Monday, December 01, 2008

Chuck, "Chuck vs. the Sensei": It's the Eye of the Tiger, it's the thrill of the fight

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?

45 comments:

Stef said...

Dixon!!!! Guess that's what it takes to unleash the Casey.

I was imagining Barry Bostwick in the role of Awesome Senior, but I'm glad they went with another double-B. Seeing the Scarecrow in a new spy show was a treat. And Morgan Fairchild was perfect!

There's gonna be something up with the Dad, I'm guessing. I'd rather see him be a spy than a villain.

Z said...

I was burning through OC Season 3 over my Thanksgiving vacation (and it wasn't as awful as I remembered), and came across a bonus feature about various people in Josh Schwartz' life who were the namesakes for characters. In the credits, I learned that Schwartz' mom is named Honey. Guess it's no surprise when it came time to name an Awesome Mom what her name would be...

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this and laughed out loud during Jeff's shouting meltdown and again at Sensei's (I want to type Dixon!) sneak up on Chuck while Chuck is tailing him - I laughed again even though I saw it in the preview last week.

I like that they basically now have Sarah showing her feelings but being patient with Chuck to sort back through his.

I also wonder doesn't anyone think about their Mothers! (I know, I know, we are saving this for Season 3 or 4...

Alan Sepinwall said...

Dixon!!!! Guess that's what it takes to unleash the Casey.

Thanks for reminding me to say a few kind words about Carl Lumbly, who usually plays ultra-serious roles (and plays them very well) and was a lot of fun in an atypically outgoing and joyous role.

Nicole said...

I'm hoping that the reference is to the Winnipeg alderman.

I am pretty sure that Chuck's dad is a spy, which is probably why Chuck was considered as a candidate while at Stanford. Now if he ends up having put Chuck in some weird kid training a la Sydney in Alias, the circle will be complete. I didn't even recall Dixon's character name, just that he was Dixon.

Mac said...

Chuck: "Eye of the Tiger, Casey!"
Me: "You mean 'You're the Best', Chuck."

Mac said...

Anyway... Most of the episodes this year have had a Chuck A-plot and a Morgan B-plot. This one tried to have a Morgan B-plot and a Sarah B-plot, and there just wasn't enough time to service both. (Not that way, Jeff.)

filmcricket said...

Yay, Dixon!

I agree this wasn't up to the show's very high standards, and I agree with Mac that it's because it was overstuffed.

In S1 Marshall got a show almost completely to himself: Dixon deserves the same. And we got almost an entire episode this season based on Sarah's past, Casey deserves the same. And the Buy More stuff, while funny, wasn't sooo hilarious that we couldn't have done without it this week, particularly since there could have been more comedy gold mined from The Awesomes.

Also, I really hope Mr. Bartowski is just a deadbeat dad, and not a spy.

Still my favourite show on TV, though.

pixelwax said...

Morgan Fairchild is 58?! Doesn't seem possible. That she's that old. That's she's that young. IOW, I had no idea how old she was when I was a kid. Back then to my young eyes she seemed old, so I expected here to be older than 58 now. But seeing her now and how she looks, no way is she 58! She looks incredible.

aimee said...

I agree with others that this was the weakest episode so far, which - as I also agree with others - doesn't mean that it was terrible.

However, I have to say I'm worried about where this is going. I don't want another character arc with another person who used to be close to Chuck being a spy or somehow related to being a spy. And I want to see more of Morgan and Chuck together, they barely talk anymore. And where is Anna?!

Otherwise, I still love this show.

Alyson said...

I was definitely underwhelmed by this ep, particularly the Meet the Awesomes B-plot, which really should have warranted placement in an episode where it is a standalone B-plot. Total waste of Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner, but as you said, they'll be back for the wedding, if not sooner.

Baldwin totally rocked the scene in which Casey's manipulating Chuck into breaking him out of The Castle; there seemed to be a tiny undercurrent of truth to what Casey was telling Chuck, and I'm intrigued by that. And of course, Chuck returns the favor later by manipulating Casey into beating the crap out of Bennett.

Nancy said...

Not the best episode of the season but still some classic moments. "Use the force Chuck". LOL.

Loved how Chuck was able to MacGuyver himself free of the cuffs - all that viewing paid off. Also how he sleeps with his X-box controller.

It was almost too many guest stars for one episode, I thought, and the sensei and Awesome storylines suffered from this. Plus it is one thing to riff on Firefly with the "damage my calm" line - but to make it be verbatim? Totally took me out of the show.

Alan - I have a question re: the break Chuck will be taking after episode 11 (the Xmas one). (I will not reveal any TRUE spoilers, but I have to ask!) --

I've read they will return in Feb with the big 3D extravaganza (episode 13) - so my question is...what happens to episode 12?? I hope that TPTB at NBC aren't going to get in the habit of airing them out of order.

pixelwax said...

