Chuck: “Chuck vs. the Anniversary”

Re-Inventing Chuck

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. the Anniversary”

Written by Chris Fedak
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill

“Buddy, this is not the opening of a TV show.” —Chuck

That kind of self-referential irony is one of the reasons I love this show. That, and the constant in-jokes, geek references, and general love of geek culture. It’s a heady brew, but it’s a microbrew—aimed at a small audience. It’s gourmet fun for the hipster crowd, but how big a crowd is that going to be? Chuck has struggled with ratings from Day One, and this season opener tells me the writers are not giving an inch of ground. It’s going to be just as full of obscure fun as the previous seasons, seasons which brought in dangerously low ratings. For that reason, I savor every episode, knowing the axe can fall at any time.

“I’m just here for the car.” —Repo Man

Right there is an example. When Morgan, the world’s most perfect wingman, loyally joins Chuck Bartowski on a quest to find his mother, he sacrifices everything in support of his friend. Including, apparently, car payments. Chuck finds out they are $43,000 in debt when a repo man shows up to claim their car. And we’re talking about the original Repo Man himself, the redoubtable Harry Dean Stanton, star of the original 1984 version of that movie. That kind of casting, that pays homage to the tongue-in-cheek subgenre of cult sci-fi, is what makes this show sheer gold. Not content with an homage to that classic of the ’80s, the producers then cast Linda Hamilton (Terminator) as Chuck’s mom. “Sarah Connor” is Chuck’s mom? Fabulous.

This episode was all about teamwork—but not the teams I was expecting. While Chuck and Morgan look for Elizabeth Bartowski, Sarah and Casey are after a Russian arms dealer. His chief thug, Marco, is played by Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV), who apparently has it in his contract that he gets to utter “I must break you” in every show. Marco demonstrates an EMP generator which, so he says, knocks out every electrical impulse within three kilometers. Casey and Sarah make an outstanding team, complete with feisty dialogue and designer getaway parachutes. If there are any Bond clones in this show, it’s Sarah and Casey. The other team, Chuck and Morgan, are more effective than they think they are—they’ve convinced the Russians that they are superspies. Marco captures Casey and Sarah, holding them as bait for Chuck and Morgan. Sarah tries to warn Chuck, with some of the funniest and most salacious toe-texting ever. Chuck somehow takes out ten armed thugs and rescues his friends, only to end up trapped in a computer room out of the Sixties. As he downloads a file on his mother (inexplicably in English, rather than Russian), Marco pounds on the door, telling them the entire building is wired, that it’s a trap. So naturally, Chuck puts his friends before his search for his mother, and uses the EMP to take out the building. In classic Chuck fashion, the foursome makes their escape on… public transportation (ancient enough to be immune to the EMP). Casey and Sarah agree to help Chuck find his mother, if Chuck will rejoin the CIA. His decision comes as a surprise to no one.

“The new castle is pretty freakin’ sweet.” —Chuck

And all of this, in the middle of a re-boot. Chuck seems to redesign itself year after year, a real-life Transformer that is a spy comedy one year, a spy romance the next, then a sci-fi comedy romance after that. This year starts off with Chuck in retirement, in fulfillment of his promise to Ellie. The Buy More, having been destroyed at the end of Season Three, is reincarnated as a CIA front, with General Beehive Hairdo herself as the manager (secretly sabotaging all of Chuck’s attempts to land a new job). Now, in addition to the Castle, we have the Buy More full of satellite uplinks, sexy girl spies, and dropshafts. Chuck has his own “Castle”, the secret stash of file cabinets under Chuck’s father’s house. Morgan is now solidly in place as a spy-sidekick. Casey’s attitude towards Chuck has turned 180 degrees, as he now urges Chuck to stay with the Company. And Chuck, who finally revealed his spy life to Ellie last year, now must lie to her again when she tells him she’s pregnant. Unwilling to disappoint his sister, he once again decides to conceal his real life from her. So by the end of the hour, Chuck is a spy again, he and Morgan are back at the Buy More, and Ellie is once again in the dark. But so much more has changed, that it really does not feel like a return to Square One.

Alas, neither Big Mike, Jeff, nor Lester are in this episode, which is a big letdown for this Jeffster fan. Also missing in action is Devon Woodcomb, “Captain Awesome”. Since all four actors are still in the opening credits, I know they’ll be back, but this episode felt a little light without them.

“This whole sleepy/confusion thing? That’s digital sex right there.” —Morgan

However, any comedy slack was amply taken up by Josh Gomez, whose Morgan Grimes is becoming a complete scene thief. Virtually everything Morgan chooses to do or say is hilarious, from overpacking for a mission (“Sunblock! We need sunblock!”) to taking over Chuck’s “sext” life, sending provocative photos to Sarah to help keep their romance alive. And Morgan brings a whole new slant to the glamour of spydom—who worries about budgets? James Bond never had his Astin Martin repossessed, but then, he didn’t have to rely on Morgan. Surprisingly, Yvonne Strahovski pulled out some physical comedy chops of her own, awkwardly posing for sexy photos to send to Chuck. While I wasn’t crazy about this sub-plot (sexting is solast week), I could live with it (although if Sarah ever finds out Morgan was looking through her pictures, he will die a slow and painful death).

“Honey? Is this the gun you were looking for?” —Chuck

The best part of the show, however, remains the love story between Chuck and Sarah. The common wisdom in Hollywood (which I vigorously dispute) is that once the sexual tension between two characters is broken, they become boring. Such is not the case, or at least it does not have to be. Firefly and The Officehave shown us happy couples which maintain the sizzle just fine; in this fourth season opener, we see that Chuck and Sarah as an established couple have just as much sexual tension, and twice the warmth, as they did last year when they were just pining. The opening scenes of them as a couple were hilarious—one the one hand, you have Chuck the happy house-husband treating a missing gun like a missing toothbrush, as Sarah packs for a mission. On the other hand, you have Sarah parodying every Bond beauty ever, as she shows off those legs while packing knives in her thigh-highs, with wind tossing her blonde hair. This was a wonderful marriage (you should pardon the term) of cozy domesticity with international-spy glamour. If the rest of this season shows us the same combination of sexual heat and sly comedy, Chuck may well actually improve on its ratings. Which it desperately needs to do, to survive.

If it lasts another season, or more, it will be because the team behind Chuck is putting everything it has into it. There are moments that don’t quite gel, as would be the case in any show, but there are far more instances where the writing team has gone farther than it had to, dug deeper than it had to, to bring the funny, the pathos, the drama, and the irony to this show. It’s so much better than it has to be, it ought to be on cable.

“It’s not worth losing you. Any of you.” —Chuck

Chuck came in at a bit over 6 million viewers, for a 2.1/6 share. This put it fourth in its timeslot, which is unfortunately true for most of its run. These numbers are down from its Fall 2009 season premiere. Bad as they are, however, they’re probably about as good as NBC could expect for a show going up againstMonday Night Football. Chuck skews heavily towards male viewers, so it is reasonable to suppose that a big chunk of its audience was watching New Orleans beat San Francisco. We can’t count on that excuse every week, however, and I am afraid Chuck will have another uphill slog this year against sluggish numbers. Necessity is the mother of re-invention, however, and it appears that at least the producers are taking the problem seriously with the new structure of this series.