Friday, August 5, 2011

"Chuck Versus the Cubic Z" and "Chuck Versus the Coup d'Etat" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episodes 3 and 4)

It’s Friday, and that means we’re continuing our look back at the fourth season of NBC’s Chuck with re-posts of reviews I wrote for YourHub last year.  These “double-feature” reviews will continue to go up each Friday until the fifth (and final) season premiere on Friday, 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been made, but please keep in mind these were all written the night the episodes aired, so they may read as somewhat out of date (especially when I worry about the show getting cancelled, which didn’t happen).  We continue today with episodes three and four, Chuck Versus the Cubic Z and Chuck Versus the Coup d’Etat

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump…

Episode Three:
“Chuck Versus The Cubic Z”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 10/04/10

 Episode Rating: B

Unfortunately, much of the brilliant Chuck writing staff departed last season for various reasons, mostly positive; Scott Rosenbaum, Matt Miller, and Allison Adler, for instance, were hired as showrunners on other shows, proving that their fine work on Chuck wasn’t going unnoticed by those in the business, while other writers left due to NBC’s late renewal announcement and an understandable desire to keep a steady paycheck.  This means, however, that a host of new writers had to be hired this year, and it’s always interesting in these situations to see how the new crew integrates themselves with the veterans.  Tonight’s episode, Chuck Versus the Cubic Z, was the perfect episode for a new writer to pen, since most of the action was set in the Buy More and Castle, and the set-up was classic Chuck: spy story underground, Buy More plot above.  It’s not surprising, then, that this was the year’s first script written by a newbie, Nicholas Wootton, and while this was an exciting and fun episode, it wasn’t anything too memorable either, and at least a few elements bore tell-tale signs of a writer working on a learning curve. 

For instance, while keeping the spy and Buy More plots separate until the end was a staple of the early episodes, the writers have largely moved away from that recently, merging the spy and merchandise worlds early on in each adventure.  Wootton’s script kept the Buy More gang out of the action until the very end, which, apart from some Kung Fu flashes and Chuck/Sarah romance, gave this hour more of a “season 1” vibe; there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as both are equally enjoyable, but the Buy More story was a lot less fun than the spy antics.

On one hand, I loved absolutely every moment with Big Mike on screen.  Mike is usually a background character, responsible for one-off jokes here and there, being a father-figure to a reluctant Morgan, and acting as the show’s main Subway sponsor.  Here, Big Mike got the biggest showcase he’s received in a long time and, from taking out bad guy Hugo Panzer to finally cementing his father/son relationship with Morgan, Mark Christopher Lawrence had a whole lot of fun in his triumphant season 4 debut.  I was afraid we were heading for a “reset button” ending wherein Morgan would make Big Mike manager again, but Morgan only made him his assistant, thus keeping this new, fun status quo (wherein Morgan gets to hang “teamwork” and “courage” motivational posters in his office) in play while giving Mike a reason to stick around. 

On the other hand, the rest of the Buy More story sported some inconsistencies, missed opportunities, and tired plot devices.  For one, as a gamer, I don’t buy that a game called “Spy Attack” would be cause for such an epic midnight launch.  A) It’s not a sequel, B) The biggest game franchises right now are about aliens, historical warfare, and rock music, not spies, and C) Unless it’s a sequel, there’s probably not going to be a midnight launch that big (even the Halo: Reach midnight launch wasn’t that crowded).  It’s only disappointing because Chuck is usually right on the money in its depictions of the geek/gamer subculture, the one show on TV that gets it right week to week.  It’s the kind of thing I’m not surprised to see from a new writer, but I’m sure he’ll learn.  Second, while I will never object to a Jeff/Lester poetry reading, I think that would have been a perfect opportunity for a Jeffster! serenade, especially if they could have intercut it with one of the many action sequences.  That would have made this story stand out; otherwise, all we had left was a riot, which has been done before.  All in all, not a bad Buy More subplot, but not a particularly memorable one either.

