Friday, September 23, 2011

"Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil" and "Chuck Versus the A-Team" Flashback Review (Season 4 Episodes 17 and 18)

Happy Friday Chucksters!  We’re taking a break from Star Wars Blu-Ray Reviews for the moment for another round of 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been made, but please keep in mind these were all written the night the episodes aired, so they may read as somewhat out of date.  Today, we continue with episode seventeen, “Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil,” and episode eighteen, “Chuck Versus the A-Team.”

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump...
Episode Seventeen
“Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 2/28/11

Episode Rating: C

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll certainly say it again in the future: Chuck’s single greatest asset is the phenomenal cast of characters the show has developed over the years.  The espionage, the action, the humor, the music…these are all things to enjoy on a week to week basis, but really, it’s just all icing on the cake.  Chuck is beloved because of the characters, because we love these people and the talented actors who portray them, and it’s their interactions that form the basis of all the fun the show has to offer.  We’re invested in the spy stories and the action because it involves people we care about; we laugh at the humor because it stems organically from characters who have evolved into three-dimensional (and hilarious) creations; we care about their dramatic dilemmas because they have become dear to us.  This isn’t just true for Chuck – in my mind, it’s true for any story worth experiencing, because if the characters aren’t interesting, what reason is there to hop on board?  Chuck just so happens to exemplify this phenomenon, and it always has; the reason why the pilot attracted me back in 2007 is because I liked the characters and the actors, and as the ensemble developed, so did my love for the show.  The reason why Chuck has stayed wonderful, in my eyes at least, is because it’s never lost sight its single greatest asset, and has consistently served its characters well.

Thus, it’s no surprise that an episode with little focus on the characters we know and love fell completely flat.  Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil primarily centered on Vivian Volkoff, and while I understand the writers are building her up as a new antagonist for this story arc, this episode made abundantly clear the cost of prioritizing an outsider’s story over the main cast.  The jokes weren’t as funny, the story wasn’t as intriguing, the action was less bombastic, and most importantly, it failed to capture my imagination as a Chuck fan – and given how much praise I give this show every week, it’s clear that it’s not difficult to make me fall in love with a new episode.  I’ll have oodles of fun with any given Chuck outing, regardless of its quality, simply because I love watching these characters.  Deprioritize those characters, however, and I only have oodles of fun with given parts of the episode – and that’s something that feels very, very strange.  After a seemingly endless winning streak, Chuck has finally hit a bump in the road with its weakest episode in a long, long time.

Luckily, the problem is a very simple one to identify: Vivian’s story simply doesn’t work, at least not when featured as the main thrust of an episode.  I enjoyed her introduction last week, and found the set-up for her arc intriguing.  She’s got a similar background to Chuck, but from their first meeting, it was clear that Team Bartowski’s attempts to help Vivian could unwittingly create a formidable adversary.  Since this was just one of last week’s many subplots, it worked, especially because Vivian’s intro didn’t take anything away from our main characters; magnified to the “A-story” position this week, however, things seem a lot more fragile.

Vivian’s story is still theoretically interesting: she’s new to this ‘spies and villains’ world, and her outsider’s perspective means she doesn’t see things totally black-and-white like we do.  She’s been told her father is the villain, but from her perspective, this assertion seems less and less likely as she learns more about Alexi’s past.  The more she discovers, the more she finds she’s similar to her father in ways she could never have anticipated, and it’s clear her father did have great affection for his daughter.  As I said, this is absolutely intriguing, in theory – Vivian has some big choices to make and when looking at things from her perspective, we can’t blame her for her ultimate decision.

But this is precisely the problem – we’re not seeing things from her perspective.  Vivian may have been the focus of tonight’s episode, but the story is still framed within the same Chuck-universe we know and love.  Thus, while Vivian may be entering this world tabula rasa, we can’t analyze her situation from her perspective.  We’re not outsiders, nor are the main characters, and therefore Vivian’s search for the truth ultimately rings hollow.  Vivian may doubt what the CIA says about her father, but we know the CIA is right.  Vivian is wary of Chuck’s kind nature, but we know Chuck is just being his honest, loving self.  When the story is presented this way, we can’t separate our preconceived notions from what’s being presented and think like Vivian: she’s an outsider in every possible way, and an outsider like this simply can’t carry an episode on their own.

