Spoilers for "Chuck" season two, episode five coming up just as soon as I make a decision between some tasty choices...
Chuck saves the world. Chuck Bartowski saves the world. Whoa.
What could have been a very cheesey storyline -- particularly since this seemed the most budget-conscious episode of the season, with the bulk of the action taking place inside the Buy More -- instead felt entirely earned. When Chuck stands on that stage, getting cheered on by the geeks for what they think was his big accomplishment (beating Missile Command) while missing the real one (averting World War III) the smile on my face was as broad as the Mississippi.
The follow-up scene, where Sarah rewards Chuck for all his hard work and sacrifice by arranging to get him a real Stanford diploma, was also awfully nice. For such a fundamentally goofy show that requires you to throw logic out the window left and right, "Chuck" can be kind of brilliant in the more emotional moments, can't it? Credit a lot of that to Zachary Levi (and, in this case, to Sarah Lancaster and Yvonne Strahovski), but also to the writers (in this case, Phil Klemmer) doing a much better job at making Chuck's missions in some way reflect on his own life. I know I've complained recently about other shows (particularly about medical dramas like "House") that frequently construct parallels between the procedural and the personal, but it gets annoying there because it feels done with sledgehammer subtlety. Plus, without some kind of dramatic weight -- even something as simple as Ellie worrying what her brother is doing with his life -- "Chuck" might threaten to become so insubstantial that it would just float away, funny or no. I'm always reluctant to make the "Buffy" comparison -- different kinds of shows, plus invoking "Buffy" creates strong reactions from people who hold that show sacred -- but I definitely have the sense that Schwartz, Fedak and company are on some level taking a page from the "Buffy" model by having the weekly villains mean more to our heroes than simple danger.
And I've now spent several paragraphs talking about the dramatic parts of what was one of the funniest "Chuck"s to date, which shows just how good the show has gotten at blending the comedy with the drama with the action. Look at Jeff, who's a walking punchline for three-quarters of the episode -- the mullet and 'stashe in the 1983 flashback, the drinking pants, the "My name is Jeff and I'm lost" business card for use in case of his frequent blackouts -- and then turns into a (slightly) more three-dimensional, even sympathetic character towards the end as Chuck tries to encourage him to make a comeback. Jeff confronting the Missile Command game at the end of the episode could have very easily been played for laughs (ala Dave vs. Stargate Defender in the classic "Arcade" episode of "NewsRadio"), but instead it's this quiet, wistful moment.
"Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer" also featured three superb musical choices, starting with the Rush song from the episode's title. I dislike almost all prog-rock, but dammit if "Tom Sawyer" didn't work as kick-ass accompaniment to both Chuck's video game challenge and Sarah's cool jacket vs. knife fight at the TV studio. Just as perfect -- and even funnier -- was the use of Stan Bush's "The Touch" -- or, as I like to think of it, the love theme from the animated "Transformers" movie -- for the getting pumped montage of Jeff's fans coming out of hibernation. (Question: would people have preferred that they used the Dirk Diggler version?) And "All Out of Love" playing over Jeff's stalking video of Anna made it a cheeseball classic 3-for-3.
(I asked Klemmer about the use of "Tom Sawyer" and whether it was in any way inspired by the people who figured out you could play "The Dark Side of the Moon" along with "The Wizard of Oz" and the two would match up perfectly. Klemmer said, "Yeah, the Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon overlay is what we had in mind. I was looking for a pop rock song that could conceivably conceal a secret mathematical code that could match the pattern in our video game. I knew that Rush's drummer Neil Pert was famous for using various complicated time signatures (although Tom Sawyer isn't the best example).")
Man, "Chuck" is firing on all cylinders right now, isn't it? I took some heat last year when I put the show in my annual Top 10 list, and even at the time I felt I was doing it as much on potential (and a lack of other more impressive candidates) than for what the show had done to that point. Not anymore. There are few shows I look forward to, week in, week out, than "Chuck."
Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer":
• The brief field trip to Atari headquarters gave us the opportunity to see Casey looking awkward in a Nerd Herd uniform, followed by Sarah looking... what's the opposite of awkward?... in a slutty version of same. I do think they missed an opportunity for both humor and to show Sarah thinking on her feet by not having her cover for her lack of computer knowledge by pitting the different Atari geeks against each other to fix the problem without her. (There was a hint of that, but Sarah mostly seemed flustered.)
• As Emmett Millbarge, the Buy More efficiency expert turned temporary New Ass Man, Tony Hale didn't get to say "Hey, brother," or any of his other "Arrested Development" catchphrases, but it was still a pleasure to hear the fussy contempt in his voice as he uttered phrases like "lewd use of a musical montage" and "What is this abomination?"
• I love that our first glimpse of Chuck in the episode is him waking up with a fake mustache from an unseen mission. As with the climax of "Chuck vs. the Break-Up" where we saw Casey with the bag of money, the writers are recognizing that sometimes they can leave it to our imagination to fill in the blanks. Plus, it created the illusion of an elaborate mission that there was no time or money to show us.
• One night after making such a memorable appearance in the "Mad Men" season finale, Ryan McPartlin is back in Captain Awesome mode talking about how a ginseng protein shake "does wonders for your wang energy." That's versatility, folks.
• Know your '80s references: Emmett Millbarge is an amalgamation of the names of the Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd characters in "Spies Like Us," while Jeff's line to the Missile Command game ("Hey, bud, let's party") is our second "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" reference in two weeks. (Spicoli tells it to a sportscaster in a segment not dissimilar to Jeff's interview at the start of this episode.)
• Two familiar faces in guest roles here: Faran Tahir, who played the terrorist leader in "Iron Man," was a, um, terrorist leader here. (Typecasting!) Meanwhile, '70s and '80s TV Hey, It's That Guy! Clyde Kusatsu played Missile Command designer Morimoto, whom I'm assuming was named for the guy from "Iron Chef" classic.
• Blink and you may have missed writer Phil Klemmer as one of Jeff's many fanboys getting off the couch to watch Jeff take on that fickle machine one more time. (Klemmer's the skinny blonde guy.)
• Not sure I like Chuck being able to carry a big guy like Jeff around on his shoulders so much. Yes, Zachary Levi is more athletic-looking than Chuck's supposed to be, but they've made Chuck's physical weakness into such a good running gag that gets undercut when we see him doing that, even while appearing to strain under the weight.
• Morgan and Lester's panic over seeing Chuck and Jeff bond was amusing, particularly Chuck's pep talk to Morgan about all the ways -- "Mama Mia" roadie for four straight summers, owns his own smoke machine -- that Morgan is cooler than Jeff. I also liked the random diss of the Zune; do you think iPod paid product integration money for the episode?
What did everybody else think?