By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. The Seduction”
Written by Matt Miller
Directed by Allan Kroeker
This week’s episode of Chuck felt like it was written by fanfic writers. There was the awkward nature of the premise–thinly disguised wish-fulfillment fantasies–as well as the plot that serves mainly to throw the protagonists into each others’ arms. But there was also the passion, love and deep understanding of the characters that really good fan fiction showcases.
Having lost the Cypher that bids fair to release Chuck from the burden of being the Intersect, he is given a chance to recover another one. The hitch–the bad guy holding the Cypher this time is a very bad girl, Sasha Banacek (Melinda Clarke, CSI). General Beckman orders him to seduce her in order to recover the Cypher. Banacek (seriously, this callback to the old George Peppard series had me laughing every time someone said her name) is an old hand, a hardened killer, a woman of the world who has Been There, Done That with everyone. Including legendary seducer and secret agent Roan Montgomery (John Larroquette, Boston Legal). Called out of retirement, Montgomery sets out to train Chuck in how to seduce a woman, with Sarah as practice dummy.
There are probably a hundred or so Chuck fanfics out there where Chuck is ordered to seduce the girl of his dreams. I cringed when I realized where this story was going, but stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. What came out of this fannish premise was a funny, warm, and yet poignant story. Agent Montgomery turns out to be a has-been and a lush, who still unfathomably has “it” when push comes to shove. Banacek is the one-dimensional Dragon Lady we expect, but gets a couple of fun lines of her own. The funniest line all night may be Montgomery’s casual, “Hello, Diane!”, as he recognizes–and leers at–General Beckman. Mutual smirks confirm that the General and Agent Montgomery have a past history of, er, fraternization. The second funniest comes when John Casey volunteers to do the seducing, and Agent Montgomery quells him with a “Forget it, Agent Frankenstein.”
The second storyline echoes the main storyline, as Ellie wishes for more romance from her fiancé, Captain Awesome. Unable to figure his own girlfriend out, Awesome seeks advice from Morgan–who knows everything there is to know about Ellie, so he says–and then from Chuck, who really does. These two continue to be adorable, tempered by genuine humor.
In fact, of all the characters on this show, I have to say that Captain Awesome is by far the most original. We’ve seen all the other characters before–the nerd, the hot blonde, the dour chaperon/agent. But Devin is unique. He should, by all rights, be the anti-Chuck, a bully who shoves the nerd’s head into lockers. Instead, he’s almost the perfect man–handsome, buff, intelligent, loving, and sensitive. This character could be the perfect idiot if Ryan McPartlin was not so adept at balancing Awesome’s better qualities with a certain amount of unselfconsciousness. Awesome is not aware of how awesome he is, and is very slightly behindhand when it comes to matters Ellie. This gives him a certain vulnerability that contrasts beautifully with his mastery of most manly things. Kudos to McPartlin for a fine characterization that amazes me every week.
On the other hand, I have to wonder about the casting for guest stars on this show. No disrespect to the comic talents of John Larroquette, but whoever thought he could pass as a Casanova was sucking on the wrong end of the hookah. He is amiable, avuncular, and caustic–not qualities associated with a seducer. Looking good in an Armani suit (and again, no disrespect, but Larroquette in Armani can’t hold a candle to Zach Levy in Armani) and knowing how to drink a martini is not enough to persuade me that this man could talk a woman into bed.
Shy as he is in matters of the heart (or lower organs), Chuck is on board with this scenario for mainly one reason: Sarah has told him that she cannot “be with” him, i.e., turn their fake relationship into a real one, because he’s an asset, not a fellow spy like Bryce. She’s also told him he can have “everything he ever wanted” (i.e., Sarah) once he is no longer an asset. I think Chuck has decided to become a spy, just so he can change Sarah’s mind. If so, this is one heck of an assignment with which to do it. His first tentative smooch with Sarah under Montgomery’s supervision gains him only ridicule; stung, he reacts by planting a kiss on Agent Sarah that was probably on YouTube within minutes. Decked out as Charles Carmichael, the secret agent persona he is coming to rely on, and coached at every step by Montgomery and Sarah (who keeps insisting Chuck needs no instruction in seduction), he almost succeeds in gaining an invitation to the Dragon Lady’s boudoir. A last minute fumble on the one-yard line by Montgomery has her stalking off–at which point Chuck throws his handlers to the wind and improvises. The improv works and he gets invited upstairs to make “mad passionate sex” with Dragon Lady.
This is classic farce, I grant you, but the funniest part of it was watching Chuck veer between his own, distracted self and the cool, Charles-in-charge Carmichael. Zach Levy is equally convincing as the nerd and his alter ego, without turning them into schizophrenic versions of one another. It’s subtle but effective work, and I applaud it. Chuck seems to be maturing from his first season self at a rapid rate. I applaud this, too. Chuck was always a little too silly and boyish for a guy who is at least 25, who is intelligent enough to fix any computer, who is as honest and compassionate as Chuck. I suspect there may be some re-tooling going on; the showrunners may have decided to turn this into a full fledged undercover spy story. The introduction of the secret CIA op center under the shopping mall (genius!), the elimination last week of CIA director Graham (Tony Todd) and the higher profile of the rogue cabal Fulcrum all speak not only of the confidence of this team, but in a solid, long-range plan for the show. There’s only so much audiences are going to take of the will they/won’t they romance, the squeamish cries of Chuck in peril, or the weekly rescue of the supposed hero. At some point, audiences are going to want to see Chuck and Sarah get together, are going to want to see Chuck take more control of his life, and to see some progress on the Cypher/Intersect storyline. I suspect plans are in the works to move these storylines forward. Given what we have seen of the series this year so far, I am filled with happy anticipation.
Oh, and there are no signs that Chuck will leave the Buy More. Since the Nerd Herd bids fair to out-funny the secret spy storyline almost every week, this will be a good thing. The writers are doing an excellent job of showcasing the members of the Herd on a regular basis; Vik Sahay’s turn this week as Lester the new Assistant Manager was comedy gold. Wheel of Misfortune? Gold. I hope this show never loses the Nerd Herd.
Unfortunately, Chuck is continuing its slide in the ratings. Monday night it scored 5.9 million viewers, putting it fourth in the lineup for 8 PM. This ratings slide may be either due to its followup show, Heroes, or to competition from Dancing with the Stars. In any case, it’s clear that all scripted shows are having a hard time staying afloat this year against reality shows. I don’t know whether that news is more depressing for TV writers, or for TV viewers.