At least not when the episode is still devoted to featuring the main characters.  The Vivian concept could have worked, I think, had the writers dived in head first and done something totally unexpected.  There’s a wonderful episode of Doctor Who titled Blink, where a character we’ve never seen before, Sally, is thrust into the Doctor’s world of aliens and adventure without any warning.  Sally doesn’t know who the Doctor is and she’s never seen an alien before, so she’s a completely clean slate, and the episode works because it’s wholly devoted to telling the story from her perspective at all times.  In doing so, things that would be mundane in a normal episode of Doctor Who are suddenly given new life, because the story now centers around someone discovering the wonders of the Doctor’s strange life for the first time.  In fact, the Doctor only appears in a few brief scenes, allowing the audience to completely embrace Sally and become invested in her story and her perspective. 

Had Chuck taken this sort of route, I think the episode could have been much stronger.  Imagine an hour where Vivian is clearly established as the story’s focal point, where we only see characters like Chuck and Sarah when Vivian interacts with them.  The entire ordeal is framed from her perspective so that when Team Bartowski has to ask her to participate in a mission, it seems like a real risk, rather than just another ‘asset/handler’ story.  Since Vivian doesn’t totally trust Chuck, we might share her apprehensions, or at least understand them better.  In Blink, viewers knew the Doctor was trustworthy, but since Sally was presented as the main character, it was easy to understand why she couldn’t immediately trust him.  Since First Bank of Evil is presented like any other Chuck episode, it’s hard to put oneself in Vivian’s mindset; frame the story as Doctor Who did in Blink, however, and the idea just might work.  Plus, it would give Chuck fans something totally new, a chance to rediscover tired Chuck-tropes through fresh eyes.  It could potentially be fascinating.  It might also fail – Blink is one of Who’s best hours, but Love & Monsters, which uses a similar narrative device, is the absolute worst thing the revived series has to offer.  Nevertheless, thinking more outside the box may have gone a long way towards saving First Bank of Evil.

So Vivian’s story mostly fell flat – that’s too bad, but the real harm is that it robs our main characters from having a strong story of their own.  Chuck’s role this week was all in service to Vivian’s arc, and as such, he didn’t really have anything interesting to do.  The team was crowded with Vivian on board, so Casey was MIA for most of the hour, and without spy antics to participate in, Morgan was largely wasted in a lazy B-plot about Jeffster!’s renaissance fair scheme, one that probably sounded a lot funnier on paper.

Luckily, Sarah, unquestionably this season’s MVP, saved the episode with a really fun wedding subplot.  At first, this seemed like a simplistic way to give Sarah something to do – her dilemma about playing wedding planner was certainly organic to the character, but for the first half of the episode, none of it seemed particularly exciting or amusing.  Then came the scene where Sarah tried to get into the spirit of things, as per Chuck’s suggestion, by trying on wedding dresses.  Mostly thanks to Yvonne Strahovski’s impeccable acting, this was a really terrific montage, one that was hilarious and ultimately poignant, all while staying true to the character.  This was punctuated later by a riotously funny punch line, as we saw Sarah fully embrace the ‘hyperactive Bride’ role and begin to outpace Ellie with wedding plans.  Overall, a really fun B-story that gave Strahovski some great material, one that consistently kept a smile on my face.

And as with any Chuck episode, there were plenty of other moments to love here and there, from the uproariously funny and endlessly cool bank robbery sequence (yay Matrix homage!) to the mere idea of Castle having a futuristic ‘wardrobe’ room.  If First Bank of Evil proved anything, it’s that Chuck is incapable of producing a lifeless outing, even when much of the episode is weak. 

I’m always happy to watch Chuck, and even if First Bank of Evil is the show’s worst episode in a long while, it certainly doesn’t influence my opinion of the show – any great series if afforded the occasional misstep.  I sincerely hope that’s all this is, because the only way this episode could become a serious problem is if the writers continue to prioritize Vivian above the main characters.  The ensemble has to keep moving forward and developing, and this episode proved they can’t do that when a guest star hogs the A-story (well….unless that guest star is someone like Scott Bakula, but even Papa B always worked in service of the main characters).  Vivian’s story could still prove effective, and this story arc could be headed in a completely satisfying direction; or it may not, and that would be a great tragedy, because in my mind, Chuck hasn’t had a disappointing story arc yet.  Let’s hope that victory streak hasn’t ended.


