"Sometimes, I think you have super powers." -EllieFar be it from me to disagree with the almighty Schwartz, but I have a hard time attaching the phrase "least satisfying" in any context related to "Chuck vs. the Ring."
"Yeah, I wish." -Chuck
"If, in two weeks, that is the last episode of the show to ever air, it will be one of the least satisfying finales of all time." -Josh Schwartz, 4/20/09
I will be beyond frustrated if NBC doesn't renew the show a week from today, and I sure as hell want to see how (of if) Schwartz and Chris Fedak (who had a lot to say about the finale and the season in our interview) can maintain the series' brilliant comic tone now that Chuck appears to have superpowers. But if this should unfortunately be the last episode of "Chuck" ever -- and I hope enough people did their part, followed Zachary Levi's lead and went to Subway tonight -- then dammit, they went down swinging with the best episode of "Chuck" to date, even better than last week's stupendous "Chuck vs. the Colonel."
I'll get to Chuck's "Matrix" moment (and has it really been 10 years since Keanu Reeves said "I know kung fu"?) in a bit, but I feel like any discussion of "Chuck vs. the Ring" has to start -- has to -- with "Mr. Roboto."
When I wrote my open letter to NBC, I focused more on the business reasons than creative ones, because arguing purely for quality rarely has an effect. ("Friday Night Lights," great show though it is, simply wouldn't be on the air without the DirecTV deal subsidizing much of its cost.) So now, as I write my last "Chuck" review of the season -- and, hopefully, not ever -- I want discuss the reasons why I love "Chuck," and the "Mr. Roboto" sequence neatly encapsulates all of them.
There are deeper shows on TV, more complex shows, shows with tighter plot logic, possibly even better comedies -- though I find that last statement hard to believe after an episode that featured a line like "Why are you letting Sam Kinison and an Indian lesbian wreck your wedding?" -- but none features as much pure, concentrated fun as "Chuck." It's overflowing with joy, as if Schwartz, Fedak and company (in this case, Allison Adler, who co-wrote the finale with Fedak) repeatedly ask themselves, "What else can we put into this scene that's awesome?"
The "Mr. Roboto"/wedding shoot-out sequence features so much concentrated awesome that it might be illegal in certain states, summing up "Chuck" while at the same time exceeding anything the show has done before. I know I just did a list of all the wonderful things in last week's episode, but these are all wonderful things in the same scene, so please indulge me. It combined:
• The macabre '80s prog rock of Jeffster! (and the horrified gasp of the wedding audience as they get their first look at the duo makes me laugh every time), and Jeff invoking Marty McFly as he tells the wedding orchestra to "watch me for the changes";
• Chevy Chase at his absolute smuggest, telling Chuck, "Just think: that terrible pun is the last thing you'll ever hear";
• Sarah trying to find a weapon in the stack of wedding gifts (And the only conceivable way the scene could have been any better was if Sarah couldn't find the knives and had to kick ass with some other stereotypical wedding present. If Casey could fight with a radiator last week, surely Sarah could have found a creative use for a juicer or a salad shooter.);
• Morgan telling Awesome "Listen to me: if you hit me, know that it only teaches me to hit," followed by Awesome's complete change of mood upon realizing he can help Chuck with a spy mission;
• More Jeffster!, including Jeff singing into a vocoder and Lester dancing the robot;
• Casey and his commando team descending through the skylight and shooting up the entire reception hall, and Casey delivering one more cheesey kiss-off line;
• Chuck's most girlish screams yet as he watched the ice sculpture shatter;
• Scott Bakula punching Chevy's lights out (southpaw!) and relishing the moment;
• Bryce entering the reception hall as the soundtrack shifts to an orchestral version of "Mr. Roboto" that, like the use of Jeffster!/Toto's "Africa" over Morgan and Anna's kiss in "Chuck vs. the Best Friend," stripped away the song's corny reputation and made it sound really cool;
• Jeffster! playing so loudly that none of the wedding guests could hear the shootout;
• Ellie (the only truly normal character left) doing yoga to avoid dealing with what's being done to her wedding; and...
• Jeffster! setting off Roman candles inside the church.
Frankly, it's all I can do just to keep from watching the sequence for the 50th time so I can finish writing the review. DVR technology may cease to exist, and I'm still going to have this episode saved at Keep Until I Delete status just so I can watch it whenever I'm having a bad day.
But here's the thing: if "Chuck" was just a collection of in-jokes and '80s references, then... well, then it'd be "Family Guy." And while "Family Guy" has its place, what makes "Chuck" so special -- what suddenly has this storm of bloggers and Tweeters and sandwich aficionados doing all they can to help it get a third season -- is that there's a fundamental warmth and humanity underneath the jokes about "Back to the Future" and "Tron," and then cool action and high stakes piled on top. It's a cast of appealing characters played by very good actors, and so the laughs feel more satisfying, the action cooler, then if it were all just a big joke.
