‘Chuck’ – ‘Chuck vs. the Anniversary’: Respect the beard, and mind the mama

Senior Television Writer
09.20.10 90 Comments

“Chuck” is back for a new season, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I fool you by taking public transportation…

“New rule: No secrets, no lies.” -Sarah

“Chuck” season three had its bumps, internally and externally (there was, shall we say, an incident that nearly broke the old version of this blog), but the six bonus episodes pretty much nailed things. Chuck and Sarah were a functional and happy (and often funny) spy couple. Morgan hilariously became part of Operation Bartowski (and surprised Casey, and us, by not being totally useless as a spy). Daniel Shaw worked better as a straight-ahead villain than he ever had as a conflicted romantic obstacle. Ellie got let into the circle of trust, etc.

And so I worried when we came to the end of the season with Chuck quitting the spy game and then becoming involved in his father’s secret search for his mother. Why, after finally getting the balance of the team and the show just right, would Fedak and Schwartz so quickly split it up? Why, after so much relationship drama between Chuck and Sarah was manufactured over them keeping secrets from each other, would we be headed in a direction where Chuck would have to lie to her – and to Ellie – again? Why abandon Casey and Morgan as partners after a handful of episodes?

Fortunately, Fedak (who wrote the premiere) and Schwartz chose to only mess with the status quo briefly, and to do it in a fun, briskly-paced episode that kept the spotlight on season three’s MVP, Morgan Guillermo Grimes.

So we got Chuck and Morgan teaming up as amateur spies, burning through their joint checking account (and then selling Morgan’s prized Millennium Falcon) to travel the globe, having lots of off-camera adventures (including something in Tangiers that involved running away very, very fast) and getting so deep in debt financing the mission that a repo man(*) comes after their car.

(*) Said repo man played by the great Harry Dean Stanton, who 26 years ago starred in “Repo Man,” one of the great weird cult movies of all time.

It was a nice use of Josh Gomez in Morgan’s dual role as comic relief and Chuck’s personal cheerleader, and (as with everything else in the episode) Fedak wisely didn’t drag it out too long before their funds ran out, General Beckman blackballed Chuck’s job search to nudge him back to the Buy More, and then Chuck and Morgan’s mission intersected with Casey and Sarah’s. By episode’s end, the core four of Team Bartowski are all back together, Chuck is done lying to Sarah – though he’s back to lying to Ellie, and the whole team is lying to Beckman (wouldn’t be “Chuck” without a liberal use of the word “secrets,” now would it?) – and we have a new normal that’s not too different from what was clicking so well last spring.

The biggest change is that the Buy More, like the Orange-Orange, is now run by the CIA. On a 1-10 scale of “Chuck” plot contrivances, I’d say this rates around a 5. It was, frankly, goofier that Beckman would let three years pass with America’s most important intelligence asset working a cover identity she didn’t fully control, and while I imagine she could have come up with a setting that wouldn’t have civilians constantly wandering in, Chuck does have a long history of working at the place, so it’s an easy lie to invent for him. It puts Beckman on-site, provides opportunity for guest stars like Olivia Munn and Isaiah Mustafah to wander through, do their schtick (in Munn’s case, that schtick involves looking good in a Nerd Herd uniform) and go, and puts a lot of cool new gadgets inside the store to come up when half the season’s episodes inevitably end in a fight there. I’m curious to see how Jeff and Lester will fit in once they stop being fugitives, and ditto Big Mike when he emerges from the El Segundo School of Animal Husbandry (or wherever he’s been since the store blew up), and I also wonder if there’s a point to Sarah continuing to work in another store (or if perhaps she’ll join the Herd full-time), but overall, it works.

The store is window-dressing, anyway. The core of the show is what was on display here: Chuck being funny and vulnerable, Sarah loving Chuck(**) and kicking ass, Casey being crusty but (mostly) benign, Morgan as the wild-card, and family at the center of it all. We got action, comedy (notably the sexting running gag figuring into the climax at Volkov HQ), some cannily-chosen guest stars like Stanton and Dolph Lundgren, pop culture references galore (see below) and, of course, heart.

(**) After the “Chuck”-pocalypse from midway through last season, Fedak has clearly learned his lesson, and opened with a bunch of fan service at the apartment, with Chuck and Sarah smooching and saying their “I love you”s, and then Sarah promising Chuck, “Nothing is going to keep me from coming back to you.” Nothing to fear here, folks. All is well for Mr. & Mrs. Carmichael.

