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'Chuck' recap: Scary monsters and super creeps

October 25, 2010 |  9:00 pm


When “Chuck” is at its best, it’s a show about how its characters’ job –- trying to keep ahead of the bad guys in the international world of espionage –- conflicts with its characters’ personal lives. It’s one thing for Chuck and Sarah to argue about how they’ve never had a real conversation about their relationship or something. It’s another thing for Sarah to directly cause the event that rips apart Chuck’s family yet again. My favorite episode of the show is still “Chuck vs. the Santa Claus” from back in Season 2, and that episode features the famous moment where Chuck sees Sarah kill a man without blinking. He’s a bad guy. The world of “Chuck” is better off with him out of the picture. But it’s still a hard thing for a goofy guy like Chuck to see the girl he’s in love with do. The show is better when it pits its light, frothy comedy side against its hard-boiled action side.

To be fair, I wasn’t sure “Chuck vs. the Aisle of Terror” was going to get to this point. And that’s fine. It would have still been an enjoyable episode of the show without that gut-punch of an ending. There were plenty of things to chortle at here, and I was impressed with the show’s ability to create a spooky episode while remaining vaguely true to its family-friendly trappings. Plus, the Buy More action dovetailed with the spy action in a way that any viewer should have been able to see coming from a mile away –- once you introduce the concepts of Jeff and Lester building an “aisle of terror” and a neurotoxin that makes people see scary hallucinations, you KNOW the show’s going to mix those two elements somehow –- but in a way that was still largely satisfying. Plus, Robert Englund, as always, makes a great bad guy.

Here’s what’s up. After being gone from Chuck’s life for years and years and after being off the audience’s radar for several episodes, Chuck’s mom returns to his life again in the form of a phone call. Given that Chuck’s mom is played by Linda Hamilton, who is awesome, and given that most of the season’s promotional materials focused on Chuck’s search for her, it’s been a little disappointing to have so many of this season’s episodes be business as usual. But to the show’s credit, once Mama Bartowski’s back on the scene, it wastes no time in kicking the plot into gear. She wants to meet Chuck alone. Chuck brings Sarah as a tail. That’s all well and good, as Mom tells Chuck about the neurotoxin and the man who developed it (Englund). But at the meet-up where Chuck will abscond with the neurotoxin and take it safely into CIA hands, his mother plugs him in the chest. Now, he’s wearing a bulletproof vest, but this is still one of those things you bring up in therapy.

But wait! Mom says it was all part of a setup. She’s been infiltrating the bad guys for years, at the behest of the CIA, and she just did it to keep Chuck and Ellie safe. Now, it’s off to hiding again with her, though Chuck finally persuades her she should see Ellie one last time and explain just what was up all these years. Ellie, for her part, has been dealing with her husband’s mother (the sadly underused Morgan Fairchild) and wishing she had her own mother to talk to in the buildup to having her own baby. So, of course, she’s thrilled to finally see her mother, even if it is for one last meeting.

But this is “Chuck,” so you know there’s going to be more. Casey discovers that Chuck’s mom’s file wasn’t deleted by the CIA, as she claims. It was removed after she went rogue. The CIA has been after her for year to figure out just what she’s up to and which side she’s playing for. Fortunately, Chuck and Ellie are meeting with their mother and Sarah just happens to know –- via her girlfriend powers –- where her boyfriend and his mom are meeting. And this leads to the emotionally fraught ending, where Chuck races over to save his mom from the men dragging her into a van, pulls off the mask covering one of the men’s faces and reveals … Sarah. Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski make the most out of this moment, as does Sarah Lancaster as Ellie, sitting sadly, waiting for a mother who’s being dragged into a van just outside.

On “Chuck,” the show will often mute a lot of the emotional impact of these events, the better to make sure that everything is rolling along happily enough. So I won’t be surprised if in two weeks’ time Chuck has completely forgiven Sarah and Casey, and Ellie and her mother are braiding each other’s hair. But this is the best emotional moment “Chuck” has had in a long time –- maybe since Season 2 –- precisely because it remembers the show works best when the spy world and the personal world are put in conflict. The idea that Chuck’s mom’s allegiances can’t be wholly pinned down isn’t the most original one. She’s basically a femme fatale, and if you want to see the ultimate TV version of this story line, you could just rent Season 2 of “Alias.” But I’m hopeful that the writers give Hamilton more to do in the weeks to come and that she, Levi and Lancaster get some hard-hitting scenes about how much she’s hurt her kids.

Over in the Buy More subplot, things weren’t quite as exciting, but there was still plenty of fun to be had. Morgan, sensing that the store needs something a little more for Halloween, enlists Jeff and Lester to set up the titular “aisle of terror,” which will consist of monitors displaying everything Jeff -– the scariest person anyone on this show knows –- finds scary. What Jeff finds scary isn’t terribly unsettling. It includes old people, interspecies relationships (depicted by a baby chimp hugging a baby tiger) and babies in costumes. (“Is it a baby? Or is it a snail?!”) Somehow, the juxtaposition of these images together becomes unsettling, especially when narrated by Jeff. Are these images, combined with the neurotoxin that makes things seem spookier than they are, enough to fell the evil mad scientist? Do you even have to ask?

The first few episodes of this season of “Chuck” felt like the show running in place while figuring out how it was going to move forward. There’s still an element of that to this episode, where the neurotoxin story line was a fun Halloween treat but little more. Yet the last couple of episodes have started to dig more into the way that Chuck has been damaged by his mother leaving him, and the emotional payoffs have been all the richer for it. So long as the show can remember that what makes the emotional stuff work is how it ties into the spy stuff, I’ll be on board.

Some other thoughts:

  • --I get that the show’s budget is not insanely large, but the scenes where Chuck was stumbling around under the influence of the neurotoxin at the Buy More and freaking out at prop spiders and crows you could get at a Target were not the series’ finest moments.
  • --Was this the first episode of the season to feature all of the credited cast members? Or did I miss one?
  • --As I’m sure you heard, NBC picked up “Chuck” for not just the back nine but the back 11, making this the show’s longest season yet, at 24 episodes. I guess there’s something to be said for low-rated consistency on a network having a disastrous fall.
  • --"This is exactly why I don't see scary movies, and I stick mainly to the PG-13 region."

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

Photo: What's scarier than the guy who first played Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund? (Credit: NBC)

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