Friday, September 30, 2011

"Chuck Versus the Muuurder" and "Chuck Versus the Family Volkoff" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episodes 19 and 20)

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 this spring.  These “double-feature” reviews will continue to go up each Friday until the fifth (and final) season premiere on Friday, October 28.  You’ll notice that’s a change from before – NBC has just announced they’ve moved the premiere back a week from the 21st to the 28th.  So adjust your plans accordingly – I’ll have to compensate with an extra article the week between the end of these flashback reviews and the start of the season.  Today we enter the home stretch with episodes nineteen and twenty, “Chuck Versus the Muuurder” and “Chuck Versus the Family Volkoff.”

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump...

Episode Nineteen
“Chuck Versus the Muuurder”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 3/21/11

Episode Rating: B–

As we close in on the end of this season of Chuck (five episodes left after tonight), it’s once again time to start wondering whether or not the show will return for another season.  I could go into specifics on its prospects, but I’ve done it before, and as always, the show is considered “on the bubble,” meaning renewal or cancellation are equally likely options.  Given the show’s uncanny ability to dodge cancellation bullets, however, I’m always inclined to predict a renewal (NOTE from the present: I was correct!).  Nevertheless, cancellation is once again a real possibility, but for the first time since the show began, that prospect doesn’t entirely bother me, and tonight’s episode reinforced that thought.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love Chuck, and there’s no way I’d see it cancelled were I in charge.  But for the first time in the show’s history, the series doesn’t really have anything more to prove, any more major stories to tell or characters to evolve.  By the end of the season, Chuck and Sarah will be married, bringing the story full circle, and every other character has reached, if not necessarily a plateau, then a point where we could say goodbye without wanting more.  At the end of this season, Chuck will have run 78 episodes, an absolutely gargantuan number for a low-rated series.  Like I said, the show doesn’t have anything left to prove.  This isn’t like seasons 2 or 3 where cancellation would have stopped the show before it completed its evolution – from this point onward, everything we get is a wonderful bonus, but perhaps not essential.

Chuck Versus the Muuurder, along with some other developments in recent episodes, also suggests the show may be entering a period where the stories aren’t as vital or intriguing.  Muuurder, like many classic Chuck episodes, featured a spy A-story and a Buy More B-story, and while both were undoubtedly fun, they also felt tired, more of an imitation of Chuck rather than the real deal.  Of the two, the Buy More story was more problematic – for one, we’ve seen Buy More “at war” with others stores before, and this story brought nothing new to the table, save for the admittedly awesome ‘Kevin Bacon.’  It was amusing for what it was, but not much more, and I couldn’t help comparing it all to older episodes that gave us much funnier Buy More antics. 

The murder mystery in Castle felt far fresher; we haven’t had a locked-room murder case on Chuck before, and the show went through the motions rather well.  The problem was that even on the show’s best day, those motions were bound to feel dated, since this kind of story device appears in TV and film all the time.  Chuck didn’t bring anything new to the formula, so while I enjoyed many individual moments, particularly from our main trio (“Congratulations….hope you’re blessed with a boy”), I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the general structure.  We knew from moment one the killer wasn’t Bentley, since she’s too obvious of a choice, and it couldn’t be Louis since Chuck predicted him first, etc. 

On the other hand, I did enjoy Chuck’s struggle with leadership, as it demonstrated just how well he can hold himself together in a crisis, as opposed to the early days when he’d be even more emotional than the pregnant spy.  The Dungeons and Dragons joke (Morgan put Chuck in charge many years ago with ‘disastrous’ results) was especially potent, as it connected Chuck’s spy-leadership skills to his older, geekier existence.  But even this aspect of the story wound up undermined at the end, as one of the key indicators of Chuck’s leadership skills was Bentley’s (attempted) self-sacrifice.  Perhaps it’s just Robin Givens’ lackluster performance, but her sudden change of heart came completely out of left field, and left me cold, even if Chuck’s solution to save her was a classic Bartowski moment (all hail the Nerd Herd pocket protector!).

Overall, most of the material in the episode felt more tired than energetic, which is pretty rare for this show.  What really got me worried, however, was how nothing that happened in the episode seemed to be of any import to the larger story arc.  I was sure, after last week, that finding new Intersect candidates would be part of the season’s endgame, but since Beckman tossed the idea out at the end of the episode, I was left scratching my head.  What was the point of all this build-up – Casey’s secret lair, Bentley, two-episodes centering around new Intersects – if it was going to be tossed aside so quickly?  Plus, with no mention of Vivian Volkoff to speak of, these last two episodes seemed disconnected from earlier plot establishment.  This, combined with certain stumbling points in the first half of the season (i.e. the Intersect-no-more arc), and the fact that two of these last three episodes have been mediocre, had me wondering if Chuck was starting to lose its ability to craft a good story arc – and if so, was that another indicator that maybe this is the right time for the show to end?

