Chuck: “Chuck vs. The Cougars”

Ugly Duckling

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. The Cougars”

Written by Allison Adler

Directed by Patrick Norris

What, another party? The life of an international spy seems to be nothing but one long fest, to go by the episodes we’re seeing onChuck. I begin to suspect that the writers are merely shills for the fashion industry, who are paying to put Sarah Walker in fabulous dresses every night.  A fun conceit, and there’s no question that Agent Casey and Chuck Bartowski look good in tuxedos, but seriously? It’s all Versace, all the time on this show. I don’t expect Chuck to be a documentary about espionage, but I’m starting to feel underdressed while watching this show.

Monday night’s episode tells us more about Agent Walker’s background than anything else. A flashback to 1998 shows her as gawky, sullen, with bad hair and braces and attitude. On top of this, her father has been very publicly arrested and jailed, making her the target of the local Heathers. Which would all be part of a gratefully forgotten past, if one of those members of the Clique from Hell hadn’t shown up at the Buy More and recognized Sarah Walker. Heather Chandler (Nicole Ritchie, The Simple Life) remembers Sarah as “Jenny Burdon”; intrigued by the opportunity to know more about Sarah, Chuck horns in on the conversation. The end result is a double date between Chuck, Sarah, Heather, and her husband Mark Ratner (Ben Savage, Boy Meets World).

Which is when Chuck “flashes” on Mark and realizes he has been targeted by Russian thugs who want the plans to the bomber he is working on. Yeah, I know: dumb. But this show is played for laughs, so I can pretend that I believe that. Casey saves both Chuck and Mark from the bad guys, in such a way that Mark is convinced that Chuck is a super heroic super spy. Falling into his “Chuck Carmichael” persona, Chuck goes along with this. During further interrogation, Casey backs Chuck’s impersonation of a real spy, and goes so far as to nickname him “Mad Dog” Carmichael. Playing on this, the two set up a  meeting between Mark and the Russians, so as to take out the Russians and secure the plans to the bomber.

Sarah, meanwhile, is doing her level best to prevent any information about her former life to leak out. In a slapstick dinner scene, she dumps wine in Chuck’s lap, beheads a fish, and generally resorts to tactics worthy of the Marx Brothers to keep Heather from answering any of Chuck’s questions. Unfortunately for her, the meeting between Mark and the Russians is set for her high school’s tenth reunion. On go the party clothes and off go our heroes to make merry at that universal scene of adolescent humiliation, the badly decorated high school gym. Things go badly after that. Carrie, anyone?

One of the fun dimensions of this episode was the number of callbacks to the Nineties built into the show. Apart from Ben Savage (star of teen sitcom Boy Meets World), his character’s name comes straight out of another iconic teen flick of the era, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Not even to mention the Heathers references (Richie’s character is even named Heather Chandler), the music (Chumbawumba? Really?), and Chuck’s dance moves from the day. Even the Buy More subplot, with Lester really screwing up the sales figures and Chuck rescuing him by suggesting that they turn the Buy More into an after-hours rave, harks back to Risky Business, right down to Jeff juggling bottles of tequila.  And there is not enough love in the world to express my appreciation for DJ John Casey at the reunion dance.

I love the way the writers play off the characters’ love for their respective technologies. When the stealth bomber is described to Casey, he moans softly. When Chuck finds himself alone with the new ops lab’s megacomputer, he almost licks it in orgasmic delight. Sarah’s tools are well integrated throughout the episode; the Swiss army knife young Sarah uses to open her father’s buried stash is thrown at an earlier incarnation of  Director Graham (Tony Todd), which is recalled when she later throws a pencil right through a photo of herself and Chuck, when she throws a knife at a bust to take out a murderous Nicole Richie, and finally when she hands it to Chuck to let him split up a cheeseburger. It’s a nice touch, to see how Sarah Walker/Jenny Burdon became so comfortable with such a simple yet effective weapon.

Another nice touch was the Buy More rave contrasted with the high school reunion dance. Of the two, the Buy More looked like a lot more fun. I loved Lester’s (Vik Sahay) growing panic when his “sales technique” backfires, his hysteria when the rave customers take the store apart, and his final realization that he’s just not cut out for management. I look forward to seeing who the new Assistant Manager of the Buy More is next week–Anna? Jeff?

And let’s talk about Charles Carmichael a moment. A throwaway line from Season One about a  cover story for Chuck has emerged into an almost split personality. It used to be that when Chuck was cornered, he wet himself. Now he calls on his alter ego, Agent Carmichael. This is a 1000% improvement. Zach Levi carries it off seamlessly; his body language and voice morph into someone similar to Chuck, but with more confidence, ease and savoir-faire. Even Casey is beginning to respect this guy. Yet Levi manages not to cross the line into either farce or freak territory; Chuck/Charles shows no proclivity to dual identities a la My Own Worst Enemy. I’m glad the writers have taken this turn with Chuck; there’s a big difference between an ordinary guy who has to learn how to face danger, and the whimpering wimp of Season One Chuck. And of course, this gives them so much more room to play with this character.

Finally, I must applaud the turn the Chuck/Sarah romance has taken. Given that the writers are not going to let these two hook up (damn convention anyway), it’s realistic for them to have had Chuck “break up” the real relationship (not the fake one) last week. This week we got a sweet, subtle romantic tension between Chuck and Sarah, not as overtly sexual as previously, but with enough honest humanity in it to make me believe these two might actually work. Chuck’s desire to get to know more about the enigmatic Sarah is heartening, because it finally gives this lovable nerd a reason to love Sarah above and beyond her stunning physical features. Lovely as she is, Sarah probably wants to be loved for more than her face and figure; Chuck takes the time to learn her food preferences and quietly refuses, at the end, to pry into her past if it makes her uncomfortable. Chuck’s honesty and innate likability shone through in the last few minutes of this episode, reaffirming that this is a character I’ll come back to see week after week.

If I have any problems with this show right now, it’s that the scenes at the Buy More are becoming less and less relevant to the show’s premise. They could have been cut altogether this week and have made no impact on the main story. It’s like this is now two different stories that, while once braided together, are now unraveling and taking separate paths. What does the management of the Buy More have to do with CIA/NSA espionage any more? I would like to see more episodes set in the Buy More, or better integration of the Nerd Herd into the spy story.

Midweek numbers showed slow improvement for Chuck. A 2.6/7 18-49 share, 6.87 million viewers is not wonderful, but it’s not terrible. If the numbers can build every week (and once football season is over, that’s a possibility), Chuck stands a chance for renewal. As it is, things are looking up a little bit for the Nerd Herd.