Monday, October 20, 2008

Chuck, "Chuck vs. the Cougars": Way of the Rat

Spoilers for "Chuck" season two, episode four coming up just as soon as I admit that I have "MMMBop" on my iPod...

"Chuck vs. the Cougars" wasn't quite as strong as the season's first three episodes -- Heather being an ass-kicking villain wasn't explained very well (even by typically implausible "Chuck" standards), and the running gag about Mark Ratner believing Chuck to be a stone killer didn't quite work (I blame Ben Savage for playing it too broadly) -- but enough parts of it worked that I still had a whole lot of fun. And, in the end, isn't that really all that matters?

The news of Nicole Richie's casting made me wince, but Josh Schwartz did a much better job the second time around with a "Simple Life" co-star. (Paris Hilton's "OC" guest spot was painful.) Richie may not be a master thespian, but mean girl is the part she was born to play, baby. And whatever physical limitations she might have compared to Yvonne Strahovski (starting with what looked like a three-foot height differential) were made up for by the cool staging of their fight in the girls' shower -- scene of so much real and cinematic mean girl cruelty -- with the two women kicking holy hell out of each other, soaking wet, while Chuck the fake deejay played "Smack My Bitch Up."

I also thought this episode continued the trend of the writers figuring out how best to use Strahovski. Not that I ever had a big problem with her in season one, but looks aside she was my least favorite of the "Chuck" big three: good chemistry with Zachary Levi, pretty good at the dramatic scenes, but not especially funny and only so-so in the fight scenes. The writers have done a good job of finding ways to make her physicality and aggression into good gags, whether it was the Lambada last week or her using a pencil to remind Chuck that she doesn't like questions about her past. The action scenes have been markedly better this year, with the shower fight possibly the best of the season.

And Strahovski's biggest strength -- her work in the more emotional territory that Adam Baldwin's almost never asked to visit -- has gotten even stronger so far. (Earlier today, Marc Bernardin at EW argued for her as one of TV's most underrated actresses.) Whether in or out of that perfectly hideous blonde wig, Strahovski did a great job at showing an insecure, wounded side of our resident glamazon. And the final flashback, with Tony Todd briefly returning to life to recruit Jenny/Sarah, made Sarah's obsession with secrets and maintaining cover identities a whole lot more interesting. It's not just that she's a spy -- Casey, after all, doesn't seem too bothered to be using his real name -- but that she's the daughter of a traveling con man. For her, maintaining cover has been a way of life since long before she joined the CIA. (So has throwing knives, for that matter.)

This one felt brimming with even more pop culture references than usual. Both the shower fight and Sarah's return to the gym, wet and bloody and barefoot, to be named reunion queen evoked "Carrie." The mayhem at the high school reunion took many pages from "Grosse Pointe Blank" (which came out in 1997, a year before Sarah graduated), but avoided being a straight lift because Sarah's enemy turned out to be her high school tormentor. Heather Chandler was named after the meanest (and first to die) of the three title characters from "Heathers." Mark Ratner was, of course, named after the geek who loves Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." And the kegger at the Buy More evoked many, many, many '80s and '90s high school films where some kid throws a raging party while his folks are out of town, with Lester playing the role of the host who freaks out because the guests are messing up all of his parents' stuff.

(One major missed opportunity: rather than have Lester accidentally break the marlin while playing tug of war with some guy, the writers should have made the "Risky Business" parallel more explicit by having the guy drop it from a height and force Lester to dive for the thing, Tom Cruise-style.)

Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Cougars":

• Even if Jenny Burton had turned out to be Sarah's real name, I wouldn't have minded them giving up that piece of her backstory this early, because Zachary Levi was having so much fun playing Chuck's glee at getting this scrap of news. And I love how they turned that into a sweet moment between the two at the end -- after seeing first-hand how rough Sarah's past must have been, Chuck decided to ease up on her and just enjoy a burger in peace.

• Again, I wasn't in love with the "Mad Dog" mistaken identity stuff because Savage the younger made it seem too goofy, but I did like how Casey's irritation with it lasted all of a half-second before he realized how to take advantage of it to get the info they wanted. The easier joke would have been to have big John fuming for the entire hour over not getting credit for his bad-assery, but it was funnier to see Casey the professional just roll with it and try to play up Chuck as much as possible.

• Also a splendid Casey moment: his brief turn at the deejay booth. It's so rare to see him looking happy about anything other than Ronald Reagan or the chance to kill people.

