Friday, October 28, 2011

Season Premiere Review: The Brothers Carmichael return in "Chuck Versus the Zoom"

Episode Rating: B+

Chuck is back for its fifth and final season, and I've got a spoiler-filled review of the season premiere coming up after the jump...

Chuck is back.  All is right with the world.

But it’s not back with a particularly great episode, and given the inevitable “final season” hype surrounding the premiere, I think some fans are going to be disproportionately disappointed with that fact.  Me?  I’m perfectly happy to accept a solid premiere that was only sporadically spectacular.  There’s plenty of time left for masterpieces.  “Chuck Versus the Zoom” had a whole new status quo to establish, and it did so effectively without coming across as an exposition machine; it was entertaining, heartwarming, and most importantly, the very same Chuck we all know and love.  Perfect?  No.  Great?  Maybe not, but it set the stage for bigger and better episodes in the coming weeks while delivering a serviceable new story, and it kept me grinning from beginning to end. 

As has been happening more and more in Chuck’s later years, the spy-mission material felt a little tired.  Except for the ending – which I’ll get to in a moment – the spy story wasn’t comprised of anything we haven’t seen before.  The team has to steal/hack a computer by distracting the bad guy in unorthodox ways, they crash a party to finish the job, their cover is blown at the last minute and the one in the van has to save them, etc.  Chuck has done all this before and to better effect, and when I look back on the life of the series a year or two from now, this isn’t a mission I’m likely to remember.

Then again, the mission wasn’t necessarily designed to be impressive; it was only there to establish the new status quo, and I think it did that fairly well.  Overall, the tweaks to the show’s format are smaller than anticipated, but I really enjoyed the subtle alterations of the core dynamic.  Working for themselves raises the stakes of each mission for Team Bartowski – or should I say Carmichael Industries – as they are now financially dependent on their missions, and that adds some immediacy to more pedestrian outings like tonight’s adventure.  With Volkoff’s billion-dollar donation drying up fast, there’s a very real pressure to making this dream agency work, and I’m looking forward to how that plays out over the rest of the season.  I also greatly enjoyed seeing Chuck lead the briefings, rather than General Beckman, and without the government, Castle has a looser, more intimate atmosphere.  Morgan-as-Intersect is the most noticeable change, and even then, it doesn’t so much alter the fundamentals of the show as it gives Chuck a new set of challenges to overcome as protagonist.

After all, last year’s finale – “Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger” – took Chuck and his Intersect powers as far as they could go, narratively speaking; that story is over, and taking the Intersect away really is the next logical step.  But that casts a very natural doubt on Chuck’s place in Team Bartowski.  He’s not a superspy and he’s not the Intersect, so who is he?  As we learned in the fantastic final sequence, he’s just as capable as ever, but his skills now lie not in a complex brain-computer, but in his own ingenuity and trust in his friends.  I can’t quite express the joy I felt as Chuck’s master plan to save the day came to fruition; the show’s technical merits don’t often stand out, but cutting between Chuck’s video instructions and their flawless implementation was some masterful editing, and more importantly, that moment of triumph hammered home a point Ellie made early in the episode: Chuck was always capable of great things, and the Intersect only gave him an opportunity to become a hero; taking the training wheels away will prove difficult, but if anyone can rise to the occasion, it’s Chuck Bartowski.

The new status quo may not be as radically different as viewers expected coming out of last year’s finale, but I feel that every bit of it is perfectly tailored to bring the Chuck saga full circle.  Chuck-sans-Intersect harkens back to the early days of the show, when the Intersect enhanced Chuck’s brains, not his brawn, thereby highlighting how far the character has come since the beginning.  Morgan’s new Kung-Fu powers work in the same way; Morgan will always be a bit of a klutz, but the true fun that comes from giving him the Intersect is that he’s a surprisingly competent spy.  The Morgan of the pilot would have functioned terribly in this capacity, but five years later, he’s actually an asset.  Meanwhile, the show’s most dynamic characters, Sarah and Casey, almost certainly wouldn’t have gone for freelance spy work at the story’s outset, but now, they are both committed to helping their friends get this dream agency up and running.  These are some promising new paradigms the show has implemented, and I think these tweaks have given the show the right kind of fuel to cross the finish line in style.

But much of that is speculation for the show’s future; in the present, the best parts of tonight’s episode were the character moments, particularly where Chuck and Sarah were concerned.  One would think that five seasons in the novelty of watching these two interact on such a warm, natural level would have worn off, but it hasn’t.  Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have always had tremendous chemistry, but they seem to get better together with each passing episode.  The idea of Chuck searching for Sarah’s dream house isn’t the most romantic story on paper, but Levi and Strahovski both played it so earnestly that they elevated the entire episode, and even if the hour wasn’t a classic, I’ll always remember Sarah describing her perfect, red-door sitcom house.  And the core duo didn’t steal all the best characters beats, either: Casey got to dryly mutter the sentence “He’ll tear your limbs off and beat you with them;” Morgan continued to build his best-friend-in-the-world resume by helping Chuck search for the perfect house; Jeff and Lester executed one of their most half-baked schemes yet; and we all need a good Ellie speech from time to time, don’t we?

Not a perfect episode, but a very strong way to come back.  Even if the rest of the season delivered nothing more than comfortable excursions like tonight’s episode, I would be happy just at the opportunity to spend thirteen more hours with the Chuck gang.  But “Chuck Versus the Zoom” hinted at many bigger and better things to come, and I can’t wait to see the final masterpieces Chuck has in store for us.


--With the exception of season three, Chuck premieres aren’t usually outstanding episodes, but they have all contained fantastic opening sequences, and tonight’s was no exception, a clever way to celebrate these character right out of the gate.  And if you were wondering, the villain in that scene was played by none other than Luke Skywalker himself, Mr. Mark Hamill.  Physically, he’s unrecognizable, but because of the accent, his voice resembled his iconic portrayal of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, which put a big grin on my face.
--I’m not sure why, but I liked the Carmichael Industries logo.  Maybe Morgan will start acting like Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation and start putting the logo on all sorts of merchandise, like T-Shirts and pillowcases.  It would, after all, be an easy way to raise money.
--Casey idolizes Rush Limbaugh.  Hmm.  On one hand, I think I respect the big guy a little less, but on the other, I was laughing too hard to care. 
--The episode’s most clever touch may have been Morgan rechristening the “flash” as the “zoom.”  Not only was that hilarious, but it gives Morgan’s relationship with the Intersect a unique identity, something that will be important moving forward.
--Morgan and Sarah have a secret handshake.  Awesome.  I can’t wait for someone to make a GIF of that moment.
--As readers probably know, rain delays and an unexpected upset pushed Game 7 of the World Series to tonight, competing opposite Chuck.  Morgan’s rant about the tediousness of baseball was written and shot months ago, but that was still one of the best meta-jokes the show has ever made, so perfectly timed that it could never have been planned. 

Finally, a quick note on scheduling: I won’t be able to get to Chuck on Friday nights for the next two weeks.  I’m attending the Starz Denver Film Festival, and I have screenings to attend on Fridays; if all goes according to plan, Chuck reviews will instead go up on Saturday mornings.  I hope I can get to Chuck on time for the rest of the season after this, but Fridays are a tough night for writing. 

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