Sunday, January 27, 2008

“I don’t want to die a man stewardess!”: Chuck

I don’t think I realised how badly this strike had been affecting me until I came to the end of that superb Chuck double-bill. In a way I would have been better off without it – as someone who has resigned himself to the drought of original programming for as long as the strike went on, the reminder of what I’ve been missing these past months was not exactly welcome. I shouldn’t complain though, especially seeing as Chuck’s final two instalments were so exemplary of how much the show has grown since its early episodes.

Though I was a fan of Chuck as far back as its terrific pilot, I worried along with many about the long-term prospects of its concept. The early episodes were fun but emotionally empty, not yet displaying that potential I was hoping for. Then, almost overnight, the pieces came together. From ‘Chuck versus the Alma Mater’ onwards, every episode has consistently hit the mark, striking that right balance between spy plots, inter-character development and humor. The main ensemble have all settled into their roles nicely, as shown by their upstaging notable guest stars such as Rachel Bilson and Matthew Bomer. Continuous plot threads, such as the saga of Chuck and Sarah, have been handled well. As an added bonus, the show has also built up a wider ensemble in Jeff, Lester, Anna, Big Mike and, of course, Captain Awesome.

One thing this week’s double-bill did even better than past episodes was keeping every storyline interesting. Even Chuck’s best episodes have had one lacking plot (often involving Morgan). Not so in either case this week. ‘Chuck versus the Undercover Lover’ delved into Casey’s past and gave him a love interest in the form of Ilsa (Ivana Milicevic), allowing for much sparring between the two. More importantly it meant lots of playful banter between Casey and Chuck, whose scenes together were plentiful and pricelessly funny. The enjoyable spy plot featured wacky Russian stereotypes and a clever fight scene with Casey and Chuck beating up Russians while tied to a chair. Plus, in sub-plot land, Ellie and Awesome’s debate over whether to buy a TV or washer/dryer for their anniversary (“Think of all the things we could watch” “Think of all the things we could wash!”) grew into a full-fledged fight about Awesome’s lack of commitment. Lancaster got some good stuff to play, particularly Ellie’s drunken misery (loved her little whimper when Sarah turned to leave); as did McPartlin, whose reaction when the Buy More poker game turned into strip poker was riotous. Even with so much going on, nothing in the episode fell notably flat.

Also strong, if in a different way, was ‘Chuck versus the Marlin.’ The laughs were still there (Awesome to Chuck, “I always knew you could handle my family jewels” being a choice line) but overall it was a more dramatic story. With listening bugs found in the Buy More traced back to Fulcrum agents, Chuck’s cover may be compromised, leading General Beckman to warn that he may be moved to a secure facility with no access to the outside world. Sarah, Chuck and even Casey go into overdrive to discover the Fulcrum agents and bring them down, as the clock ticks down. As part of her efforts Sarah moves all of the Buy More products to search for bugs, leading Big Mike to angrily interrogate all the Buy More employees - an obvious highlight. (“It’s time to turn the heat up on you” he threatened at one point, before turning up the thermos stat.) While Levi has shown his dramatic chops before now, his intensely sad line readings felt like a revelation. He choked me up several times, for instance when he asked Sarah to talk to everyone for him: “If I’m supposed to be dead, just say something that will make it okay, that will make them feel alright…just make sure they know how much I love them.” The line seems melodramatic on paper, but uttered by Levi it hit hard. It was mostly his performance that had me believing, if only momentarily, that the cliffhanger might actually have been Chuck being taken away. Also, the inclusion of Awesome’s ring was a nice touch, making the story personal to the characters and giving it that additionally edge.

Aside from noting that the latter episode became a bit confusing due to its various plot contrivances, I can think of nothing negative to say. Maybe I’m just blinded by my excitement at having some original programming I really like, or by my obvious enthusiasm for Chuck, but these were two superb episodes that really put a smile on my face. A perfect capper on an increasingly brilliant half-season, tragically cut short.

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