--The other obvious story thread negatively impacted by Vivian’s presence is Casey’s secret mission down in Castle.  They tantalized us with this last week, and we didn’t learn anything important this time out.  Oh well – I’m guessing that whatever is down that hall has the potential to breathe life into this story arc.
--Volkoff’s lawyer, Riley, could very well prove to be a great character – Ray Wise is a cool actor – but for now, I was just confused by his appearance.  He seemed to appear like one of the ghosts on Lost, exactly when he was needed and not for a second longer, and on Chuck, that just seemed awkward.
--Speaking of Lost, I enjoyed seeing Francois Chau, aka Pierre Chang aka Marvin Candle aka Edgar Halliwax aka “Lead Dharma Guy” from that show I occasionally wrote about.  And by occasionally wrote about I mean blogged obsessively.  And by blogged obsessively I mean show I really, really miss.  Sigh….
--After some great material last week, Morgan’s search for a new apartment just confused me.  First off, if he’s moving out in order to grow up, then why on Earth isn’t he getting a place together with his steady girlfriend Alex?  Did they ever consider that option?  I was sure that’s where the story was going, but instead, Morgan is moving in with his girlfriend’s dad.  And while Morgan living with Casey is bound to be a very funny subplot, it still doesn’t make much sense in the larger context of the story.
--As we move closer and closer to the wedding, I have to wonder…when will the show do a full on Kill Bill homage by putting Sarah in a yellow jumpsuit, giving her a sword, and simply calling her “The Bride” for an hour?

Episode Eighteen
“Chuck Versus the A-Team”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 3/14/11

Episode Rating: B+

I’ve really loved all the new directions Chuck has taken since the end of season 2.  The Intersect 2.0, Morgan becoming a spy, Chuck and Sarah as a couple (finally), a larger international scope, etc.  There’s been so much to love that sometimes it feels like the show’s always been this way.  That is, of course, not the case, and some of my fondest Chuck memories come from the era when none of those things were a part of the show.  In the first two seasons, Chuck was a much simpler spy-comedy about a nerd, a beautiful secret agent, and a less-beautiful-but-still-awesome NSA Major.  The classic team of Chuck, Sarah, and Casey, one of the greatest fictional trios ever created.  For two seasons, the show centered around this simple team; yes, Chuck had his non-spy friends like Morgan, Ellie, and Captain Awesome, but at its heart, the show was about Chuck, Sarah, Casey, and their adventures, which back then focused less on action and more on Chuck’s ability to apply nerd knowledge and other general intelligence in the face of overwhelming odds.  When there were enemies, Casey and Sarah could take care of them.  Indeed, these simpler days were also the show’s universally beloved (well…by those who watched) glory days, and though what’s come since has still been amazing, it’s great to see an episode like A-Team pay homage to what made us fall in love with the show in the first place.

Tonight’s episode was much stronger than the last new episode from two weeks ago, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Volkoff’s daughter Vivian wasn’t a part of the story.  We will see more of Vivian in the future, of course, but tonight’s episode acted as both a fun standalone and an intriguing genesis of further ongoing plot threads for whatever end game the writers have in mind.  What made this material especially effective is how closely it linked this half of the season to the first half, both by bringing back and explaining (or retconning, depending on your level of optimism) the “Greta” scenario along with diving further into the secrets behind the laptop Papa Bartowski left for Ellie. 

The episode went even further back than that in terms of linking tonight’s story to older Chuck plots.  One of the biggest elements of the first two seasons was how the CIA only grudgingly accepted Chuck as a spy, while Chuck continually sought to get the Intersect removed from his head.  It was clear from the Pilot onwards that the Intersect was meant for a truly experienced operative, but the CIA kept getting stuck with Chuck.  Even after getting the Intersect 2.0 and devoting himself entirely to espionage, it’s been a bit of a mystery why the CIA has never developed the Intersect project any further.  After all, if it worked with a nerd like Chuck, wouldn’t it be better with a real agent?  Shaw probably doesn’t count, since he got the Intersect and immediately tried taking down the American government, which doesn’t reflect too well on those in command.

Anyway, tonight’s “Greta” scenario answered that long-standing conundrum along with a few others.  Most immediately, it resolved the secret behind Casey’s mysterious hallway.  I think we all had predictions for what could be in there, and I wasn’t sure anything could live up to expectations.  An Intersect breeding ground, however, definitely fit the bill, especially since it brought back Papa B’s laptop.  At the same time, resolving this mystery answered questions we’d all had about the revolving “Greta’s” from the first half of the season – namely, what the hell was that all about?  According to real-world logic, the “Greta” scenario was really just an excuse for the writers to include some cool guest stars like Olivia Munn or my number one celebrity crush Summer Glau, but according to the show, the “Greta” project was a training project for new Intersect agents, meaning the CIA (finally) got on the ball about the Intersect’s potential.  Yes, it was a very good evening for continuity all around. 

