'Chuck' recap: Standing tall on the wings of Chuck's dream
Some of my favorite "Chuck" episodes over the seasons have been "bottle shows," or episodes that are confined to a handful of sets, usually sets the show has on hand, like the Buy More or CIA castle sets. The Season 2 Christmas episode -- where Chuck and the Buy More gang were trapped inside the store with an evil henchman (or two or three) -- remains one of my two or three favorite hours of the show ever, and last season's "Chuck vs. First Class," featuring the beleaguered spy battling evil doers on an airplane and having a meet-cute with Kristin Kreuk was one of the best episodes of last season. Both of these episodes gained a certain amount of excitement from confining their characters to one or two primary locations. Usually, having to keep the budget down will force the show's writers to be more creative, pushing them toward finding ways to confine things on certain sets and use only major cast members. But sometimes, it can lead to an episode that feels weirdly anemic.
"Chuck vs. the Cubic Z" is one of those episodes. There are a few good moments and a few good fights, but it concludes with a moment so stupid that it actually made me ask myself when the show had turned into "Perfect Strangers." Wed that to a Buy More plotline that didn't make a lot of sense and reduced Morgan to an idiot far too often and a spy plot that relied a little too heavily on the acting talents of Nicole Richie, and you have a recipe for an episode that just didn't work. It wasn't terrible -- there are always some laughs in any episode of "Chuck" and it moved the storyline of Chuck looking for his mom just far enough along to not be a total loss -- but the whole thing felt slightly boring and messy. It very much felt like a show in its fourth season, trying to find some way to repeat past glories and yet still find new ways to push the story forward.
I like the central idea of the episode quite a bit. There's been a transport breakdown, and two high-security prisoners need to be held in Los Angeles for a little while. Naturally, they're assigned to the substation with the worst security record in the country (or so one has to assume), and that means that Chuck and Sarah are going to have to watch over some of their former villains, specifically the ones played by (Stone Cold) Steve Austin and Richie. As a setup for an episode, this isn't a bad one, since both of these characters were fun in their previous outings on the show, but the episode requires that both -- especially Richie's character, Heather -- get under Chuck and Sarah's skin, respectively, and it's in that emotional conflict that the episode kind of falls apart.
The conversation about whether to get married and eventually have kids is one every couple in their late 20s or early 30s has to have. Sure, we want to go through life with a partner by our side and live on through our kids (or at least a lot of us do), but getting married and having kids tends to lock someone down, trapping them in place where 10 years pass and they've gotten older and barely realized it. For someone like Sarah, who's the kind of person who has barely even had a consistent identity, much less a consistent relationship, this could seem like a kind of torturous death, no matter how much she likes Chuck. And when Heather starts to talk about how being with a sweet guy like Chuck will eventually drive her crazy, it rings true with what we know of both characters. But at the same time, the whole plot hinged on two things I rarely enjoy: 1.) Characters putting off a conversation they need to have for a variety of reasons (some good and some bad), particularly when that conversation is of an emotional nature. 2.) Nicole Richie trying to act.
I didn't think Richie was bad in her last appearance on the show, but her work here as Heather is supposed to be the emotional heart of the episode, and it just doesn't succeed. She plays every scene with the same emotionless tone of voice, and that makes for scenes that seem less moving than they probably should. I get what Heather represents to Sarah -- since the two went to high school together -- but at the same time, the show maybe should have come up with a new character entirely to push these particular buttons of Sarah's. I probably would have bought it, and then the series could have cast an actress who was more capable of nailing the dramatic moments. (Austin is less problematic, as his main reason to exist in this episode is to beat up Chuck in a cage fight, something he excels at already.)
The other plot left just as much to be desired. Morgan's in his first few days as Buy More manager, but there's something critical here: He knows that the Buy More is also a CIA operation. And yet when he only gets a handful of copies of the video game Spy Attack and has to endure a riot of angry video game fans, he does nothing with this information. Granted, the CIA is kind of busy at the moment, but it would have been nice to see Morgan try to get someone from downstairs to come up and help him get more copies of the game or subdue the crowds. Obviously, this was supposed to be about Big Mike and Morgan's relationship, but the plot was just too beside the point to work as a good story about the two, even as Morgan learned his former boss was going to ask Morgan's mom to marry him. It was a strange plot, and it focused too much on the bumbling Morgan of Season 1, not the more confident and intelligent Morgan we've gotten to know in subsequent seasons.
But almost none of that mattered, because the closing moments of the episode were incredibly stupid. Big Mike's ring, which had gone missing and been pursued by Morgan in what felt like an "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" homage, went clattering down the air shaft and ended up falling onto the floor behind Chuck. He and Sarah were having a conversation about things that they were ready for in their relationship, and OF COURSE, he ended up stooping to one knee to pick it up and appeared to be proposing, and both of them freaked out for a moment and ... argh. You don't need to do anything this stupid. You can even have Chuck and Sarah find the ring and do the EXACT SAME STORY POINT. But to have it seem like a proposal for a moment was beneath this show. It felt like a "Perfect Strangers" plot point, and I hope they never speak of it again.
Some other thoughts:
- -Do you think Casey will really sit out a couple of episodes, or will we get to see him hang out with Alex? I hope it's the latter.
- -I think the show really suffers when Ellie and Awesome don't get a nice little chunk of screen time. Ellie and Chuck's relationship is the soul of the show, and it can fly off the tracks without her grounding influence.
- -It may be time to drop the Greta gimmick. That's three Gretas who've been used for basically nothing, and Stacy Kiebler was barely in the episode at all.
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi, left) has to do battle once again with the evil Hugo (Steve Austin). (Credit: NBC)