And then there’s Linda Hamilton as Mama Bartowski. This was as savvy a casting choice as Bakula as Papa Bartowski, not only from a fan iconography standpoint, but from what she can give you as the character herself. I buy her as the mother Chuck loves so much, but also as the spy capable of killing a roomful of spies, including Dolph Friggin’ Lundgren.

She was terrific, and I was glad to see her in the premiere. My main issue with season three is that it took a long time to get to the various places it was so obviously going, and here there’s no foot-dragging. The team is reunited, the Buy More is reopened, everyone’s working together to find Mrs. Bartowski, and we get a decent amount of her within the episode.

Full-speed ahead, with occasional breaks for sexting. I like it, very much.

Some other thoughts:

• This week in “Chuck” pop culture references: way, way too many for me to hopefully get all of them, but in addition to Stanton as the repo man, Lundgren got to recite Ivan Drago’s Greatest Hits (“I must break you,” and then a paraphrase of “If he dies, he dies”), Chuck interviewed at Vandalay Industries (a shout-out to Schwartz’s beloved “Seinfeld”), and Chuck and Morgan’s globe-trotting adventures were accompanied by a trio of references at once, including the Indiana Jones films (the red-lined map was designed for the show, as the one in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was, by Dan Curry), the opening credits to “I Spy” (with the shadow silhouettes) and the opening credits to “The Avengers” (with Morgan brandishing an umbrella like John Steed). As with the guest stars (Munn was kind of superfluous), there may have been an overload at a certain point, but I respect the enthusiasm and commitment to putting it all out there.  

• This week in “Chuck” music: The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ For You” accompanies the various sexting-related scenes, The Constellations’ “We’re Here to Save the Day” plays over the guys’ arrival at the new-and-improved Buy More, Peter Wolf Crier’s “In Response” plays over some of the shooting at the Volkov living building, and Freelance Whales’ “Generator First Floor” plays as Chuck tells Casey and Sarah what’s up with the search for his mom (and then as he talks to Ellie in the courtyard).

• I’m impressed that even with the reduced budget of these two most recent seasons, “Chuck” still manages to have cool action scenes. The opener had three of them, two of which made the budget into a virtue, with Chuck’s first Chuck Fu explosion taking place entirely off-camera (allowing our imaginations to conjure up something much cooler than Zachary Levi might have been able to pull off) and then Casey’s gunfight with Marco and his men taking place largely in blackness, with only the gunbursts to offer occasional light. Both no doubt saved a lot of time and money, and both were more interesting than a traditional, more expensive approach might have been. (As for Casey and Sarah’s skydive off the building in Hong Kong, that was mainly about seeing how confidently Strahovski and Baldwin carried themselves as they made the move to jump.)

• Speaking of the budget, no Jeff, Lester, Big Mike or Captain Awesome in this one, as their appearances are being saved for later. But I was okay with it; too much else going on with the core part of Team Bartowski to devote time to Jeffster as fugitives, Big Mike, etc. And Bonita Friedericy is now a regular castmember, taking the spot in the opening title sequence that in season two belonged to Julia Ling. She’s been as important to the show as the Buy Morians for a long time now, so nice to see that recognized, and I look forward to her having to deal with Chuck and Morgan on a more hands-on basis. And god help her if/when Jeff and Lester wind up back at the store.

• And getting back to Chuck taking out 10 of Marco’s men off-camera, we’ve seen Yvonne Strahovski play Sarah reacting to what she thinks is Chuck’s death before, but it was nice to see how angry Casey got at the idea. No matter how much the big guy protests and grimaces, he’s got a very soft spot for Agent Carmichael.

• Two other bits of John Casey awesomeness included Casey on whether he’s had long-distance relationships (“No. I either leave or they die.”) and Casey inviting Marco to stop screwing around and kill them if that’s what he intends to do.  

• In last year’s finale, Morgan had to dial an iPhone with his nose, and here Sarah does a lot of texting with her bare feet. (Fienberg watched that scene and asked if they brought in Quentin Tarantino as a special guest director. But no, that particular bit of foot fetishism was brought to you by veteran “Chuck” director Robert Duncan McNeill) I’m almost afraid to see what body part the writing staff tries next, and which character will be doing it. I have a bad feeling it’s going to involve Jeff, though.

What did everybody else think?

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