Monday, September 29, 2008

Chuck, "Chuck vs. the First Date": I used to be a renegade, I used to fool around

Spoilers for the "Chuck" season two premiere coming up just as soon as I go on a hunger strike to prepare myself for a trip to Five Guys, then learn a language only cool people know...

I sang the general praises of all things "Chuck" in this morning's column, and I don't need to repeat those points -- that the different parts of Chuck's world are better integrated with each other, that the spy stuff is loads better thanks in part to the guest stars -- at length here. Instead, I want to go into some specifics on "Chuck vs. the First Date," which worked splendidly both as a reintroduction to the show for newbies (or people who forgot what happened almost a year ago) and as a kick-ass episode.

And maybe we should start with the ass-kicking. I complained from time to time about the fight choreography last season. The Emmys disagreed with me, as the show got its sole Emmy for stunt work, but I thought the various action scenes here were significantly improved, particularly the climax with Sarah flying through the air to kick Mr. Colt and Casey once again catching Chuck as he fell. (Which sounds horribly cheesey as I write it.) Someone built like Yvonne Strahovski should have no business staying in a fight with someone built like Michael Clarke Duncan if they both know what they're doing, and in the end Colt did have his way with her (both on the roof and at the dumpling restaurant), but the wire-work made the brief period where Sarah was hanging in look a lot more impressive than almost any of last year's fights.

Beyond that, though, the climax worked because it was one of the few times since the pilot (when the computer porn virus shut down the bomb) where Chuck's geek knowledge wound up saving the day, this time with the payoff of the seemingly random earlier scenes where Morgan discussed his new "Call of Duty" specs. Too often last year, the spy stories fizzled out at the very end, which would make the entire plot feel unsatisfying even if there was good material earlier in the episode. This climax felt well-planned, and it worked.

Beyond that, "Chuck vs. the First Date" was the funniest episode I think the show's ever done. I could do an entire post just listing all the things that made me laugh so long and so loud that I had to rewind the DVD so I could find out what I missed. What the hell, I'm going to list them anyway:

• The brilliant parallel use of Huey Lewis songs to show Chuck at his most ecstatic and then his most depressed.

• The even more brilliant use of Flight of the Conchords' "Foux Du Fafa" for our first glimpse of Sarah at her new place of employment. (More on that at the end of the post.)

• Chuck's horror at seeing what God gave Captain Awesome down there -- and, even worse, seeing his sister nekkid.

• The getting-dressed montage, which was a call back to the pilot but had some added value, including shirtless Chuck for the ladies, plus the comic brilliance of Casey winking at the Ronald Reagan target. (Also, putting Casey in the montage made clear that Casey is just as important to the show as the other two, when he was more of a third wheel in the early going until Adam Baldwin's angry genius asserted itself.)

• Captain Awesome responding to Ellie's request for more romance with "Tank's empty, babe."

• Chuck finally calling out Casey on the awful action movie kiss-off lines. ("Hey, maybe I'll say this after I crash through the window!")

• The entire job interview montage, from Anna and Jeff both putting their feet in Chuck's pantleg to Lester handing out a copy of his own WikiPedia page to Morgan handling Jeff's disgusting resume with tongs.

• Morgan turning the supply cage into Thunderdome, particularly the candid "One of them will be the assistant manager, and one of them will be Jeff!" introduction.

• The "Cool Hand Luke" homage at the end with Morgan lifting Chuck's spirits with the promise of Jeff eating 90 Twinkies. (Not as funny, but still a wicked pop culture homage: a poisoned Casey crawling through his apartment like Sean Connery after he gets shot in "Untouchables.")

So, so, so much comedy goodness, as well as some decent pathos with Chuck's chance at a normal life (or what he thinks is his chance) slipping through his fingers, and a reasonable explanation for why Chuck is still the Intersect after all this time. And, as I said in the column, I'm glad to see Chuck being less of a spaz both in his relationship with Sarah and in the spy work. Yes, he still gets held out of a window and trips over his own feet, but he figures out a way to save the day and also is reasonably charming before Colt's people interrupt the dumpling date. Chuck needs to grow, even if in small increments, for the show to keep from getting stale, and they've accomplished that.