The spy story, on the other hand, was, as Papa Bartowski would say, “aces.”  While not as fun as last week’s international espionage in Milan, putting Chuck and Sarah in Castle with old enemies Hugo Panzer (Steve Austin) and Heather Chandler (Nicole Richie) provided for plenty of great action and character moments.  While I don’t think Nicole Richie is quite a strong enough actress to hold her own against Yvonne Strahovski or Zachary Levi, Heather’s character is inherently appreciated because she brings out Sarah’s vulnerable side, something we don’t often see.  Sarah’s relationship fears are perfectly reasonable, given who she is, and putting Heather in the middle of the conflict made for a good Chuck/Sarah story, culminating in the wonderful closing where Chuck and Sarah discuss marriage while Big Mike’s ring slowly makes its way down the vents to an inevitable misunderstanding.

In fact, the air vents were used well from start to finish, from the exciting crawl-chase sequences to the dual fight scene where Chuck and Sarah both fight a baddie suspended in a vent.  I was particularly impressed by Chuck’s multiple struggles with Panzer (this is the second Expendables star Chuck has put to better use this season than the movie did; Dolph Lundgren in the premiere and the always imposing “Stone Cold” Steve Austin here), though the first fight, where Panzer tried pulling Chuck into the chute along with him, marked the second time this show has failed to recreate the ending of Die Hard, where John McClane saves his wife by taking off her watch, sending the villain to his doom (the first instance being in last year’s Chuck Versus the Other Guy, when Shaw tried pulling Sarah down with him over a bridge).  It all climaxed in a big, fun action set piece where Casey, Sarah, and Heather fought on the roof, Chuck threw down with Panzer in the cage, and Morgan fought the riot in the Buy More, classic Chuck mayhem that never gets old. 

Chuck Versus the Cubic Z wasn’t a great episode, but it certainly wasn’t bad, and delivered the kind of fun we always expect from Chuck.  There have been, and will be, better and more important episodes, but since this was obviously a low-budget outing, I assume the war-funds saved will be put to very impressive use later on.  Since everything else on NBC is tanking while Chuck holds steady in the ratings with absolutely no promotion from the network, I’d say it’s a safe bet that season 4 will run a full 22 episodes, and if that’s the case, not every episode needs to be a home run.  After all, there’s nothing quite like Chuck to cure the Monday blues.

Random Thoughts

--The “Greta” score now runs 1-2; last week, Isaiah Mustafa was a funny, cool addition, but Olivia Munn in the premiere and Stacy Kiebler here were little more than blips on the guest star radar.  That’s a bigger deal in Munn’s case, since she is a legitimately funny actress, but so far, the Greta experiment has more strikes than hits.  Summer Glau, one of my (and every other geek on the planet’s) favorite actresses will take the role in episode 8, and I hope the Greta problem is fixed by then (NOTE from the present – it doesn’t get fixed)
--While the new Castle proved itself perfectly qualified for good action, it seems the security is just as horrible as in the old version.
--I don’t want to see Chuck shooting people like Jack Bauer, but it was nice to see him confidently hold a gun on Panzer without any hand-wringing.
--Heather’s line “I bet you have, like, a Tron poster in your room” really made my day, especially since I’ve visited the set of the show and actually seen Chuck’s favorite poster hanging in his room.

Episode Four:
“Chuck Versus The Coup d’Etat”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 10/11/10

Episode Rating: A

When Chuck is firing on all cylinders like it was tonight, there’s really nothing more enjoyable.  Chuck has been a cult favorite for years because it has something for everyone, from geek culture to spy action to electronic store mayhem to romance, and it wonderfully balances those many elements that shouldn’t logically work in harmony.  Over the years, however, Chuck has added plenty of new material internally that makes that balancing act even more precarious; the cast has expanded, guest stars have become more important, everybody has learned Chuck’s secrets, evil organizations control his family, Chuck has ‘learned’ kung-fu, Chuck and Sarah are a couple, Casey has a daughter, etc.  Sometimes, the show is content to focus on a portion of its gargantuan storytelling well, like in last week’s Buy-More centric Chuck Versus the Cubic Z, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But more often than not, they aim to deliver the whole enchilada, like in tonight’s adventure, Chuck Versus the Coup d’Etat.  As the episode proved, with all the ingredients in the mix, Chuck is one tasty enchilada.

