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'Chuck' recap: A few new uses for apple juice

March 15, 2011 |  9:00 am

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One of the things that's always bothered me about "Chuck," even in its very best episodes, is the fact that it will often move too quickly. Material that would have been awesome playing out over arcs of several episodes will be hurried through in a single hour, making that episode feel chaotic and also making other episodes that could have benefited from such material feel oddly empty. The biggest flaw in the "Chuck" picture has always been world-building, to my mind. The show never feels like it extends beyond the confines of an individual episode in the way the best series do. It's hard to imagine that the guest stars of the week have lives outside of the times they intersect with Chuck, and the show's version of Burbank feels oddly shallow. By extending story lines, by making things feel more consistent, the show could very easily fix this, all the while keeping with its usual format. Yet it rarely bothers to do this.

"Chuck Versus the A-Team" is a good example of this. For a few weeks now, we've been wondering just what Casey saw behind that giant metal door at the end of the inexplicable hallway (as Chuck and Sarah note, cheekily, there must have been some new construction they missed). It hasn't been the most important question hanging over the series -– that would probably be just what's up with Vivian Volkoff -– but there's certainly been an air of mystery around the whole thing. Now we find out what's behind the door, and it's just ... another team for Casey and another version of Castle. Sure, the plan has involved turning Rick and Vicky (two of the agents who briefly worked in the Buy More and were known as "Greta" earlier this season) into Intersects like Chuck, but the reveal doesn't really match the extreme amount of buildup. What was behind the door was just a mirror image of what was on the other side? It's all very strange, like if that magical wardrobe in the Narnia books opened, instead, to a Super Cuts or something.

But the story launched by all of these revelations isn't half bad. The idea of the CIA deciding to create more Intersects and using some of their best agents to do it is a good one, and it evolves naturally from the premise of Chuck being kind of a screw-up as a spy. He's not bad, and he's better than he was when the series started (with an oddly similar "let's defuse a bomb via unconventional means!" gag), but he's still a guy who gets too emotionally involved in things and tends to precede every noun he says with the word "spy." (He's also the kind of guy who will randomly begin spouting facts that signify the awesomeness of the minivan he's riding in to no one in particular while on a mission. Sure, it's just garden-variety product placement, but I like to imagine some CIA geek somewhere being forced to listen in on this bit of dialogue and wondering if his asset has lost his mind.) So there's some value in making other Intersects, Intersects who would be better at carrying out the important business of the United States intelligence community.

This story line also is kind of cool because it ties together some bits of information from earlier in the season that felt like random stunt casting. When the show came up with the idea to cast a rotating wheel of minor celebrities (including Monday night's two returnees, Stacy Keibler and Isaac Mustafa, who will always be known as "the Old Spice guy") as the various agents tasked with keeping things running smoothly in the Buy More, it seemed like a fun way to play to the show's core geek audience. Finally, the weird intersection of fandom that included Chuckleheads (Is this a thing? Can we make it a thing?) and Summer Glau devotees would have its day! But that's literally all the gag was for the first half of the season: It was a way to bring in actors with some amount of geek cred and/or actors who looked hot in a Buy More uniform. Even the show seemed to realize this and lost interest in it.

Now, the fact that former Gretas Rick and Vicky are the two members of Casey's team doesn't validate the earlier story point. It's not like the two's Greta-ness pays off the whole arc somehow. But it is a nice way to nod to the earlier plot without doing too much work to pull it all into line. Plus, I like the way that the two seem to serve as a weird mirror image of Chuck and Sarah. Vicky is like a more robotic Sarah, while Rick is the exact opposite of Chuck in almost every way. It's an unexpected gag that almost makes the whole "there's just another Castle behind the big door!" thing worth it. And the rest of the plot -– which involves the two revealing that they aren't as good at being Intersects as Chuck because they don't have the whole package of geeky smarts, spy skills and emotionality, and also, improbably, involves Chuck averting a nuclear apocalypse using apple juice (I'm not joking) -– is a lot of fun until we get to the apple juice thing. (I know the show mixes weird gags with the suspenseful moments frequently, but this one was just a step too silly, even for me.)

But I couldn't help but think how much more satisfying this would have been played out in the background of four or five other episodes, as the characters slowly realized what was up with Casey's new job and Rick and Vicky revealed themselves as incompetent in ways the CIA couldn't have dreamed of and Chuck and Sarah had to save the day again and again. In particular, that moment when Chuck realizes that Rick and Vicky are Intersects too, because they follow his patterns, killed in this episode but could have been one of the high points of the series with a little more weight behind it. Instead, it's just a cool little moment that feels like it's done with just a few minutes later. I'm not saying "Chuck" has to turn into a heavily serialized drama or anything, but it hurts to see the show leaving some great material on the table like this. 

Some other thoughts:

  • --The laptop from Chuck’s dad is back in the story again, as Ellie, a little crazy from spending all day with the baby and no adult interaction, resolves to track it down, just to have something to do, apparently. She tasks Jeff and Lester to do it, but this doesn't really result in anything more than a couple of goofy scenes designed to give those two actors something to do. Finally, Casey's new boss, who can only be called Gen. Robin Givens, drops off the laptop at Ellie's house, and Ellie finds herself mesmerized by it for hours. This can only end poorly. I hope there's a better payoff for this than there was for what was behind the door.
  • --Morgan didn't have a lot to do in this episode, but I did enjoy the reveals of his extremely tiny hand (via handprint) and his new living situation with Casey.
  • --Next week's episode pings too many of my favorite plots for me to NOT like it. I mean, a closed-room murder mystery? That could be VERY fun.
  • -- "Uck. Sounds like a CBS show."
  • --"One, you're not an aviator ..."

Photo: Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Chuck (Zachary Levi) find themselves fearful that they're no longer the CIA's "A-team." Credit: NBC

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-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter.com / @tvoti

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