Friday, December 23, 2011

Catching up on "Chuck" Season Five - Reviews of Episodes 1 thru 7, including tonight's installment, "Chuck Versus the Santa Suit"

As long-time readers of both this site and my original blog may know, I’ve been writing about NBC’s “Chuck” since the start of the third season, reviewing each and every episode of that season and the fourth.  It’s one of my favorite shows of all time, and I’ve always loved writing about it.  But when the fifth and final season began this October, my “Chuck” reviews fell by the wayside.  I reviewed the premiere on October 28th, but for a variety of reasons, I never got to the next five episodes.  One of those reasons was that the Starz Denver Film Festival began the next week, and took up the entirety of my next two weekends, and after that, I simply wasn’t near my TV on Friday nights (the show’s new timeslot). 

But enough excuses.  Chuck is a show I love very much; it’s been with me since my freshman year of high school, and I feel compelled to see it through to the end as more than just a spectator.  So my Chuck reviews will resume next Friday evening, December 30th, with the airing of the season’s eight episode, and I will, God willing, continue through to the series finale.  We will also be doing a special all Chuck edition of the Monthly Ten Podcast after the finale to celebrate the lifespan of this incredible show.    

So to bring everyone up to speed, I have quick mini-reviews of the first seven episodes of the season, including the five I’ve missed over the past two months and tonight’s amazing Christmas episode, “Chuck Versus the Santa Suit,” coming up after the jump…

1. Chuck Versus the Zoom – You can read my complete, detailed review here, but this was a solid premiere.  Not terrific, but considering the massive amount of ground this episode had to cover in setting up a whole new status quo, I still found the results impressive.  I quite like the new status quo; Team Bartowski working for themselves lends a fresh new dynamic to the story, and if Morgan as Intersect isn’t quite as hilarious as anticipated, the wonderful subplot about Chuck finding Sarah her dream house more than made up for it.  Episode Rating: B+

2. Chuck Versus the Bearded Bandit – As has happened with increasing regularity in Chuck’s advanced age, I found the central ‘mission’ of the episode to be the least interesting part of the hour.  I always appreciate an appearance from Jeff Fahey, and he was good as the villain, but I never felt truly invested in the story.  But there were plenty of great moments and ideas to make up for that.  Casey baking muffins was a surprisingly great gag, the rock climbing sequence as Team Bartowski breaks into the compound was one of the show’s better action/tension sequences, and the Big Mike, Boogie Fever “Buy More” ad was absolutely hilarious.  The introduction of Carmichael Industries’ competition, Verbanski Corp, was extremely interesting, mostly because Carrie-Anne Moss’ performance fit in perfectly with the show’s tone.  On the other hand, Chuck as Morgan’s handler was underwhelming subplot.  Chuck was far less effective in the role than he should have been, given his experience as a spy, and while I believe we were supposed to sympathize with Morgan’s plight, his arrogance was instead somewhat grating.  But then the episode ends with that great scene between Chuck and Sarah.  Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski are so good together that they can redeem even the most egregious of flaws.  Episode Rating: B–

3. Chuck Versus the Frosted Tips – Now that’s a little more like it!  This is where season five kicks into gear, comes in to its own as a valuable new extension to the series.  Morgan becoming a full-blown obstacle to the team is a really interesting twist.  When he became the Intersect, I think we all concluded it would just be for laughs, to give Joshua Gomez a chance to do Kung Fu, but they went in a different direction, and I very much like what docuhebag Morgan allows Gomez to do with the character.  That part of the story is resolved within the episode, as Chuck is able to tap into his inner-best-friend to save Morgan, but what we saw hear suggests that the larger story arc of season five is going to be very fun, and fairly edge-of-your-seat as well.  Casey’s material, working up the courage to ask Verbanski on a date, was really strong stuff, and I like how Casey’s denial of feelings for Verbanski ran parallel with Chuck’s struggle to remain Morgan’s friend, with Sarah acting as the voice of reason throughout.  Meanwhile, we got one of the best B-stories in a long time with Captain Awesome going on paternity leave and accidentally discovering that Jeff is the way he is because of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Really strong stuff, and great use of all the characters throughout the hour.  Episode Rating: A–

4. Chuck Versus the Business Trip – Absolutely fantastic episode.  In fact, it’s so good that I’m willing to overlook how quickly and easily the Intersect was removed from Morgan’s brain, and even ignore how fast the show hit the reset button on that particular plot twist.  “Business Trip” was the first episode of the season where I really felt the main spy story clicked, mainly because it wasn’t just some random mission – Chuck and Sarah’s quest to save Morgan’s life was personal and, therefore, far more engaging than the average mission-of-the-week.  Most importantly, though, “Business Trip” was full of tons of great character-based humor and sweet moments.  Case in point: Casey gets his revenge on Morgan – who has forgotten all about Star Wars and Indiana Jones – by telling him that “Phantom Menace” is great, and then making up for it showing his forgiveness by convincing Morgan that there are only three “Jones” movies.  Great stuff, and the material with the newly reformed Jeff Barnes, who turned out to be a sweet, smart man all along, was absolute gold.  Finally, though Chuck is a show that rarely surprises me, I’ll admit I was stunned when Casey gunned down all those people.  Episode Rating: A

