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'Chuck' recap: Everybody loves a murder mystery

March 22, 2011 |  7:00 am

Though it was silly and predictable, “Chuck Versus the Muuurder” is the first episode of “Chuck” in a while I don’t feel like I have to make excuses for. I really enjoyed the show’s central conceits, and I found myself getting drawn into the murder mystery, even though I figured out the killer from the word go. This was pretty clearly an episode designed to save a little cash, confined as it was to some of the show’s standing sets (though it boasted a hefty guest cast), but the show figured out a way to make staying in the same place pretty exciting, via a nice combination of unexpected death and explosions. “Muuurder” even finds a way to tie everything together with the season’s ongoing plot, as we find out that the person behind the infiltration of the castle is someone we already know, and we discover that Father Bartowski’s plans for his daughter may not have been as altruistic as we might have previously thought. All in all, it’s a pretty aces episode of “Chuck.”

The central gimmick is well-worn, the sort of thing millions of shows have taken a spun at. Chuck has to invite a bunch of potential candidates to be his new Intersect back-up to the Castle, then pick one of them for the job. The candidates include Damien, a veteran of the Gulf War who’s gotten sick of the desert; Louis, a techie who has a British accent after but one semester studying in England; Josie, an overly emotional girl who’s called in to emulate Chuck’s touchy-feely side; and Brody, a guy who might as well just be the new Chuck, should the show ever need to recast Zachary Levi. It’s a fun conceit, and the sequence where Casey, Sarah, and Morgan quiz the candidates on various things is maybe the highlight of the episode, even if I have no idea why an extensive knowledge of pop culture would ever be necessary to the CIA. (I can buy it if we accept the organization has just decided to go for broke and find someone as much like Chuck as possible.)

However, once Chuck selects Brody for the job, things start to go haywire. Brody is walking down the hall, when he sees someone planting a bomb, someone we don’t see. Cue the usual, “Hey, what are you doing!” and knife entering Brody’s heart scenes. He collapses to the ground, Chuck and Bentley find the body, and we’ve got ourselves an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. Now, granted, from the instant that Damien becomes injured in the bomb blast (which closes out act two, I believe), it’s obvious that he’s the murderer, simply because in this sort of story (at least on television), the murderer is always the first person killed or the person who seems as though they could never possibly commit the murders. I’ll admit I had a brief moment of doubt when Chuck seemed to be accusing Bentley late in the episode, but it just made too much sense for Damien to be the killer, then to cover up his tracks via explosions and additional murders (though I still don’t buy that he would have killed Louis when it seemed as if Louis would make a great suspect).

But this episode was all about the grace notes around the edges. In particular, I liked the way that the main plot intersected with the Buy More plot. In both, there was a mystery, but, as always, the mystery upstairs was sillier than the mystery downstairs. Upstairs, Morgan had to track down the kidnappers of Kevin Bacon, the tiny pig mascot of competitor store Large-mart. Naturally, Jeff and Lester had taken the tiny pig, and Morgan figured this out quickly enough, but they’d also released the little guy into the air vents, in the belief that if you love something, you must set it free. This meant that the Large-mart folks weren’t keen on returning THEIR hostage, who just happened to be Big Mike. As Morgan tried to track down Kevin Bacon, the gang downstairs ran into him first, with Casey sticking his head into the vents—hoping to find the missing Louis up there—and confronting a tiny pig. He grunted at the pig, the pig grunted back at him, and that was all the episode needed for comedy. Everything else on top of that was extra. (Oh, also, when the final explosion rocked the Castle at the end, it sent little Kevin Bacon flying through the air to safety. What can I say? I’m a sucker for pig gags.)

Look, I get that a lot of this episode was stupid. I get that a lot of this episode was predictable. If you hated it, I don’t blame you. But I’m a sucker for this sort of thing in the exact way I’m NOT a sucker for “Charlie’s Angel” homages, and, thus, this episode worked for me in a way that that earlier one just didn’t. To some degree, I LIKED that it was easy to pick out the character who’d committed the murders. Yeah, it’s a little weak to have yet another episode come down to a bomb that’s about to explode and Chuck needing to stop the bomb from exploding, and there never needs to be another story about the Castle being compromised again. (If the real CIA was this sloppy about security, the U.S. would be a pile of rubble.) 

But I liked the hidden spine of this episode, which had to do with Chuck being comfortable with his new leadership role in the Intersect program. At first, Bentley doesn’t trust him, but as the episode goes on, she comes to realize he’s the right man for the job. It’s a nice moment, and it’s one that – miraculously – doesn’t feel forced. When Bentley chooses to sacrifice herself instead of Chuck, Sarah, and Casey at the end, it’s a surprisingly touching moment; when Chuck pops his head into the room to save her, it’s an even better one. Bentley seemed like she was going to be a garden variety antagonist when she first turned up last week, but the show was right to realize that the real focus should be on Vivian Volkoff and her new network of evildoers. If the show can keep things this silly, with this many nice, serious moments on the side, it could do very well heading into the season finale.

Some other thoughts:

  • --I’ve seen lots of complaints about how puerile the gag with Big Mike dressed up in a giant box reading “BM” (for Buy More) was, but, man, I laughed every time I either saw him or heard one of the cast members utter those two fateful letters. I guess there’s always room for good potty humor? Or maybe I’m just secretly that lowbrow.
  • --On the other hand, I’m not quite sure what this whole Ellie thing is building to. She sits around the apartment. She messes with the laptop and ignores Baby Clara. Then the laptop apparently starts downloading stuff into her mind. Weird, and I’m not sure where all of this is heading. If it ends up with Ellie and Awesome better integrated with the rest of the cast, great. But there’s no real hope of that happening all the same.
  • --I think Brody should have stuck around longer, if only to see Morgan grow more uncomfortable as his best friend finds someone who thinks even MORE like him.
  • --"It does seem like it's been four years in the making."
  • --"Other men wear collared shirts all day, while I get to wear a great big BM on my chest. That's job satisfaction!"
  • --"Weirdly, an adorable little pig attracts more customers than a large man wearing a yellow and green BM."
  • --"Seriously? He was my second choice."

Photo: Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) finds herself entranced by her dad's old laptop in last night's "Chuck." (Credit: NBC)

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