Friday, August 26, 2011

"Chuck Versus Phase Three" and "Chuck Versus the Leftovers" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episode 9 and 10)

Happy Friday Chucksters!  Since it’s the end of the week, 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 21st.  Small 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been made, but please keep in mind these were all written the night the episodes aired, so they may read as somewhat out of date (especially the second review here, which is all about the end of Chuck in the year 2010).  We continue today with episodes nine and ten, Chuck Versus Phase Three and Chuck Versus the Leftovers.

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump...

Episode Nine
“Chuck Versus Phase Three”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 11/22/10

Episode Rating: B+

Any fan of Chuck will tell you that the wonderful cast of characters is the best part of the show.  I love the action, the comedy, the romance, the creative stories, and the obscure references to geek culture, but my core motivation for buying all those Subway sandwiches two years ago was to ensure that I’d get to spend more time watching these characters interact.  As perfect as Zachary Levi is in the title role, the show would be nothing without the rest of the ensemble; with Chuck missing-in-action for most of the hour, Chuck Versus Phase Three was a kick-ass love letter to the supporting cast—in particular, to the badassery that is the “Giant Blonde She-Male.”

In many ways, Sarah Walker and the amazingly talented actress who portrays her, Yvonne Strahovski, have epitomized this show from the start.  Since the Pilot, she’s been called upon to deliver many of the big emotional moments, be they heartwarming or devastating, and though Adam Baldwin may be a more traditional action hero, Sarah’s acrobatic fight scenes have always proved the most memorable; add to that Strahovski’s impeccable comic-timing, and it’s clear she’s at the heart of everything we love about this show.  With Chuck captured, we got to see the full range of what Sarah is capable of, from powerful pathos to incredible ask-kicking, and that made Phase Three a classic episode. 

Strahovski was, as usual, incredible; as cool as she looks rising out of the water to bring the smack-down on the bad-guys, going full “Jack Bauer” on the Thai prisoner, or stepping into the ring with a monstrous Thai fighting champ, I was most impressed with the scene where Morgan reveals that Chuck plans to propose.  Obviously, her emotions drove her actions for the entire hour, even when she pretended to be stoic, but here those emotions were out in the open—not over the top, but subtle and realistic, and Strahovski revels in those nuances.  The emotional arc came full circle when she brought Chuck back from the brink of mental extermination by revealing what she’d already told Morgan—that she loved Chuck with or without the Intersect.

I still contend that this “Chuck-sans-Intersect” arc is repetitive, but this was an undoubtedly important step in Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, something that needed to be said at one point or another.  I can only speak for the men in the audience, but part of what makes Chuck accessible is the fantasy that a woman like Sarah would fall for a guy like Chuck; it gives the rest of us hope, but I think we can all see where Chuck’s apprehension comes from.  If Sarah is indeed the perfect woman, does that mean she only loves Chuck because of the super-computer-brain that brings him up to her level?

Of course not, because Sarah isn’t the perfect woman; as Sarah went overboard on her near-suicidal mission to find Chuck, it became clear that without him, she’s not complete.  As she admitted, without Chuck, she’s just a spy, and she wants something more than that; Sarah and Chuck need each other equally, and that’s what makes them the great couple fans have been rooting for all this time.  Four years of character development have built to what Sarah learns here about herself and her relationship, and above all the awesome action beats or hilarious moments, that’s what made Phase Three a great episode.

Nevertheless, the action was awesome, and the “dream-world” Chuck spent the majority of the hour trapped in was really cool and creative, especially considering the show’s limited budget.  Director Anton Cropper has delivered one of the most visually dynamic and exciting episodes of the series, and I hope he returns to helm a few more outings in the future. 

As impressive as Strahovski was, this episode belonged to everyone in the supporting cast.  Morgan’s humorous and heartfelt antics continued to cement the “most valuable character” award he’s earned over the last two seasons, while Casey again proved how easily he can steal the show with a simple grunt.  Back in Burbank, we got a great Ellie and Awesome story that included the whole Buy More gang and ended on a truly mind-boggling cliffhanger—unless Ellie and Awesome are going to become the new Intersects, I don’t think Papa Bartowski’s laptop is what we expected it to be.

