By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. The First Date”
Written by Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz
Directed by Jason Ensler
Just in case anyone has forgotten what this show’s all about—what with a truncated first season, a writers’ strike, and a long summer hiatus—creators Fedak and Schwartz lay it all out again for us in this second season premiere. Deftly combining several genres in one—humor, action, romance—they show that this series has come together very solidly since a shaky start last year.
Chuck Bartowski, having recovered something called the Cypher, is threatened by an imposing Bad Guy played by the suitably imposing Michael Clark Duncan (The Green Mile). Rescued by NSA Agent John Casey and CIA Agent Sarah Walker, they learn that this Cypher is the heart of a new computer to replace the Intersect, the database in Chuck’s head. Once the Cypher goes online, Chuck becomes redundant. Chuck greets this news with joy, hoping to get his old life back. What he and Sarah don’t know is that Agent Casey has orders to kill Chuck, lest Bad Guys get their hands on the information in his head.
But first, a time out for a little romance. Faced with the end of their professional relationship, and hence no longer needing to maintain a fake relationship, Chuck asks Sarah out on a real, genuine date, hoping to turn the fake girlfriend into a real one, at least for one night. Fedak and Schwartz make sure to rope in all the segments of their target demographic by showing us several scenes of Chuck and Sarah in their underwear, preparing for their date. Balanced by Chuck walking in on Captain Awesome and Ellie in the shower, we got more skin in this episode than Survivor ran all week. What I found most amusing about this skin show was the fact that, not too many years ago, we’d have had plenty of Yvonne Strahovsky in her underwear, but the men would have been clothed at all times. Now we get equal-opportunity strip shows. This is progress? Maybe.
Meanwhile, back at the Buy More, Big Mike is offering Chuck that promotion he always wanted. Morgan has put more planning into their next round of Call of Duty—with infantry, tanks, and “enough explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger”—than the Allies put into planning D-Day. Chuck, thinking he has a better future around the corner, turns down the promotion and puts Morgan in charge of finding the right candidate. Naturally, Morgan’s idea of screening candidates for management is a cage match. Actually, that kind of makes sense.
John Casey gets tricked into surrendering the Cypher to a ringer, who squirts him with some poison. In a sequence equally horrifying and hilarious, Casey thrashes, foams/bleeds at the mouth, and nearly chokes to death until he can trigger the built-in decontamination unit in his house. I thought the sight of secret showers and drains opening up in his foyer was one of the funniest bits of the evening—don’t we all want a decon shower hidden away in our houses?
Surrounded by Bad Guys on their date, Chuck and Sarah are rescued at the last minute by Casey, who seems to have somehow either resurrected his beloved Crown Victoria, or found a replacement. Mr. Colt (Duncan) gets in one punch at Casey, which leaves an imprint on which Chuck flashes. He figures out where the Bad Guys are, which means he knows where the Cypher is, and he dashes off to recover it. Cornered by Colt once again, Chuck is faced with imminent death.
In Season One, as Chuck admits to Sarah on their date, he would have screamed like a girl (well, not like Sarah) and possibly peed himself. Now, he calls on his fake spy persona and becomes “Charles Carmichael”. He uses Morgan’s Call of Duty strategic planning to confuse the Bad Guys and make his getaway. Sarah tries to take down Colt, but isn’t making much headway until Chuck returns with the cavalry, inspiring Colt to grudgingly acknowledge to Casey that his boss, “Charles Carmichael”, is pretty good.
This is devilishly good writing. The seamless marriage of the Buy More story, the romance between Sarah and Chuck, the ongoing threat to Chuck’s life, the sudden eruptions of Intersect “flash” all make for a dynamic, witty, and engaging story. This episode distilled everything that is good about the series.
The one thing I love most about the writers for Chuck is that they get “geek”. No, it would be more accurate (if more dated) to say that they grok geek. The writers for this show don’t just use geek culture as their touchstone, they embrace it, they love it, they want to have babies with it. From Chuck’s use of Klingon last season to identify himself, to the shout outs to geek icons like video games,Thunderdome, and ninja assassins, this series showcases the good and lovable aspects of nerdness that are so often overlooked by shows which exploit nerdity for cheap giggles.
Nor are the writers content to give us the same old Chuck. Chuck finds a new side of himself as Charles Carmichael, a side that might allow him to act more effectively as an agent. Zachary Levy gives us a Chuck who is still boyish but less immature, a man belatedly growing into his strengths, who is no longer content to abdicate the steering of his own course to fate. He wants to take charge, he wants to be more than the guy at the Buy More. As long as he doesn’t have to give up Call of Duty.
Yvonne Strahovsky’s Sarah Walker is mellowing a bit, too. She’s not above encouraging compliments from Chuck on their date, and she’s just giddy enough about the idea of a real date to leave her gun behind (what?) when she goes out with him. She’s willing to risk something with Chuck by going out with him at all, and this time it doesn’t take the presence of a ticking bomb to force her out of her shell. Ryan McPartlin’s Captain Awesome continues to delight, from his calm acceptance of Chuck’s discomfiture on seeing him naked, to his implied adventures in Amsterdam. He and Ellie are a wonderful couple, much more than cardboard props for the Chuck character.
But my heart really belonged to the Nerd Herd in this episode. From Anna’s attempt to seduce Chuck into giving her the Assistant Manager job, to Jeff (Scott Krinsky) submitting a resume on a paper napkin, to Morgan organizing a cage match (really, that’s a brilliant idea) to select the new Assistant Manager, all of the green shirts were well used. Not one of them is a one-dimensional prop. There are unplumbed depths in Lester (Vik Sahay) that I really don’t want to see.
All in all, this was one of the best episodes of Chuck I’ve seen. It’s a bang-up start to the season, and if the rest of the episodes this year are this good, Chuck will be a bona fide hit.
Ratings for the season premiere were not stellar. Chuck rounded up 6.6 million viewers, down nearly 30% from last season’s premiere. On the other hand, that premiere was not anywhere near as promising as this one, so I’m hoping that viewers who had written off Chuckafter seeing “Chuck vs. The Helicopter” might be persuaded to give this funny, poignant show another chance.