• Chuck's geek orgasm at seeing the mainframes inside the Orange-Orange was both funny and a good reminder that, despite the hot fake girlfriend and his improving status as a field agent, he's still a dork at heart. (And this is now two episodes out of four where Sarah's dork love has blinded her to the reality of a mission. In "Chuck vs. the Seduction," she couldn't see that the Black Widow wouldn't be attracted to Chuck, and here she couldn't see that Heather might have ulterior motives for being with the Rat.)

• Was I the only one who saw this episode title and initially assumed it would involve Chuck getting involved with a much older woman?

• Funnier Buy More management comment: Lester's "Since this is a teaching hospital..." or Big Mike suggesting that Lester had a Bay City Rollers hairdo?

What did everybody else think?


David J. Loehr said...

Enjoyed it as always, even with the gaping implausibilities. Better yet, I finally got my wife to try it, and she seems to be hooked. So there's that.

I especially loved Casey's deejay moment, too. Probably the biggest laugh I had all night.

And I think I have to go with "Since this is a teaching hospital..."

Anonymous said...

With the possible exception of The Office and, keeping in mind that 30 Rock has not started yet, Chuck is the show that I look forward to the most each week. They really seem to have gotten the recipe right this year.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't super into tonight. It was OK, but I'll admit to sort of passing out during the episode. Maybe I was just tired, or maybe I was just annoyed by Nicole Richie. Also, does this mean Chuck (or Morgan?) will become assistant manager?

Karen said...

I agree with all of your points, Alan; it felt weak because it felt derivative, and the Ratner character wasn't actually geeky enough to make the marriage so incomprehensible.

My vote for best line of the night (tho' not in the Buy-More division) was Casey's "Not the first American tax dollars wasted on a man's lap."

J said...

Was I the only one who saw this episode title and initially assumed it would involve Chuck getting involved with a much older woman?

A pack of them. Plural. I was really worried.

I really do look forward to this show, and I'm at the point where I readily overlook most of its flaws. I let out a big "Awwwwwwwww" at the cheeseburger line at the end.

"Killers are like bears. They're more afraid of you than you are of them."

And I loved how Jeff said, "Our troubles will go up in flames."

Anonymous said...

I loved Casey looking annoyed/disappointed when he realized he wouldn't be able to kill or beat up or disable Nicole Richie's character in the beginning. Love Casey.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of bummed that there was no mention of the updated Intersect or Bryce this week - are these episodes being shown out of order, does anyone know?

Otherwise, loved it. Laughed out loud at Casey DJing. Brilliant use of late-90s music. Yes, it stole the plot from one movie and took details from three others, but if you're going to steal, those are good ones to steal from. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a Joan Cusack cameo.

The Buy More plot was a little weaker this week (and where was Anna?) but I like how much screentime they're giving Vik Sahay, who is just great as Lester.

I particularly liked Casey warning Sarah not to filet Heather while he was checking on Chuck, because you're left unsure whether he's worried about Sarah blowing her cover or whether he doesn't want to miss the knife-play.

Anonymous said...

kinda random, but isn't the marlin supposed to still be wrapped in loads of duct tape, from when they had to crack it open during last season's finale (i think?)

Anonymous said...

Love this show.

Despite the loose plotting, I really enjoyed this episode. Richie was surprisingly good. The music was perfect (I would know -- class of '99!). I laughed out loud when Chuck put on "Smack My Bitch Up." Hilarious.

Mrglass said...

BAD Dawson's Creek vibe at the High School reunion; that show hasn't aged well.

Except that, I have to agree with others that 'Chuck' is quickly becoming one of my favorite shows. Let's hope the horrible ratings improve soon!

Bruce Reid said...

"MMMBop" shoutouts from House and Chuck within a week? Well, Hanson always seemed like nice, level-headed boys; I'm sure they'll invest the royalty payments wisely.

Fun as always, if a bit too slack and obvious this time around. (And how did Terminator manage to come up with a funnier fight scene?) But if, I agree, Savage overplayed the Secret Agent worship, Levi added some nice shading to Charles Carmichael's demeanor to make him seem worthy of the Mad Dog moniker.

Was the bit about Sarah's real birth name being obscured supposed to light off an alarm--has there been some prominent offstage person in the show's mythology to this point? I confess I don't care enough about Chuck's story arcs (other than the Awesome-Bartowski engagement) to have paid much attention.

JakesAlterEgo said...

This episode was great for Chuck and Casey interaction. We know that Chuck respects Casey--especially when he catches him when he falls--and we know that Casey, much to his chagrin, likes Chuck, but this was our first time in awhile seeing how well they actually get along. The look that Chuck gave after the "American taxpayer" line was great, seeing them winking to each other; it was just great to see Casey treating Chuck like a sort-of equal.

