Friday, September 9, 2011

"Chuck Versus the Push Mix" and "Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episodes 13 and 14)

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 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been made, but please keep in mind these were all written the night the episodes aired, so they may read as somewhat out of date (especially since the first of these reviews discusses how Chuck has just debuted in 2011, when in actuality, that happened a long time ago).  Today we end one half of the season and begin another with episodes thirteen and fourteen, Chuck Versus the Push Mix and Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible.

Spoilers for both episodes coming up after the jump...

 Episode Thirteen
“Chuck Versus the Push Mix”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 1/31/11

Episode Rating: A

Chuck, you’ve done it again, and I mean that in many ways.

Push Mix wasn’t just a great episode – something the show delivers nearly every single week – but also a great season finale.  Season four is far from over, but since NBC initially ordered only thirteen episodes, this hour was intended, and thus functions, as a finale, and when I say Chuck did it again, I’m also referring to the entirety of season 4.1.  At this point, we’ve been on many adventures with Team Bartowski.  The initial spy antics of season 1, the incredible war with Fulcrum of season 2, Chuck’s spy maturation and struggle with the Ring from Season 3.1, and his final journey with his father from season 3.2.  All of these stories are incredible, without a weak link in the bunch, and since I only saw Push Mix a few minutes ago, I can’t say for certain where season 4.1 ranks among these classic TV seasons. 

But there’s no doubt in my mind that Chuck has done it again.

Chuck finales are always something to look forward to, as the epic season 2 closer, Chuck Versus the Ring, proved back in 2009 (season 1 didn’t have a proper ‘finale’ because of the writer’s strike).  To this day, Ring may be my single favorite episode of television, a testament to how stunningly awesome this show can be when it’s firing on all cylinders.  The two season three finales, Versus the Other Guy and the 2-hour Versus the Subway/Ring Part II didn’t hit quite as many high notes (although the 2-hour closer came very, very close), but they still established the show’s exceptional ‘finale’ reputation.  Not only did the writers continue to fill their finales full of incredible action beats and satisfying payoffs, but more importantly, these climactic installments always gave us the best, most poignant character moments.  Push Mix may not have been better than any of these hours (though the case could easily be made), but it wore the ‘Chuck-finale’ badge with well-deserved pride.

We opened by throwing Chuck right into the midst of a very similar situation to the one he faced in the season premiere.  With Casey and Sarah gone (one in the hospital and the other on her undercover mission), Chuck was left with just his wits and best friend Morgan to save the day.  In the season premiere, the duo set out on an epic, lengthily international search for Mama Bartowski that failed miserably.  This time, however, Chuck had one hell of a plan, and the success of this adventure proved just how far he and the team have come in the last thirteen episodes.  Morgan is more or less a ‘competent’ spy, as his impressive – and hilarious – Laser-dodging skills proved, and Chuck – using not the Intersect, but the intelligence and perseverance that made him a hero in the first place – did what no one else could do and took down Volkoff’s entire operation. 

I’ll admit, when I saw the message from Orion during the opening sequence, my jaw dropped in equal-parts astonishment and anticipation.  Could Papa Bartowski still be alive?  It didn’t seem impossible, but I realized a few minutes before the actual revelation occurred that this was in fact Chuck’s master plan, and as much as I love Scott Bakula, that was a far more satisfying reveal.  All the material leading up to the cabin scene – namely, the action on the Cassandra (or, should I say, “Floating Fortress of Fun”) – was excellent, but nothing could compare to this final, climactic confrontation.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Timothy Dalton is the best guest star this show has ever had, and that’s no easy feat.  Not only does he fit in perfectly with the show’s unique tone, but he’s simultaneously more threatening and hilarious than any villain in the show’s history.  It was only fitting that the season should peak with a tremendous acting duet between Dalton and Zachary Levi.  Other finales, like Ring, have climaxed with a big action set piece, but apart from Casey and Sarah’s brief badass moments, Chuck saved the day with pure intellect.  From a writing, directing, and above all, acting standpoint, this scene was perfect.  Volkoff and Chuck may have only recently met each other, but they were there to settle many years’ worth of conflict.  This man had destroyed Chuck’s entire family once and was threatening to do it again, so it was an intensely personal scene, something Levi illustrated with every word.  And Dalton sinisterly demonstrated how Volkoff was utterly convinced, as he had been all season, that he was one step ahead of everyone else.  If it had been just the two of them alone in that room, it would have been a phenomenal scene; but with the cutaways to the simultaneous takedowns of Volkoff’s men – and Beckman’s arrival at the end – it entered another realm of awesomeness reserved for a Chuck finale. 