Apart from Jeffster, the whole main cast and a number of terrific returning guest stars played a part in the action.  In last season’s Chuck Versus the Angel de la Muerte, Armand Assante proved to be one the show’s all-time best guests, so it was fitting he got to come back for a second round that provided an even better showcase for the character.  Goya may not be the world’s most competent leader, but he’s a fun guy to have around, and a good singer to boot (I wouldn’t mind seeing him return a third time for a battle of the bands with Jeffster!).  Bringing Goya back meant setting the episode in Costa Gravas, which, for the third time this season, set the majority of the action outside the USA.  I’m really loving the show’s new international flare, and though Costa Gravas was probably just another portion of the WB backlot, the Chuck team continues to make foreign sets look convincingly exotic.

Chuck and Sarah’s relationship has been front and center this season, which makes sense to me.  Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have chemistry to burn and making them a couple has only made the show better; their flirtations provided the show’s soul before they got together, so keeping the focus on their romance gives the show a rich, warm heart around which the rest of the action can take place.  I’ll admit, it’ll get old if every episode showcases a different relationship flaw, but so far, I’ve loved each hurdle they’ve had to overcome.  It all feels realistic, and gives both Levi and Strahovski ample opportunity to stretch their comedic and dramatic muscles.  Tonight’s ‘communication’ based conflict only got better as it went along, culminating in the absurd but fantastic sequence where Chuck and Sarah averted World War III, and learned something about themselves, by applying relationship therapy to Goya and his wife.

Meanwhile, Ellie and Awesome also got some romantic spotlight, which is always a pleasure to see, and a giant marble statue that really should be turned into a permanent fixture in Chuck and Ellie’s courtyard.  Ellie and Awesome’s absence from the episode’s second half did feel a little uneven, since the adventure was prompted by their personal problems, but their story wasn’t abandoned, and Chuck finally started telling Ellie the truth at the end, so overall, the characters were well utilized.

Still, nobody’s spotlight moments were more satisfying than Casey’s.  Adam Baldwin is so amazing in the role that he often takes limited amounts of screentime and steals the whole show, as he did tonight.  While in the wheelchair, he was terrifically funny (“just follow the stink of Commie”), but once he stood up, he was terrifically badass (the entire “don’t make me shoot a man in a wheelchair” sequence sent chills down my spine).  Casey wasn’t necessarily the focus of the episode, but his scenes were the most memorable; few characters on television are this intimidating and funny at the same time, but then again, that’s Baldwin’s specialty (check out his performance as Jayne in Firefly for further evidence).

Of course, it’s Casey’s natural intimidation that made Morgan’s story so instantly accessible.  I don’t think anyone could blame Morgan for having cold feet about Alex when she has John Casey for a father.  Morgan’s dilemma was funny and honest, and gave Big Mike more time to shine as Morgan’s surrogate father, a dynamic that will never lose its hilarity.  This is a story that should be very fun in the weeks to come; I can’t wait to see how Morgan makes himself seem worthy of Alex in Casey’s eyes.  Plus, Joshua Gomez will have some good dramatic material to play with, since Morgan has never been in a truly healthy relationship.

Chuck doesn’t get much better than this, and when the show is this good, all seems right with the world.  Season 4 has been extremely strong thus far, with a greater focus than ever on character but a reduced amount of serialized story, allowing individual episodes to stand out and have fun.  This is the Chuck I like best—wildly entertaining but not without weight and emotion.  Season 3, while still excellent, didn’t have that balance quite right, but here, it feels like the Season 2 glory days are making a comeback.  Since the next episode preview teased Casey faking his own death for a mission, it doesn’t look like the hot streak will end anytime soon.

Random Thoughts

--The opening “What Happened Next” card marks the first time since the season 2 finale’s “To Be Continued” message that the show has used text like that.  It gave me a warm nostalgic feeling since this was fairly commonplace back in season 1.
--Chuck survives on product placement, and it’s usually integrated really well, but Awesome’s line about the Toyota Sienna was blatant even by this show’s standards.  They quickly made up for this with the gag about Costa Gravas getting a Subway store, one of the show’s all-time best Subway references.  In the world of Chuck, Subway is so strong that it comes hand in hand with peace.
--Recognizing that there’s competition, I think the montage of Sarah trying on Bikinis holds the record for most sexual objectification of Yvonne Strahovski in a single episode. 
--As we needed any more proof that Chuck is a true hero for the gaming generation, he noted to Sarah that he needs five hours a week with Morgan to play Halo.  I immensely admire both his sense of priority and brotherly devotion.        

Next Week:
"Chuck Versus the Couch Lock" and "Chuck Versus the Aisle of Terror"

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