her life seems to be hiding something from her at this point (well, literally everyone WE know), and she thinks that the fact that Casey is a rogue spy (or so she's been told) explains why this is the case. But, at the same time, I sometimes feel like the show writes Ellie a little more stupid than she normally would be. And here, I definitely feel that's the case, with Ellie being so uncritical of what Justin's telling her about Casey. She seriously hasn't had her doubts? I get that she wants to protect her dad, but does that toss all reason aside?

Still, this was a big improvement over last week and, outside of "Chuck vs. the Honeymooners," was probably the best episode of the final six of the season so far. And as far as cliffhangers go, Shaw going to have himself implanted with the Ring's version of the Intersect is a pretty great one headed into the finale. Before, Shaw was just a good man who let his anguish twist him to evil purposes. Now he's a man who's fully embraced that evil agenda, and he's got superpowers too. Shaw has been set up all season as a counterpoint to Chuck, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out now that he's even more of one than he was before.

Some other thoughts:

  • How much you want to bet that Shaw is felled by the Intersect wreaking havoc on his brain? I lay 2-to-1 odds.
  • I hope the show never uses the term "spy will" again. I'm sure something similar to this really exists, but I'd be horrified if the CIA called it something that dumb.
  • I'm sure you've heard by now, but "Chuck" will be back next season. It'll be on in the fall in its usual time slot: Mondays at 8 p.m. I kind of agree with Dan Fienberg that it might be nice for the show to get a tryout in a time slot when it would actually have a lead-in, but I'm glad we're going to get more "Chuck" either way.

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

Photo: Scott Bakula (left) plays Chuck's (Zachary Levi) dad on "Chuck." Credit: NBC

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