But my favorite part of the scene came in how Chuck framed his victory through the lens of his father, and the lessons Steven taught him.  Like I said, it was intensely personal on all fronts, and the climax never let us forget that Steven’s death put this entire season into motion.  With one crucial member of his family gone forever, Chuck set out to reunite his household for good – and, with Sarah, keep that family growing.  That’s what season 4.1 was about: building and holding on to family, and that’s the reward Chuck earned in finally taking down Alexi Volkoff (who, thankfully, isn’t dead – hopefully we’ll see more Dalton in the future).  At the end of the road, Chuck did what his father couldn’t do, but he never could have done it without Papa B.  It’s as moving a moment as Chuck has ever presented.

There were, of course, plenty more left in the last few minutes, as the Bartowski clan grew to include Ellie and Awesome’s baby.  In a recent interview, creators Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz said that the last ten minutes of Push Mix – i.e., the hospital sequence – were the best ten minutes of Chuck ever, and while I have to respectfully disagree, this scene was the absolute perfect way to end season 4.1.  The gang had been fighting for family all season, so it was fitting to put them all together for these last few minutes – along with a hilarious appearance by Jeffster!  Casey – whose role in this episode was more contemplative than ass-kicking – willingly accepted that he too was part of this big happy family, Mary witnessed the birth of her granddaughter, and in the closing seconds, Chuck and Sarah finally got engaged.  The moment was quiet and intimate, just as it should be, with the sound of the janitor’s floor waxer making it completely private.  We already know what the moment means, how it solidifies the familial theme of this season, so making it silent just made the ending that much more powerful.

And so another ‘season’ of Chuck comes to a close.  In retrospect, I don’t think season 4.1 was a wholly rousing success – stuff hyped in early episodes, like a CIA-operated Buy More and the rotating “Greta’s,” never really made much of an impact – but there was so much else to love – from the evolution of Chuck and Sarah’s romance (and Sarah’s badassery), to the appearances by Dalton and Linda Hamilton, to Morgan’s continuing spy mishaps, and so much more that I will never have enough words to praise – that I can’t help but dub this season wonderful.  It certainly stuck the landing, and I walk away from this arc with a sense of fulfillment.  This wasn’t just another fun, exciting season, but a meaningful one that moved all the characters forward, reminded us of how far they’ve all come, and solidified them as a family at the very end.

Episode Fourteen
“Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 2/07/11

Episode Rating: B+

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the return of John Larroquette as Roan Montgomery ended up being one of the funniest episodes this season – after all, Roan’s original appearance in the classic season 2 episode Chuck Versus the Seduction firmly established Larroquette as one of the show’s all-time best guest stars.  While this ‘follow up’ of sorts was a marked step down from Roan’s first adventure with Team Bartowski, it was still an infectiously fun Chuck outing that was amazingly hilarious, even by this show’s uproarious standards.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chuck episode that didn’t make me laugh, but no episode has been this consistently funny in a long time.

In fact, I could easily spend the next page-and-a-half listing off moments that had me rolling on the floor and call it a ‘review’ without losing any sleep – highlights being the ‘crazy family tormenting the innocent baby’ scene, Alex’s flawless Casey-grimace, the Sarah/Chuck/Roan dungeon-counseling session, Casey’s botched ‘seduction,’ and any time Montgomery…well, spoke…just to name a few.  But if I laughed at it, chances are you laughed at it, and composing a ‘laugh recap’ would be an admittedly fruitless exercise. 