Chuck Versus Phase Three wasn’t a perfect episode—I’m still not too hot on this “lost-Intersect” story, even though I’m much more optimistic about where it’s headed now than I was this time last week—but it’s an undeniably memorable installment that showcases what makes this show great: the characters.  With some classic Chuck action and humor thrown in for good measure, I couldn’t really ask for more.


--The concept of Chuck’s flashes metaphorically representing sexual prowess has never exactly been subtle, but this episode—and the opening scene in particular, brought it to a whole new, uncomfortable level.
--After Richard Chamberlain was underused last week, I expected him to get a greater role this time; instead, he mostly just gave orders while the creepy….eastern European?....guy did all the work.  A tad bit disappointing, but Chamberlain made the most of his limited screentime.
--Chuck has integrated its product placement better than most shows on TV (the Subway plugs are always hilarious and welcome), but there does exist a ‘line of blatancy,’ and Awesome’s line about the Toyota Sienna’s “Five-Star Safety Rating” didn’t so much cross that line as it did long-jump over it with a fifty-foot pole.
--Speaking of blatancy, the sexual objectification of Sarah doesn’t get much more obvious than her literally pouring a canteen of water over her head for no apparent reason.  I’m not complaining, mind you, both because Strahovski’s beauty is beyond words and she’s one of the best written female characters on TV.  She’s not a stereotype with a one-note personality, but a fully realized, three-dimensional creation who can kick more ass than every man on every cop procedural combined. 

Episode Ten
“Chuck Versus the Leftovers”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 11/29/10

Episode Rating: A-

(NOTE: This episode was the last aired in 2010, so the review refers to that quite a bit). 

2010 has been an absolutely amazing year for Chuck; season three premiered way back in January, and along the way, we got to know the Intersect 2.0 (Chuck-Fu!); Chuck and Sarah finally got together; Morgan became an official member of Team Bartowski; and Chuck and friends saved the CIA from destruction, only to tragically lose Papa Bartowski in the process.  It was another stellar season, and as the once-powerful NBC empire continued to crumble, the show’s low ratings suddenly started to look better, earning the show a 13-episode fourth season order (that was later expanded to 24 episodes!) and making Chuck the first TV show to return for an additional season after being saved from cancellation by a fan campaign.  Season Four has upped the ante once again with a string of amazing guest stars, terrific utilization of the entire cast, and the introduction of Mama Bartowski and the nefarious Volkoff organization, expanding the show’s scope to global proportions.  That brings us to Chuck Versus the Leftovers, the final Chuck episode of 2010 (the show will return to Mondays in January); I can’t think of a better way to cap a truly breathtaking year of creative achievement.

Leftovers was a defining episode of this still-young fourth season, which meant that while it epitomized everything this season has done right so far, it also showcased a few of this year’s flaws.  I enjoyed the resolution to the “Chuck-sans-Intersect” arc, though it didn’t manage to retroactively redeem the elements of this story I felt didn’t work; I still think this “mini-arc” was redundant, and though it brought us some great moments, like Sarah’s ‘rampage-o’-love’ last week or Chuck and Morgan’s “stripkick” lesson tonight, the story as a whole felt like it was creating conflict for the sake of conflict, rather than letting the action stem organically from the plot.  Meanwhile, though the return of Mama Bartowski ultimately led to a truly unforgettable hour, her first few scenes were a clunky continuation of the cliffhanger from Chuck Versus the First Fight.  That episode established Mary’s treachery so powerfully that having her status reset to ‘friend’ so quickly felt a little jarring.

But that’s where my complaints stop, because though the road to this point has had a few bumps along the way, Mary’s appearance and the subsequent return of Alexi Volkoff proved that every element of season 4 has finally clicked into place—and what a delightfully wacky story this is.  Describing Timothy Dalton’s performance with mere words seems a disservice to the man, as his second Chuck outing proved he may very well be the best guest actor ever to appear on the show, and the competition for that title is thick.  He’s certainly the most effective villain the show has ever featured; in the first half of the episode, a fairly straightforward Die Hard homage (Yippee Ki-Yay, MotherChuckers!), Dalton was downright terrifying—just look at the scene where he threatens to blow up Castle with the thermal bomb.  For a minute there, it seemed Dalton and Volkoff had stepped in from another show altogether, one where the villains are badder and the stakes are higher—that is until we learned the crucial twist behind Volkoff and Mary’s relationship.  The big bad is in love with Chuck’s mom! 

