Friday, July 29, 2011

"Chuck Versus the Anniversary" and "Chuck Versus the Suitcase" Flashback Reviews - Season 4 Episodes 1 and 2

As I announced on Monday, I’m reposting a bunch of my old TV reviews from YourHub here on this site, starting with reviews from the fourth season of NBC’s Chuck.  Over the next twelve Fridays, I’ll be republishing these old reviews in sets of two, all in anticipation of the fifth (and final) season premiere on October 21stSmall alterations to the reviews have been made, but please keep in mind these were all written the night the episodes aired, so they may read as somewhat out of date (especially when I worry about the show getting cancelled, which didn’t happen).  Still, it’s fun to look back on the season as it was originally experienced, seeing which predictions I got right and wrong, and how my opinions on certain characters or stories changed as the season went along.  We start with the first two episodes, Chuck Versus the Anniversary and Chuck Versus the Suitcase.       

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump…

Episode One:
“Chuck Versus The Anniversary”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 9/20/10

Episode Rating: B+

It’s good to have you back, buddy!

I’ve been a huge fan of Chuck since the pilot, but it was the fifth episode of the first season, Chuck Versus the Sizzling Shrimp, that really made me fall in love with this show.  It wasn’t the spy plot, which concerned Team Bartowski helping a Chinese national save her brother, but the Chuck and Ellie B-plot, in which the siblings celebrated their own version of “mother’s day.”  It’s a really sweet, touching story, showing how special a relationship Chuck and Ellie share, as well as hinting at the darkness in their past.  See, their version of “mother’s day” didn’t revolve around celebrating their mother, but remembering the day when Chuck and Ellie had to learn to fend for themselves because their mother abandoned them.

It seems we’ve come full circle. 

On its own, Chuck Versus the Anniversary wasn’t an all-time great Chuck outing, but it laid the foundation for perhaps the single most promising story arc in four years of missions, as well as a number of sub-plots and new settings that I can’t wait to see more of.  I think it goes without saying, but the show’s fourth season is off to as promising a start as possible, thanks in large part to Mama Bartowski.

The pre-credits sequence (the best in the show’s history) established, via a flashback and a montage filled with Chuck-brand pop-culture references, the main narrative of the season: the search for Chuck’s mother, played by the single most awesome person imaginable in the role, Linda Hamilton, or, as we all like to call her, Sarah Friggin’ Connor.  Hamilton quickly proved the casting perfect, both in the flashback where we saw the kind of love that makes Chuck want to find her so badly, and in the present where she kicked some serious ass.  More importantly, however, it was easy to see that this is a story that has some serious legs; as I said, searching for Mama B really does seem to bring the show full circle, therefore giving the quest lots of emotional heft.  Since Mary Bartowski is involved with the nefarious Volkoff Industries, the spy antics don’t have to be put on hold, but can instead complement this new narrative.  If the writers play their cards right, this could easily be the best season yet based purely on this one story.
But there was so much else to love and get excited for.  The Buy More is back and better than ever, having been rebuilt as a full-fledged CIA base.  That’s just genius.  Implausible genius, perhaps, but genius nonetheless, as it gives the show a new reason to keep the store (and its host of great characters) around, gives General Beckman a lot more to do (imagine what will happen when she meets Jeffster!), and streamlines the effectiveness of the brand-new Castle (I like the old one better, but the change is cool and appreciated).  We’ve also got the promise of another emotional family story, courtesy of Ellie’s pregnancy, and the ongoing Chuck/Sarah romance to look forward to.
Still, what most excites me about season 4 is how well-defined the characters and their relationships are at this point, and how exceptionally well the writers understand them.  Season 3 admittedly had some bumps along the way, but it advanced the characters in new, exciting directions, and this episode reinforced the value of that development.  Morgan Grimes, the unquestionable MVP of season 3, is still hilarious as a rookie spy and veteran best friend, while the Chuck/Sarah/Casey dynamic is stronger than ever before—just look at the scene where Casey and Sarah think Chuck is dead (Casey’s reaction was actually more powerful than Sarah’s, the dramatic high point of the episode).  The romances, the friendships, the familial bonds…it’s all been developed, the kinks ironed out, over the last three seasons, and tonight’s premiere proved that the writers know, at this point, what works and what doesn’t, and how best to utilize such a talented cast.  Big Mike, Captain Awesome, Jeff, and Lester haven’t even shown up yet—once everyone is in the mix, this season can only achieve greatness.
The guest casting on Chuck has always been wonderful, but tonight’s episode may have set the show’s personal record for great guest stars.  Linda Hamilton’s brilliance needs no more explanation; Dolph Lundgren’s role was far more satisfying than his underwhelming turn in The Expendables (they worked in both “I must break you” and “If he dies, he dies” from Rocky IV—I love this show); Harry Dean Stanton had a small but hilarious part as a repo man (he not-so-coincidentally starred in a cult film called Repo Man in the eighties); and finally, Olivia Munn, goddess of gaming network G4, appeared as the show’s first “Greta” (there will be a new Greta, either male or female, at the Buy More each week).  Of all the guests, Munn was the only one ‘wasted,’ but I use that term loosely.  Given the show’s geek roots, they had to have Munn on here sooner or later, but it’s too bad she didn’t have more to do than just look hot in a nerd herd outfit—which was great, granted, but she actually can be pretty funny in addition to melting one’s eyeballs.  Here’s hoping that the show survives long enough to cast X-Play’s Morgan Webb in a more substantial role.
This was an extremely busy episode, a necessity given the amount of story needing establishment, but that stopped Chuck Versus the Anniversary from being an all-time Chuck classic.  That’s just fine in my book—the rest of the season will be better for it—and at the very least, we’ll always remember this premiere for the fabulous “sexting” gag, which had surprisingly long comedic legs.  That “sexting” gag defines what makes Chuck great, though—in the middle of an enormously crowded episode, the writers still found room to work in smaller, character-based jokes, and make the story feel personal…if a little uncomfortable, in this instance. 

