Friday, September 16, 2011

"Chuck Versus the CAT Squad" and "Chuck Versus the Masquerade" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episodes 15 and 16)

Happy Friday Chucksters!  Tomorrow is the start of my eleven-day Star Wars Blu-Ray review, but before that, here’s another Chuck season 4 double feature review.  These re-posts of reviews I wrote for YourHub last year will continue to go up each Friday until the fifth (and final) season premiere on Friday, October 21.  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been made, but please keep in mind these were all written the night the episodes aired, so they may read as somewhat out of date (especially when I predict the cancellation that didn't happen).  Today, we continue with episode fifteen, “Chuck Versus the CAT Squad,” and episode sixteen, “Chuck Versus the Masquerade.”

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump...

 Episode Fifteen
“Chuck Versus the CAT Squad”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 2/14/11

Episode Rating: A+

Excuse me while I finish hyperventilating from the sheer awesomeness (it’s a word!) of Chuck Versus the CAT Squad.  Imagine one of my standard witty opening lines here and I’ll meet you in the next paragraph for the review…

That.  Was.  Amazing.  I’ve often talked about how I believe the second season of Chuck wasn’t just the show’s most creatively lucrative period, but one of the all-time-great TV seasons.  From start to finish, those 22 episodes are nigh flawless, and though my love for the show hasn’t diminished one bit since season 2 – in fact, the subsequent seasons have undoubtedly improved and evolved in several key areas – the show hasn’t captured the perfect-Chuck-storm quite as frequently.  There are, of course, exceptions, and Chuck Versus the CAT Squad is a prime example of Chuck at its magnificent best, proof that the show’s glory days are far from gone.

The episode felt as though it could have been plucked right out of the second season.  From a plot standpoint, it was a standalone outing, with no major arcs at play, which we occasionally got back in year 2.  What made those episodes fantastic was the insanely fun creativity of the spy-adventure, the chance to go outside the box in ways that can’t be done under the constraints of a larger arc, and tonight’s episode was no exception.  Not only did the espionage story play homage to Charlie’s Angels, but it capitalized on the joke to the fullest extent at every turn, and crafted some very memorable guest characters in the process.  The action was top-notch, the villain (played wonderfully by Lou Diamond Phillips, who can say “kitty” with amazingly sinister precision) was great, and the twists were infectiously predictable in the show’s endearingly cheesy way. 

Most importantly, while the adventure was stand-alone, that didn’t stop the characters from having meaningful interactions and learning valuable lessons along the way.  This was, perhaps, season 2’s strongest signature.  Not every episode played into the “Fulcrum” arc, but every episode did push the characters forward, and that gave it a wonderful sense of thematic coherency, something we also have here.  Chuck’s desire to help Sarah find her friends was endearing (and Sarah’s reactions hilarious), and Morgan’s plight easy to empathize with, but the resolutions to these conflicts were even more gratifying.  Sarah learned the most this time out – by the end, she’d reconciled with the (non-mole) members of the CAT squad, recognized Chuck’s admittedly over-zealous attempts to help for the innocent display of love they truly were, and most importantly, accepted the importance of her friends. 

There were two moments in the final scene that boosted this episode into “A+” territory for me.  First, there was the ultimate resolution to everything Sarah learned when she asked Ellie to be her maid of honor.  I’ll admit, I saw this moment coming, but that didn’t lessen its impact one bit.  It was heartfelt and touching, and played upon the underutilized Sarah-Ellie relationship.  These two don’t get much screen-time together, but when they do, they shine.  Morgan’s confession of love to Alex was equally moving.  Thinking back to the Morgan of the ‘pilot,’ there was no way we’d ever root for that character this much, but he’s changed and grown in such wonderfully organic ways in the past four years that it’s impossible not to care about his love life.  Of course, it helps that Alex is such a great character on her own, and the amount of chemistry between Mekenna Melvin and Joshua Gomez really seals the deal.  We want this romance to succeed, so the entire sub-plot – but especially the declaration of love – was really poignant.

Closing moments like these were another staple of season 2, and the last part of the equation for a classic Chuck episode.  We had a hilarious and exciting adventure, terrific character work, some nice messages, and plenty of awesome Sarah fights – the kind of balance that made every episode in season 2 shine, but mixed with all the character growth of the last two seasons.  This is Chuck at its very, very best.


