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'Chuck' recap: Let's change some things around here

January 24, 2011 |  9:56 pm

NUP_142407_0325 I realize this isn’t exactly a terribly new and original thing to say, but I think “Chuck” could stand to streamline itself quite a bit. It increasingly feels like it consists of two entirely separate, half-hour shows that NBC has edited together for no real reason. And it’s not like the Buy More stuff provides a comic relief from the spy stuff that the show can’t get in any other fashion. Morgan’s a funny enough character and has a funny enough relationship with Chuck, Sarah and Casey that the show gets plenty of laughs on the spy missions without trying too hard, even in an episode where the spy mission is fairly dark, like tonight’s mission was. Where once the Buy More or Ellie/Awesome B-plots were oblique commentaries on what Chuck was going through in the spy world, they’re now mostly gentle workplace or domestic story lines that have only the barest of connections to everything else. 

It pains me to say this because Ellie and Awesome are among my favorite characters on the show. Where I would have been fine with the show ditching the Buy More from Day One (though I’ve enjoyed several plot lines there), I’ve always thought Ellie brought a certain soul to the show, a sense of the life that Chuck had before his spy life and a sense of the family history that made him the slacker guy he was when the show began. Chuck and Ellie only had each other, really, and that made their relationship (and the fact that both found love as the series went on) that much more moving. But now, after the show took the potentially huge step of having Ellie find out that Chuck was a spy before immediately reversing that step, Ellie and Awesome just don’t have the meaning to the storyline they once did. It doesn’t mean they can’t share nice scenes with the other characters, but they seem trapped in the same two or three story lines with every episode.

Part of this is the fact that “Chuck” has gradually pared its mission statement down to the central idea of being a spy action-comedy. When the show started, it was a spy show, sure, but it was also a romantic comedy AND a workplace comedy AND a story about best friends AND a dramatic series about a brother and sister dealing with their screwed-up family. Gradually, the show has wrapped more of these stories into the spy stuff. Chuck and Sarah are dating and are more or less equals at work now. Morgan knows about the spy stuff and is starting out in the CIA. Really, this leaves the Buy More staff and Ellie and Awesome on the outside looking in.

For further proof of this, look at tonight’s episode, where the spy storyline was often very exciting and touching and the other storyline … wasn’t. Ellie and Awesome haven’t chosen a name for their unborn daughter yet (and it seems like Ellie’s pregnancy has advanced about six months since the Thanksgiving episode, when last we saw her baby bump). Ellie lands on the perfect name, which she shares with Chuck, who predictably takes it to Awesome. That name? Grünka. Awesome, of course, doesn’t like this name, and he wraps the Buy More gang into his plot to get Ellie to think the name is awful, by suggesting that Lester lost his virginity to a Grünka and by having Big Mike talk about a serial killer named Grünka. Turns out Ellie took the name from an IKEA package of spoons (and I wondered why it sounded so much like their furniture!), simply so she could get Awesome to commit to a name. He picks Clara, and the two of them are happy to wait for their daughter to be born.

Don’t get me wrong. Moments of this storyline were touching, particularly the ending. Moments of it were very funny, particularly the escalating scene of terrible Grünka inspirations in the Buy More. But when the other storyline involved Sarah being forced to kill Casey to preserve her cover, while Chuck looked on helplessly? There’s just too much of a disparity between how seriously we’re meant to take the two story lines. If “Chuck” wants to be a cool, fun spy series, with a healthy side of comedy, that’s cool. If it wants to be a light comedy about a bunch of crazy people who are forced to hang out with each other, that’s cool too. But the two tastes don’t mix together nearly as well as they used to, primarily because the series has doubled down on how seriously it wants us to take the spy stuff.

By and large, I enjoyed the spy storyline tonight. It has a few logic issues here and there, but nothing so terrible that it bothered me very much in the moment. (Sometimes, you just have to let plot holes go.) The emotional core of the storyline—Chuck and Sarah trying to keep their love alive in the face of her being forced to do very bad things—was mostly well done, and the sequence where Chuck went into prison was solid enough that I wanted more of it. In general, the spy story lines are at a point where they could stand to fill the entire hour, making the Buy More and domestic home-life stuff feel even more pointless. Those final moments with Sarah rejecting Chuck’s message could have been truly heart-breaking, but the episode had to skate by them awfully quickly. 

And here’s another problem: We now know that the series is going to do whatever it can to return to the status quo as quickly as possible. There’s no real fear that Sarah will get trapped in Volkoff’s web, forced to go darker and darker until she can’t see a way out. I’m not saying there should be, necessarily; I’m saying that the show’s refusal to make even the most basic of changes to its format limits its dramatic possibilities. There are ways to do this sort of TV well. For example, Sarah shoving Casey out of a window would never result in his death, but it could deal some damage to the relationship between Sarah and Chuck (because he watched her do it) or enhance the central partnership between Sarah and Casey (as he talks her into doing it). That’s a good way to change things without REALLY changing them. But by constantly making sure everything’s always back to square one—by constantly making sure the Buy More reopens or Ellie and Awesome are kept out of the loop and on and on—the show keeps any of its twists from having the weight they need to have.

Some other thoughts:

  • Just once, I’d like to see Chuck flash on something other than kung fu this season. It seems to be the one thing the show knows how to throw to.
  • Let’s hand out some praise: A very strong episode for Joshua Gomez, I thought, particularly with his little scene where he tries to convince Casey that he needs to TELL Alex he loves her, not just show her. It becomes even more poignant when Casey’s in the hospital.
  • I’m very glad that the Volkoff organization paints its name on the walls, so we all know how to spell it now. (Seriously, I am. I’ve read five or six different spellings of it up until this point.)
  • The outside of Volkoff, Ltd., appears to be taken from a mid-90s full-motion-video computer game.
  • “I love sourdough!” Me too, Morgan. Me too.

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

Photo: Chuck's mom (Linda Hamilton) is Sarah's only friend inside the Volkoff organization. (Credit: NBC)

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