If this wind’s up being Chuck’s last season (NOTE: 20/20 hindsight proves this was not the case; yay!), it looks like the writers have come up with a story that will serve as a great swan song.  Chuck and the team are all grown up, Ellie is starting a family, and the story is coming full circle with the search for Mama Bartowski.  As King Theoden said in The Lord of the Rings, “If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance!”  (But, of course, this season wasn’t the end, and I’m happy I was wrong).

Episode Two:
“Chuck Versus the Suitcase”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 9/27/10

Episode Rating: A+

Maybe I’m just riding on the kind of giddy high that only an exceptional hour of Chuck can deliver, but Chuck Versus the Suitcase may be the best damn episode of the series since the season 2 finale, Chuck Versus the Ring.  Season 2 was as perfect a season of TV as I’ve ever seen, and while season 3 was wonderful, it couldn’t quite match up; but season 3 did do many important things, like putting Chuck and Sarah together, making Morgan a spy, giving Casey a daughter, and letting everyone in on Chuck’s secrets.  I predicted after last week’s premiere that all the crucial development year 3 delivered would, in this fourth season, be combined with the insane levels of fun and depth year 2 provided to make for the best season yet.  If Suitcase is any indication of what is to come, I was right on the money, because tonight’s episode felt like the ultimate realization of four years of character and story development.  Chuck has rarely been better than this.

There were many stories at work tonight, but the spy plot felt like something plucked right out of the season 2 glory days; Beckman calls the team in, explains that something crucial has been stolen (in this case high-tech bullets), identifies the villain (supermodel Karolina Kurkova), and outlines the mission.  Classic.  But everything that’s happened since season 2 also comes into play; now, Chuck and Sarah aren’t just spies—they’re lovers, adding an entirely new dynamic to the espionage.  Stories in season 2 were usually set in Burbank, but thanks to the new, international scope, the mission takes place in Milan.  Sarah engaged in one of her classic cat fights, recalling the epic girl brawls from season 2 that took some time off last season, but Chuck didn’t have to sit out on the action; not only did he get to kick ass with a pole, but he had a slap-fight with Lou Ferrigno!  Does it get any better than that?  Combining a classic Chuck tale of espionage with relationship drama, the Intersect 3.0, and exotic locals has made the spy stories stronger than ever.
The relationship drama took center stage tonight, as Chuck and Sarah hit the first real roadblock in their romance—Sarah’s spy sensibilities versus Chuck’s desire to simply give her a home.  Since Sarah is arguably the show’s dramatic core, Yvonne Strahovski doesn’t often get to be funny, but her disagreement with Chuck, and his constant, failed, and hilarious attempts to course-correct (we’ve always known how funny Zachary Levi is, but he was really in top form tonight), led to some of the funniest material in the show’s history.  Still, this wasn’t just a string of jokes for the sake of laughs; Chuck is much smarter, and deeper, than that.  This was character development, and it was profound and heartwarming.  Chuck’s attempts to cover up his “I still love you” mistake grew increasingly funny as the sequence wore on, but the laughs were drew their power from heart.  We knew Chuck was trying so hard out of love, and each of Sarah’s reciprocal glares or incredulous comments came from the same place.  Every laugh carried a heartwarming moment of equal weight, and that’s what I’ve loved about Chuck from the beginning.  Maybe I’m just a big sap, but the last scene, where Chuck finds the picture in Sarah’s bag and Sarah declares that Chuck is her real “home,” totally melted me. 
The heart and humor didn’t end there—not even close.  The new Buy More proved to be a source of unrelenting hilarity from start to finish, with Morgan again proving himself the MVP.  His ‘walk and talk’ with General Beckman worked on so many levels, from seeing Morgan actually talk to Beckman like an equal, to his casual but fair analysis of the flaws in the cover, to the many over-the-top examples of the efficiency of an electronics store run by spies, led by the super-cool vocal stylings of Isaiah Mustafa as this week’s ‘Greta.’  It was all priceless, and things only got better once Jeff and Lester made the most fantastic reintroduction of the cast so far this year.  Big Mike has yet to appear, but I doubt anything will beat the duo’s riotously funny, totally over the top flight from the “po-po.”  Bringing the rest of the Buy More dweebs back was an appreciated touch, and it all led to Morgan’s ascension to manager, another moment that was just as heartfelt as it was funny.  Morgan has been steadily maturing since the beginning, all while retaining the innocence and loyalty that makes him lovable; it’s those very qualities that Beckman is finally starting to respect, and that, like so much else in this episode, warms my heart.
Still, was there anything more touching than Casey’s internal struggle to reconnect with his daughter?  Casey, like everybody else, got plenty of laughs tonight, but Casey has always been a favorite because underneath his rough exterior, he really does care for people, and Adam Baldwin has always done a top-notch job infusing him with humanity.  The moment where he finally called Alex—“It’s good to hear your voice too”—epitomized the depth that makes Casey worth rooting for.  It’s the kind of moment I’ll probably reminisce about tomorrow in math class to stop myself sinking into arithmetic-related depression—it’s just good for the soul.  
This is my favorite kind of Chuck episode; the scope and development season 3 provided mixed with the depth, action, and fun of season 2 made for the most entertaining and heartwarming outing in a long time.  This is the show I campaign for every spring, the show I buy Subway sandwiches and spread the word for.  It’s always killed me that Chuck has never found a larger audience, but you know what?  It’s their loss.  Watching Chuck, especially an episode like this, makes me feel good, and it takes a very special kind of TV show to warm the heart so strongly. 

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