Everybody’s Kung-Fu Fighting
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
NBC, Mondays, 8/7 E/C
“Chuck vs. The Sizzling Shrimp”
Written by Scott Rosenbaum
Directed by David Solomon
There is a reason that ancient critics of theatre like Aristotle divided the art into comedy and tragedy (or what we would call drama today); it’s hard to mix the two approaches effectively. Either the comedy trivializes the drama or the drama flattens the comedy. Prime-time television is experimenting with “dramedy” these days, and I’m all in favor of pushing the artistic envelope, but the key is getting the balance right. As of the fifth episode of “Chuck,” the balance is still off in this series.
“Chuck vs. The Sizzling Shrimp” starts off with a snappy opening, with John Casey once again getting the best lines. Even Morgan, Chuck’s best friend, gets some good lines and a cute scene with Chuck, acting out scenes from a martial arts movie. Chuck is out with Morgan and Sarah (if this is Chuck’s idea of a date, it’s no wonder he’s sleeping alone), and when Morgan’s favorite Chinese restaurant, which specializes in Sizzling Shrimp, is closed for a private party, Morgan finagles his way in. As per established formula, Chuck recognizes a woman in the restaurant, Mei-Ling (Gwendolin Yeo, The Jane Austen Book Club), in one of his patented “flashes.” She’s a Chinese Communist spy! Chuck ditches Morgan and Ellie, who had a foursome planned, to chase spies with John Casey and Sarah Walker. Chuck concludes that Mei-Ling is there to assassinate Ben Lo Pan (James Hong, Balls of Fury); there is a van-jacking, a shoot-out, mistaken identities. As per established formula, Casey and Sarah try to make Chuck stay in the car. As per established formula, he doesn’t. As per established formula, there is at least one scene where Chuck is threatened with death and is scared out of his wits. As per established formula, his initial conclusion based on the “flash” proves to be wrong, and at the last minute Chuck has to break a rule somewhere to save Sarah, John, and even Mei-Ling.
There’s nothing wrong with formula, per se, I just hate getting hit over the head with it time and time again. There is so much potential for more here, but Chuck keeps shooting itself in the foot. I love it when Chuck is in the zone, as when he is monitoring security cameras in the van. I hate it when he’s a simpering coward about to piss himself. And then five minutes later he’s being Obi-Wan to Morgan’s Jedi apprentice, assuring him that Morgan won’t get fired for coming in last in a Buy More sales competition. A few minutes later, he’s abasing himself at his sister’s feet for once more ditching her on a night that’s important to them both, with some lame excuse a real sister could have seen right through. Chuck is becoming delightful schtick, but it could be so much more. The writers and producers need to get on the same page and figure out who Chuck is. I get it that he’s naive, that this spy stuff is all new to him, that he’s getting his feet wet. In fact, I got it three episodes ago. It’s time for Chuck to man up.
There’s just a hint that Chuck may be growing out of his slacker-comfort-zone and into maturity. When Casey and Sarah figure out that Mei-Ling is not in the US on a spy mission, but on a personal effort to rescue her kidnapped brother, Casey and Sarah agree to drop the case. None of their business. Chuck, however, feels responsible for torpedoing Mei-Ling’s rescue mission, and pleads with them to help her. The NBC description of this episode called it “Chuck’s first moral dilemma,” and they handled it well. It was a baby step, but in the right direction.
It’s not that I want Chuck to morph into 24. Far from it. I love the spy-spoof aspects of the show. The stakeout scene was pure gold, from Chuck volunteering to make a “stakeout mix” that included Hall and Oates’ “Private Eyes,” to ordering Sizzling Shrimp delivered to a stakeout, to his “talking shrimp.” The sly in-jokes were great, from casting James Hong as “Lo Pan,” the name of his character in the John Carpenter classic, Big Trouble in Little China, to Star Wars references (“Help me, Chuck Bartowski, you’re my only hope”), to Chuck telling Lo Pan “Forget it, it’s Chinatown.” All gold. Most of the dialog in this episode was smart and witty. I especially loved Casey’s assessment of Mei-Ling and her motorcycle: “Glocks and a crotch rocket; my kinda girl.” Adam Baldwin never fails to steal every scene he’s in.
But I need to see Chuck gel as a character. Right now he’s swinging through every possible configuration of geek hero/anti-hero, and it’s confusing. Even a farce needs some measure of consistency, or else we don’t quite know what’s funny and what isn’t. Other characters are gelling much better: Morgan grew a new dimension this week, bonding with Ellie and showing he has an “honor code,” even if it is based on martial arts movies. We also found out why he’s a bad salesman: he’s too nice to his customers. Ellie was even more motherly, honoring a “mother’s day” when their actual mother abandoned her and Chuck. That was a good, solid bit of back story we’ve been needing. Ellie is a wonderful character in this mix, who adds so much to the Chuck character. Without her, he’d be unbearably pathetic. With Ellie in the mix, we get to see Chuck when his guard is down, interacting with someone he loves and who loves him. In those moments, Chuck is even more loveable than when he’s being the uber-dork. Which is why it is increasingly painful to see him lying to Ellie week after week. If Chuck really is facing moral dilemmas, he needs to come clean with her and possibly Morgan about his life as a spy; to do otherwise may be putting them in actual danger. I hope the producers give us that revelation very soon.
Production values continue to shine in this series. The freeze-frame action sequences and flying gunmen were a cute homage to John Woo. The direction was crisp and moved the story along well. Overall, this was one of the better episodes so far. I just need to see a more solid and well-defined Chuck; without that, no amount of witty dialogue or sophisticated directing matters. Balance is all.