I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at the show all season than when Volkoff decided he could be a good surrogate father to Chuck and Ellie and decided to get to know the family better (“kids love me!”).  It’s an incredibly zany, over-the-top concept with equally wacky ramifications, one only this show, with the help of Dalton, could pull off.  But that’s the brilliance of Chuck in a nutshell—even the most dangerous villain can be side-splittingly hilarious. 

Just as the Bartowski’s have a Thanksgiving leftovers tradition, one of the oldest rituals on this show is the awkward dinner scene, dating back to the second episode of season 1, Chuck Versus the Helicopter.  I’ve always loved these sequences, where an entire episode or even arc’s worth of story can culminate in one hectic meal, and Volkoff’s strangely lovable presence made Thanksgiving leftovers the show’s most delightfully deranged banquet yet.  I’m a little disappointed that we never learned the answer to Alexi’s charades clues before Chuck and Sarah had to call the CIA and ruin the fun, but fortunately, that signaled the return of scary-Volkoff and gave Linda Hamilton her best material yet.  Like Dalton, she’s been fantastic since her first appearance, but when Mary stood up to Volkoff and somehow managed to save Chuck and Sarah without blowing her cover, Hamilton brought the character to a whole new level.  Between her and Dalton, the show runs the risk of letting the guest stars steal the show.

Of course, that hasn’t happened yet—the entire main cast, with the exception of Beckman, appeared in tonight’s episode and everyone got their moment to shine, from Morgan’s John McClane-style “heroism” to Jeff and Lester’s insane ‘grand-theft-cell-phone’ plan; Big Mike may only have appeared to plug Subway, but when Mark Christopher Lawrence can describe a sandwich with all the beauty of Shakespearean verse, I consider that an award-worthy moment (the award is a Cold Cut Combo).  Since Chuck premiered in 2007, every member of this cast has just gotten better and better, their roles and relationships deepening with each passing episode; the show keeps achieving new, greater heights along with its characters, and that’s never been clearer than it has been in 2010.  As long as the show never loses sight of its core cast, I say the more the merrier!  Here’s hoping we see lots more Dalton and Hamilton in 2011, and many more years of Chuck excellence and excitement on the scale of what 2010 brought fans.  It’s been an amazing ride, and I feel privileged to have reviewed every new episode of the show this year, a job I’ll continue to perform enthusiastically when Chuck returns in January (NOTE from the Present – these reviews will return next week, of course)

Random Thoughts:

--Since Linda Hamilton never got to say “Come with me if you want to live” in the Terminator films, it’s only fitting she gets to say it here.
--It seems Casey has been following the Chuck fandom, as he referred to Mary in the same way we have all year—Mama B!
--Let’s see if I can name all the Die Hard references: 1) A group of villains led by a mysterious Eastern-European man take over a building—Volkoff and his men hijack the Buy More; 2) A beautiful blonde woman assists the antagonist a la Die Hard With A Vengeance—guest star Monet Mazur as Volkoff’s assistant; 3) a young African-American man serves as Volkoff’s computer-hacker—same idea here, and the big glasses were a nice touch; 4) the villains have to cut their way into the secure area—Volkoff and his men ‘drilling’ into Castle; 5) A protagonist dressed in a white undershirt fights the villains barefoot—Morgan gets down to his undershirt after black Friday and soaks his feet in a massage bath; 6) same protagonist cuts his bare feet on glass, then confronts the antagonist with a gun taped to his back—Morgan cuts his bare feet on some tacks, then unsuccessfully tries to replicate McClane’s gun trick.
--Following in the tradition of Castle’s infamously horrible security, I was amused to learn that the “Super Buy More” is even easier to hack than Windows Vista.           
--I was pleased that the answer to Papa B’s computer riddle was “Aces Charles,” but wouldn’t Ellie know that?  In fact, she was the first character to say these words; way back in the pilot, she quoted her Dad as Chuck got dressed for his first date with Sarah. 
--I found it very fitting that the last words of the episode—and of Chuck in 2010—were “Guys, I know Kung-Fu…again.”  This, of course, is a variation on the last sentence of season two, the sentence that launched us into 2010’s third and fourth seasons and an unforgettable year of Chuck.

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