Mondays on NBC at 9/8
"Chuck vs. The Sandworm"
Written by Phil Klemmer
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
Of all the goofy characters on Chuck, the one that made me laugh the hardest this week was ... Captain Awesome. Virtually all of the characters on Chuck are stereotypes, which is fine for a farce, that's what stereotypes are for. But now and then the writers will break with tradition and surprise us. The Captain, who looks like every blond, Aryan-hero jock we've ever seen on television, consistently undermines our expectations with his humor, sympathy and good will. He should be Chuck's antithesis, and in a lesser comedy the writing team would be working his hostility to Chuck for whatever meager laughs one can still squeeze out of that dried-out trope. But in episode after episode, the Captain rescues Chuck from himself, with the breezy confidence of those who are born to rule. He's the perfect foil for the chronically nervous, uncertain Chuck. Only a man of supreme self-confidence could teach Chuck to tango, parade around in a fig leaf, and take on the extreme makeover of Morgan. Every week, he continues to surprise and delight. Kudos to Ryan McPartlin for a standout performance. The Captain may be the best character on this show.
Chuck meets what he thinks of as his twin in this episode, a young genius held hostage by the government so he can design weapons (and, apparently, Halloween costumes) for the CIA. In an opening sequence that parodies Lost, Laszlo (Jonathan Sadowski, House, M.D.) fights his way out of a maze of decaying corridors and emerges on a beach. Chuck runs into him on the Santa Monica pier, where he's playing "Guitar Shredder" with Morgan, who is playing hooky from work. Chuck recognizes Laszlo as a fugitive wanted by the government. But Laszlo knows he's been recognized, and confronts Chuck later, threatening him with a water gun. I think it's the use of the water gun that convinces Chuck that Laszlo is a kindred spirit, being totally controlled by his handlers. Since Chuck has more than a few qualms about his own handlers, he agrees to help Laszlo evade Sarah and Casey. At any rate, Chuck has some pretty pressing problems of his own--he's set to interview for the Assistant Manager job at Buy More, and with Halloween coming up, he has to choose between his new life as a spy and his old life as the other half of Morgan's costume. Chuck learns a lot of unhappy truths in this episode: that Laszlo really is a dangerous nutjob, as Casey and Sarah told him, and that Casey and Sarah have really bugged Chuck's room, as Laszlo told him.
Chuck continues to be amusing enough to make me tune in regularly, but I can't help seeing a lot of missed opportunities here. The supporting cast is consistently funnier than the leads, which is the fault more of the writing than anything else. Chuck's supporting Nerd Herd is ridiculously underused; for the second straight week in a row, Lester (Vik Sahay, This is Wonderland) owned every scene he was in. As mentioned, Captain Awesome rocked. Ellie (Sarah Lancaster, What About Brian) continues to be the most maternal and supportive sister in the history of soap opera. The only supporting character who fell flat this week was, surprisingly, Adam Baldwin's John Casey. The novelty is wearing off his strained, clenched-teeth portrayal; he needs to lighten up a little.
The in-jokes for this episode were sometimes screamingly funny--from Chuck dressed as Han Solo in a faux Halloween photo to the constant Dune references. There's hardly a science fiction movie of the last half-century that doesn't get referenced by this show, sooner or later. The very fact that Chuck can toss off a name like "Shai--hulud", without further explanation, shows that the writers have not only done their homework but closely targeted their audience. The homoerotic subtext was so close to the surface of this episode it nearly broke through on several occasions; Morgan certainly has more love for Chuck than Sarah Walker seems to. Third-level characters like Big Mike get some of the best lines: Big Mike says Harry Tang has "all the charm of a prostate exam". Lines like this keep me coming back from week to week.
What's starting to bore me, however, is the main romance. The "romance" between Chuck and Sarah is as dead as last week's news. Sarah is showing no attraction to Chuck at all, and Chuck's lovelorn, puppy-dog-eyes frustration every week is emasculating him. At least this week Chuck didn't come off as quite the coward he has in the past--after a terrifying "ejector seat" moment that has Chuck skidding along a street strapped to an errant car seat, he straightens his tie and nods to two women in a nearby car, "Ladies." Very smooth, Chuck. And how wonderful was it to see Chuck's righteous indignation spilling over in a direct confrontation with the scary Agent Casey? So Chuck is manning up a little, which can only be a good thing.
However, Sarah is starting to really annoy me--did she really not realize that bugging Chuck's room would backfire, raising all kinds of trust issues with a man whose parents abandoned him? And if she's supposed to be secretly longing for Chuck, she's hiding it well. When she's alone with Chuck, she has all the allure of a dead mackerel. We're long past the time when keeping two characters apart with endless complications worked to ratchet up the sexual tension; now, it just bores audiences. NBC needs to move this romance along, or give it up and let Chuck start dating Morgan, who really does love him.
I could do with fewer references to other shows by the same producers (yeah, you loved The O. C. We get it. You can stop now.), and a lot more focus on the story. I wish they'd let Chuck tell his family what's going on with this secret database-in-his-brain. I wish they'd let Casey out of his cage more. I hope Chuck grows a bigger pair next week, both when it comes to physical danger and when it comes to his longing for Sarah. I would love to see more of Chuck the Ubergeek getting himself out of a jam using his mad geek skillz than having Sarah rescue him every week. It would be nice if this show learned to distinguish between a nerd and a wimp.
Chuck is being consistently trounced in the ratings, but I expect NBC to hang onto it a little longer. Just about every show that might have been cancelled in another year has a little better chance now, because of the impending writer's strike. Rather than take something off the air that has no replacement, NBC will probably keep Chuck around at least until the future of the strike is settled. After that, however, all bets will be off, and Chuck will have to sink or swim. So far, it's treading water.
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