I really like the idea behind the “Greta” revelation, even if I’m not over the moon about how it was handled.  There were four Greta characters in the first half of the season – Olivia Munn, Isaiah Mustafa, Stacy Keibler, and Summer Glau.  They were all more or less wasted opportunities, which is probably why the show abandoned the concept fairly quickly.  Still, I was happy to see it addressed again – my problem came in the choice of Greta’s for tonight’s episode.  Glau was clearly the funniest and most effective of the four (because she’s the best part of any project she works on…but I digress), yet neither she nor Munn, who really deserved more screen time, returned for this episode.  Instead we got Keibler, the least memorable Greta, and Mustafa, who got lots of laughs in his first appearance.  I think we can all agree bringing all four back would have been optimal, but I don’t think the episode even made the most out of the two they brought back.  Keibler was still very bland and Mustafa far more stoic and less funny than in his first appearance.  That was, admittedly, a necessity of the story, but they could have had a little more personality.

In fact, that probably would have made the first half of the episode work even better than it already did.  I really loved the entire “spy rivalry” ordeal, especially because while you’d expect the emotional Chuck to be more hurt and/or outraged, it was Sarah who lead the charge.  Yvonne Strahovski played these scenes perfectly with amazing comic timing (“…or we chop off Casey’s hand…”), and it was fun to see how serious she got from something relatively petty.  It’s just more evidence for how Sarah is this season’s MVP.  But I think this rivalry would have been even funnier if the rivals, Mustafa and Keibler, had returned the favor with a dash of rebellious personality, rather than stoicism. 

Still, it all lead to a very satisfying second half, where Chuck, Sarah, and Casey proved they have been and will always be the true A-Team.  This is the part of the episode that really paid homage to the show’s early days, reminding us of just how endearing and effective the original Team Bartowski can be.  The “suitcase nuke” scene, in addition to being the biggest threat the team has ever faced, was all-around spectacular, especially because the solution hinged on our three favorite heroes working together, just like old times.  Chuck even got to use his trademark wits, proving the Intersect isn’t just a computer that controls him – he uses the computer as an asset and does the rest of the work himself.  And if using a juice box to defuse a nuke wasn’t as memorable as using pornography to defuse a bomb, like in the Pilot, then it was still an incredibly funny cap to a series of heartwarming moments that reinforced some of the show’s original strengths – strengths that are still as powerful as ever before.

There are lots of balls in the air at this point, from the ongoing Intersect project – now involving Ellie – to Vivian and the remnants of Volkoff’s empire, but episodes like this, while not perfect, remind me that the show still knows where it came from, what works, and how to establish effective plot threads.  We’ve still got six episodes left this season, and that’s plenty of time for Chuck to blow us away once again.  I’m very excited to see where it’s all headed.


--“Greta” may be gone, but Steven Bartowski’s laptop certainly isn’t.  Picking up another plot thread from the first half of the season, it seems that there’s something more on the computer that Papa B left for his daughter, and I’m excited as the prospects of this story arc.  Ellie and Awesome haven’t really had anything to do this season, which has probably been my biggest gripe with Season 4, but this brings them back into the picture in a big way. 
--The return of the laptop also redeemed, in part, the “Intersect-no-more” arc from the first half of the season, an arc I wasn’t too happy with.  Nothing can erase some of the disappointing “Fear of Death” episode, but since the laptop that restored the Intersect now has a greater role to play, the arc at least seems more important in the general continuity. 
--I wasn’t sure, at the end of the last episode, what purpose Morgan moving in with Casey would serve.  So far, nothing major has panned out, but there were some very funny moments to come from Morgan and Casey’s “domestic partnership,” particularly in the opening “interrogation” scene. 
--We haven’t seen a “Casey-loves-Regan” moment in quite some time, and tonight’s reference to the Colonel’s admiration for our 40th President yielded some big laughs.
--So…let me get this straight…Chuck and Sarah spent two weeks in Castle waiting for a mission, bored out of their minds, and they never found Casey’s secret tunnel?  Hmm…
--Plot Hole #2: When did the CIA get the Intersect-extractor technology?  I wouldn’t really care except that, you know, Casey was once ordered to murder Chuck specifically because the CIA couldn’t remove the Intersect.
--Hell yeah Chuck plays Final Fantasy II – known today in its original Japanese incarnation as Final Fantasy IV.  They could have gone with the more acclaimed FF III (aka VI), but they went with the geekier (and ultimately more fulfilling) reference of FF II.  That’s why I love this show. 
--Are Jeff’s psychic powers going to be an ongoing plot thread?  Because if so…that would be awesome.

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