All in all, a great first effort, and I'm just as pleased with the next two.

A few other random thoughts:

• Schwartz and Fedak originally wanted Chuck Norris to play a big bad guy this year -- in an episode that would, of course, be called "Chuck vs. Chuck" -- but they couldn't land their white whale. Still, when Colt started limbering up to kill Chuck, I couldn't help but think of the best scene of Norris' career, when he and Bruce Lee do some similar stretching before preparing to kill each other in "Return of the Dragon." (If you have the time, I highly endorse following the YouTube link. It is disgusting, it is fascinating, it is, to quote Devin, awesome.)

• The entire supporting cast -- including Big Mike, Captain Awesome, and the rest of the Nerd Herd -- makes their way into a slightly longer version of the still sweet main title sequence.

• Big Mike either found a way to fix his old, duct-taped marlin, or he ordered a new one from eBay.

• I have only one real complaint: like Chuck, I miss the Wienerlicious. Yvonne certainly looks great in the Orange Orange (or, as they call it behind the scenes, the Double-O) uniform, but the brilliance of the Wienerlicious outfit was that it was both hot and ridiculous at the same time. The Double-O uniform is just hot, and while I'd ordinarily never complain about hotness, the added ridiculousness was what made the old costume so memorable.

What did everybody else think?

42 comments:

Jon Delfin said...

Interesting new opening animation, but did they really have to have the little man come out of the nostril?

Liked the show, except for its having a plot hole so big I'm thinking of submitting it to the Guinness people. They would send Casey to "eliminate" Chuck before they knew if the new Intersect would work? Right.

Roger said...

Great episode. I loved this show last year and I'm glad that I didn't watch the early release of the pilot, because it was great tonight. Wait, did I just miss a chance to say "awesome". Drat.

I wanted to thank the writers/producers for ending the episode properly. I kept looking at the clock as it was going on, thinking that it was going to cut to black with Casey having a gun pointed at Chuck. Good episode and I'm really looking forward to the show this season.

J said...

Missed these guys. Wasn't as high on the episode as you were, but it was a great intro to new viewers. And if there hadn't been anything beyond THUNDERDOME it would have been worth it.

The show's spy stuff is still pretty bad. But if you watch assuming that all the spies and all the villains are dumber than toast, it's fun.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the name of the song playing while everyone was getting ready for the date? Love that song.

I'm so glad this is back. I think it's a fun, sweet show and tonight didn't disappoint. Although, it bothered me that Chuck said 'That's Sarah' when the doorbell rang. Why would he even think that? Of course he would pick her up for their official date.

Loved the interviews. Loved Chuck on what he thought was his first day of freedom. He seemed so happy. And I'm telling everyone to watch this show. I hope it has better ratings this year.

filmcricket said...

There were a few contrivances (Colt hanging Chuck out a window instead of just shooting/knocking him out and stealing the cipher, Casey not having bandaged his face the night before) but I can forgive them because I'm so glad to have the show back.

A couple of things:

1) Why is it impossible (within the story, I mean) that Chuck go back to school and still be working with the gov't? Sydney Bristow did it. Bryce Larkin did it. The kids in "Chuck vs. the Alma Mater" did it. I hope they come up with a plausible reason soon.

2) For the 12-year-old in all of us: after catching Devon & Ellie in the shower, Chuck is eating "Nuts and More" cereal. Hee.

3) Loved the use of "Hip to be Square" but why on earth, for the love of Michael J. Fox, would they not have used "Back in Time" for the second morning?

All in all, great episode.

amysusanne said...

The Thunderdome bit killed me. I'm not sure if this was their best episode or if it was my favorite episode, but it's the perfect episode to return with.