When Chuck thanks Casey for "saving my life once a week," it's a hilarious meta gag, but works even better because we just saw the two of them strut side-by-side, like partners, through the Buy More to tender their resignations to "fuh-laming heterosexual" Millbarge. Chuck's terror during the wedding reception shootout is funnier because we know he's not just scared for his life, but upset about his spy life ruining his sister's wedding. Casey and his team planning Ellie's do-over wedding with military precision ("No, no! That clashes with the bunting!") works not just because they're such obvious macho men, but because of the amount of time the show has devoted to showing how vigorously Casey attacks any assignment.
Similarly, "Chuck" gets a pass from me on a lot of things that drive me nuts when other shows do it, partly because the show and its characters are so likable, but also because the execution in and around those things tends to be so good. Most series drive me nuts with how they drag out the Will They Or Won't They? sexual tension between the two leads. But the chemistry between Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski is so palpable that these big teases the last two episodes (the condom IOU coitus interruptus last week, Papa Bartowski interrupting Sarah's "I want..." with news of Bryce's abduction) somehow only make me happier. Like, if the actors are this good when they aren't getting together, and the timing on the near-misses so elegant, that I have no doubt their eventual coupling(*) will be even better.(**)
(*) From here until the end of the review, I'm going to avoid the obvious "assuming there's a third season" disclaimer, both because it's understood and I don't want to face the idea of a world without "Chuck" right this moment.
(**) And for the people who think that resolved sexual tension equals creative death, I have four words: Jim. Pam. "The Office."
Similarly, where I might be deeply concerned with another show that ended on this kind of cliffhanger, Schwartz and Fedak have enough credit banked that I'm going to assume they know what they're doing in fundamentally altering the main character in this way.
As Fedak talks about in our interview, Chuck the kung fu fighter is the exact thing that he and Schwartz always insisted they weren't going to do. But then Schwartz suggested it in a brainstorming, and they realized it had real possibilities. As I point out to Fedak, a whole lot of the show's appeal is in seeing a relatively average guy, who doesn't know how to fight or hold a gun or any of the other things that are second nature to Casey and Sarah, still find a way to save the day through his knowledge of "Call of Duty" or Eastern European porno computer viruses. If Chuck has that, and the Orion wrist-cuff, and all the powers contained inside this new Intersect, well... doesn't that take all that fun stuff away? When I asked Fedak about this, he said:
No. It doesn't take away. I'm going to answer your question rather cryptically. I'll say that the show is not going to lose its sense of humor.Note that he also ducks my question about "The Greatest American Hero," where the main character had all these super powers that were incredibly unreliable. Sure, Chuck may be all Neo-meets-Bruce-Lee-meets-Bruce-Leroy in that one moment where he's facing off against Casey's traitorous team member and the other guys from the Ring, but who's to say it'll work that well every time?
I'm disappointed that we may wind up skipping over the whole "Chuck learns how to be a spy" idea, which there was a lot of potential mileage in, but I also can see them getting as much out of this idea, while still letting "Chuck" be "Chuck." As Fedak also promisingly notes:
He's not suddenly going to become Jack Bauer.And thank God for that. But, frankly, if there isn't good news from NBC next Monday, I may have to go all "TELL ME WHERE MY SHOW IS!!!!" on somebody. Because this show is too smart, too entertaining, too damned happy to say goodbye to.
Some other thoughts:
• Rest in peace, Bryce Larkin. Matthew Bomer's USA series got picked up, so he likely wouldn't be available much for a season three. Beyond that, though, it felt like time for Bryce to leave the picture. Whatever complications are created by Chuck becoming the Intersect 3.0, Sarah has committed to Chuck as her guy, and Chuck now appears to have all of Bryce's moves and then some. And after being written as a more abrasive rival to Chuck back in "Chuck vs. the Break-Up," Bryce gets every inch the hero's death, selflessly offering himself up to Roark to save Ellie and the other wedding guests, and later revealing that he knew Chuck's dad was Orion and specifically destroyed Chuck's college career (keeping him from being recruited into the CIA) at Orion's request.
• Rest in peace, Ted Roark. I doubt Chevy Chase was going to be in this long-term, but they made brilliant use of him in these last two episodes (particularly in his recreation of Cyrus' speech from "The Warriors", but also here with the disgust in his voice as he told one of his agents to stop chewing gum) before killing him off -- and more or less killing off Fulcrum in the process. Now we have a much larger organization -- "the Ring" -- to contend with, which Fedak says "has a very specific goal" that's different from whatever it was that Fulcrum was doing.
