By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. The Undercover Lover”
Written by Phil Klimmer
Directed by Fred Toye
“Chuck vs. The Marlin”
Written by Matthew Lau
Directed by Allan Kroeker
NBC started the 2007-2008 season with three new science fiction/fantasy shows: Journeyman, Bionic Woman, and Chuck. The first two have already bitten the dust, which was no surprise. Even without the writers’ strike, they were poorly conceived and poorly written.Chuck started off weaker than the other two—SF and comedy are a tricky mix—but improved steadily over the course of the season. Unfortunately, NBC chose to showcase the final two episodes in their pre-strike inventory so poorly that it’s unlikely that most viewers saw what may be the best two hours of the entire series. The last two episodes of Chuck aired out of their normal timeslot, as part of an attempt to raise audience interest in Celebrity Apprentice. Or maybe NBC thought they could piggyback Chuck onto Celebrity Apprentice. Regardless, I can’t think of a worse mismatch than pairing a pop-culture savvy, geek-skewing, ironically funny “action comedy” with a reality show featuring Donald Trump. Whatever the scheduling mavens at NBC are drinking, I’d like some.
“Chuck vs. the Undercover Lover” was the long-awaited Casey-centric episode I’ve been longing for. In the midst of the mayhem that is life at the Buy More, with the utterly silly shenanigans of the Nerd Herd, Captain Awesome, and Chuck himself, Agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin) has always been the calm (if gruff) center of a storm. I’ve been hoping for an episode that delves under that iron facade and shows us the Casey underneath. Well, we got one, and it showed us that under that robotic exterior is… a robot. We open with a tender farewell between lovers in Grozny, Chechnya—Agent Casey is bidding his lovely Russian lover Ilsa (Ivana Milicevic,Fallen) goodbye. Minutes later, an explosion rocks the block, and Casey finds nothing left of his beloved but a broken camera. So when she re-appears in his life, I expected to see some conflict, some struggle with closure, a little vulnerability, some hope. I expected to see, uh, emotion. What we got was a zombie on Thorazine.
I was disappointed in Adam Baldwin’s portrayal of Casey in this episode. Granted, Casey is, as Chuck says, emotionally constipated, but even so, I expected a crack in that armor when he was suddenly, and without warning, confronted with the living woman he thought was dead. His total reaction consisted of a stunned look. That blank stare was apparently all Casey could muster throughout the episode, right up until the end. The only time Casey’s eyes ever lit up were when Ilsa shoved a gun in his face in Act Three, and at the end when he kissed her goodbye. The rest of the time, Casey showed all the emotional engagement of a brick. I blame the writing for this, because Adam Baldwin is certainly capable of more—on Firefly, his Jayne (“I’ll be in my bunk”) Cobb visibly smoldered with unbridled lust after any female in sight. There wasn’t a hint of that fire in this portrayal.
Having said that, though, “Undercover Lover” was a cute show. The plot cleverly intertwined two stories: Casey’s failed romance and Ellie and Awesome’s successful romance. Both hit rocky patches, and both end in resolutions typical of their characters. Casey bids a stoic goodbye to his Ilsa, and Awesome buys Ellie the TV she wants rather than the washer/dryer he wanted for their anniversary. The plot was pure farce (in the technical sense of that word), complete with the classic hiding-under-the-bed scene that probably dates back to Roman theatre. A terrific fight scene ends with Casey and Chuck, tied together, falling five stories into a pool, from which they emerge to interrupt Ilsa’s wedding. The plot is the least important element of this episode, however, which shines due to its sparkling dialogue: when Ellie introduces herself to Lester, Chuck’s co-Nerd, Lester says, “Ah, yes, I recognize Chuck’s sensuous mouth”, thereby confirming him as a chronic sufferer of foot-in-mouth syndrome. Chuck, having finally pried a private revelation out of Casey, yells “It’s alive!” in his best Colin Clive voice. Casey, momentarily destabilized by booze and Neil Diamond songs, yells, “I need pants!” as he prepares to crash a wedding. A wonderful double theme in this episode has Morgan acting as a surprisingly good “retail therapist” between Ellie and Awesome, while Chuck acts as a therapist to the unwilling Casey. For some reason, Chuck sees a reflection of himself (perhaps his worst fears?) in Casey, so rescuing Casey’s love life comes to represent his own attempts to figure out his love life. This could have been played as maudlin or sentimental or snarky, but it plays out with just the right touch of compassion and grace from Chuck—more excellent character writing. Throw in some cute references to Casablanca, and you have a well-written, enjoyable episode that should have done better than it did.