--I came down pretty hard on freshman Chuck writer Nicholas Wootton for the two previous episodes he wrote this season – Cubic Z and Fear of Death – albeit for pretty good reasons.  Those were the two weakest episodes of the year, and I was worried Wootton’s writing didn’t fit in with the show as a whole.  Wootton’s writing on tonight’s episode, CAT Squad, totally redeemed his past failures, and if those prior two episodes were just experimenting ground for him to feel his way into the rhythms of the show, then I applaud him for taking the time to figure everything out.  He’s one of the few to write an A+ episode.
--The pre-credits sequence was one of the all-time best.  From the hilarious Charlie’s Angels opening (reminiscent of the great Hart-to-Hart opening homage in the season 3 episode Role Models) to the modern-day intro to the CAT squad, to a bevy of other great jokes, it was absolutely dynamite.
--I’m really glad to see they haven’t forgotten about Casey pondering whether or not to come clean to Alex’s mom.  That should be a compelling sub-plot moving forward.
--Not much came of it, but Chuck using a broken DVD to fight in the Buy More is one of the show’s more memorable impromptu weapons – the most memorable, of course, being Casey’s use of the radiator in the season 2 episode Chuck Versus the Colonel.
--I hate to end the review on a semi-negative note, but Sarah’s history with the CAT squad created a gaping chronological plot hole in the series.  Sarah’s spy-background is a little fuzzy to begin with, but going by official dates, we know she was recruited by the CIA in 1998 shortly before her high school graduation, according to the season 2 episode Cougars, but didn’t officially become an agent until 2005, according to the season 3 episodes Final Exam and American Hero.  This had already caused some confusion among fans, since it meant Sarah had been an agent for only a little while before meeting Chuck in 2007, when it was implied she was highly experienced.  CAT Squad seems to rewrite that whole timeline, going back to season one assumptions that Sarah had a long and fruitful spy career before Burbank – this episode states that the Squad’s last mission was ‘eight years ago,’ or 2002, 3 years before Sarah officially became an agent.  It’s an inconsistency I can forgive, especially because I prefer this interpretation of the timeline, but it’s a glaring hole nevertheless. 
--Loved the cat-claws act breaks.  Awesome.

Episode Sixteen
“Chuck Versus the Masquerade”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 2/21/11

Episode Rating: A

(NOTE from the Present: This portion of the review discusses the possible cancellation of the series, which didn’t come to pass). 

It would not, thankfully, be surprising at this point for Chuck to get a fifth season (yay!).  Even though its ratings are low, they have been consistent all season long, something no other NBC show can boast, and the network hasn’t spent a dime on advertising.  That alone makes it valuable to a network where every new show has premiered at relatively healthy levels before sliding to ratings lower than Chuck.  It’s wouldn’t shock me at all to see Chuck renewed, something I’ve never been able to say before as a fan of the series.  But this is Chuck after all, so it also wouldn’t surprise me to see the show cancelled for those low ratings despite its stability.  This could very well be the show’s last season, but as much as I love Chuck, tonight’s episode made me think that might not be so bad.

Don’t get me wrong – this was an absolutely phenomenal episode, one of the season’s best (I’m noticing a week-to-week pattern here…), but there was one particular scene, a perfectly crafted and flawlessly executed sequence, that felt like the kind of beautiful storytelling you get when a tale is nearing its conclusion.  I’m talking, of course, about the ridiculously powerful scene between Chuck and Morgan when the latter decides to move out.  Morgan has only lived with Chuck since season three (technically, anyways; he always had his “Morgan door” at the old apartment), but nevertheless, this was a big, emotional crossroads for these two, a culminating moment in their wonderful friendship that really had me thinking this could be the end.

What an amazing scene.  In fact, only one other isolated sequence in the entire series comes to mind as a rival for how completely this moment summed up what I love about Chuck, and that’s the “Mr. Roboto” wedding battle from season 2.  Zachary Levi and Joshua Gomez really gave it their all, illustrating how painful this final moment of ‘growing up’ is for both of them, while simultaneously recognizing its inevitability.  The writing was simply immaculate, capturing both what this fictional friendship is all about and saying something bigger about the universal nature of growing up alongside a best friend, a message that we can all relate to.  The Han Solo/Chewbacca metaphor sealed the deal – it started out as a hilarious joke, but as the metaphor developed, it became the most poignant element of the entire episode.  The ‘high five’ between the toys, and the wandering look of ‘what do we do now?’ on Chuck and Morgan’s faces as they retreated from each other nearly brought me to tears.  Even the music – Alexi Murdoch’s wonderful “Crinan Wood” – was flawless.  We’ve followed and loved these characters for so long, and as they said themselves, it now feels like the end of an era.

Maybe, later on, it will turn out this was just a stepping stone to the next era of their friendship.  Then again, maybe not.  As I said, the show could be ending soon, but if we get a few more beautiful ‘culmination’ subplots like this one, then I don’t think I would mind.  Chuck has had a nice, long run, and my biggest fear at this point is that the show will go out without giving the characters a proper send-off.  No matter what, we now know that at least one of the show’s many important relationships has had what could be its great last scene, and for now, that makes me content.

While this sequence (and parts of the ending montage with Chuck and Morgan) seemed to bring a sense of fulfillment to one part of the story, the rest of the episode was focused on starting up a new story arc for these last nine episodes of the season.  Seduction Impossible and CAT Squad were terrific palate cleansers, but with Masquerade, it’s finally time to get a major story going again, and I’m very happy to see that this half of the season will continue dealing with Volkoff.  For one, it will give Timothy Dalton a chance to return as the show’s all-time best villain, and that alone is cause for celebration.  Meanwhile, the direction this story is headed seems equally intriguing on its own merits.

