The Stepford Neighbors
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. The Suburbs”
Written by Phil Klemmer
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
Well, this was a predictable turn. I figured that eventually the producers of Chuck would get around to having Chuck Bartowski pose as half of a married couple with Agent Sarah; I just hoped it would come later in the series. But with the show still languishing in the ratings basement, maybe they thought it was time to bring in the big gun of The Fake Marriage. Chuck and Sarah have to discover what happened to an undercover agent who had infiltrated the suburbs, so they pose as a married couple and move into the agent’s house. The house is meticulously done over by the CIA, right down to photographs of Chuck and Sarah in a life they never lived, and a real dog. A get-acquainted backyard cookout at the Carmichaels’ (Chuck’s self-chosen spy identity) introduces us to a host of stereotypical yuppie neighbors, including hail-fellow-well-met Brad (Andy Richter, Andy Richter Controls the Universe) and across-the-street hottie Sylvia (Jenny McCarthy, Tripping the Rift, Scary Movie 3) whose husband (Brian Thompson, The X-Files) is conveniently out of town all the time. Looking like a combination of Peyton Place and Desperate Housewives, the entire neighborhood is so relentlessly upbeat, clean, and friendly that I was immediately suspicious. I’ve lived in the suburbs most of my life, and they do not look like this. There is invariably the one neighbor who plays his music too loudly, the one who neglects his lawn, the one whose teenage kids and their friends come and go at all hours. The neighborhood feuds that can break out over Garbage Day can placement rival anything going down in the Gaza Strip.
Chuck is oblivious to any impending sense of danger, however, as he is caught up in a fantasy world where he and Sarah are a happily married couple with a dog and a dishwasher and a barbecue grill. There’s a lovely scene where, all defenses down, Sarah cooks breakfast for Chuck; his happy little smile at this domestic moment says more than any words what his goal in life is and who he wants in it. Casey ties the purchase of a huge data cable to Sylvia’s husband, Chuck is ordered to seduce Sylvia, and naturally screws it up. He accesses the husband’s computer and gets treated to a replay of the same experience that lodged the Intersect in his head, proving that the house and its inhabitants are Fulcrum agents. Nor is it any stretch to conclude that Sylvia and her hulking husband aren’t the only agents on the block. The whole point of the seduction was to find a test subject for Fulcrum’s attempt to rebuild the Intersect; in this episode, Fulcrum is ahead of Casey, Sarah, and the General every step of the way. The only thing Fulcrum hasn’t figured out yet is that Chuck already has the Intersect in his head, so their Clockwork Orange style brainwashing does not work on him. I must say how much I appreciated the teamwork in the climax of the ep, when Casey and Chuck worked together to turn the tables on the Fulcrum agents and Chuck shielded Sarah with his body from the deadly images (although I had to wonder why she couldn’t just close her eyes).
It’s an interesting advance on the basic plotline to have Chuck now carrying Fulcrum’s version of the Intersect in his head. Since it is incomplete, we can expect a certain amount of drama generated by Casey and Sarah’s attempts to track down all Fulcrum agents. And it was nice to have Chuck and Sarah warming up to one another after such a dismal Valentine’s Day. But I found most of the A story to be flat and predictable. Sometimes predictability works for you, and sometimes not. I mean, it would have been a great twist to have had Brian Thompson, known to millions as the villainous Alien Bounty Hunter from The X-Files, turn out to be a good guy. It was no twist at all to have McCarthy turn out to be a bad girl—I mean, seriously, black mascara with bleach blonde hair? Dead giveaway, every time. Casey breaking the bone in his hand to escape handcuffs was suitably macho, but I liked best his spritzing Chuck with cologne in various private regions to facilitate his seduction assignment. If Casey really thinks that’s seductive, it accounts for his loner lifestyle.
The B story was pretty pedestrian; Big Mike’s impending divorce is causing him to take his job way too seriously, which jeopardizes the Nerd Herd’s languorous lifestyle. Ergo, they conclude that what he needs is a girlfriend to distract him. Enter the Internet dating scene, and Big Mike reports back on the hottest night of his life. Chuck advises him, however, not to build a relationship on lies, and Big Mike decides to come clean with his new lady love by inviting her to the Buy More. Where, as it turns out, her son Morgan has no idea his mother has been dating Big Mike. I’ll admit I didn’t see that one coming, and it made me laugh.
The Chuck/Sarah relationship continues to be the main boat anchor on this show. It is an increasingly disappointing relationship; I really wish the producers would simply hook these two up and move on. The real appeal of the show should be Chuck the Klutzy Spy, not a relationship which blows hot and cold randomly. The tender moments of this episode, like Chuck’s cradling Sarah’s head to protect her and his sad confession to Ellie that he and Sarah will never be like Ellie and Devon, tell me that a solid love affair between Chuck and Sarah would be an excellent ground against which to play off the spy comedy. Chuck increasingly needs an anchor, as he moves deeper into the world of espionage; he’s not cut out to be a full-fledged agent, and will always need the protection of the CIA. Who better than an agent whose loyalty and devotion are unquestioned? Anything less is just typical network messing-with-our-heads manipulation, and it’s old, guys. Really, really, really old.
Chuck came in fourth in Monday’s lineup, with 6.75 million viewers. That is a 19 percent loss from last week’s numbers, and the lowest rating ever for the series. The 3-D episode did not translate into more viewers (hard to imagine how it could have). There needs to be more heat, more funny, more bite in this series. Much as I love the shout-outs to geek culture (a poster of Tron? Cool.), it’s not enough to carry this show. It needs some lovin’, and it needs it fast.