"I hate those will-they-or-won't-they things. Just do it already!" -Paulie WalnutsWhen last we saw an original episode of this show, "Chuck" Nation was in the midst of a civil war, with fans hotly divided between those outraged by the Chuck/Shaw/Sarah/Hannah quadrangle and those outraged by the outrage(*). Things got so ugly in the comments to the "Chuck vs. the Mask" review, and then the follow-up post where I asked Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak to weigh in on things, that I eventually had to shut down comments on both.
"If you and this girl love each other so much, what's keeping you apart?" -Skip
"It's complicated." -Chuck
(*) And, yes, I will acknowledge that there are many gradations among the two groups, including those who haven't been happy with the season independent with what's happening with the romance arcs, but the two loudest and most visible groups were the ones who fell on either side of the 'shipper line.
"Chuck vs. the Mask" wasn't designed to be the last episode to air for three weeks, but that's how the schedule played out. The hope would be that "Chuck" would return from Olympics hiatus with an episode to allay the fears of the 'shippers and other doomsayers and bring "Chuck" fandom back together in the kind of peace and harmony that led to the show being saved from cancellation in the first place.
"Chuck vs. the Fake Name" was not that kind of episode.
Which isn't to say it wasn't a good episode. It was, I thought - one of the best of the season, in fact. It had a lot of humor, Chuck being a good spy, Casey being even more bad-ass than usual, the darker edge that's been an increasing part of this season, and some great pathos from Yvonne Strahovski and Zachary Levi in the scene where Sarah tells Shaw that her real name is Sam. Other than some of the usual "Chuck" stuff you just have to roll your eyes at or shrug off (like the wiseguys smashing Chuck's communicator watch for the sake of the plot), it was packed with the sort of material that makes me love this show.
But even though it had those things, and Chuck breaking up with Hannah because Sarah's near-death made him realize how much he still loves her, it also had Sarah moving more deeply into a romance with Shaw - going so far as to tell him a secret about herself that she never dared tell Chuck - as well as the conversation quoted above between Chuck and the two wiseguys(*) about how annoying all this Unresolved Sexual Tension stuff can get. And my worry is that those of you who were pissed off three weeks ago will feel just as unhappy, if not more, about that.
(*) Their actual character names are Matty and Scotty, but come on. You hire Tony Sirico to play a wiseguy, and we're gonna call him Paulie Walnuts. OH!
I will say this, before moving on to discuss the many things I enjoyed about "Fake Name": generally, when shows that play with UST start having other characters make meta references to how the two characters in question should get together already, then it's time for those characters to get together already. My enjoyment of "Chuck" doesn't hinge on seeing Chuck and Sarah together, but my patience does wear thin when we reach a point where the couple is clearly apart only because the creative team is reluctant to end the will-they-or-won't-they dance already.
Now, I don't think that's exactly what Schwartz, Fedak and company (here with Ali Adler on script) are doing. I think this recent arc (going back at least to "Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler") about Chuck turning himself into the man he thinks Sarah wants - when in fact Sarah wanted the old Chuck and is alarmed by what he's becoming - is pretty smart, and has been very well-played by Strahovski. I totally bought that she would be so confused and troubled by Chuck's growing ability to lie that she might feel compelled to blurt out her true name to someone else - and that hearing her do that would hurt Chuck deeply. But I do wonder if Shaw isn't one complication too many. There could well be more to this story as we go along (either Shaw secretly working for The Ring, even though they keep trying to kill him, or Sarah pretending to fall for him because she doesn't trust him, or what have you), but as things stand now, I think the writers could have maintained Chuck and Sarah's distance without having to bring in a couple of outside obstacles.
(Though doing that would have deprived them of the opportunity to give the fangirls and fanboys an episode that featured both Superman and Lana Lang in towels. And I hear some people enjoy that sort of thing.)
Anyway, moving on from 'Ship-ocalypse Now, "Chuck vs. the Fake Name" actually featured several pseudonyms. Not only does Sarah briefly slip out from under her own, but Chuck (who already has a cover identity as Charles Carmichael) spends a good chunk of the episode posing as gifted assassin Rafe Gruber.
Chuck turns out to be surprisingly adept at playing Rafe, and the joke was written, directed (by Jeremiah Chechik), and played by Levi on just the right level: funny to those of us who know how un-Chuck-like the role is, but just believable enough to the likes of Paulie Walnuts. The comments about the cupcake store were a great punchline leading into the opening credits, and I loved Chuck-as-Rafe's desire for sterile dental instruments ("I want to kill him - not some secondary infection!")
