"Don't you know who you are to me, what you mean to me, all that you've done?" -Chuck"Chuck vs. the Best Friend" may not have had fancy 3-D graphics or easily-promotable guest stars, but it was the strongest episode of the new year because it focused so much on the core relationships, and because it brought spy world and nerd world together again.
"Think you could butch it up just a bit, bro?" -Morgan
Of all the improvements made between season one and season two, my favorite has been the way most episodes have strengthened the ties between Chuck's two employers. What makes "Chuck" more than just an action show or a goofy workplace comedy is that he has a foot in both genres. It's not a coincidence that many of this season's best episodes either climaxed with nerd world providing a spy solution ("Chuck vs. the Seduction"), took place primarily at the Buy More ("Chuck vs. Santa Claus") or both ("Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer"). So after having Morgan and company functioning independently of Chuck for most of the last two episodes, it was nice to have a show where the mission of the week was largely an excuse to explore Chuck and Morgan's friendship, with some well-played, sweetly bromantic moments between Zachary Levi and Joshua Gomez.
Morgan's stalking of Anna also gave us yet another creepy window into the life of Jeff ("Does it shock you that eighty percent of my encounters with women have been completely without their knowledge?") and set up an amusing parallel to Chuck's government job, with the Buy More gang just as dubious of Chuck's ability to play spy as Casey usually is. And because so much of Chuck's existential angst comes from which parts of his life are real and which are only pretend, it felt nice to have a referendum on his friendship with Morgan -- along with Ellie, the biggest constant in his life and one of the few relationships where the reality is never in question -- in an episode where Morgan has a genuine reconciliation with Anna while Chuck's stuck playacting with Sarah. Even Chuck and Sarah's friendship is built on false pretenses, since both are crazy in love with each other and would be much more than friends if circumstances were different.
Though this was largely a Chuck/Morgan episode, Sarah was at the center of two of the standout moments. The first was the fight in the car, which was one of the best action sequences the show has done to date. I'd probably put it just behind the foot chase in the Gravitron, and only because that had an added layer of comedy that this one didn't. But even without laughs, it was very cool to see Sarah and Smooth Lau going at it in such an enclosed space, and using all the elements of the car -- a CD in the stereo, the seatbelt, the bucket seat, and the airbags -- as weapons.
The second was the fakeout with the exploding Nerd Herder. Even if you hadn't figured out Chuck was using the just-introduced remote control to pilot the car without being in it (and I'll confess to missing that), you knew the show wasn't going to kill off Chuck. But Sarah doesn't know that, and Yvonne Strahovski sold that moment so well that my assumptions about Chuck's safety almost didn't matter. Geez, she's good.
While Morgan got inadvertently sucked into spy world for the week, we still got a relatively self-contained -- and completely hilarious -- subplot with the rest of the Buy More crew, as Jeff and Lester unveiled their epic musical side project... Jeffster!
The name alone is genius, but Scott Krinsky and Vik Sahay kicked the subplot up several notches with their gonzo dedication to Jeff and Lester's feelings about their awful band. I loved Lester's panicked monologue about all that could go wrong if they succeeded (including his own death by auto-erotic asphyxiation) and his demented rock faces during their performance of Toto's "Africa."(*) And Jeff's paraphrasing of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" was a nice touch.
(*) "Africa" is kind of a great song, isn't it? Toto's an easy early '80s punchline, just because of the name, but when the soundtrack shifted from Jeffster! to the actual song, it gave Morgan and Anna's kiss -- dare I say it? -- an epic quality. Maybe it's just the chorus. I don't know. But the balance of '80s cheese and '00s alt-rock continues to be perfect.
If I have a complaint about the Jeffster! story, it's that Ellie and Awesome's wedding planning strife was solved way too easily. I'm not saying this show should turn into "Chuck vs. the Bridezilla," but if they're looking to give those two something to do, I think they missed a chance to get more mileage out of the idea of Devin having to deal with the extremely non-awesome ordeal that is planning a wedding. Having him somehow take care of Ellie's half of the list by the end of the episode seemed not only too easy, but a waste of an ongoing source of comedy.
Still, good times all around. Some other thoughts:
• Episode writer Allison Adler (or someone else in production) was obviously amused by the idea of the characters saying "Wang" early and often by naming Anna's bad guy boyfriend Jason Wang. And, really, who can blame her?
• I thought it was a nice touch that Anna was so excited to realize that Sarah has ever had a thought about her -- and how eagerly she referred to Sarah and Chuck as her friends immediately after -- showing how insecure Anna is around her.
• No stunt-casting in this one, but I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of Jennifer Jalene (who played Smooth) elsewhere. Lots of screen presence.
• Also, one good '90s music cue: Jane's Addiction's insanely catchy "Been Caught Stealing" playing over the brief flashback to Chuck and Morgan's childhood.
• Though this episode was originally supposed to air before "Chuck vs. the Suburbs," the only continuity problems I could spot were within the episode itself -- specifically, the way the Awesome/Ellie scenes often seemed to be dropped into the episode regardless of when the other action was happening. We cut, for instance, from Chuck in the Castle being ordered to befriend Jason Wang, to Chuck waking up the next morning with Awesome by his bed, to Chuck back in the Castle reacting to Beckman's orders like he just got them. Meanwhile, we cut from Chuck and Sarah at the party to Ellie calling the Nerd Herd the next morning, then back to the party. Just some very strange editing choices.
• This episode finally gives us some more concrete info about Chuck's mom, who apparently bailed on the family when Chuck was in the fifth grade.
• Though most of Casey's one-liners are deliberately groan-worthy, he had a couple of genuinely clever ones here: "See if the skin-covered robot flashes on anything," and then "Bartowski, you're like the poster child for friendly fire."
• I liked the introduction of more Bond-like gadgets into Chuck's world, including the Nerd Herder remote, the tennis ball grenades and the knock-out breath spray. It not only suits the show's less-than-realistic look at espionage, but seems an easy way to make Chuck less of a goober when the fighting starts.
• This episode also seemed to feature General Beckman slightly more than usual, most notably with the bit about her being friends with Condoleeza Rice. Do you think we're heading for a juncture where she has to come out to Burbank to personally supervise Operation: Chuck?
What did everybody else think?