‘Chuck’ – ‘Chuck vs. the Family Volkoff’: Like father, like daughter?

A review of tonight’s “Chuck” coming up just as soon as you have Uno…

“I feel like I’m about to have some fun.” -Alexi Volkoff

This has been a season of two Volkoffs on “Chuck” – Alexi in the first half, Vivian in the second – and “Chuck vs. the Family Volkoff” wisely got as much as it could out of the funny, charismatic father before apparently shuffling him off-stage in favor of his less interesting daughter.

Making his first appearance since the end of season 4.0, Timothy Dalton was everything we had come to expect from him in the part: scary and dangerous and then so much the funnier for the way he kept trying to work the steps and turn over a new leaf. The episode left Alexi’s sincerity(*) up in the air for most of the hour – was he really serious about making amends, or just trying to distract Chuck from his latest evil plan? – but Volkoff is such a well-drawn character, and Dalton so talented and versatile, that the comedy worked either way.

(*) And I appreciated that it was Chuck making objections to the big honkin’ “Chuck” Plot Hole of the Week (why would the CIA be so obsessed with this random weapon that they’d give allegedly the world’s greatest supercriminal pretty free rein?) even as General Beckman kept shouting them down. Often, Chuck’s neediness and amateur approach to espionage causes various goofy story points; for once, he was the one pointing out how ridiculous this all was.

Vivian, on the other hand? I’d been iffy on her in her most recent appearance, and putting her on camera with Alexi, even briefly, was just a reminder of how much less she brings to the table. The idea behind Vivian – she’s Chuck’s counterpart, an accidental second-generation supervillain – is fine, but either the writing has had to skip some steps, or Lauren Cohan hasn’t been able to sell the transformation well enough. I don’t buy that the woman we met back in “Chuck vs. the Masquerade” has become the vengeful, murderous mastermind we saw in this episode’s final scenes.

(Charisma-wise, she’s also at a disadvantage on a show like this because she’s not funny, whereas many of the show’s better villains – whether Alexi himself, Ted Roark, Mark Sheppard as The Ring’s director, Heather Chandler, etc. – don’t seem like stiffs when put next to Chuck, Sarah, Casey and Morgan.)

Of course, that’s more of a problem going forward, assuming Alexi was wheeled off (Hannibal Lecter-style) for the final time after making his amend to Mary. There was still a lot of him in this episode, and almost all of it was a lot of fun. If the season’s remaining episodes have to lean more on Vivian – and if the writers and/or Cohan haven’t figured out a way to make her more compelling – then we’ll have something more to be concerned about.

The episode around the temporary Chuck/Alexi partnership had its ups and downs. The Casey/Alex/Morgan trio continues to be one of the season’s strongest points, and turning Casey and Morgan into an old married couple – drinking their OJ in unison, bickering with mouths full of cereal – was hilarious. We’ve been heading for a while to Casey having to confront Alex’s mom, but they’ve taken what feels like the right amount of time with it, and Adam Baldwin had a very nice moment as Casey tried to disguise how pleased he was when Alex insisted they have a private post-graduation celebration.

Chuck trying to be cool about the pre-nup – and freaking out Sarah in the process – was a good idea that didn’t quite work. A Chuck/Sarah emotional role reversal could be pretty funny, but there wasn’t enough time to really push the idea the way the episode needed to. We could have seen Chuck being cool about a variety of topics as a frustrated Sarah kept pushing him to have a more typical reaction, but instead every 7 minutes or so, Chuck would shrug off mention of the pre-nup, Sarah would furrow her brow, and we’d move on.

And while I continue to be glad that Ellie’s being drawn into spy world in a roundabout way, Chuck’s continued refusal to tell her the truth about his career has replaced the Chuck/Sarah will-they-or-won’t-they as the show’s silliest drawn-out element. There’s simply no good reason why Chuck wouldn’t have fessed up at some point during the arc about bringing Mary back – nor any good reason why Ellie herself wouldn’t have figured it out, given Chuck’s actions during that period – and Chuck’s insistence on keeping mum is one of those false TV conflicts designed only so the other party can react badly about the fact that a secret was kept, rather than the secret itself. Even if that was genuinely the first time Ellie had ever lied to Chuck (which I find hard to believe, even given their closer-than-normal relationship), Chuck should’ve just blurted out, “Hey, I’m still a spy. So why don’t you tell me what you’re really doing?”

Some other thoughts:

• While the show was in repeats, “Chuck” fans helped their show steamroll its way to a win in Hulu’s Best in Show contest. Afterwards, I spoke with Zach Levi for a few minutes, in a conversation that some readers termed pessimistic, but to me seemed simply candid. The show has done its advertiser appeal. It’s done its whole fan campaign thing. Warner Bros. slashed the budget. At this point, like Zach says, it’s going to be all about the numbers. If the show can ge back close to a 2.0 rating among adults 18-49, I imagine it’ll come back for a fifth (and presumably final) year. If the numbers keep hovering around a 1.7 or, God forbid, a 1.5, then it’ll be hard for NBC to justify renewal, even at the reduced post-season 2 price.

• So glad I’ve now watched a few episodes of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (which is fantastic; review coming later this week) so I could actually appreciate the “Eddard, you don’t let your kids keep a direwolf!” joke at the breakfast scene.

• Love that Ellya’s compound actually has Uno.

• Speaking of games, Volkoff’s nearly deadly game of chess reminded me very much of the scene in “Never Say Never Again” (an unofficial Bond film, but still a Bond film) where Connery and Klaus Maria Brandauer play a video game with increasingly painful stakes.

• This week in “Chuck” music:  “In A City Without Seasons” by The One AM Radio (Sarah gives Chuck the pre-nup, and Chuck seeks Morgan and Casey’s advice on it), “UK Jamaican” by Tricky (Chuck plays Ellyas in Uno) and “Distant Sures” by The Cave Singers (Volkoff says goodbye to Mary, Casey and Alex decide it’s time to tell her mom).

What did everybody else think?