Though the Intersect 2.0 goes on the fritz when Chuck is afraid for Sarah's life in the hotel room, for the most part he acquits himself very well on the mission, even earning a healthy dose of respect from Casey. (And Casey gets to be awfully impressive himself, not only letting Chuck pull his tooth for the good of the mission, but making the one-in-a-billion shot with the sniper rifle to kill Rafe and save the day.)
We also get to see how Devon is struggling with his spy knowledge, even without the burden of a fake name, and once again how hard it is for Chuck to let someone from the real world into his life, with all the attendant dangers it now includes. He mainly dumps Hannah because, as Ellie intuits, he realized he still cares for Sarah, but there was also a "Peter Parker dumps Mary Jane for her own good" quality to the way things went down, and I would hope that this is the last time the writers tell a story about Chuck trying to date a civilian - and not just because I'm hoping, for all our sakes, that he and Sarah get together soon, for good.
And on that score, I'm not too worried. If Paulie and Skip can see it, and if Jeff (while discussing Chuck's amazing luck with the ladies with Lester and Big Mike) can be lucid enough to see that those other women don't matter because, "When he's with Sarah, the light in his eyes shine brightly" - well, then I think we're heading towards a destination that everyone will be happy with, even if the journey there is longer (and bumpier) than many would like.
Some other thoughts:
• This week in "Chuck" music: "Faces in the Dark" by The Generationals (Ellie talks to Awesome as he exercises), "A Sleep Be Told" by The Traditionalist (Chuck tells Awesome he didn't cook this meal), "Living a Lie" by Daniel Zott (the whole Chuck/Hannah split sequence) and "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" by the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone, from the Italian film of the same name (Chuck, posing as Rafe, meets the two wiseguys).
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: well, pretty much every second that Tony Sirico (aka Paulie Walnuts) and Louis Lombardi (aka Big Pussy's FBI handler, Skip Lipari) were on screen together was an extended "Sopranos" joke (and, at times, a pretty broad one, but no moreso than much of Sirico's time on the real show). Meanwhile, Ellie talks about Chuck's childhood crush on Mrs. Seaver from "Growing Pains," and Chuck explains that he once played Perchik in a school production of "Fiddler on the Roof" (the revolutionary played by Paul Michael Glaser in the '71 "Fiddler" movie). Rafe's last name Gruber is almost certainly another "Die Hard" shout-out (Alan Rickman was Hans Gruber), and all dental torture scenes in movies and television implicitly hearken back to the "Is it safe?" scene from "Marathon Man."
• Rafe was played by Johnny Messner, who did a stint on "The O.C." as Julie Cooper's con man ex, and was also named in tribute to new "Chuck" writer (and "Survivor: Guatemala" second-runner-up) Rafe Judkins.
• So we found out early in season one that Sarah's real middle name is Lisa, and now we know her first name is Sam (short for "Samantha," or do you reckon Gary Cole just gave her a boy's name to be distinctive?). Anyone want to set an over/under on finding out her last name?
• Speaking of aliases, what do you figure was up with Casey's extreme discomfort when Paulie Walnuts recognized him as someone he knew as Alex Coburn? Chuck did flash on the name, which is never good.
• This is our farewell to Kristin Kreuk as Hannah, but Schwartz and "Chuck" producer Matthew Miller understandably moved to quickly work with her again on "Hitched," the sitcom pilot they're developing for CBS.
• "Hannah, don't you think this chicken is moist?" is just a funny phrase. It just is.
Finally, I want to make it abundantly clear that what happened with the comments last time will not be tolerated in any way, shape or form from now on. I have commenting rules for a reason, and it's because up until "Chuck vs. the Mask" aired, I was able to keep this blog as one of the few places on the 'net where people can talk about TV in a mature, level-headed respectful manner. Here are the two relevant sections I need people to keep in mind here:
Rule #1: Be nice. This is an opinion blog, and a place where people can and should argue passionately for their point of view. But there's a difference between arguing with passion and arguing with hostility. If you can't find a way to express your viewpoint without insulting other commenters, or getting strident and self-righteous -- say, equating your opinion with fact, and deriding other people for not seeing the truth of your words -- then either tone down your words until they're more respectful to other people, or don't comment.I'm going to be very quick on the trigger to delete comments this week if you all can't behave, and if things edge into calamity like last time, I'm just going to switch the entire site over to comment moderation until things calm the hell down.
Rule #6. What did I say about being nice? Given that most of the recent violations have been about Rule #1, it bears repeating. This shouldn't be that hard, but sometimes, it is. Talk about the shows, not each other. Period.
Disagreement is fine. Hysterics and name-calling are not. Are we clear?
And having said all that... what did everybody else think?