Chuck: “Chuck vs. the Balcony”

Double Cross

“Chuck vs. the Balcony”


Mondays, NBC, 8/7c PM

Written by Max Denby

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar

“I need to go back to being the old me just a little while longer.” – Sarah

The first new episode of Chuck for 2011 brings us back to where we left off: with Chuck on the point of proposing marriage and Sarah on the point of accepting it. The first new episode of Chuck for 2011 ends where we left off: with Chuck on the point of proposing marriage and Sarah on the point of accepting it. Except she says they have to put their relationship on hold – again – to help save one of Chuck’s parents – again. This entire series is beginning to feel like a Moebius strip. No matter how far we travel, no matter what twists get thrown at us, we always end up where we started. This hammering of the Reset button wouldn’t bother me so much if it were played for laughs, or if it were a minor subplot in each episode. But this episode played the proposal scenario mostly straight, and it was the episode. Which only highlights the inherent weakness of this hoary plot device of Keeping the Lovers Apart ™.

“I am somebody deadly.” – Sarah

Chuck, Sarah and Casey are dispatched to a wine-tasting party at a French villa to recover a CIA nanochip. According to Beckman, it contains the locations and blueprints of every “black site” the CIA operates in Europe. Nobody involved in this plot questions the ethics of having such sites at all, which I found disappointing. First-season Chuck, the honest nerd who would never hurt a fly, would have taken this information straight to WikiLeaks. Today’s Chuck has bought so fully into the spy culture he has joined that he doesn’t even blink when asked to connive at kidnapping, torture and illegal detention (which is what a “black site” is all about). This is not the lovable geek I loved in Season One. It’s one thing for Sarah, who has been a complete tool of the CIA from Day One, to blithely accept this mission, but for Chuck to not even question it is really unacceptable in a hero.

“The ’86 Chateau LeFranc is a peppery pinot with a stable on the label and a stork on the cork.” — Morgan

At the mansion, Casey poses as Chuck’s manservant so they can search the grounds. This gave us an opportunity for some very funny moments where Zach Levy shows off his “British” accent and Casey gets in a teeth-clenching growl or two. Even better, we got an extended reference to a classic Danny Kaye comedy, when Morgan has to identify a particular wine bottle for Chuck.

Hawkins: The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true. — The Court Jester, 1955

Throughout the episode, Morgan’s expert and well-planned “sub-mission” to facilitate Chuck’s proposal to Sarah gives us almost the only comedy in the A-story. Chuck’s failure to launch not once, not twice, but three separate times is not even funny on the first go-round; the laughs come when we see how Morgan is planning this simple task with all the efficiency and dedication of Eisenhower planning D-Day. He has scoped out the place, the time, the phase of the moon; when Chuck needs something, Morgan has pre-packed it already in Chuck’s jacket pocket. If this man was in charge of FEMA, New Orleans would already be rebuilt. With cable and Internet access for all.

“The Hinjews of Saskatchewan; some people thought we were a cult.” – Lester

The B-story worked this time mostly because it, wisely, paralleled Chuck’s story. Lester is faced with the terrifying prospect of an arranged marriage. His explanation of his ethnic background – the Hinjews of Saskatchewan – was one of the funnier moments of the night. Predictably, however, the lady in question turns out to be a hot babe way out of Lester’s league, as he proves when he woos her with their first meeting — in a tent decorated with moose antlers and mezuzot, challah and curry. When this fails to impress her, he turns to Jeffster, and we get a truly painful cover of Whitesnake’s “Is This Love?” Finally, he begs —  but she still walks away. While I appreciated the symmetry of this structure – Chuck blows his proposal three times, Lester blows his “first impression” three times – by the end of the story it was becoming rather labored and obvious. Kudos to Scott Krinsky for making his version of a wingman as ubiquitous, solicitous, and downright maternal as Josh Grimes’ Morgan. These two are comedy geniuses.

“He’s your manservant. Let him manserve you.” – Morgan

Which is almost a pity, because this episode wasted most of the talent available to it. In fact, much of the warmth and humor this time around came from Yvonne Strahovski, who upstaged everyone onscreen. Her character is the only one who is reacting the way she was written last year; I don’t even recognize the Chuck Bartowski of this year. I place the blame squarely on the writers. I used to look forward to this show for the geeky in-jokes, the refreshingly un-obvious plots and the sparkling dialogue, heavily laced with an ironic, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. I’m not seeing that any more. What I’m seeing is a standard sitcom, with standard sitcom tropes and clichés. For crying out loud, how long can the writers hammer the “keep the lovers apart” reset button before it breaks entirely? The show is treading water, wasting some fine onscreen talent, while the writer’s room recycles not only its own plots but those of sitcoms dating back to the Fifties. This used to be one of the most ambitious shows on television. What happened?

“I will do everything in my power to bring back Chuck’s mother and eliminate the Volkoff organization.” – Sarah

The double-agent plot device at the end makes no sense, even in the show’s own terms. Beckman explicitly tells Chuck at the beginning of the show that “not every bad guy is connected to Volkoff”, and says their current villain is not part of his organization. So how does it help the team (or Sarah) to infiltrate Volkoff’s organization by proving to the non-affiliated villain du jour that she is a traitor? Was Beckman mistaken? Was she lying? Or have the writers just completed succumbed to total confusion?

“It was so chaotic, so over the top.” — Sarah

Chuck returned from hiatus with a bigger audience. Roping in 6.1 million viewers, it clocked a solid 2.0 in the only demographic networks care about, the 18-to-49 crowd. This episode was pretty much a stand-alone, in that it didn’t really address any of the “cliff hanging” questions left over from Chuck vs. the Leftovers, like the Intersect and the laptop and Ellie’s pregnancy and what have you. I imagine the writers are leaving those questions for sweeps month in a couple of weeks. Which explains, perhaps, why this episode felt like filler despite its alleged “game changing” plot twist.