Spoilers for tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I ask my wife why we didn't register at Best Buy instead of Fortunoff...
"This is Casey. Grrrr!!!" -John Casey's outgoing voicemail message
A lot of the pathos on "Chuck" comes from the way that Chuck is trapped in this spy world he never asked to be a part of. But the flip side of that is that Casey (and, to a lesser extent, Sarah) is trapped in nerd world, forced to listen to salesmanship lectures from the likes of Emmitt Millbarge and to constantly save the bacon of this clown who doesn't know the first thing about espionage.
"Chuck vs. the Sensei" was another fun episode, but it didn't seem quite up to the level of most of this outstanding season. It would have been one of the highlights of the show's rookie year, but it was missing that extra special something that most of this fall's outings have featured. And the more I tried to put my finger on why that was, the more I kept coming back to that early scene with Millbarge trying to put a smile on Casey's face. What's kicked this year's best outings up a notch has been the way they tied together spy world and nerd world -- Chuck swooping down from the New Ass Man banner, Chuck saving the world with mad video game skills, Big Mike fly-tackling Leader, etc.
With the spotlight on Casey, "Chuck vs. the Sensei" had the opportunity to continue that string, to illustrate how his hellish cover assignment has made it even harder for Casey to find his "calm center" -- which, unbeknownst to him and his sensei, had actually turned him into a better fighter -- but instead the stories moved in parallel rather than intersecting, and so the hour felt slighter than the show has in a while. If they had more blatantly hinted at Casey being tempted to go with Bennett because it meant an escape from Operation: Chuck, I think it would have made everything feel richer.
Still, I'm not going to complain too much about any Casey showcase, as it gives Adam Baldwin the chance to play that coiled rage he does so well. The idea of Casey as a martial arts student seems a little out of left field -- Sarah's always been the kung fu fighter, Casey the bruiser, and Baldwin doesn't look as comfortable kicking and chopping as Yvonne Strahovski does(*) -- but the idea of a guy with this many anger management issues as a struggling young grasshopper led to some very funny moments, highlighted of course by Chuck realizing that the best way to unleash the Casey is to anger the Casey. I also thought Baldwin and Zachary Levi did a strong job in those scenes where Chuck and Casey were getting testy with each other, which in turn made the "You love me, John Casey!" moment that much funnier.
(*) In a way, though, Baldwin's hesitancy at the martial arts stuff made the fight play very much like an homage to Schwartz and Fedak's beloved "Karate Kid" movies, where Ralph Macchio always seemed like he didn't know what he was doing compared to the villains. And am I nuts, or was Casey's swinging hands technique supposed to be a reprise of Daniel-san using the drum technique in "Karate Kid II"?
Though there wasn't much crossover between the mission and the Buy More, it was at least amusing to see Morgan treat Chuck like his own sensei. We've seen in the past that Morgan has modeled his entire life on doing things with Chuck, and here he takes it to the extreme of letting Chuck tell him how to feel about the Employee of the Month contest. And his misinterpretation of Chuck's "I don't care, Morgan" led to the hilarity we've come to expect from the Morgan/Jeff/Lester troika as they first tried to have their own anti-contest, and then tried to salvage their dignity.
(Among this week's Jeff/Lester highlights: the horror that is the thought of them doing Commando Wednesdays, Lester saying "The customers can service themselves -- in the retail sense, Jeffrey, don't get any ideas," Jeff ranting at a customer who only gave him four stars, and Lester explaining, in Walter Sobchek fashion, that he can't roll on Shabbos.)
In all, another entertaining, satisfying hour of "Chuck," but one of the few episodes to date this year that felt a little like a rough draft.
Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Sensei":
• Due to the age of most of the writing staff, the show's pop culture references tend to lean very '80s, but tonight gave us two very '70s sequences. The opening flashback to Casey's training was shot very much in the style of those cheapo '70s kung fu movies Quentin Tarantino adores so much. Chuck's method of snagging his phone, meanwhile, was borrowed from one of the Grand Canyon road trip episodes of "The Brady Bunch." (That one involved socks and belts and purses, but the principle's the same.)
• Bruce Boxleitner and Morgan Fairchild were perfect guest-casting as Captain Awesome's parents, but outside of their first scene ("You're very strong -- and have fists!"), they didn't really get much of a chance to actually be awesome. I'm sure they'll be back, though, and I look forward to some overachievement in the future.
• You knew sooner or later the show was going to get around to having Chuck look for his deadbeat dad, no doubt trying to use Sarah, Casey and General Beckman to help. A nice scene for Sarah Lancaster and Zachary Levi at the end. Now, does everybody assume his dad will also be a spy?
• Continuing our discussion of Chuck's iPhone photos, it looks like Chuck misses the Wienerlicious uniform just as much as I do, based on the caller ID shot he has of Sarah.
• I Google'd the name Moses Finkelstein (CEO and founder of Buy More), and got A)An alderman in Winnipeg around the turn of the 20th century, B)A movie theater owner and jeweler in the greater St. Paul area in the 1920s, C)A witness in some kind of probate dispute as described in a New York Times story from January 13, 1886. Anyone want to guess which one he's a reference to?
What did everybody else think?