Chuck: “Chuck vs. The Crown Vic”

Bartowski. Chuck Bartowski.

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. The Crown Vic”

Written by Zev Borov

Directed by Chris Fisher

The final episode of Chuck for 2007 reminds us that this show is not a comedy, it’s a dramedy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that for the first time, the drama outweighed the comedy. Sarah is morose, Chuck is depressed and jealous, and Casey, well, Agent John Casey gets his heart broken. Ellie and Captain Awesome are absent for the second week in a row; only the Nerd Herd continues to be as shallow and hilarious as they have been. And even there, we get some serious growing-up scenes between Morgan and Anna. An unsettling vibe pervades this episode; I suspect a turning point after the New Year.

Chuck stumbles into this case on a support call with Jeff and Lester, when they are asked to fix some electronics on a yacht. As they are preparing to leave, Jeff stumbles across a money-counting operation accessorized by artificially enhanced bikini wearers. While he and Lester trip on their tongues, Chuck picks up a stray bill (intending, honest fool that he is, to return it) and flashes on it—it’s counterfeit. Normally, reporting this to Casey and Sarah would be a slam dunk, except that after last week, everyone is on the outs with one another. Chuck’s still simmering—on several levels—over the kiss Sarah laid on him two weeks ago, Sarah’s still conflicted to find Bryce Larkin back in her life—or not, and Casey is beginning to worry that this whole assignment is slipping out of control. I have to give him props; John Casey is the only person in this show who seems capable of maintaining even a minimal focus on the task at hand. Every week we rely on him to bring Chuck and Sarah’s concentration back to the mission and not their personal drama.

And oh, what drama it is. Too much so, perhaps. Sarah pouts and sulks her way through this episode in best Daytime Drama manner. Yvonne Strahovsky plays Sarah Walker like a frozen winter pond—all surface reflection, with no hint as to whether there are depths or shallows below that fine, polished surface. Even when she breaks a smile at the end, it’s a grudging, temporary smile. She’s trying to play Sarah as an Emma Peel—all cool reserve on the surface, but smoldering underneath. So far, I don’t think it’s working. But I like to think this character is going to develop some depth, perhaps even acquire that deadliest of assets, a conscience. It would ruin her career, but save her soul. At one point she asks Casey pensively if he’s ever wanted a normal life (didn’t we hear this once a season on The X-Files?). His reply is staunchly unwavering, 100% Casey—his mission is his life. He’s devoted, as solidly as any monk, to a higher calling. It’s that code of honor and commitment that keeps John Casey from becoming a slapstick goon every week.

The humor was definitely there: from Chuck’s catalogue of Casey’s grunts (“That’s number seven”), to Lester pretending to be Jewish in order to “win” a dreidl game, to Sarah silencing her alarm clock with a well-thrown knife (and who hasn’t wanted to do that, some mornings?). Chuck’s “bad acting” was hilarious, and the usual shoutouts to geek culture were cute—Star Trek references, Chuck calling Morgan “Gilligan” and “little buddy,” etc. Casey’s car washing scene was positively erotic, and beautifully balanced by his deadpan description of reupholstering the “containment area.” Of course, if you place a Crown Vic in the opening act, you know you have to use it in the last, and this particular ’80s relic died a noble death to save its owner. Casey must be proud, even as he chokes back his tears.

Chuck goes undercover with a sullen Sarah again as a couple. He takes on his Charles Carmichael alter ego and she flirts with the owner of the boat where the counterfeit money was found. We get a small homage to the original Casino Royale (David Niven version), but mostly we get to see Chuck struggling with jealousy. Chuck has been such a sweet, naïve, innocent character through these episodes that it’s a little startling to see him actually fighting the green-eyed monster. Yet he manfully backs away from Sarah, accepts her statement that they are just friends, and complies with her request for some space. It’s an act of maturity that echoes Chuck’s essential honesty and intelligence, the major axes of his character.

And thank God, this week Chuck acted like a grownup in a crisis. He didn’t cry or scream (well, not much), and acted quickly and intelligently to save Morgan and Anna from a guided missile. He will never be Bond, or even Jason Bourne, but Chuck Bartowski may make a capable field agent some day.

If he lives that long. At the end, the story hints that with a new Intersect coming online, Chuck’s survival odds are dropping precipitously. General Beckman (Bonita Friedericy, The Nine) stands in front of a new Intersect display wall, and the pictures in the new database are disturbing—Ellie, Morgan, Captain Awesome. In a stinging reflection of current controversy of domestic surveillance, we learn that the government is compiling a database of ordinary, non-threatening people. It would be spooky, if we hadn’t already seen this before (Fox Mulder, call your office). The show is setting us up for the possibility that Beckman will order Casey to kill Chuck, but I’m willing to bet that Bryce will put in at least one more appearance. It would lend an interesting symmetry to the show if Larkin, who put Chuck in danger to start with by giving him the Intersect, now evens things up and saves Chuck’s life by destroying Intersect II.

Morgan and Anna—oh, dear. All I can say is: trying too hard. Way, way too hard.

This wasn’t the best show of the season, but it was a good one. It’s hard to mix comedy and drama and find the right mix—I don’t think this episode really gelled. Comedy is more fragile than drama; a little comedy can leaven the drama nicely without overbalancing it, but only a few seconds of Chuck’s honest pain can wipe out the effects of fifteen minutes of slapstick. I am resigned to the Chuck/Sarah dynamic becoming a complete ping-pong game. The writers will inevitably stretch out the will they/won’t they tension long past the patience of the audience—networks never learn—but the interplay of humor and drama have kept me watching so far and will probably continue to do so.

The other thing that keeps me coming back is, of course, Chuck. Zach Levi is really blowing me away with the last few episodes, so much so that I have to wonder if he isn’t actually a better dramatic actor than comic actor (not a knock, an appreciation). He owns every quiet moment he’s in, and can hold his own in pure slapstick. He’s got a great range as an actor and this character really gives him room to move. His Chuck is consistently good, consistently interesting, consistently real from one week to the next. I do have one holiday wish however—let Zach Levi do some real, not geek, dancing. Boy can bust a move, let him out to play.

So that’s it for Chuck this year. NBC plans to air the next episode after the New Year. I doubt this has anything to do with the writers’ strike; it’s pretty normal post-sweeps, pre-holiday scheduling. The next few weeks will be full of Christmas—oh, sorry, Lester—holidayprogramming, so Chuck, Sarah, Casey, and the gang are outta here for awhile. Check back in in 2008 and we’ll see if Chuck gets picked up for the rest of this crazy, truncated season.