Pale Writer said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought they came up with the whole "Michael Clarke Duncan asking Chuck to explain who he is instead of just killing him" thing because they wanted to sum up last year as quickly as possible.

It was their anti-strike move.

filmcricket said...

they came up with the whole "Michael Clarke Duncan asking Chuck to explain who he is instead of just killing him" thing because they wanted to sum up last year as quickly as possible.

Exactly, which is why it's a contrivance. It serves the writers' needs, but doesn't make a huge amount of sense within the story.

Another thing I forgot to mention: loved how obviously Levi was trying not to crack up while Vik Sahay was busting out his Godfather impression.

Alan Sepinwall said...

1) Why is it impossible (within the story, I mean) that Chuck go back to school and still be working with the gov't? Sydney Bristow did it. Bryce Larkin did it. The kids in "Chuck vs. the Alma Mater" did it. I hope they come up with a plausible reason soon.

Bryce and the "Alma Mater" kids at Stanford were all agents in training, not active field operatives.

Beyond that, the Buy More is kind of an ideal cover for Chuck, in that it's anonymous (who would think to look for the world's greatest intelligence asset there?) and flexible (Chuck can duck out in the middle of a day because part of his job is doing house calls, plus Big Mike doesn't really give a crap), and Chuck himself doesn't really care about it. So it's not really a distraction in the way that Chuck getting a life (either by going back to college or getting an interesting job) would be.

Carrie said...

Don't hate on the action movie kiss-off lines. They are ridiculous, but that is what makes them awesome.

MCB said...

As a straight woman, I don't have that much stake in what Sarah wears at her fake day job, but I'm totally with you on the Wienerlicious outfit, Alan -- the brilliance of it was the skimpiness combined with the ridiculousness, and the new yogurt outfit doesn't quite measure up.

Loved the episode, psyched about the show. The geeky part of me would really love to see Chuck go back to Stanford and finish his degree, like filmcricket said. It seems like Chuck's whole life has been completely derailed by getting kicked out -- the first thing the CIA took away from him -- and it would be nice to see him get to have it back. But that's probably a better story arc for Season 3 or 4 (crossing my fingers and hoping for renewal already!).

Alan Sepinwall said...

Don't hate on the action movie kiss-off lines. They are ridiculous, but that is what makes them awesome.

Oh, I love that they're awful. That's the point. But it's especially funy when someone remarks on the awfulness.

filmcricket said...

the Buy More is kind of an ideal cover for Chuck, in that it's anonymous ... and flexible (Chuck can duck out in the middle of a day

True, but both these would be almost as applicable in school. Maybe within Chuckworld the anonymity of university wouldn't be as perfect, since Fulcrum presumably knows that the CIA is training recruits in school - but they've almost caught him twice at the Buy More, so clearly nowhere is completely safe.

And I will grant that if Chuck went back to study engineering it might be hard for him to skip class, but I have never had a job, even a minimum-wage service-sector job, where it was as easy to just disappear as it was during university. I don't actually remember attending class in the second term of my first year.

I do agree that Chuck would probably care more about his education than he does about the Buy More, but I still hope the show addresses the necessity of this particular cover sometime soon.

Number Five said...

The show's inability or unwillingness to be even slightly internally plausible will always bother me personally, but within that constraint this was definitely better than most of the first season, drama-wise and comedy-wise. And they did a good job with the exposition by just getting it out there in the first few minutes and proceeding with the episode.

Adam Baldwin delivers most of the non-verbal comedy, and the rotating photos bit was hysterical and even meaningful when he missed Chuck.

The music, both songs and score, was fantastic...I hope they didn't blow the whole budget on that episode!

Eric said...

I agree with the others who'd like to see Chuck go back to school (except that college-based shows always tank.) Or even just get a better job - he could be an independent computer consultant, or work in an office that's a CIA front where he's the only one who actually does any work.