Well, as everyone reading this article knows, the last few minutes of the episode blew all those thoughts out of the water.  Endings can have a big impact on preceding material, and the revelation that Vivian was behind the attack on Castle retroactively redeemed much of the episode.  I was a little disappointed, up until that point, that this murder mystery didn’t seem to have anything to do with the larger story arc – how wrong I was.  It had everything to do with the main story, and brought Vivian back into the picture in a powerful, unexpected way, wonderfully establishing the danger to come in these last five episodes.  Meanwhile, the sub-plot with Ellie working on Steven Bartowski’s computer finally started coming together at the exact same time.  Just what is “Agent X?”  What did Papa B have in mind for his daughter?  It’s all intriguing, and it’s clear that the show’s story arc is back on track.  What was I worrying about?

The show could, of course, fumble the ball from here, but those last five minutes were good enough to wash away my doubts.  When all is said and done, this will probably just be remembered as a short dry spell as the writers put all their pieces into place for the season’s endgame, and in the grand scheme of things, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Most importantly, the characters – and the show itself – haven’t forgotten the importance of our main trio, and if any moment filled me with confidence for the show’s future, it was this one:

"It's not just the computer, or the man. The Intersect is all of us, the three of us, working together. That's why it works.” 

Damn right, Chuck.  Or, as Casey said, “Don’t forget that.”  I certainly won’t be forgetting that, since it served as a powerful reminder why half of what I wrote in this review was bunk.  Don’t go anywhere Chuck.  You’ve got plenty of life left in you yet.


--I was overjoyed to hear that Brady’s ringtone was “Any Way You Want It” by Journey.  Way back in the pilot episode, this was Chuck’s ringtone, and when I saw it for the first time, I thought it was perhaps the coolest use of a phone I’d ever seen.  Could there exist a more perfect ringtone that “Any Way You Want It?”  Thus, I quickly got it on my phone as an homage to Chuck, and it’s been my ringtone ever since, across multiple generations of cell phones – it’s awesome, especially when it goes off during classes.  I’m glad to see that four years later, the show has vindicated my choice.
--One of the episode’s best scenes was Morgan’s “cultural test,” which included great questions like “What’s Rush’s best album?” (Moving Pictures, duh), and “Favorite Bond, Connery excluded” (Daniel Craig, hands down).
--We haven’t seen Big Mike in a while, but he was in top form tonight, especially when extolling the virtues of Subway.  Somehow, that just never feels like product placement, but like an organic and hilarious joke.  But I do want Subway now…
--‘Kevin Bacon’ flying through the explosion was so uproariously funny it left me reevaluating my stance on the Large Mart B-story; it may have been lackluster overall, but totally worth it for that priceless shot.
Episode Twenty
“Chuck Versus the Family Volkoff”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 4/11/11

Episode Rating: B+

After a few shaky episodes and some time off, Chuck returns with its best episode in a while, and it’s no coincidence that the hour also marked the return of Timothy Dalton as Alexi Volkoff.  The first half of the season was more or less a rousing success, and much of that was driven by Dalton’s absolutely tremendous performance, the best guest-acting in the show’s history.  While Family Volkoff was far from perfect – and doesn’t really bode well for this season 4.2 story arc as a whole – Dalton’s appearance made the hour insanely entertaining and memorable. 

Volkoff worked so well as a villain because while Dalton proved incredibly intimidating and even scary when in ‘evil’ mode, the character’s many quirks and strange detachment from reality made him hilarious, a perfect fit for the Chuck universe.  Volkoff is a naturally broad creation, but the beauty in Dalton’s performance is how natural he makes the character look.  Tonight, the writers made Volkoff even broader with his suspicious quest for spiritual recovery.  At first, it was presented like a mystery – is Volkoff sincere? – but by the end, we realized it was a lot more complex.  Part of Volkoff was absolutely honest about changing, but his villainous instincts were also at play.  Dalton took this material and made Volkoff even funnier than before– “I admit…I have entitlement issues…” – but also managed to squeeze some true pathos out of the character.  His final scene, apologizing to Mary Bartowski as he is rolled away – “I was never worthy of your love” – really was moving, and I’d be on cloud nine if Volkoff joined the team the rest of the season as a former villain searching for redemption, a ‘Spike’ to Chuck’s ‘Buffy,’ if you will.  That would be awesome. 