Yup, I agree, it was quite the overstuffed episode. Kinda fits though given it's the Monday after Thanksgiving. :)

Dixon, man, I never much cared for him. Lumbly plays his roles well!

Would someone please explain why Chuck and Ellie's father is not around? I missed it. And what about their mother? Thank you.

Andrew said...

Agreed that the 3 plots in this episode never quite connected together as well as the rest of the season 2 episodes (and that there was certainly more room for the Casey story to fit in better with the Morgan/Lester/Jeff/Emmett story). But it wasn't bad-- just didn't quite click as well as the other episodes.

Great casting with the Awesomes and Sensei. And good work from Levi and Baldwin together.

dez said...

My favorite part was the '70s-style flashback to Casey's training (loved all that hair!). Plus there were a lot of amusing lines, so all in all, I was pleased. But I echo the others who have wondered all these weeks: Where the heck is Anna!?

Pamela Jaye said...

a. No MacGyver (sp?) mention? I loved that line!

b. Why doesn't this guy (or anyone else) who is trying to track Chuck's unexplained absences, notice Casey's?

c. yup - where's Anna? were they just teasing us with her presence, or did Casey have her picked up for NSA training?

d. Carl Lumbly again! Is he working more, or is he just in shows that I like, now?

e. Ellie. I didn't remember whether dad was dead or alive. Just that mom was gone. I thought she would have wanted Chuck to give her away. After all, they "take care of each other" - ever since that first "Mother's day"

watched late. haven't read comments yet.

Pamela Jaye said...

she's 58?

didn't she - under another name (Suzanne something) play one of the littlest children in the original Yours, Mine & Ours?

(loved that movie for years. found our from my friend that it was based on a book, based on real life, quite different from the movie - but still with the 18 kids)

Pamela Jaye said...

totally agree that the Ellie/Awesome storyline should have had the time allotted to the Buy More storyline (and btw, did anyone else notice the Best Buy commercials in the breaks? they were confusing!)

I've never seen more than one or two scenes of a Karate Kid movie (while visiting someone else's house). Last I saw of Macchio, though, he hadn't aged... has he yet?

Bruce Reid said...

Like pretty much everyone agrees, overstuffed, so too much good material wasn't developed to the point of being great. I'd have liked a great deal more of Lumbly, though I doubt his staredown of Morgan would have been topped. At least they avoided an emotional copout: Casey's aggressive demeanor, it turns out, is the real deal, and he actually doesn't like Chuck.

Also nice to see Captain Awesome, conflicted though he might be, try to stick up for his girl in the face of his parents' chipper onslaught.

electricia said...

Definitely the weakest of the episodes this season. I didn't have that many laugh out loud moments, and I would have liked more to the Casey plot. I feel like there was a lot more that could have been done with it.

I LOVED that the Awesomes were steamrolling Ellie. I despise her and her constant haranguing of Chuck, her constant nitpicking and meddling. Hate hate hate. Would have been happy to see her get more of what's coming to her, but I suspect Awesome is too awesome to let that happen.

For me, the best parts of this episode were the nerdy guest stars. Captain Sheridan/Tron could plan my wedding any day.

Eric said...

pixelwax - I think, as far as we know, that Chuck's father disappeared under mysterious and as of yet unexplained circumstances. (Perhaps also involving Wendy Watson's parents.)

I agree with most of what's been said here, although it did give me the idea that they could just spin the Buy-More stuff off into it's own sitcom, while moving Chuck up into a better cover job.

Alan Sepinwall said...

As Chuck explained at some point last season, their mom died, and their dad couldn't handle it, so he ran off, and Chuck and Ellie have been taking care of each other ever since.

Sonia said...

Hmmm...I wonder IF Chuck's dad is a spy...then I wonder IF he is somehow responsible for his wife's death??

For my money...and show with extra Casey is a good show...I think he growled about 10 times last night...LOL

Anonymous said...

I thought Chuck said that the Mother's day that he and Ellie celebrate was the day their Mom left - I didn't assume that she died, but perhaps I am remembering wrong.

I think the Dad will just be a sweet guy that couldn't handle the Mom leaving, and its the Mom that is going to turn out to be a spy or something crazy.

Now sarah's Mom I am assuming is dead.

James said...

I thought that Chuck's mom ran away and their dad couldn't handle it. If their mom died then the whole "Mother's Day" thing that Chuck and Ellie do doesn't make any sense.

Also, Morgan had mentioned in the Thanksgiving episode that Anna was on vacation with her family in Europe.

Finally, no mention that the Dojo was on Muholland Drive?!?

Alan Sepinwall said...

You guys are right. It was in "Chuck vs. the Sizzling Shrimp," and their mom didn't die -- she just bailed on them, and then their dad did as well.

Following Isaac Spaceman's theory I linked to, I suppose that means that both Mom and Dad are spies.

Stef said...