The series has never really touched upon what happens to evil organizations like ‘Fulcrum’ or ‘The Ring’ after Team Bartowski has had their way with them, so it feels very fresh to have this part of the story focus on the continuation of Volkoff’s criminal empire.  His daughter, Vivian (played extremely well by guest star Laruen Cohan), isn’t at all what one would expect from a potential Chuck antagonist.  She’s an innocent, sheltered woman who has unknowingly been trained all her life to become her father’s successor, and while she doesn’t seem predisposed to villainy, she’s obviously curious to find out just what about the ‘evil mastermind’ lifestyle attracted her dad.  It’s fitting that Chuck told Vivian his own story, since Chuck’s heroic origin is relatively similar: he too was once an innocent underachiever whose path in life was forever changed by his father’s machinations (it’s a little more complex than that, but close enough).  Chuck, of course, used his powers for good, while the ending of Masquerade hinted that Vivian may not be so noble.  Then again, we don’t really have enough information to accurately predict what Vivian will do, and that makes her a fascinating addition to the show. 

In fact, the same could be said of all the other ‘arc establishment’ points left open in this episode.  Casey’s offer to take a new mission within the bowels of Castle is entirely unpredictable (I’ll go ahead and guess there’s a computer at the end of a tunnel with a button that must be pushed every 108 minutes), and while I’m sure Volkoff and Mary Bartowski will play a role in this story, I can’t yet say where they’ll fit in.  For now, though, tonight’s episode set some really interesting cogs in motion, all while telling a fun spy story of its own.  I’m excited to see where the story goes from here.

This was the rare episode that featured every member of the main cast, and that meant we got an extremely fun subplot with the Family Awesome, Big Mike, and most importantly of all, Jeffster!  It was cool to finally see how Ellie and Devon are reacting to Parenthood, and though their sleeplessness dilemma may be common on TV shows (and in real life, to be fair), the solution certainly was not.  I don’t know what made me laugh hardest: a) the image of Jeff sleeping upside down while listening to the band’s rendition of Rusted Root’s “Send Me On My Way,” b) Ellie taking advantage of the duo’s stalker habits to allow Devon to steal the musical bear, C) the musical bear wearing a Jeffster! T-Shirt, or d) the song itself.  All I know is that more than any other Jeffster! cover, I really, really want to hear their full, uncut version of “Send Me On My Way.”  It’s a great song on its own, but with Jeffster!’s magic touch?  Masterpiece…

Even this story had a poignant conclusion, when the Awesome-Family story converged with Morgan and Chuck’s predicament of what to do with the Han/Chewie set.  The solution of giving the toys to the baby – as Ellie and Devon finally move her into the nursery – was a bit of toy-based magic Pixar would be proud of.

Chuck Versus the Masquerade wasn’t as completely memorable as last week’s CAT Squad, since its purpose was, essentially, to set up the next block of story, but I loved the episode nevertheless.  These types of episodes are often this funny, but rarely so poignant – if I’d only liked the aforementioned Chuck/Morgan scene, it still would have earned an “A,” but there was still so much more to offer. 


--Back in season three, the writing duo of Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc were the show’s newbie writers.  Episodes like this one make it hard to believe they haven’t been with the show forever, because of everyone on the writing staff, with the possible exception of series creator Chris Fedak, I think these two understand the show the best – and not even Fedak has written an episode this good in a long while.  I always look forward to the Judkins/LeFranc hours, and tonight’s episode made me even more excited for their next outing.
--The opening Valentine’s Day sequence may have come a week late, but it was wonderful nevertheless, a riotously funny symphony of awkward situations made even better by Casey’s ‘perfect’ timing.
--I was very glad to see Casey take the cover role of “bartender’ once again – I could be wrong, but I don’t think he’s done that in a while – and even happier to see Morgan as his drink-mixing protégé.
--The Morgan/Sarah dynamic is one the show’s best, most underused pairings, so it’s no surprise that Sarah’s attempt to cheer up Morgan turned out to be the second best scene of the episode.  Nothing in the hour made me laugh harder than Sarah’s attempt to “play” with Morgan’s action figures.
--We saw a huge variety of cool Intersect 2.0 skills back in season three, but this year has stuck mostly with fighting skills.  That’s why I loved the scene where Chuck saved Vivian by flashing on some awesome gymnastics moves.
--Isn’t it fitting that Chuck and Morgan plan their game nights for Monday?  It’s good that our heroes have something to look forward to on Monday nights as well!  (NOTE from the present – these re-posts are going up Fridays since NBC has moved the show from its long-time Monday home to Friday nights for the final season)

Season 4 hits a rough patch with
“Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil”
and Chuck uses a juice box in
“Chuck Versus the A-Team”

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