Two hours later, NBC showed “Chuck vs. the Marlin”, which is the final episode until the strike ends or the show is cancelled. This marvelously convoluted plot turns on the discovery that someone other than Casey or Sarah has bugged the Buy More—apparently Fulcrum (remember the secret cabal-within-a-cabal that kidnapped Bryce Larkin?) has zeroed in on the Buy More as the source of the Intersect, but isn’t quite sure who it is. Casey and Sarah’s handlers order them to find the spy within 48 hours, or Chuck will have to be relocated to wherever it is Dick Cheney spends Level Orange threat episodes. Unaware of this threat hanging over his head, Chuck agrees to take charge of the engagement ring Captain Awesome is getting ready to offer Ellie. When Casey and Sarah decide to streamline the search for the spy by staging a burglary of the Buy More, not only does the ring disappear, but Big Mike’s prized stuffed marlin goes missing. Director Allan Kroeker, formerly of Wonderfalls, wonderfully combines pratfalls and high-octane action sequences while keeping the dialogue humming. A series of Rashomon-like flashbacks reveals the complicated trail of the missing ring, involving a drunk “break-in” involving Jeff and Lester, a ninja spy planting bugs, Morgan’s burning desire to test a new video game release, and the CIA’s high-handed decision to “bring in” Chuck for his own safety, regardless of any pain it may cause his family and friends.
In case this does turn out to be the final episode for this series, I’ll add one more summary of why the character of Chuck has succeeded so well in this show. The most endearing thing about Chuck is his humility. He ably plays older brother to his Nerd Herd, genially “busting” Lester and Jeff for their “mammary cam” voyeurism in “Marlin”, or shielding innocent customers from the Wrath of John Casey in “Undercover Lover”. Any time the show threatens to make him a self-parody, they throw in a tender scene between Chuck and his sister, where the mutual affection between them grounds and humanizes Chuck. His honesty and compassion show through when he pushes Casey past his comfort zone in order to make him see that Ilsa is not yet out of reach, reminding Casey that he will regret the words he didn’t say. And when it seems the CIA has finally decided to take Chuck away into “protective custody”, separating him forever from his loved ones, his first thought is to ask Sarah to soften the blow for them. Chuck puts himself through all kinds of hell in this last episode to secure his sister’s engagement ring, and by proxy, her happiness. This selflessness is what keeps Chuck human, real, and likable, lifting the character out of the cartoon it could otherwise become. I hope we have not seen the last of him.
The “Chuck sandwich” proved less appetizing to the show’s audience than NBC had hoped; both episodes performed well under par compared with their usual numbers in the Monday timeslot. “Chuck vs. The Undercover Lover” came in third in the hour, with 6.9 million viewers. The 10PM episode, the last original Chuck we’ll see until the WGA goes back to work, pulled 11.8 million viewers to win its timeslot. Even so, those are not great numbers, and I’d like to think the low returns are based on the fact that Chuck was being aired out of its usual timeslot, and viewers weren’t aware of it. With American Gladiator now sitting pretty in Chuck‘s timeslot on Monday nights, I have to worry about what will happen to the Nerd Herd if and when the strike ends. If the writers’ strike does not end by the middle of February at the latest, there is little hope for any new episodes of Chuck until September—and that would require NBC to decide whether or not to renew this show. That’s why the ratings for Thursday night were more important than usual, and why I’m so disappointed that the network showed so little faith in the show that they essentially burned off the last, and possibly best, two episodes of this (you should pardon the expression) awesome show.
Since NBC announced last week that it has cancelled pilot season—perhaps forever—plans for replacement shows for the 2008-09 season are dicey. The network may decide to continue marginal shows that would otherwise be cancelled, in hopes that they will build an audience or at least fill an important timeslot. That may be a way for Chuck, which started out with some of the most cringeworthy writing on television, to shine with new-found confidence. Let’s hope the network makes that decision. For now, I’ll keep my fingers crossed and say, “Good luck, Chuck.”