Yeah, I thought their mom had ditched them too, which explains some of the hard feelings they had in "Mother's Day." If the Mom ends up being played by Lena Olin, I'm so there. :-)

Mrglass said...

Of course the parents will both be spy or FULCRUM. Does any of those guys have a childhood friend or relative that is not an undercover agent?

Just wait until this season finale, we'll learn that Morgan is the leader of FULCRUM!

Anonymous said...

Liked the whole breakfast where Nicknames (ie Woody)were discussed, and how their son never had a nickname. Awesome!

Puff

Nancy said...

didn't she - under another name (Suzanne something) play one of the littlest children in the original Yours, Mine & Ours?

Close. It was Morgan Brittany, nee Suzanne Cupito, in "Yours, Mine, and Ours."

Morgan Fairchild was born Patsy Ann McClenny.

James said...

Hey Alan, considering how much you like Chuck, do you ever watch/review Psych? With all the humor and 80s/90s references in Psych, I'd figure you'd be all over that show!

Toby said...

"to constantly save the bacon of this clown who doesn't know the first thing about espionage."

Mmmmm.... clown bacon.....

I'm going with the 1886 probate witness for the reference. After all, it is an 80s reference!

I don't know why it occurred to me as I watched the episode, but whoever Pops Bartowski is, I want Dick Van Dyke to play their grandfather!

Cool. My word verification is "arkeyo". RKO..... Okay, I'm rambling....

JustJoan said...

My favorite moment? Before leaving for his mission, Casey starts to water his so-lovingly-cultivated Bonsai, stops dead in his tracks, then knocks it off the dresser. Take that, Sensei!

Anthony Strand said...

I can't be the only one who suddenly got violently angry at FOX during the Jayne Cobb/Buster Bluth scene at the beginning, can I?

I've been saying for a while that I'd like to see more Ellie/Awesome stories instead of Buy More ones. This episode would have improved if we'd gotten that. That said, I did enjoy the Carl Lumbly/Morgan scene.

Alan Sepinwall said...

With all the humor and 80s/90s references in Psych, I'd figure you'd be all over that show!

I've said in the past that I'd really like Psych if it wasn't for the main character, who I constantly want to see punched in the face.

James said...

Moses Finkelstein is also a character in Bob Williston's book "The Unworthy Servant". Seems like a better fit.

James said...

That's understandable. I like James Roday but he does come across as very smug and arrogant, which if I didn't think fit his character, I'd hate him too. Still, I'd love to see your thoughts on episodes of Pysch. I think they're so well written (like Chuck) that you ignore the plot holes and the stupidity of the cops (like the agents on Chuck).

Pamela Jaye said...

Darn - wrong Morgan (and not even the one appropriate to the show! (also, she had dark kair, didn't she? come to think of it)
Thanks, Nancy.

As for Mom and Dad - if they are spies... well, the show is too good to stop watching but I hope the writers aren't that stupid.

Pamela Jaye said...

one question - all the ComiCon paraphernalia - was that there in season 1.

Anonymous said...

From Wikipedia:

With the exception of his older sister, Eleanor Fay "Ellie" Bartowski, M.D., (Sarah Lancaster), little is known about Chuck's family. It is revealed that their mother left them at some point and that their father was "never really there"

Sounds more like Mr. Bartowski was never around in the first place, rather than run off.

When watching the preview last night (with Gary Cole), was I the only one worried that Chuck's dad and Sarah's dad would end up being the same person?

Jeff W. said...

Is the Orange Orange open for business? We never see Sarah in the uniform, and any other employees would need to have security clearances...

Nice to see that Chuck has a Complete Idiot's Guide to Espionage, even if it probably doesn't cover most of what he does.

filmcricket said...

One thing I forgot to mention: I know it's a standard spy move, but was anyone else reminded of GOB and Tobias when Sarah leapt on Casey's back at the dojo? Might have been the funniest moment of the night for me (albeit an unintentional one).

Frank said...

Alan,

I too caught that Chuck had the Weinerlicious photo of Sarah. But you may be interested to know that that is the exact same photo that appears on Chuck's iPhone in "Chuck vs. the Undercover Lover", another very Casey-centric episode. In fact both episodes end similarly, with Casey and Chuck parting ways at their apartments. Only this time Chuck caught Casey saying "thank you" as opposed to him pushing Chuck into the bushes and slamming the door on him.

Anonymous said...

From the Actions > Words Dept.: Not five minutes after Sarah pooh-pooh's Casey's notion that she "can't keep her chocolate out of Bartowski's peanut butter," she's unable to resist telling Chuck he's sweet and touching his arm.

Wow, I always thought Chuck and Ellie's dad was dead and their mom abandoned them; celebrating the day their mom died as Mother's Day is really morbid and resentful and so unlike them. Chuck and Ellie are like the nicest people in history.
So both parents must be alive somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone notice that the area code in Chuck's birthday card from his dad was for Las Vegas? Perhaps an engineer with a gambling problem?