Changing the Game
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. The First Kill”
Written by Scott Rosenbaum
Directed by Norman Buckley
They changed me. Promise me that you won’t let them change you. — Jill
Sometimes I wonder if the writers for Chuck don’t steal their best plots from old 80s movies. In fact, I’m pretty sure those guys live in the 80s. This week’s episode teams Weekend at Bernie’s with The Godfather II, spiked with a little Twisted Sister and Duran Duran. Seriously? Duran Duran? Do I need to break out my scarlet hair dye and shoulder pads again?
The genius of these pop references is that the writers stand them on their heads. Whereas I would have expected the more serious and dramatic “A” story–Chuck searching for his kidnapped father (Scott Bakula)–to hang on the Godfather story, it in fact used theWeekend at Bernie’s storyline. Chuck persuades former girlfriend Jill (Jordana Brewster) to help him find his father; she suggests contacting her “Uncle” Bernie (Ken Davitian, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) by staging a fake engagement party. Bernie shows up on cue, but of course as a Fulcrum agent he’s well aware that Jill is not engaged. He tries to kill Chuck and a chase ensues. Bernie drops dead of a heart attack; Jill, Chuck, Casey and Sarah team up to “walk” him out of the house, a la Weekend at Bernie’s. Now they have to find Dad on their own.
Back in BuyMoria, the Nerd Herd tries to sabotage Emmett (Tony Hale) when he announces that a corporate executive is coming to evaluate his performance. Emmett reminds Morgan that a good evaluation might get Emmett promoted out of the Burbank store. Choking on their praise of Emmett, the tribe reverses strategy and does their best to impress the exec. Jeff’s description of how Emmett cured him of his habit of “defiling himself” at work was as cringeworthy as anything The Office ever put onscreen. When Morgan records Big Mike praising Emmett, it seems to do the trick–until it backfires. Big Mike is so confident that Emmett can run the store that he plans to go fishing! The exec is not impressed, and winds up promoting Emmett to Big Mike’s job. Big Mike, realizing Morgan betrayed him, reprises the “I know it was you, Freddo” scene from Godfather II, in the best parody of that scene I’ve seen yet.
Jill says Chuck’s father is probably being held in a Fulcrum recruiting office. Casey and Chuck attempt to infiltrate as recruits but are quickly outed. Sarah and Jill then stroll in to rescue them but all hell busts loose when they are recognized. To the tune of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, they let loose with more firepower than a Terminator movie. I think more bad guys died in that thirty seconds of firefight than the entire series. I am increasingly disturbed by these casual deaths, the throwaway violence. I know this is supposed to be comedy, but every time Sarah Walker shoots a bad guy I wince, nonetheless. It coarsens her to make her a stone killer; she bids fair to become Casey someday at this rate. I wish this show could find a way to deliver the laughs without the killing.
Chuck inadvertently defends himself (is there any way for Chuck to defend himself, other than accidentally?) by throwing the head bad guy through a fifteen story window (shades of Twisted Sister again–their 1984 MTV video threw actor Mark Metcalf through a window at least twice). Even Chuck is dismayed by this, his second kill. Jill overhears the location to which Chuck’s father is being taken, and tells Chuck–who then, in an act of trust, frees her. Back in the Castle, General Irritable reaches new heights of obnoxiousness, enraged that not only has the team not retrieved Dad Bartowski but they’ve lost Jill. She decrees that the operation is shut down, that Chuck will be lured to the Castle, tranquilized and sent to the legendary undisclosed location, presumably the one where Elvis, Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart hang out. Sarah follows orders, telling Chuck a lie to get him down to the basement. But when Chuck reminds Sarah how much he trusts her, she finally grows a pair and takes him off the grid. On the run, liable to be tried for treason, Sarah and Chuck drive off into the sunset, free of the General and Casey, looking for Dad.
Sarah’s rebellion is the game-changing move in this episode. I’ve been so unhappy with her wishy-washy ways, that I was crossing my fingers in their final scene. How satisfying that she, at last, has found her courage. She is now openly defying both the CIA and her partner, Casey. For the first time in the series, Chuck’s commitment to Sarah is echoed by her attachment to him. (Not to mention that her whispering “Take off your watch” into Chuck’s ear was as sexy as anything she’s done or said to Chuck so far.) Sarah may not make big speeches about love, but her actions in this episode showed more than words how much Chuck means to her. This is going to have serious repercussions down the road. The other game-changing move is the success of Emmett’s deep-laid plot: apparently it was always his plan to get Big Mike’s job, rather than get promoted out. Morgan’s trust is betrayed even as Chuck’s is reinforced.
So much for the bare bones. As always, the real fun of Chuck is the dialogue, the throwaway lines, the geek culture. Obama guava? Casey shooting through a plate glass window a la Terminator? The faint echoes in the soundtrack of the theme from Brian DePalma’s “The Untouchables”? The Morgan defensive move? I can forgive the creators for including an extended Subway sandwich commercial (but I miss Lou). I even laughed at Casey’s Bond-like quip when he shoots the proctor: “That’s for flunking me”. Never, ever, ever flunk John Casey.
In all of these changes, reversals, and upsets, one thing remains strong: Chuck. As he promised Jill, he does not let the NSA, the CIA or even Fulcrum change him. He is honest, he is trustworthy, and he is a whole lot braver than he was in the pilot. Chuck is more of a real hero, in my opinion, than any of the supernatural freaks in Heroes–he is honest, warm, caring, and real. And now he may actually have a future with the love of his life. Whereas a few weeks ago I was wondering if I wanted to keep watching Chuck, now I look forward eagerly to next week.
I’d like to take this opportunity to praise Tim Jones’ excellent score; in every scene, it provides a first class emotional counterpoint. Likewise, the stellar direction of Norman Buckley, who also directed the pilot, keeps the action and the comedy tight and fast. Both those genres depend absolutely on pacing, and Buckley shows a sure hand. The show came in at its usual #4 spot with 6 million viewers and a 2.3 share in the 18-49 demo. Those aren’t great numbers, but at least they’re not much worse than last week. In fact, it’s an uptick, so maybe we’re seeing a little audience growth. The show has never really rebounded from its long hiatus during the writer’s strike last year, so it needs to build an audience almost from scratch. It’s a little late in the day for that, but one may always hope. Chuck is, after all, the ultimate optimist.