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'Chuck' recap: I'm finding it hard to care about your problems

March 1, 2011 |  8:30 am

NUP_143466_0001 If there's one thing an episode of "Chuck" can’t afford to be, it's boring. This is a show that thrives on fun, and boring is the enemy of fun. The problem with what the show is doing right now is that it is almost entirely dependent on an untested actress playing a character we just met last week, and that means that we need to be far more invested in Vivian Volkoff and her metamorphosis from normal British chick to super-villain than we are right now. I'm not saying this can't change, but I'm not totally buying it just yet. A lot of that stems from the actress playing Vivian, Lauren Cohan, who's been fine in other things I've seen over the years but isn’t quite selling the idea that this otherwise normal girl could become a figurehead of menace (at least, I assume that's where we're heading, and the ending makes it pretty darn clear we're going this way). Also, her accent isn't the best (though that wouldn't bother me nearly so much if the writing for the character were better).

Anyway, let's start with the weirdest thing about Monday night's episode: the Morgan and Casey subplots. Morgan is looking for a new roommate, so he can stop having to listen in detail to the romantic evenings his mom and Big Mike share together. When he places an ad online (and not in the classified section of his local newspaper, for shame!), it's hijacked by Jeff and Lester, who've come to believe that the place to meet women is a Renaissance Faire (because, y'know, that's a fairly common opinion to hold). Because Morgan won't give them two weeks off to visit the fair, they decide to bring it to their doorstep, changing the ad to make it sound as though Morgan is specifically looking for someone who's really into the whole Society for Creative Anachronism thing. This leads to a long string of boring and predictable gags about how people who dress up for these sorts of things are kooks. There's really not a lot to it at all, outside of giving Morgan, Jeff and Lester something to do.

Then there's Casey. He's a vital part of Chuck's team, but the show is stranding him in a storyline in which he doesn't have much to do. Sure, it's theoretically compelling that some other agency is interested in what he has to offer, but what it's doing more directly is taking Adam Baldwin away from the missions, where he's a necessary leavening dose of humor and tough-guy grimace to everything else that's going on. On Monday night, he mostly just stood around, commenting on other story lines, and that's never a good place to have a character who just might be your best character. I get that the show's formula can use the occasional minor shakeup, but I'm ready to figure out how this new agency figures into everything else, and fairly quickly. (On the other hand, now that Morgan is apparently going to live with Casey, we get to see lots of plots in which ... he tries to hang out with his girlfriend at her dad's place, I imagine? That just sounds creepy.)

On the other hand, you had Ray Wise, and more Ray Wise is almost always more of a good thing. If you'll recall, in the fall of 2007, NBC and the CW were debuting shows about nerdy slackers working in big-box superstores who discovered they had superpowers of one sort or another. One was, of course, "Chuck," and the other was "Reaper," which starred -– you've guessed it by now -– Ray Wise as Satan himself. Now, he's on "Chuck," perhaps to remind us all that "Reaper" was a pretty nice little show, all things considered, but also to remind us that Wise is always fun when he's playing a bad dude. He plays these guys with a smile and a song, and he's far more interesting as the rather nondescript role of "Riley, Volkoff's lawyer," compared with Vivian, who should be setting the world on fire (probably literally). Wise doesn't get much to do in this episode, but the fact that he's still alive at the end and helping Vivian on her journey bodes well for what's to come.

I also didn't mind the plot in which Sarah and Chuck had to rob a bank. It was kind of silly that they started talking about their wedding in the midst of this whole mission, but silly is what these two do at this point, and there were some good lines mixed in there. Does it all really make sense? No. But I'm willing to go with the idea that, say, the bank manager (played by "Lost's" own Dr. Pierre Chang -– actor Francois Chau) was apparently able to be fooled by Chuck's and Sarah’s not-so-great disguises or that there would be this elaborate series of tests to determine that Vivian was who she said she was. Indeed, it all could have been pretty fun, if not for one big, big problem.

I'm just not buying Cohan as Vivian at all. I know I opened with this, but it's hard to overstate just how much this sort of thing is taking me out of the show when she's onscreen. The show, it's easy to see, is setting up some sort of parallel between Chuck and Vivian, with the idea that if Chuck hadn't had such a solid support network of friends or somesuch, he would have been sorely tempted to turn to evil. Vivian really only has Chuck and Sarah to keep her from going full Volkoff, and it's obvious that, hey, the lure of evil and power is very, very tempting. At one time, I was just worried that the show would have Vivian become some sort of pointless obstacle on the road to Chuck's and Sarah’s nuptial bliss. Instead, they’re doing something more psychological, but they're doing it with a character who hasn't really earned that level of scrutiny. I'm willing to be proved wrong about this, but I'm not invested in Vivian at all, and that means "Chuck" is on shaky ground in this episode.

Some other thoughts:

  • --I did like the scene in which Sarah tries on all of those wedding dresses. It was a pretty basic attempt to play a very similar scene in every other romantic comedy, in which the uptight female lead realizes she really DOES want to get married, but it worked here. That's probably because we've been with Sarah so long that her journey to this moment feels organic.
  • --I was less enamored of the magic hologram projector machine that Chuck dubbed "J. Crew for spies." I don’t need to see that again, I don't think.
  • -- "We have an extra room in our apartment/van."

Photo: Vivian Volkoff (Lauren Cohan) investigates her strange destiny on "Chuck." Credit: NBC

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-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter/@tvoti

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