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'Chuck' recap: Scared yet?

November 15, 2010 | 10:32 pm

After two episodes filled with pretty exciting, emotional twists, "Chuck" seemed to be getting back to basics with a solid, if not spectacular hour, that then redeemed itself with another gut-punch of an ending. The central idea of the episode -- Chuck has to remove the psychological block his mother placed on the Intersect at the end of the last episode by trying to send every inch of his body shivering with the fear of death -- was a pretty good one, and I liked the way the episode tied this in to a more prosaic fear of death, the fear that you'll die and realize you haven't really accomplished anything meaningful or even interesting with your life. Rob Riggle was a lot of fun as the psychological expert called in to help Chuck dislodge the block, and Summer Glau had her moments as the latest Greta (though she was underused). And, as mentioned, that final act was terrific.

So what didn't work? Well, the idea that the block on the Intersect was caused by Chuck's love for Sarah was fairly groan-inducing. I get that as long as she's around, he's never really going to be scared of death because she'll be there to pull him up and out of the fire, but it felt like the latest of the series' attempts to introduce needless drama into the relationship between the two, as if it doesn't know how to write for a happy couple that, nonetheless, has the occasional difference of opinion. This plot point led to one really good scene -- where Chuck and Sarah argued about whether or not he needed her help on his European adventure -- but most of it felt forced, the kind of cheap, pop psychology that can work on a show like this but often comes off as the writers trying to toss needless complications into the mix.

Similarly, the story with Jeff and Lester stalking Greta around the Buy More, getting closer and closer to finding out her secret and then having Casey call her off from slaughtering the two doofuses was amusing enough in places, but it also felt almost too slight with the weighty stuff going on in the other storyline. There's no way that Jeff and Lester could ever be in any serious danger (or, indeed, even know they were in serious danger), so too much of the burden of the story fell onto Casey and Morgan, who were mostly spectators to the whole event. Sure, Jeff and Lester rarely listen to reason, but if anyone could get them to, it would be the Morgan and Casey tag team. Thus, the decision to make this a storyline where the two ultimately sided with Jeff and Lester over Greta felt kind of regrettable. It doesn't help that the whole Greta thing has turned out to be a bust, just another element in a show that didn't need another element. It's nothing but an excuse for glorified cameos from actors who might give the core audience a few chuckles. (And, heck, I'll admit that when Summer Glau and Adam Baldwin -- who were in that spaceship thing together, don't you know? -- were on screen together for the first time, I got a chuckle out of it.)

Yet so much of this story is dependent on the cliffhanger that it's probably best we jump to that next. Chuck and Rye (the Riggle character) discover that the diamond they've been sent to retrieve contains vital U.S. intelligence (of course it does). So they abscond with the diamond, then figure they can make a clean sweep by capturing the bad guys, including one played by Richard Chamberlain. However, Rye's counting too much on Chuck being able to dislodge the block and turn the Intersect back on, as when the group gets in an enclosed gondola, Rye and Chuck find themselves handily outnumbered, and Chuck soon finds himself dangling high above the Alps, trying not to plummet to his doom. Rye seems to have things taken care of, but he's soon shot through the heart and heading for the ground, for good measure. And that's when Chamberlain's character offers Chuck a hand up. He knows Chuck's the Intersect, and he wants what's in his head. Cue sad montage.

Now, granted, this is the unofficial start of a two-parter, so next week's episode could redeem some of what didn't work in this episode. And if there was a "Chuck" fan that didn't get chills when Sarah, Casey, and Morgan vowed to get their friend back, Sarah against orders, no less, then they're probably not a real "Chuck" fan. But the stuff on the way to the finale had some potholes. As an example, that sequence where Rye locks himself and Chuck in the vault holding the diamond, initiating a security protocol that drops the temperature well below zero (in Celsius!), seems like it's going to build to something far more exciting than it actually does. Instead, Rye just enters the combination to turn off the security protocol, offering up the equivalent of "just kidding." The episode is full of false jolts like this, moments designed to get us on the edge of our seat that then have the tension immediately abated. And while I liked Riggle in the role, there were a few too many moments when he seemed to be deadly serious that were then undercut by a joke or two. It's part of the show's structure, but it rarely feels this jarring.

Then again, there's so much good in the episode that it feels weird to quibble about some of the smaller things that didn't work. Granted, nitpicking is kind of my job, but I was as anxious to see another episode of "Chuck" at the end of this one as I ever have been. After starting out Season 4 with quite a few episodes that just didn't seem to have any momentum to them, the show has gotten a nice kick in the pants ever since the Casey-centric episode just before Halloween, and if the resolution to the team getting Chuck back is as good as the build-up we got in the final moments of this episode, then next week just might be one of the show's best episodes ever. And if that's the payoff, then a few small bumps along the way aren't going to seem as terrible.

Some other thoughts:

  • --The scene between Casey and his daughter felt especially tacked on in this episode. The actors always sell these little moments, but with everything else going on, it didn't feel like we needed the drop-in to remind us that Alex exists.
  • --Someone on my Twitter feed mentioned that they didn't think they would have noticed the Greta thing, if not for TV reviewers and the buzz surrounding the show. And, come to think of it, the show has mostly underplayed the notion that all of these people have been named Greta. So maybe for people who don't pay attention to all of the minutiae about the show, this is just a long string of bizarre cameos.
  • --I'm still not sure what the lengthy and not particularly funny montage of the doctors trying to get Chuck's Intersect unsuppressed was supposed to be about. It sure took up a lot of time.
  • --"Whoa! That sounds like candor!"
  • --"These are our ... sort of ... friends."

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

Photo: Summer Glau (pictured with Joshua Gomez) does NOT like that you took the last brownie. (Credit: NBC)

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