By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler”
Written by Matt Miller & Scott Rosenbaum
Directed by Allan Kroeker
“Are you suggesting Chuck is caught in a big giant web of conspiracy and deception?” —Morgan
Deception, indeed. The lies are piling up around Chuck Bartowski, as the “sweet and innocent” guy we loved in Season One slowly turns into a spy. Whereas the hallmark of Chuck Bartowski was always his innate honesty, now we see how his determination to become the thing he rejected for so long is turning him into a minor echo of John Casey or Sarah Walker: cynical, manipulative, heartless. At the end of this episode, when goons haul away his “friend” Manoosh (Fahim Anwar, Comedy Gumbo, but Anwar is actually an aerospace engineer by day), a series of sad, heartbroken expressions flit across Chuck’s face. He has finally come to see what the spy life will cost him—his honor, his integrity, his self-respect. Casey looks on approvingly, Sarah with disgust and sadness. Chuck is at a turning point.
I had hoped that the last two episodes of Season Two signaled a sea change for Chuck; that turned out not to be the case. We were returned to our usual programming: Chuck the hapless not-spy, Sarah and Casey as his handlers. But now we see that Chuck is changing his own game. By following through on his ambition to be a spy, he is changing his own nature and the nature of his relationships with everyone around him. Already his spy life is putting a wedge between Devon and Ellie. In an especially painful scene, Morgan confronts Chuck, daring him to lie, and Chuck lies to him, shredding what little trust remained between these friends. Chuck is now lying to everyone, perhaps including himself, while blinding himself to the consequences. Comedy is turning into tragedy.
Flushed with pride after his first solo mission, Chuck eagerly, if cockily, accepts his next assignment: to befriend and debrief a scientist/nerd working on contract for the Ring. Sure that this is a marshmallow of an assignment, he launches into his approach with all the finesse of a bowling ball rolling downhill. Manoosh, a classic nerd with Girl Issues, is at first annoyed, then intrigued, then persuaded (after a little help from Sarah) that Chuck is the most awesome friend and wingman in the history of the universe. He is eager to tell Chuck he is developing a weapon for the Ring. But when the team steals what appears to be the weapon, it turns out to be shaving cream; the real weapon is a pair of sunglasses with a built-in instant Intersect. When Manoosh turns into a kung fu master and takes out half a dozen Ring operatives, Chuck realizes his mistake. He and the team follow him to a weapons convention in Dubai, where truths get told and hearts get broken. Manoosh finally realizes how dangerous the Ring is when they try to kill him, and pleads with Chuck to let him go back to his ordinary life. Chuck can’t do that. Knowing all too well what will happen to Manoosh if the Ring gets their hands on him, he consents to Casey’s plan to stash him in the CIA’s “safe haven”—that is, a glorified prison. As Manoosh, betrayed and desperate, is hauled away, Chuck realizes how far from innocence he has fallen.
Is this character growth? I suppose, after a fashion, if we can call the corruption of the innocent “growth”. I loved the naive young nerd with the heart of gold. He’s not naive any more, but he still has a heart of gold. I want to see if he can keep it, when Casey and the General are determined to turn it into lead. Watching Zach Levi superbly mirror about seven different emotions in three seconds as Manoosh was hauled away, it occurred to me that the creators of Chuck may have an exit strategy in mind. Given the consistently low ratings the show has garnered, and given that NBC consistently pits it against the most popular show on television, it makes sense for the creators to consider winding down their spy saga in a coherent fashion. I’d love to think thatChuck will play for years to come, but I also hoped Pushing Daisies would be renewed. I’m not that much of an optimist.
This episode held as many paeans to geek culture as ever, from the EM-50 urban assault vehicle that evokes geek-military cult movie Stripes to The Last Man comic that Chuck uses to catch Manoosh’s attention. Sarah’s “Frak Off” T-shirt was fun. Chuck takes out a bad guy with a faultless Ultimate Frisbee move, and Casey’s pop-out electrical outlet in the fake bedroom in the Castle was worthy of anything I ever saw on Get Smart. Morgan’s office, especially after he decorated it like something out of Cahiers du Cinema, was hilarious. The laser pen was the best weapon in the room. And the greatest nickname of the evening: Trankenstein.
If I believed they meant anything, I would be discussing what look like major plot points: Manoosh’s Intersect glasses, his apparent ability to forget what he knows as soon as he takes them off, etc. I pass over them because I am persuaded that they mean nothing—they were a one-off plot device that will never be seen again. Otherwise, the ability to make a portable Intersect would render Chuck obsolete overnight, and cut the rug from under this show. I’m sure, however, that somehow Manizzle is not going to be able to reproduce his prototype in the lair to which Casey is dragging him, and we need not worry about his recrudescence.
Chuck pulled in 6.72 million viewers, but fell another tenth of a percentage point among viewers 18-49, to a 2.4. This still makes it the network’s highest rated Monday night show, which says more about the network than it does about Chuck.