5. Chuck Versus the Hack Off – And now I think we can officially say this season has gotten great.  “Hack Off,” a ridiculously fun and shocking episode, highlights and expands upon everything that season 5 has been doing so well – first and foremost, the ongoing arc isn’t just interesting, but truly edge-of-your-seat exciting.  Every episode this year has had a great cliffhanger, but in “Hack Off,” the writers conclude the episode by doing a total 180 from what I expected – namely, blowing up the evil Clyde Decker.  Damn.  I was starting to form some theories on his evil plot, but now that he’s gone, the writers clearly have something bigger in mind.  That is how you fool the audience, and more importantly, killing Clyde before he got annoyingly evil was a very smart move.  This season also continues to give Casey great material, with Carrie-Anne Moss’ Verbanski enriching his character and proving to be a pretty great creation herself.  Without the intersect, Chuck is getting some of his best material in a long time; it’s always good to see him saving the day with his own skills, and an entire hour built around his computer hacking prowess was a brilliant move.  Finally, Jeff and Lester haven’t been used this well since season 2, if ever; making Jeff smart and social was genius, and Lester’s prison stint was hilarious.  It’s good to see these two getting such great material.  Overall, “Hack Off” leaves me very, very optimistic about this increasingly excellent final season.  Episode Rating: A  

6. Chuck Versus the Curse – Any show that’s been on the air as long as Chuck has is bound to repeat itself, and “Curse” is one of the clearest examples of that.  This is the third episode the show has done in as many seasons about the CIA hunting Team Bartowski, and while the first two – “Versus the Subway” and “Versus the Cliffhanger” – were both pantheon level episodes, this was one was a bit of a mess, full of spotty writing, plot holes, and a fairly awful guest performance by Rebecca Romijn.  It doesn’t help that we still don’t know quite enough about what Decker’s evil plot was for the events of the hour to carry any real weight.  Oh well – it’s not enough for me to start worrying about this final season, because if the plot was a bit off, the characters were all spot on.  Ellie and Awesome got their best showcase in a long while at the center of the spy storyline, Morgan and Alex had a fantastic B-plot that was one of their better highlights as a couple, and Sarah once again proves to be the heart and soul of the show, the glue that keeps everything running.  It’s Chuck.  As always, I enjoyed it, and even when the storyline is wonky, the show still works where it counts.  Episode Rating: B–

And, finally, tonight’s brilliant episode…

7. Chuck Versus the Santa Suit – That, my friends, was Chuck at its absolute best, and it’s the reason why I’m going to be sad to see this show go five weeks from today.  Bringing Daniel Shaw back was a risky move, especially in a way that used him in largely identical fashion to his last appearance, the season 3 finale, “Chuck Versus the Ring Part II.”  He kidnaps Sarah in Castle, Chuck comes up with a plan, Shaw goes up to the Buy More, they fight, Chuck wins, and Shaw goes to prison.  I should be peeved at how closely this story mirrored “Ring,” but I’m not, because instead of simply ripping off an old episode, the Chuck crew used the audience’s familiarity with the plot structure as an opportunity to highlight how far the characters have come in the last few years, particularly Chuck himself.

In m reviews of this series, I’ve pointed out many times how great it is to see Chuck save the day without the Intersect, and this was by far his biggest victory yet, Intersect or no, given the incredible odds he was up against.  Watching Chuck use his brains and brawns in equal measure to lay a good ol’ fashioned beat down on the man who had so thoroughly tormented his family was simply sublime, cathartic and fulfilling in so many ways.  It helped that Brandon Routh has really fine-tuned his Shaw performance, giving us a villain we wanted so badly to see beaten, but Zachary Levi too was awfully fantastic in those final scenes.  The season 4 finale was the moment when Chuck’s arc came full circle, but “Santa Suit” is the episode where his status as an honest-to-God hero is really solidified, and what made it so powerful was that it built upon everything that came before. 

But every single character got a brilliant chance to shine this week, each getting moments that defined who they are, why we love them, and how they have developed over time.  I was particularly impressed with Casey’s big moment, recording the message to Alex in the cell.  Adam Baldwin is, of course, a terrific dramatic actor, and he was so good in that moment that I actually believed, for a second, that Casey was going to sacrifice himself, and that would be his big goodbye.  Thank heavens that didn’t actually happen, if only so we could get the even more touching moment with Alex later at the party.  The other notable character here is Ellie, so often sidelined these past few seasons, who also saw her journey come full circle by helping her brother take down the man that killed their father. 

Now, as for where this episode fits in with the general continuity of season five, I’ll admit I’m a little worried.  Revealing that Shaw was the man behind the Decker conspiracy all along took a fairly big suspension of disbelief, and now that they’ve resolved all that so quickly, I’m unsure of what the series will do for its last six episodes.  Previous seasons have included a mid-season finale like this that wrap up all the loose ends, but that’s always been because of NBC’s odd, stunted episode orders, not a creative decision.  The placement of such a climactic hour this close to the end is somewhat odd.  Ultimately, though, I’m not worried, because as the ending and next-episode preview indicate, the show is now going to focus on Sarah’s back-story, and as far as I’m concerned, the show couldn’t possibly do anything smarter at this point.  Sarah is the show’s richest character by far and she’s the only one with any significant gaps left in her history.  Perhaps the material she’s given in the next few weeks will finally be enough to get Yvonne Strahovski an Emmy, or at least a nomination?  Wishful thinking, I know, but if any actress on TV in the last few years has deserved an Emmy, it’s her.

No matter what, this was a tremendous episode of Chuck, and I’ve really loved season five so far.  It’s been a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat ride all the way, with generally strong episodes and humor, but most importantly, a terrific handle on the characters, the reason we’ve been watching this show for five years.  “Santa Suit” is the kind of episode that makes me very, very sad to think of a world without Chuck.  Episode Rating: A+

And that’s that!  Come back next week for a full, good ol’ fashioned review of the next episode! 

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