And while they explained why he's still the Intersect, they haven't dealt with the fact that his information is all what, 9 months, a year stale? Why would anyone have expected that the hideout he flashed on was current? They missed an opportunity here to have Chuck present when the intersect was brought on-line, absorb it due to technobabble, and then have the electronic one fail thanks to Fulcrum's trojan horse.

And Alan - is that trip to Five Guys thanks to HIMYM? I know I'm going there after the holiday.

jim treacher said...

Complaining about plot contrivances in a show like this seems less than awesome.

There's only one thing greater than having a chemical weapons decontamination shower in your apartment: Having a hidden chemical weapons decontamination shower in your apartment.

Mads said...

I love Five Guys.

I also loved this episode. It just made me so happy and I feel like happy shows are often underrated. Lots of people are trying to "make a statement," but Chuck is just plain fun.

Nicole said...

Any episode that uses a Flight of the Conchords song is awesome in my book. I also made the Hip to be Square / Back in Time association which must mean I've seen Back to the Future way too much.

I don't think too much about plot holes because the show just flows and is fun to watch. If it was tedious then I would spend more time obsessing over it.

Anthony Foglia said...

Jon Delfin wrote, "Interesting new opening animation, but did they really have to have the little man come out of the nostril?"

I think that part's unchanged. I remember the nostril exit from last year.

Excellent episode, great soundtrack choice for the Orange Orange scene, the only thing missing was the dirndl.

dez said...

I like Chuck at the Buy More, especially because of the constraints it puts on Casey.

Great start to the new season. Also dug when Chuck grabbed Casey to try and talk to him and Casey just glared. Was he going for intimidating? Because it worked :-)

Pamela Jaye said...

Chuck is eating "Nuts and More" cereal. Hee.

apparently it's a cross-network cereal, as Cristina has also eaten it, on Grey's Anatomy - twice.

I was unclear on the "force" that showed up to defend Chuck. I got the impression that there was an inter-bigbox rivalry of some sort, but - not being a geek - I can't see how they could have either showed up or, more importantly, tricked actual evil people into believing they were for real. If that was who that crew even was (and if so, how would they know where Chuck was?) Morgan's "plan" as recited over the phone probably made sense - I wasn't really listening - as an intimidation device but after that it stopped making sense. And I never saw Thunderdome (though I know it has something to do with Mel Gibson and someone called Mad Max. Sorry, I'm only part geek)

Aside from that, I loved the ep, even as I told myself - Casey can't kill Chuck, he's the title character.

I was also unclear on what Fulcrum was and had to rewind to make sure that the black man who got blown up was the NSA guy and not MCD.

Pamela Jaye said...

and, sadly, i didn't get to watch nbc's fall preview show till last night - which meant that the line
it's never safe in the car!
was ruined for me.
I have to stop watching previews. I would have preferred to hear that one *in context.* which reminds me of another winner line/truism - Veronica Mars commenting, upon being asked for her help yet again, that she should have her own drinking game

drake leLane said...

The song while they were dressing was "Dropped" by Phantom Planet, which they then used parts of repeatedly throughout.

Jeff's resume is pretty funny...transcribed from pausing:

"I've worked here forever... 19 years and know where all bodies are buried. Ha Ha Ha

My Co-workers have nice feet. I like to take picture (sic) of them and then grade them."

He then lists Chuck, Anna and Morgan... you can't make out the grades (but I'm guessing they're in order).

Bruce Reid said...

I tend not to post if I've nothing to add that's not already been thrown into the conversation, but Jim Treacher's observation about chemical weapons decontamination showers deserves a second.

jim treacher said...

Motion carried!

Anthony Foglia said...

pamela jaye wrote, "I was unclear on the "force" that showed up to defend Chuck. I got the impression that there was an inter-bigbox rivalry of some sort, but - not being a geek - I can't see how they could have either showed up or, more importantly, tricked actual evil people into believing they were for real."

