Breaking Up is Hard To Do
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. The Breakup”
Written by Scott Rosenbaum
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
Tragedy can make you cry, but it takes comedy to really break your heart. Such is the case on last night’s episode of Chuck, near the very end of a roller coaster ride of an episode. Chuck just keeps getting better and better this year, not just because of the stories but because of the overall character development we’re seeing. I am gratified and frankly surprised to see so much growth in a TV series character. The danger of “growing” a character in a show that may last another week or another decade is that you risk losing an audience who grew to love the “old” version. This year’s Chuck Bartowski model, however, is more than a one-note joke, more than just the geek who wants the girl. By the end of “Chuck vs. The Breakup”, he’s very much a man.
We return to an overly familiar scenario in this episode: Chuck and his handlers go undercover at a fancy party. I wish I had the catering contract for this show, because every other episode seems to take place at a ball or a reception or some festivity. This time Chuck goes undercover as a waiter while Bryce Larkin and Sarah Walker pretend to be newlyweds. Their dance floor reconnaissance tango was pure genius, showing us not only (once again) how seamlessly Bryce and Sarah work together, but developing Chuck’s fear and jealousy in ways both natural and comic.
This episode was all about how Chuck and Sarah’s increasingly intense feelings for one another are getting in the way of them doing their jobs. Chuck screws up his assignment because he can’t keep his eyes off Bryce and Sarah doing the Lambada. Sarah nearly gets Chuck killed because she can’t concentrate on her shooting if he’s in danger. Bryce, as alert as Casey to the requirements of a mission, warns both of them that their feelings are endangering them. At the end of the episode, Chuck ‘breaks up’ with Sarah (again) in a very grown-up, mature, sober scene. Unlike last year’s fake break-up of their fake cover relationship, this time Chuck is ending the real relationship that both parties know is growing between them. I was glad to see this bond brought out into the open and discussed, like real adults would do. This fake relationship could have been stretched out forever, played for laughs until it was stale and sentimental. Instead. The creators have cleverly allowed it to ripen into the kind of self-sacrificing, adult emotion that can underlie not just pathos but the kind of comedy that makes us cry. Yvonne Strahovsky wasn’t called upon to do much more than react, but Zachary Levi just hit that scene out of the ball park–wistful, resigned, in pain yet determined to do the noble thing. Their last scene together, where both of them stand outside Ellie’s door pasting fake smiles onto their faces, just broke my heart in a million pieces. This show will have us laughing through tears very soon.
But of course there is laughter without tears in abundance. The secondary story, with Morgan trying to face down some bullies (headed by Michael Strahan, recently retired from the New York Giants) who has turned the Buy More’s home theatre room into a frat house, avoids the cliché wherein Morgan suddenly finds the cojones to stand up to a guy five times his size. He makes an effort or two, but fails–only to find himself locked into the Thunderdome the Buy More maintains in the back room (have I mentioned how much I love this whole idea?). There he is saved from certain death by none other than his tiny girlfriend, Anna. Anna’s mad kung fu skillz impress Casey enough to have him calling in a background check. I would love to see Anna recruited as a field agent. Lester’s ineptitude as assistant manager gets funnier every week, and Captain Awesome becomes, if possible, more awesome every week. Awesome’s loyalty to his future “bro”, Chuck, is impressive and lovable. What could have been cardboard secondary characters improve every week.
And a word about Bryce Larkin. What could have been, and possibly started as, a throwaway character in the pilot is evolving into a complex and interesting foil for Chuck. Is Bryce still in love with Sarah? Was he ever? Is he still Chuck’s friend? Was he ever? How multilayered and deep are his motives? He seems to care about both Chuck and Sarah, but is he trying to save their lives or scotch their romance? He seems a little too delighted to be playing Sarah’s husband, but is also detached enough to realize that she’s just not that into him any more, and not (apparently) resent it. Did he really pick Chuck to be the Intersect because he knew Chuck “always does the right thing”, or because he knows how to manipulate his friend? He figures out a way to get the updated Intersect into Chuck’s head–to prevent him from becoming obsolete (and thus expendable), or so he can continue to manipulate him? I think Larkin is a fine contrast to the straight-up guy that is Chuck.
Chuck started out as a coward who wet himself when danger loomed, but this season is turning into a more grown-up, warm and honorable man. This character is too old to be played as an awkward teenager, and besides, we have plenty of them on this show. Chuck may never be the James Bond he imagines Bryce to be (and does Levi do a wicked Sean Connery or what?), but he does all right when he lets his vivid imagination lead him. As long as the writers manage to stay this side of Get Smart, Chuck may continue to hold our imaginations, as the funniest, warmest, most approachable spy on TV.
Perhaps due to the absence of competition from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicle, Chuck did better this week than last week, pulling in six million viewers and a 4.1 share. These are still not good numbers, but at least NBC has ordered an entire season’s worth of scripts. Cancellation has been staved off a little, but not much. This show still needs to pull in better numbers.