‘Chuck’ – ‘Chuck vs. the Business Trip’: The human target

Senior Television Writer
11.18.11 46 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Chuck” coming up just as soon as Missile Command is a part of my process…

“I miss knowing kung fu.” -Morgan

The longer a TV show is on the air, the more turnover it tends to see in its writing staff, as the #2 man leaves to run his own show, the #3 man is hired to be someone else’s #2, etc. Sometimes, that kind of talent drain clearly shows up in the product, as you can feel the absence of the people who left and can tell that the newbies don’t grasp the show or its characters quite as well.

“Chuck” practically had to start from scratch when most of its writing staff (other than Chris Fedak and relative newcomers Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc) left after season 3.(*) And there have been some bumps along the way, but there’s also been some fresh new blood, too. And maybe the best development out of that mass turnover was last year’s arrival of Kristin Newman, who pretty instantly grasped what the show and its characters were about (I don’t think anyone, past or present, writes Sarah better) and had her name on most of last season’s most memorable episodes, including Sarah running amok in Thailand in “Chuck vs. Phase Three,” the return of Roan Montgomery in “Chuck vs. the Seduction Impossible,” and the terrific pre-wedding episode “Chuck vs. the Last Details.”

(*) Phil Klemmer has since returned; in one of those classic examples of the uncertainty of the TV business, every single show he and the others left “Chuck” for (“V,” “Undercovers,” “No Ordinary Family” and “Human Target”) has since been canceled, while “Chuck” got to come back for this one last season.

So when I saw that “Chuck vs. the Business Trip” had Newman’s name on it, I felt confident a good hour was coming – and, sure enough, we got probably the best episode so far in this young season. It brought the Morgan Intersect arc to an end and managed to have more fun with the idea in its final scene (Morgan confidently catching throwing stars for an amused Chuck and Sarah and an impatient Beckman and Casey) than the previous three episodes combined. It sent Chuck and Sarah off on a mission that felt like a nice post-wedding sequel to season 2’s “Chuck vs. the Suburbs” (which was also about Chuck’s desire to have a normal life with Sarah, but back then was also about whether they would ever have a chance to be a real couple). It followed up entertainingly with Jeff’s “Flowers for Algernon” transformation, Morgan’s Swiss-cheesed memory, Casey’s grudge against Morgan, and Awesome and Ellie’s new parenting arrangement. And it further established Decker’s role as this season’s big bad, and the problems that come from Casey, Sarah and the rest being private citizens out on their own with no licenses to kill.

Most of all, it was just fun, which is the key to why we’re all still here after 4-plus years.

Casey exploiting Morgan’s temporary pop culture blindspots(*) was a great way for him to get some payback on behalf of Alex. (And Chuck’s envy of his friend getting to experience those films for the first time was a welcome reminder that our handsome hero is still a geek at heart, even if he rarely acts like one.) Morgan as the Intersect didn’t work out the way I would have hoped – and I wonder if the original plan was to keep him super longer, only for Fedak and company to quickly regroup after the stunt double problem became so apparent – but he still has a very welcome position in the “Chuck” universe. The Intersect-Fu is gone(**), but we haven’t suddenly wiped away all the things he did and that were done to him. Alex doesn’t forgive him, and Casey seemingly only invites him to move back in as a way to protect him from Decker’s assassins.

(*) Nerd nitpick: Spoiling the Vader/Leia reveals from the original trilogy would mean absolutely nothing to someone who had only watched “Phantom Menace,” as Luke and Leia haven’t been born yet and Vader is still an annoying kid named Anakin. (And side nerd note: if you’re a “Star Wars” fan of any age, you owe it to yourself to read my HitFix colleague Drew McWeeny’s Film Nerd 2.0 series, about how he introduced the six films to his two young sons in an unconventional order. Made me look at the prequels in a new light, and when my son’s old enough, this is the order I’m going to try using.    

