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'Chuck' recap: The leftovers were better the first time around

November 29, 2010 | 11:31 pm

Timothy Dalton was going to hold this episode of "Chuck" together with his teeth, if he had to, and, in the end, he was the element that did the most to keep the whole enterprise from falling apart. "Chuck Versus the Leftovers" wasn't a bad episode, but it offered a bad case of ... of, well, the leftovers, as many of the major plot points were either things the show has harped on endlessly this season -- like Ellie not wanting Chuck to get back into the spy game she doesn't know he's back into -- or basic plots the show has returned to again and again and again -- like the idea of the bad guys taking over the Buy More. Heck, the episode's major pop culture references were all to "Die Hard," and the show has made jokes about that movie many times, but, most notably, in the last Christmas episode the series did, "Chuck Versus the Santa Claus."

Now, "Santa Claus" is still my favorite episode of the series, so if the show has to emulate an episode, I don't mind it choosing that one. And "Die Hard," of course, is one of the all-time great movies to watch at Christmas that has very little to do with Christmas (a list that also features that other '80s classic, "Gremlins"). Plus, it's not as though the episode has very much to do with the holidays at all. Heck, it's more of a delayed Thanksgiving episode. There are certainly original elements here, but the overall effect is very much like loading up a plate with stuff you just enjoyed at Thanksgiving dinner and tossing it in the microwave. Everything still tastes good, and it's ultimately satisfying, but a lot of that comes from your warm memories of the original meal, rather than any particular excitement from reheating that meal.

But then there's Dalton. I was interested to see what the show's producers would do with Dalton when his casting was announced, but I have to admit I didn't expect anything this terrific from the show or the actor. Every time the show hands Dalton's character, Volkoff, a silly plotline -- like Volkoff being in love with Frost all of this time but apparently never doing anything about it or Volkoff demanding he get to know Frost's family over late Thanksgiving dinner -- the actor makes even the goofiest things the character does feel vaguely threatening. And the writers, who've written a fair number of goofy bad guys in the past, largely rise to the challenge of writing for Dalton. The threat to kill Jeff and Lester in this episode, something that could have been played for more laughs than it was, feels less like comic business and more like an actual threat, making Morgan's journey through a long list of "Die Hard" references that much more exciting.

Much of the time when a show lands a major guest star for a several-episode arc, that guest star is mostly just there to cash in the checks. They'll come in, say a few lines, maybe drop a few references to whatever made them famous, then head home and roll around in their giant money bin, Scrooge McDuck-style. While the show has had a few groan-inducing moments in these regards with Dalton and Linda Hamilton (whose "come with me if you want to live" wasn't nearly as witty as anyone thought it was tonight), both the series and the actors seem fully committed to this story of constant double-crosses and a deadly former British agent who went rogue. Hamilton, as Chuck's mom, alias Frost, is playing the emotional beats of the "is she good or is she evil?" storyline so well that the fact this has been done many times before is less irritating. And Dalton, as mentioned, brings such a solid note of pure evil to the proceedings that waiting to see what he'll do next is a lot of fun.

And, goodness, does this episode need that element of shock and surprise. Because just about everything in it has popped up on "Chuck" in one form or another before. Now, a show in its fourth season is obviously going to repeat itself from time to time. That's fine. But it's a problem when the return to things that may have worked at one time is as blatant as it is here. Volkoff trying to get into the holiday fun, including playing charades, just wouldn't have worked without Dalton there. Since he is, it's a lot of fun, but it can't stop the nagging sense that the show has done this and done it better before. Similarly, Morgan trying to retrieve the gun taped to his back in a ridiculous dance was the comic highlight of the episode, but it didn't negate the fact that we've seen the Buy More fall many times before and this particular crisis wasn't as interesting as those.

And that's to say nothing of the episode's most original element. (If, indeed, the basic idea of the characters discovering a new piece of technology planted by Chuck's father isn't one that the show hasn't turned to too many times, as it may very well be for some viewers.) The idea that Ellie would have a secret spy gift bequeathed to her by her father was a good one, but after we spent last week trying to guess a password, we spent this week ... trying to guess a password. And the reward at the end of the tunnel? Chuck got re-Intersected, something that needed to happen sooner or later but feels sort of abrupt happening in the way it does. I suppose an argument could be made that the Intersect that pops into Chuck's head at episode's end was meant to be another software upgrade, but it really does feel like the parents Bartowski planned this whole thing out decades ago, and that strains believability.

On the other hand, warmed-over "Chuck" is still "Chuck," just like Thanksgiving leftovers are usually delicious. I think the tone of this review makes me sound angrier about the episode than I actually was. I had fun with what was going on onscreen, even if some of it felt a little lazy. The moments that made me genuinely unhappy (like, say, Volkoff demanding to meet Frost's family) were few and far between, and for every moment that the show has turned to again and again, there was one that was brand new, like Mary having to tell Volkoff that Chuck was her son, not just some spy she was refusing to kill for some reason. Normally, the ratio of new to old is skewed more toward the new on "Chuck," and while that balance was off in "Leftovers," it didn't mean that what was there didn't offer its own enjoyment.

Some other thoughts:

  • -Awesome got a lot of nice little moments here, like guessing "The Bourne Identity" at charades shortly after Chuck did or handing Chuck the laptop and excoriating the guy for getting involved in the spy game again.
  • -For as much as I enjoyed Morgan's little dance, I did sort of wonder why Volkoff's lackeys didn't just shoot him. I get that he's a regular and we're supposed to  believe that the lackeys were so confused by what he was doing that they momentarily took leave of their senses, but it did diminish the danger of the story just a bit.
  • -That's it for "Chuck" until January, but looking at the schedule, I don't think we'll have a ton of reruns. There are 14 episodes left, which means we'll probably take a few weeks off here and there, but we should be all new for much of the spring, which is impressive, considering the show only got a 13-episode order at first. And though the show fell to its lowest ratings ever last week, I continue to think it's likely to get at least a short fifth season. NBC has so many problem spots that it seems unlikely they'll take away a solid, stable performer, even if that show tends to get very low ratings. That doesn't mean you should stop writing letters or buying Subway sandwiches or anything, but I do think the show is in a stronger position, perversely, than it has been in years.

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

Photo: Capt. Awesome (Ryan McPartlin, left) isn't too happy when Chuck (Zachary Levi) gets him back in the spy game. (Credit: NBC)

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