Chuck: “Chuck vs. The Beefcake”

Treading Water


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. The Beefcake”

Written by Matthew Miller & Scott Rosenbaum

Directed by Patrick Norris

“Talk about low-hanging fruit…” — Captain Awesome

When Lester, Jeff and Morgan are the funniest elements of Chuck, something is off. The numbers have not been all that good for Chuck, there is as yet no rumor of renewal for the show, and I’m starting to detect a whiff of desperation in some of these storylines. That was confirmed Monday night with a mediocre episode, one which gave us nothing new either in the spy drama or the romantic comedy. It did give us a funnier B-story than we’ve had in a while, but what we really needed was a better A-story than we’ve gotten for the last couple of weeks. The show is starting to tread water.

An unshaven man with a distinct resemblance to Clive Owen digs up the body of one of Chuck’s interrogators from Chuck vs. the Suburbs a few weeks ago. He steals a belt buckle from it, and the general tells Sarah to seduce the man, a Fulcrum operative, to retrieve it. While Chuck is not quite on board with this program, he is also determined to “break up” with Sarah because, um, it’s not going anywhere. Well, of course it isn’t going anywhere, you dummy; you keep breaking up with her. The seduction seems to go wrong, then it turns out the agent, Cole Barker (Jonathan Cake, Empire), is actually an agent for MI6 trying to infiltrate Fulcrum. So they all cosy up together in the Castle, where Barker asks Chuck sly questions about Sarah, tries to put the moves on her, etc. etc. yawn. Sarah seems attracted by this capable and dashing spy, Casey smirks, Chuck is jealous–yeah, I liked this story better the first time I saw it, when it was about Sarah and Bryce Larkin. Nothing new in this story at all. Most especially is there nothing new about Chuck and Sarah’s on-again, off-again, “fake relationship”.

This is boring. If the writers are not going to do anything more than endlessly rehash the “Sarah and Chuck can’t get together, boo hoo” storyline, I’d just as soon they dropped it altogether. If we have to spend half of every episode, week after week, going over and over the same ground about how they want to be together but can’t be together because (fill in the blank here), why bother? So they’re moving in together. Really? Didn’t they move in together two weeks ago, in Chuck vs. the Suburbs?  I have a suggestion for the writers. How about they just permanently shelve this mindless and frustrating dance and focus on the wacky spy situations?

At least we got a good Buy More episode. This week was all about intimacy–too much of it. There’s Big Mike’s description of how he’s servicing Morgan’s mother’s plumbing. There’s Chuck overhearing Sarah apparently having sex with Barker. There’s Casey and Chuck watching Barker drop his towel. I’m not sure there is enough brain bleach in the world to get the image of a naked Morgan Grimes out of my head. I thought having Toto’s “Africa” stuck in my head all last week was bad enough, but the fruit bowl joke will, alas, live in my memory forever.

And then there’s the “Buy More Babe” hiring campaign. I confess that this story approaches sheer genius. With Chuck and Morgan both distracted, and Big Mike off banging Mama Grimes, Jeff and Lester are left in charge of hiring. Big mistake. They use the opportunity to launch a casting call for a spokesmodel, with Lester planning to cash in on the legendary casting couch. It doesn’t work out quite the way they planned, and when a parade of outraged models threatens sexual harassment suits, they blame everything on Chuck. Which earns poor Chuck a slap from an angry contestant he’s never even seen before. This story played off pitch perfect, the most satisfying comic thread of the episode.

Remember First Season Chuck? The one who squealed and shrieked and nearly wet his pants at the first hint of danger? That was before Chuck evolved his Charles Carmichael persona, the one that lets him tango, improvise and fight when necessary. Well, Charles Carmichael is definitely MIA in this episode. After Fulcrum agents capture him, Sarah and Bond, er, Barker, Chuck accesses his inner girly-man and squeals like the fifth little piggie. And no, it wasn’t very funny. It might have been the first time, or the fifth time, but by now, no. It was just pathetic. I will say this: nothing can be blamed on the acting. Zach Levy outdid himself, completely selling Chuck in all his emotional guises: heartbroken, jealous, afraid, confident.

So. We get Jealous!Chuck again. We get Scared!Chuck again. We get Sarah sniffing around a handsome male agent again. We get a Chuck/Sarah breakup again. What is this, reruns? I’m very disappointed. A series that recently sparkled with wit and originality is treading water, re-cycling old plots, and relying on gimmicks like 3-D and naked jokes to engage its shrinking audience. Chuck used to be the funniest, most exciting show on television. I’m hoping this is merely the spring slump, and that we’ve got more of the snap and sparkle ahead of us.

Certainly there was some flash in this episode. In fact, there was more flesh flashed on this one episode of Chuck than I’ve seen in any given beauty pageant. From Jeff in his bathrobe doing a Basic Instinct leg-cross, to Sarah in her underwear, to a parade of models in swimsuits, to Cole Barker dropping his towel, to Morgan sleeping nude, the sheer acreage of naked skin involved had me longing for someone to don a burka. Of course, that was pretty much the point of this episode, which was about unwanted intimacies. The whole hour was one big TMI moment.

Chuck’s numbers were pretty grim this time out: 6.6 million viewers, putting it well back in fourth place for its timeslot. Third place finisher CBS’s lowest rated comedy of the night, The Big Bang Theory, garnered 10.9 million. This is not good news for a show that does not yet have a renewal notice in hand. Let’s hope the creators are saving up the really good stuff for the next few weeks. They’re going to need all the help they can get.