By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. The Sensei”
Written by Anne Cofell Saunders
Directed by Jonas Pate
Two steps forward, one step back. An episode built around John Casey completely botches any opportunity to flesh out this character beyond the one dimension to which the writers have confined him from day one. It’s a real pity that the talents of the excellent Adam Baldwin are being forced into this narrow role; the man who brought such depth to Jayne Cobb in “Firefly” could make John Casey an indelible character, if only the writers would unleash the Baldwin. But merely having Casey quote Cobb (“You’re damaging my calm!”) from Firefly is just laziness. Are they going to put Casey in a funny orange hat next?
After a flashback set in 1994, with the younger Casey (in a funny wig) studying martial arts with his sensei, Ty Bennet (Carl Lumbly,Alias), we return to the present, where Casey is shocked to discover that his old teacher has gone rogue. Shaken (yet not stirred) he insists on pursuing his former master despite explicit orders from the General to back off because of his “personal” involvement. The only “personal” involvement which I can imagine for John Casey is him killing someone with a knife instead of a gun. He does show some cunning when Sarah locks him into the Castle; he phones Chuck and pretends to want to talk about his feelings. When good-hearted Chuck arrives for some talk therapy, Casey handcuffs him to the yogurt counter of the Orange Orange and heads out for a mano a mano meeting with Bennet. Chuck rescues himself with a MacGyver move involving liquid nitrogen, Sarah escapes from a wedding planning dinner with Captain Awesome’s parents, and the trio converge on the dojo where Bennet is training his new rogue recruits. Casey challenges Bennet to a duel of honor and proceeds to get his butt kicked. It’s not until Chuck tries a little emotional manipulation of his own (“You love me, Casey!”) that Casey gets mad enough to, uh, unleash the Casey.
Yawn. I was looking forward to this episode a lot, hoping to get more insight into Casey. But this episode reveals him to be a man of no depth whatever, just robotlike obedience and blind loyalty. A betrayal that should have shaken him to his core, that should have given him common ground with Chuck and Sarah, turns out to be just a gimmick. And not a very good one, at that. Lumbly was hardly a presence in this episode at all. The Firefly shout-outs were unfortunate, because they only underscored the difference between the mercenary, hostile yet human Jayne Cobb and the stiff, robotic John Casey. Both characters are supposed to be tough guys, but Casey is brittle, abusive, unlikable. In the end, all he shares with Jayne Cobb is his initials. Baldwin did a manful job with a poor script, but I was really let down by this poor characterization.
For once, the B story was more interesting. Ellie Bartowski, usually unflappable, is driven to near hysterics when she meets her in-laws-to-be. The Drs. Awesome (Bruce Boxleitner, Babylon 5, and Morgan Fairchild, Two and a Half Men) are fit, breezy, and self-confident. So self-confident, in fact, that they are planning Ellie’s wedding to their son with all the intensity of the Allies planning the invasion of Normandy. Ellie is intimidated into complete submission, until Daddy Awesome offers to walk her down the aisle. This triggers an eruption, as Ellie’s one and only childhood fantasy of her own wedding involved her own father walking her down the aisle. Chuck, ever the supportive brother, vows to track down their missing dad and get him to fulfill Ellie’s dearest wish. This was a much more human and engaging tale than our A story of treachery and betrayal. We learned that Mama Awesome has god-awful taste (burgundy organza bridesmaid’s dresses? Seriously?) and Daddy Awesome thinks embarrassing nicknames build character. Thankfully, Devon himself comes through for his love, and backs her up. Does the man have no flaws at all? I love this character more every time he appears on screen. I was less than impressed by the Awesomes, who turned out to be less than awesome. The funniest moment, in fact, was inadvertent–when I recognized the Tron poster on Chuck’s wall and realized Bruce Boxleitner was in the next room. Funny.
Come to think of it, there are a whole lot of similarities between Chuck and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Secret government agent teams with a civilian to catch spies and romantic sparks ensue…Hmm…
The C story at the Buy More was also more entertaining than usual. Morgan once again plays the blind leading the clueless, as he convinces his fellow employees to sabotage Assistant Manager Emmet’s “Employee of the Month” campaign, by competing for who can earn the lowest score in customer satisfaction. This led to scenes where Morgan blows off Captain Awesome, Lester picks his teeth at Captain Awesome, and Jeff screams at a customer, thinking he’s helping. The only thing wrong with this segment was the absence of Anna, who could have been put to hysterical use in this story. At the blow-off, the winner is awarded a huge and expensive TV, to Morgan’s chagrin. Saw it coming, laughed anyway. The character of Morgan Grimes has also evolved this season, moving from annoying sidekick to comic sensei in his own right. Josh Gomez’ comic timing is well served by his brief scenes, and his supporting cast (Vik Sahay, Scott Krinsky) are as solid as Elvis’ backup singers.
The underlying (and obvious) theme of this episode was The Missing Patriarch. From Ellie and Chuck missing their actually, physically absent father to Casey’s betrayal by his father-substitute sensei to the Awesomes Senior, parental units were the emotional linch pin of the stories. We know from previous episodes that Sarah Walker has daddy issues of her own (and more to come next week), so all in all we’re getting pretty heavily steeped in Freudian father issues. Does Sarah have commitment/trust issues because her father betrayed her trust? Does Casey wall off his emotions because his sensei stressed discipline over intuition? Is Chuck so relentlessly needy because he misses a vital role model in his life?
Father figures on TV usually feature some kind of tension between adolescent males seeking validation and their overbearing parents, stories that often end in reconciliation. It was refreshing to see that Devon has an excellent relationship with his father, an image of manhood sadly lacking on most network TV. Network TV prefers the dysfunctional to the well-balanced, or maybe it’s reacting to the myriads of American children who have no functional father. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a fundamental ambivalence in Hollywood’s approach to fathers. They are hero figures who provide wise and loving guidance (the Bill Cosby model) or an absent, possibly criminal figure who abandoned a child, leaving a hole that can never be filled (the Bones model). The result of this kind of abandonment, with no guide to that all important transition to adulthood, is a prolonged adolescence and a subconscious search for the missing role model: can we say “Chuck Bartowski”?
Which is not to say that this episode was only a dissection of the dysfunctional American family. It was flat out funny several times: Chuck’s impression of Casey, the McGyver comments, Lester’s revelations about “Commando Wednesday”. As slapstick, the show maintains its heavy emphasis on physical action, and there’s plenty of that. (And seriously–burgundy organza bridesmaid’s dresses?) But overall, I got the impression the writers were treading water with this episode. It felt like filler, despite the three storylines and the introduction of new characters. The real problem lies with the development of Casey’s character–or rather, its non-development–in an episode centered on him.
Ironically, this episode jumped ten percent in the ratings. Chuck was up from a 4.0/6 to a 4.4/7 share Monday night. I’m cautiously optimistic, aware that this may have more to do with the end of Dancing with the Stars than an uptick in people anxious to watch Chuck bumble his way through more spy dramas. At any rate, Chuck helped CBS finish third for the night, of which the only good thing I can say is that it’s better than fourth place. Next week, we see more of Sarah Walker’s daddy issues, as Gary Cole (“Lumberg!”) introduces us to another Daddy Dearest. See you there.