(**) It’s funny to think of how the acquisition and removal of the Intersect has evolved over the years. Chuck spent most of the first two seasons trying to get it out of his head, and by the end of last season we had those sunglasses that could conveniently suck it out of anybody, and have also seen Shaw, the two Gretas and Morgan get Intersect’ed at one point or another. It’s like the Silver Age Green Lantern comic: at first, there was just Hal Jordan, but then we met Green Lanterns from other sectors, and Guy Gardner and John Stewart got to wear the ring for a while, etc., etc. until now DC publishes eight dozen different Green Lantern-related titles. If “Chuck” had been a bigger hit, I think we would have seen a spin-off about a female nerd with an Intersect. (Depending on the timing, Summer Glau absolutely would have been the lead.)    

Even more satisfying, though, was Chuck and Sarah’s mission at the Buy More sales convention. Because the show is so driven by the spy stories, it’s very rare where we get to see our two leads just hanging out. Obviously, they were on the lookout for the Viper, but the episode put in the time to show them enjoying the company of the other sales reps so that their thoughts of having a “normal” life would have real meaning. We know that Sarah doesn’t want a more traditional life, but there’s something to be said for having friends who aren’t related by blood to her husband, no?

And the final sequence, with Casey again being the world’s greatest marksman as he took out the Viper and all her operatives, then trying to enjoy a few peaceful moments with his extended family before the cops came to collect him for murder, was very well done. “Chuck” is a fundamentally goofy show, but it’s not without emotional stakes, and the best episodes manage to have both. Chuck doesn’t like to kill people, but Casey and Sarah know that it has to happen sometimes, and there are greater consequences to that now than there used to be.

So Morgan and Carmichael Industries are both without the use of the Intersect(***), Casey is under arrest (as is Lester, as the show continues to parallel spy events with store events), and Decker is still a smug, amused bastard with a mysterious plan that requires Chuck and maybe Sarah to be alive, but no one else, and we’ve now had two very strong episodes in a row. I like where things are headed.

(***) Anyone want to set the over/under on how many episodes before Chuck has to get re-Intersected for the 15th time? Will it happen before the series finale (now scheduled to air January 27th), or will that be how he winds up saving the day one last time?

Some other thoughts:

* This week in “Chuck” music: last week’s review eventually got the music list posted, and the songs tonight were “Get Together” by Serengeti & Tim Myers (Morgan enjoys his final moments with the Intersect), “Only For You” by Heartless Bastards (Chuck is feeling pessimistic), “Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter (Chuck and Sarah are mingling at the Buy More party) and “Silver Hands” by Alameda (Casey kills the Viper and her goons, then goes to Chuck and Sarah’s dinner party).

* This week in “Chuck” guest stars: We had the ubiquitous Dave Koechner (Todd Packer from “The Office,” Champ Kind from “Anchorman,” the pilot from “Snakes on a Plane” and many, many, many other roles) as the very furry Crazy Bob, and Catherine Dent from “The Shield” as the Viper.

* Speaking of Crazy Bob’s furry love, if you haven’t seen it yet, might I recommend you enjoy this extremely furry interview I did in the summer with half the cast of “Community”? You’ll thank me. (Here’s the YouTube version if you’re on a mobile device that won’t play our video.)

* I probably could have enjoyed a few more episodes of Devon being the world’s most awesome stay-at-home dad, but I like that it was Smart Jeff who figured out Ellie’s issue and explained it to him. I’ll be curious to see what the plan is for our two new parents going forward over these last 9 episodes. Will they just keep taking turns with the childcare? Will having Ellie closer to home lead to more Intersect funkiness? Will Clara get an Intersect in the finale?

* Love Smart Jeff, by the way. An excellent way to shake up the very familiar store dynamics so it’s not just the two idiots going through the same antics every week. I wonder if Lester and Casey will be cellmates in the next episode.

* Glad to see the return of Sarah’s version of the Nerd Herd uniform, last seen back in season 2’s “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer.” I like how none of the women commented on the skimpiness of it. I guess based on Anna’s version of the uniform, female employees get more leeway with how they want to wear it? 

Because of Thanksgiving, then the end of November sweeps and NBC’s desire to keep the show on schedule to end on January 27th, the show will be off for the next couple of weeks, with the next new episode on December 9.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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