You're right. The force Chuck lead up to the roof wasn't a bunch of big box geeks. Morgan's plan was solely for a online multiplayer game. Chuck's force was the same CIA/NSA force Sarah and Casey had with them at the incorrect location before rushing to save Chuck.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I was unclear on the "force" that showed up to defend Chuck. I got the impression that there was an inter-bigbox rivalry of some sort, but - not being a geek - I can't see how they could have either showed up or, more importantly, tricked actual evil people into believing they were for real.

They weren't the geeks from the LargeMart; they were the tactical team that had been with Sarah and Casey at the previous location. They just took a little longer to get to Colt's new hideout.

Karl Ruben said...

Since I neglected to switch off my brain before watching this, I have to side with Number Five on the wanting-more-internal-plausibility thing. If the spy/black-ops bits could be just a tiny bit more clever, this would be a much more well-rounded and satisfying show. Sure, it's supposed to be heightened and zany and slightly ludicrous, but all those things would work infinitely better if the internal logic was tightened up a tad.

That said, as long as I get my weekly dose of Captain Awesome, I'm willing to cease the nitpicking for one hour.

Undercover Asian Man said...

I know I might be biased against this show. I might be accused of going into it with preconceived notions. But I honestly wanted to go into this second season premiere with the thought that this show has worked out it's kinks, dropped it's weaknesses, and built upon its strengths, all based on Alan's glowing re-recommendation.

I just don't get it. This show is the same as last year's show. The formula hasn't changed one bit - absurd, solved-in-a-few-part-time-hours spy case, the Buy More crew IS WACKY!!!!, Chuck and Sara pine for each other (just more openly this time), horribly fake fight scenes (Sara, trained killer, still punches like a girlie girl and throws kicks so slow that I thought they were using stop-motion effects), and being neither funny enough to be comedy or at all believable to be drama. Even the parts I liked - Casey, Chuck's sister and her boyfriend - while entertaining, were essentially the same deadpan / charming / cpt. awesome as last year.

I swear I wanted to give it another, rebooted chance to coincide with it's supposed renaissance. At best, it was amusing but dumb, which of course has a place in television, but is the same feeling the show generated last year. And laughing "so long and so loud" that one had to rewind? Or "all the entertaining pieces that didn't quite click with one another are now working in harmony, and there may not be a show on television that makes me happier right now."? It strains belief.

There was no real integration between the Buy More and the Spy world, no real changes in Chuck's home life, Morgan is still a cartoon and annoying, and Levi still looks way too old to be playing a recent college grad. The biggest change is -gasp- that the Weinerlicious is now a yogurt store. Earthshaking.

Maybe I need to see all the episodes Alan has seen to be able to acknowledge how much "Chuck" has supposedly evolved as a show. I just can't imagine it though. I can't imagine heaping such effusive praise on this cast, this writing, this humor, this show as a whole, ever. There must just be some fundamental thing that makes Josh Schwartz shows appeal to Alan that I just can't comprehend, as I've hated them all (O.C., Gossip Girl, and this). I wish it were different, since JS seems to be gaining Bochco like weight in the TV world.

Since Alan has seen 4 episodes, I will watch at least that many to really see if this show has grown. I am trying to give it a chance, but the expectation was set so high by the review that I was shocked at how little has changed, and how little it matched up with the review at all.

Tom said...

I'm just glad to see Adam Baldwin on a show that's lasted for more than one season.

Kensington said...

Joshua Gomez's new haircut renders Morgan 80% less creepy, and that's a huge improvement.

Also, I really appreciate that Casey's love for Ronald Reagan is used to mock the character or make him seem foolish, especially now that Casey is being given more depth now that he's actually growing to like Chuck. I think it's a sweet (and funny) character touch.

Finally, one question (probably dense): did Tony Todd's character die then? The explosion appeared to take out everyone in the room, right?

anon said...

Undercover Asian Man,

I'm not a huge _Chuck_ fan, but as with all of the second season shows with strike abbreviated first seasons there's a lot of pressure to "re-introduce" the show. Broadly speaking this felt like a tighter version of the Chuck pilot, which is basically of what it was supposed to be. Any changes or modifications to the formula (if there are any) will come in the following episodes.