For all the joy the episode brought me, however, it wasn’t without its faults, and I couldn’t help but feel somewhat underwhelmed by Agent Montgomery’s return.  Larroquette was perfect, as expected, but in comparison to his last appearance, the character didn’t feel quite as well utilized.  In theory, this was the perfect point in the story for a Montgomery-comeback.  Last time we saw Roan, Chuck and Sarah were still ‘cover dating,’ and Chuck’s love for Sarah remained unrequited.  Roan recognized the situation for what it was and helped Chuck work up the confidence to start pursuing his dream girl, and though that kick-start didn’t pay-off immediately, it was an essential step in the journey Chuck and Sarah took in season 2.  What made Roan such a beloved character in Seduction wasn’t just how funny Larroquette was in the role, but how heartwarmingly invested he became in our lead characters. 

Thus, it only makes sense for Roan to return shortly after the happy couple’s engagement to help them sort out another relationship problem.  And, to the episode’s credit, there were moments that were absolutely as effective as anything in the original Seduction – specifically, the aforementioned ‘dungeon counseling’ scene or Roan’s surprisingly mature advice to Chuck and Sarah before embarking on his suicide seduction.  But in the end, this strong material felt buried in the midst of an hour that was very busy with many other stories.  Roan himself was entangled in another subplot alongside General Beckman, who got her first real ‘showcase’ episode ever.  Their material together – particularly the Berlin flashback – was hilarious and gave us some well-earned insight into Beckman’s crabby attitude.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, but along with the underused idea of Roan being sent to the Buy More – which was treated more as a one-off joke – Roan’s presence felt less thematically coherent than last time, even if it was a laugh riot.  It’s not a major flaw so much as a case of expectations versus reality – in truth, I’m not sure what could live up to the original Seduction episode – but it’s certainly worth noting.

Actually, my biggest complaint with the episode came in the Chuck and Sarah storyline.  I really loved most of it, considering that – and I know I sound like a broken record by now – it was really, really funny.  Chuck’s ‘practice No’s’ were all priceless, culminating in Sarah’s instant-classic expression of indignation at Chuck’s unexpected “No, woman!”  More importantly, all the humor that stemmed from this subplot felt like it was coming from an organic place, and I could easily buy both sides of Chuck and Sarah’s argument about eloping.  The problem came later, when it became clear the answer to this problem was simply better communication, a lesson the couple have already learned a few times.  Granted, the journey to re-learn this lesson was fun, but it was nevertheless repetitive, and there was one step towards better communication that particularly bothered me.

I never thought I’d complain about a prolonged sequence where Sarah belly-dances for the camera but…well, I have to call them like I see them, and I saw this scene as a very shallow excuse for gratuitous objectification.  I know…I know...the show exploits Yvonne Strahovski’s beauty all the time, right?  Well, yes, of course, but there is a line where it goes from being ‘all in good fun’ to ‘too much,’ and I think this scene crossed that line.  Mainly, it just felt out of character for Sarah.  As a gorgeous superspy, she’s obviously used her looks to get her way before, but if you look at all the past examples, it’s usually in the name of a mission, or because she and Chuck are being intimate.  I don’t buy for even a second that she would so blatantly manipulate the man she loves in this way for relatively selfish reasons – and the same goes for Chuck, who was planning the same thing.  It was out of character for both of them, because they are much better communicators in that.  The only barriers standing in the way of fixing their problem seemed artificially contrived in order to get Sarah belly-dancing.  Sequences like this are typically guilty-pleasure and, as I said above, all in good fun.  But when the writers have to go to such great lengths to contrive an out-of-character reason for Sarah to belly-dance…and then let that sequence continue for what felt like a really long time…well, that just feels plain guilty.

All that aside, I really did love Seduction Impossible.  More than anything else, it was unbelievably funny, and that makes up for some of the more obvious flaws.  It just had a bit too much going on in too many areas to deliver a fully satisfying story – I also thought Mama Bartowski and Ellie’s subplot was, while undeniably entertaining, a tad underdeveloped – and given the hype Roan Montgomery’s return created, the hour was mildly underwhelming.  Nevertheless, few episodes of television are this fun to watch, and I haven’t even mentioned some of the best stuff, like all the classic Casey and Morgan moments (Casey shoots through a wall! Hells yeah!).  While not perfect, Seduction Impossible is an overall awesome start to what will hopefully be a terrific second half of season four.

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