Spoilers for "Chuck" season two, episode four coming up just as soon as I admit that I have "MMMBop" on my iPod...
"Chuck vs. the Cougars" wasn't quite as strong as the season's first three episodes -- Heather being an ass-kicking villain wasn't explained very well (even by typically implausible "Chuck" standards), and the running gag about Mark Ratner believing Chuck to be a stone killer didn't quite work (I blame Ben Savage for playing it too broadly) -- but enough parts of it worked that I still had a whole lot of fun. And, in the end, isn't that really all that matters?
The news of Nicole Richie's casting made me wince, but Josh Schwartz did a much better job the second time around with a "Simple Life" co-star. (Paris Hilton's "OC" guest spot was painful.) Richie may not be a master thespian, but mean girl is the part she was born to play, baby. And whatever physical limitations she might have compared to Yvonne Strahovski (starting with what looked like a three-foot height differential) were made up for by the cool staging of their fight in the girls' shower -- scene of so much real and cinematic mean girl cruelty -- with the two women kicking holy hell out of each other, soaking wet, while Chuck the fake deejay played "Smack My Bitch Up."
I also thought this episode continued the trend of the writers figuring out how best to use Strahovski. Not that I ever had a big problem with her in season one, but looks aside she was my least favorite of the "Chuck" big three: good chemistry with Zachary Levi, pretty good at the dramatic scenes, but not especially funny and only so-so in the fight scenes. The writers have done a good job of finding ways to make her physicality and aggression into good gags, whether it was the Lambada last week or her using a pencil to remind Chuck that she doesn't like questions about her past. The action scenes have been markedly better this year, with the shower fight possibly the best of the season.
And Strahovski's biggest strength -- her work in the more emotional territory that Adam Baldwin's almost never asked to visit -- has gotten even stronger so far. (Earlier today, Marc Bernardin at EW argued for her as one of TV's most underrated actresses.) Whether in or out of that perfectly hideous blonde wig, Strahovski did a great job at showing an insecure, wounded side of our resident glamazon. And the final flashback, with Tony Todd briefly returning to life to recruit Jenny/Sarah, made Sarah's obsession with secrets and maintaining cover identities a whole lot more interesting. It's not just that she's a spy -- Casey, after all, doesn't seem too bothered to be using his real name -- but that she's the daughter of a traveling con man. For her, maintaining cover has been a way of life since long before she joined the CIA. (So has throwing knives, for that matter.)
This one felt brimming with even more pop culture references than usual. Both the shower fight and Sarah's return to the gym, wet and bloody and barefoot, to be named reunion queen evoked "Carrie." The mayhem at the high school reunion took many pages from "Grosse Pointe Blank" (which came out in 1997, a year before Sarah graduated), but avoided being a straight lift because Sarah's enemy turned out to be her high school tormentor. Heather Chandler was named after the meanest (and first to die) of the three title characters from "Heathers." Mark Ratner was, of course, named after the geek who loves Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." And the kegger at the Buy More evoked many, many, many '80s and '90s high school films where some kid throws a raging party while his folks are out of town, with Lester playing the role of the host who freaks out because the guests are messing up all of his parents' stuff.
(One major missed opportunity: rather than have Lester accidentally break the marlin while playing tug of war with some guy, the writers should have made the "Risky Business" parallel more explicit by having the guy drop it from a height and force Lester to dive for the thing, Tom Cruise-style.)
Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Cougars":
• Even if Jenny Burton had turned out to be Sarah's real name, I wouldn't have minded them giving up that piece of her backstory this early, because Zachary Levi was having so much fun playing Chuck's glee at getting this scrap of news. And I love how they turned that into a sweet moment between the two at the end -- after seeing first-hand how rough Sarah's past must have been, Chuck decided to ease up on her and just enjoy a burger in peace.
• Again, I wasn't in love with the "Mad Dog" mistaken identity stuff because Savage the younger made it seem too goofy, but I did like how Casey's irritation with it lasted all of a half-second before he realized how to take advantage of it to get the info they wanted. The easier joke would have been to have big John fuming for the entire hour over not getting credit for his bad-assery, but it was funnier to see Casey the professional just roll with it and try to play up Chuck as much as possible.
• Also a splendid Casey moment: his brief turn at the deejay booth. It's so rare to see him looking happy about anything other than Ronald Reagan or the chance to kill people.
• Chuck's geek orgasm at seeing the mainframes inside the Orange-Orange was both funny and a good reminder that, despite the hot fake girlfriend and his improving status as a field agent, he's still a dork at heart. (And this is now two episodes out of four where Sarah's dork love has blinded her to the reality of a mission. In "Chuck vs. the Seduction," she couldn't see that the Black Widow wouldn't be attracted to Chuck, and here she couldn't see that Heather might have ulterior motives for being with the Rat.)
• Was I the only one who saw this episode title and initially assumed it would involve Chuck getting involved with a much older woman?
• Funnier Buy More management comment: Lester's "Since this is a teaching hospital..." or Big Mike suggesting that Lester had a Bay City Rollers hairdo?
What did everybody else think?