I will say that the improvement in spy stuff -- both in terms of the action and the humor (Michael Clarke Duncan brought both) -- does make the Buy More somewhat superfluous. The Buy Morers don't serve as comic relief if the spy stuff is funny, and this re-boot established that everyone thinks the job is holding him back (including Chuck himself, which wasn't true in the pilot). Since the Buy Morers have been upgraded to full cast, I'm wondering how the show will handle that, especially since (a la filmcricket's comment above) the question of why he has to stay at the Buy More seemed to hang over this episode and wasn't clearly resolved.

Anon

mac said...

I'm gonna be the odd man out here and say that this was awful. Are you reviewing this show, using words like "brilliant," based on TV in general or on expectations for B-level television? Either way, I can't see it. This isn't even good B-material. I'm not a cynical guy, I don't like to hate shows or actors, and I try to give the benefit of the doubt whenever I can, but this is my third or fourth episode of Chuck and it is consistently bland. Not one joke was even remotely clever, all of Chuck's geeky friends are highly annoying and not even as funny as the geeks on "Big Bang Theory." Levi tries hard and has charisma, but he has zero comic timing and his dramatic work isn't much better.

JustJoan said...

Kensington said: Finally, one question (probably dense): did Tony Todd's character die then? The explosion appeared to take out everyone in the room, right?

Oh, I hope so. That's the one thing that really, really jars for me, that the so-called Good Guys can see no other option but to kill Chuck. Let's hope the new crop of handlers' handlers have some brighter ideas. I can't look forward to Casey with drawn gun in every episode, unless it is trained away from Chuck.

vacelts said...

I’m so glad to have Chuck back. This episode reminded me of all the reasons why I love Chuck.

http://redlightnaps.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/chuck-vs-the-first-date/

Starting with Adam Baldwin. His dry humor cracks me up. And I knew he wouldn’t be able to kill Chuck.

And the Buy Mores scenes were top notch. Hmm . . . Performance reviews are due soon. Maybe I can set up my own cage match here at the office.

Sonia said...

It's so rare that a show makes me laugh out loud and go "awwwwww" at the same time.

I loved Casey's respect for Ronald Reagan. Apologizing to his likeness as he smashes the photo to retrieve the hypodermic needle that will save his life -- classic!

Welcome back Chuck!

Kensington said...

Oh, nuts, I miswrote. I meant to write that "I really appreciate that Casey's love for Ronald Reagan is NOT used to mock the character..."

Taleena said...

I loved the return of "Charles Carmichael" and hope to see more.

I also hope to keep the Buy More if only for the throw away lines like Casey got last night: "Single White Female is surveying the Beast Master."

Awesome

dez said...

I meant to write that "I really appreciate that Casey's love for Ronald Reagan is NOT used to mock the character...

Adam Baldwin is apparently a staunch, cigar-chompin' Republican, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the Reagan thing was his idea.

"Chuck" also makes me happy when I watch it and I look forward to it every week.

Kevin said...

I get a geek kick when you list all your favorite funny moments.

Can I add one more?

"it's never safe in the car!!"

Toby said...

The contrivance that I picked up on was that Mr. Colt's organization's address was in the Intersect.

If the Feds had enough time to upload the info into the system, why didn't they act on it immediately? That's one sluggish bureaucracy!

Alan Sepinwall said...

The contrivance that I picked up on was that Mr. Colt's organization's address was in the Intersect.

The impression I've always gotten is that the Intersect not only has information from multiple agency databases -- info that's not shared anyplace else -- but the way it works (possibly but not definitely because Chuck's brain is involved) is that Chuck is able to filter through random bits of data and come to conclusions that wouldn't be available under ordinary circumstances.

In other words, it's not that the address is in the computer somewhere -- it's that Chuck is able to figure out that's where Colt would be based on a dozen bits of intel he has bouncing around his noggin.

As with most of the spy stuff, it's probably best not to think too closely about it.