Dancing with the Spies
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Stegall
Fridays on NBC at 8/7 PM
“Chuck vs. the Zoom”
Written by Chris Fedak & Nicholas Wootton
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
“This is the plan, its final chapter.” — Dexter
Chuck returns for its final, truncated season running on fumes. The concept behind the story – a nerd gets a computer stuck in his head – is turning out to be a one-trick pony, a conceit that the writers are having trouble building on. Every time Chuck comes back for a new season, it tries to reboot itself – one year, Chuck wants the Intersect out of his head, the next year not. It’s becoming apparent that the writers are flailing, throwing the kitchen sink into the mix hoping something will work. This year, the writers start out by trying to turn Chuck into Leverage. In doing so, they left out the one element that made Chuck work so well for four years – the humor.
“You two sound like an old married couple.” – Jean-Claude
Having resigned from the CIA (like that ever happens), Team Bartowski now tries to go it alone. Except that now they are Team Grimes, since Morgan, not Chuck, now carries the Intersect in his head. Given the current bleak economic situation for start-ups, it’s fortunate that Volkoff/Winterbottom ended last season by giving millions of dollars to Chuck and the team. They have used it to buy the BuyMore and the Castle, so they have a home base. Unfortunately, they don’t have very many customers for their new business, and we begin with a literal cliffhanger: Chuck and Sarah are at the edge of a cliff, being menaced by henchmen answering to … Mark Hamill. Screeching halt. Luke Skywalker, the bad guy? Sorry, so not buying this. Hamill carried less menace into the role of Jean-Claude than Adam Baldwin brings to Casey in a mellow mood. And he disappeared after the teaser, leaving us with a story about Chuck adjusting to not having the Intersect, and a sub-plot about his secret plan to buy a dream house for Sarah. As lovely and romantic a notion as that may appear, it’s really a silly idea to offer a woman a house fait accompli, giving her no decision in where she’s going to live. Sarah Walker, above all, does not take kindly to manipulation.
“We’re still working out the kinks.” — Chuck
The show repeatedly sets up situations it does not carry through on. The whole idea of the team as a freelance operation comes apart when Decker sabotages the team, freezes everyone’s assets, and leaves Team Grimes broke and client-less. Sarah learns about Chuck’s plot – and thinks it’s sweet. TheirLeverage-type mission, to take down investment banker Roger Bale (Craig Kilborn, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn), fails spectacularly. The one bedrock element that has always supported the show – Chuck the Nerd – did at least get some attention, as ultimately it is Chuck, not Morgan the Intersect, who saves the day with his mad computer nerd skillz. Still, this is an old story with Chuck, who used to get himself into trouble with the Intersect, and get himself out of trouble on his own. This time it’s Decker who gets everyone into trouble, and Chuck rescues them on his own. It’s a very minor riff on an old and well-worn theme; like all the other elements in this show, that plot device is showing its age.
“We work with somebody, a master spy.” — Sarah
The only real humor in this show came from Sarah and Morgan. Their little congratulatory hand shake in the squash court and their hilarious tango (what’s a Chuck episode without a black tie party and a dance floor?) were the highlights of the episode. I loved Sarah pulling out the lingerie to persuade Chuck. Normally I’d find that sort of thing manipulative, but after all Chuck is lying to her (a form of manipulation) and it’s time he learned not to do that to Sarah. Other elements just did not work for me, particularly the squash game and the massage scene. Really, this is what we’re down to now? Ball jokes and gay-panic skits? “Premature zoom” jokes? This show used to rely on pop-culture, geek culture references for its humor, and now it’s scraping the bottom of the shock-jock barrel. Even Jeffster was lame in this episode. In the series premiere, Chuck disabled a bomb by downloading a computer virus from a porn site – funny, sophisticated, efficient. This time around, he threatens to bring down a computer system by yanking on the Ethernet cables – which Casey could have done just as well. No sophistication required. This was disappointing.
“We have another master spy.” — Chuck
Morgan is not Chuck. He will never be Chuck. I adore Morgan, and Josh Gomez does a fabulous job with him. But he’s a sidekick; he has never been his own man. He can do geeky as well as Chuck, he can do funny as well as Chuck can, but he will never, ever do adorable and funny as well as Chuck can. And that’s what made Chuck so much fun – not just the story of a nerd adjusting to having the superpowers he always dreamed of, but the story of the nerd who discovers that all he really needs are the powers within himself all along. Chuck is the story of how a guy who thinks nothing of himself learns his own worth, learns that love and compassion and honesty are more important than mad ninja skillz, and that winning the woman he loves requires more than the ability to “flash” on a bad guy. Trouble is, Chuck Bartowski has already learned that lesson. Chuck’s journey is complete. End of story. It ended, really, at the end of Season Four, and should have stayed there. Trying to reboot this series in by re-casting Morgan as Chuck is not going to work.
“The Intersect opened me up to big dreams.” — Chuck
Chuck has achieved his dreams: he has Sarah, he has Morgan, he has his family. He has a permanent job at the BuyMore if he wants it. If he doesn’t have the house of his dreams, he at least has a plan to acquire it. Chuck has never wanted those big dreams, not really. Having him now put all he has at risk to pursue a dream that doesn’t even spring from the inner man makes no sense. And it certainly is not funny. This show is in the position of someone who has won a white elephant in a drawing – you feel you have to do something with it, you just can’t figure out what. Every change has been rung on the idea of the computer nerd with the Intersect. Why couldn’t Sarah have inherited the Intersect? Or Ellie? Anyone other than a member of the Nerd Herd would have been an interesting twist on the theme. There are all sorts of possible ways to go with the Intersect, but the writers have, once again, constrained their premise so tightly that it really has nowhere to go and nothing to do.
“Is this Intersect withdrawal?” — Morgan
Chuck surprised many people, coming in at a series low of 1.0 in the adult 18-49 demographic, for a total live audience of around 3.3 million. This is well below the average of 4.0 million viewers that got Pushing Daisies cancelled. NBC has ordered a total of twelve episodes and announced that this is the show’s final season; it has not promised to air all twelve of those shows, however. Not even Intersect glasses can see that far into Chuck’s future.