• Rest in peace, Buy More? Fedak isn't willing to let go of it yet, but now Morgan, Chuck and Casey have all quit, Tony Hale's in a pilot (Fox's "Cop House") that's probable for a pick-up, and Chuck doesn't appear to need as much protecting as he used to. I'm sure the show will find a way to justify the continued use of it -- the CIA did build a multi-million dollar base underneath the place, after all -- and I certainly wouldn't want to lose Jeff and Lester, but it does feel like time.
• Even by Josh Schwartz/Alex Patsavas show standards, the music in the finale was incredible, so much so that I want to point all the tunes out. "Mr. Roboto" you know, and they played The Cure's "Friday, I'm In Love" at the start of the reception in the apartment building courtyard. The others: "Now We Can See" by The Thermals (Chuck and Casey stride through the Buy More on their way to quitting), "Looking at the Sun" by Gramcery Arms (Chuck getting ready for the wedding, and then Chuck walking away from Sarah), "Christmas TV" by Slow Club (the montage of the beach wedding and Roark's death), and "3 Rounds and a Sound" by Blind Pilot (Chuck and Sarah dance at the reception). Most of this review has been written with those songs (and the rest of the latest Thermals album) on heavy iPod rotation.
• And speaking of music, composer Tim Jones was also on the top of his game, not only with the orchestral "Mr. Roboto," but with the superhero movie-style music playing throughout the final act, which nicely set up the moment when Chuck discovered his powers.
• Also doing some of their best work of the series: director Robert Duncan McNeill, keeping a tight handle on the comedy and the action and even the quieter moments like Chuck apologizing to Ellie; visual effects chief Dan Curry, who made the new Intersect room look several million times cooler than the one from the pilot; stunt co-ordinator Merritt Yohnka, who made Zachary Levi look plausibly like a martial arts master despite no formal training; and editor Matt Barber, who helped cut it all together so that everybody else's work (particularly the fight stuff) looked that much better.
• Even outside of the "saving my life at least once a week" line, Adam Baldwin made Chuck and Casey's apparent farewell scene sing with the look of confusion and rage on his face when Chuck finally forced a hug on him.
• It doesn't look like we'll be seeing Orion again anytime soon. Scott Bakula did a nice job of shifting back into the crazy man pose -- which turns out to not be that much of a pose -- upon Stephen realizing that the danger to his son and himself is far from over.
• Do they teach female agents how to properly rip up a bridesmaid's dress to optimize it for combat? Because Sarah made a pretty clean break with the hem, didn't she? It reminded me a little of the custom ballgown Carey Lowell had as the Bond Girl in "Licence to Kill," though on that one the skirt was designed to detach.
• Seriously, go watch that "Last Dragon" clip, particularly from about the 5 minute mark, and compare it to right before Chuck decides to activate the Intersect. Something tells me Fedak and/or Adler and/or the entire "Chuck" staff recently had a viewing of it. Yet another reason to cheer for a third season: because at this rate of the show's plundering of '80s movies that were on HBO every five minutes, you know the "Just One of the Guys" pastiche is inevitable.
Okay, so that's "Chuck vs. the Ring," more or less.
Right now, I'm not sure what to think about the show's future. I'm impressed by the passion and the thoughtfulness of the Save Chuck campaigners, and I've let myself be sucked into it, in a way I didn't think I could anymore.
This is my 13th season as a professional TV critic. The very first pilot I ever watched on the job was CBS' "EZ Streets." It blew me away. It was essentially canceled after two episodes aired. I learned an early, painful lesson: this job will break your heart if you let it. I gave in and got hurt a few more times in those early years, but by the time "Freaks and Geeks" rolled around, I had trained myself to spot the heartbreakers early, and to create enough professional distance so that, when the inevitable cancellation came, I could shrug and say, "Well, I'm glad I got to see as much of it as I did."
With "Chuck," though, I'm having a hard time doing that. Even in this splintered TV universe, even in that suicidal timeslot, it just doesn't make sense to me that "Chuck" hasn't done better than it has, and that it's future should be so precarious at this point. "Chuck" should be a hit. Maybe it could still be a hit. But in today's narrowcasting landscape, at Ben Silverman's NBC (where product integration seems at least as important as ratings), maybe that doesn't matter. It was a good show in its first season. It's become quite a bit more than that this year. And these last few episodes have taken the series into new creative stratosphere.
Distance be damned, I'm not ready to say goodbye to "Chuck" yet. I wrote the open letter. I took my family to Subway tonight. I'm going to keep a good thought between now and next Monday. And if I hear anything concrete before then, I'll let you know. And until then, I imagine I'm going to be watching the "Mr. Roboto" scene a lot.
So, go read the Fedak interview, and then let me know: what did everybody else think?