Alas, though, the episode seemingly made it clear that, as far as this season is concerned, Volkoff won’t be seen again, and while that disappoints me, his send-off was pretty spectacular.  Not only was Dalton better than ever, the character richer than before, but the spy-antics surrounding Volkoff’s reappearance worked like gangbusters.  From Volkoff’s initial appearance in the prison to Chuck playing “Uno” with the pirates to Volkoff’s insane chess-match-of-death in the Swiss Alps, this was a very fun spy plot.  And even though I didn’t buy every bit of the ending – we’ll get to that in a second – I found the twist an effective resolution to a very fun spy story, and if this is Volkoff’s last appearance on the series, then Dalton most certainly bowed out on top.

As for everything else?  Well….it didn’t work quite as well.

My first and foremost complaint with the episode is really a complaint with this half of the season and the shoddy work the writers have done building a strong arc.  I really did enjoy Vivian’s appearance and betrayal at the end of the episode, especially due to Dalton’s reaction, but Vivian simply hasn’t worked as a character so far and her full-on dive into the dark side tonight made very little sense.  Last we saw her, she was confused about what to do, but there’s a gaping chasm from that moment to the attempted murder of Chuck, Sarah, Casey, and her own father in a mad bid for a weapon of mass destruction.  I don’t see how any viewer is supposed to understand that leap, and while Vivian is clearly much more interesting as a villain than as a civilian (just as, last season, Brandon Routh became fun as Agent Shaw once he turned evil), the writers have done a very poor job at getting her to this point.  Juxtaposed against her father, I just don’t see how an arc revolving around Vivian is going to work, especially since it’s now taken seven episodes to get this far.  I more or less enjoyed the last two hours, but since they were Vivian-free, they contributed little to the story arc, and as a result, season 4.2 has so far felt rather half-baked.

I’m also growing increasingly restless with Ellie’s storyline, which has been going in circles for what feels like a very long time.  Not only should Chuck have told her the truth about his spy life back at the beginning of this season – there’s no believable reason for her not to know – but those forced secrets have dragged the tale of Ellie and Orion’s computer to a breaking point.  I’m interested to know what’s on the machine, but in the way it’s been presented, the whole story seems woefully insignificant.  I did appreciate it when Mama Bartowski told Chuck, point blank, that he needed to tell his sister the truth, and I was ready to forgive the flaws in the sub-plot when it seemed Chuck was going to come clean at the very end.  When he didn’t, I just shook my head in disbelief.  We know the writers are better than this, and I sincerely hope they course-correct in these last four episodes.  There’s a ton of strong material floating around – I even think Vivian’s arc could be salvaged – but it has to coalesce into something strong in the next four hours.

For now, though, I’m content to enjoy a good episode like Chuck Versus the Family Volkoff, even if certain elements didn’t entirely ring true.  It’s still Chuck, after all, and there’s plenty to enjoy.  With Dalton on board one last time, it’s impossible not to have fun, and if the show does return for a fifth season, I’d love to see Dalton integrated into the narrative on a more regular basis.


--File this under “meh” – the Chuck/Sarah pre-nup story.  Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have such effortless chemistry that I enjoy pretty much any scene between the two of them, but this subplot felt more like a requisite relationship b-story rather than an organic step in their relationship.
--File this under “spectacular” – anything with Casey, Morgan, or Alex.  Casey and Morgan acting like an old married couple at breakfast was one of my favorite moments of the episode, but the material between Casey and Alex was even better.  Their developing father-daughter relationship has always been heartwarming and sincere, but I found tonight’s dilemma about Casey coming to Alex’s graduation particularly compelling.  Maybe it’s just because I’m graduating in a month’s time, but it seems like the perfect catalyst for Casey finally coming clean with Alex’s mother.
--Shouldn’t Ellie know about the Intersect already?  I thought Chuck told her all of this at the end of season three, but then ‘retired’ briefly and never told Ellie that he went back to work.  Maybe I’m wrong, but Ellie seems to have forgotten a lot in a brief span of time.
--Favorite Volkoff quote tonight, largely due to Dalton’s delivery: “I am the world’s biggest badass…killer of men, conqueror of nations!”

Next Week:
Guest star Gary Cole returns in
“Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner”
and secrets from Stephen Bartowski’s past are revealed in
“Chuck Versus Agent X”

No comments:

Post a Comment