Sigh. I have loved Adam Baldwin ever since he told Bill Pullman that the glass wasn't bulletproof in Independence Day.

Anonymous said...

I really like the scenes at the Buy More because the producers do such a good job of keeping the same actors to play the recurring background employees. Besides Jeff, Lester and Anna (did they explain where she was this episode?) they have some really funny employees that show up ep after ep. I don't know their names so my husband and I call them by what they look like: frowny girl, the chubby curly haired guy with glasses, big afro-sporting white guy. :)

Also, it took me out of the moment a little to see Michael Weaver (Dick Duffy) after seeing him a few days ago playing Ronny the cop on The Ex List. Guess he's making the guest star rounds. He'll be on Pushing Daisies later this year also.

Angela F. said...

@J: Or is that bees? I think it's bees.

Anonymous said...

And Weaver was playing a variation on the exact same character he played on Ex-List - a bad boy with a high school connection to the protagonist! One of those weird pop-culture synchronicities. Do you suppose his Pushing Daisies character will have gone to high school with Chuck? (I mean, the other, female Chuck. This is getting confusing!)

Despite all above-referenced plot holes, I loved last night's ep. I just have such a good time watching this show. Love the chemistry between Levi and Strahovski AND between Levi and Baldwin.

I missed Anna.

Unknown said...

Fun episode. I like Nicole Richie despite myself and she worked well here. I also found myself not minding that "Jenny Burton" (of COURSE she's a Jennifer, I thought :P) wasn't her real name either.

That was an astoundingly scary wig. Made Sarah barely recognizable, indeed.

Mo Ryan said...

Jenny Burton is my sister in law's name. Weird.

My husband hasn't been watching Chuck this season (we were both meh about it last season). But he was at the computer desk behind the couch as I watched the Cougars ep. He got drawn into the episode and ended up saying, "I love this show. Why is it so good now?" And I'm like, "You really don't read my site, do you?" Ah well.

Now if I can just get him into Supernatural this season as well, my work will be done.

Anonymous said...

Another cultural reference: James Buchanan High was the name of the school on Welcome Back Kotter.

How many of Mike's Buy More employees know who the Bay City Rollers were?

Is "Jenny Burton" any relation to Susan "not my real name" Hilton?

And the next president (whoever he is) must make John Casey the Treasury secretary, budget director, or some official in charge of monitoring the spending of our money.

Roger said...

I absolutely love this show. Its the show that I look forward to most each week. I came home last night late and thought about watching it then on the DVR, but realized that I wouldn't have enough time to properly enjoy it, so I woke up early this morning to see it before I left. Probably the only show I'd do that for...

A Random Rambler said...

Playing "Smack My Bitch Up"...priceless!

Anonymous said...

I just read on EW that ratings were up 12% (possibly for the Richie guest spot). I hope the newbies stick around. This show deserves more love.

Paul F said...

(One major missed opportunity: rather than have Lester accidentally break the marlin while playing tug of war with some guy, the writers should have made the "Risky Business" parallel more explicit by having the guy drop it from a height and force Lester to dive for the thing, Tom Cruise-style.)

I seem to remember The OC doing that exact homage (with Ryan diving for the actual glass egg prop from the movie), so they probably just didn't want to do the same joke.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I seem to remember The OC doing that exact homage (with Ryan diving for the actual glass egg prop from the movie), so they probably just didn't want to do the same joke.

You are correct, sir. I had completely forgotten about the OC thing. It's one thing for Chuck to do its own homages to the OC (Chuck running to see Morgan in "Chuck vs. the Sandworm") and quite another for Chuck to do homages to the OC's homages.

Anonymous said...

I really do look forward to this show, and I'm at the point where I readily overlook most of its flaws.

This show has flaws? :-) I also look forward to "Chuck" every week and gloss over the flaws as they arise. And Casey can DJ for me anytime!

Pamela Jaye said...

I realize this is totally off-topic, but it's not a spoiler and I need to gripe

do the people at Private Practice think it's the *80s*? They show scenes from the upcoming episode, *before* the episode. I haven't seen this since Spenser for Hire (gotten on tape from a fan in St Louis), Fame, and St Elsewhere (season 1 of each, on DVD (and probably hulu) now)

it's incredibly annoying and no one else does it (at least not in the past 15 years). What's up with that?
(and of course my DVR put it on tuner 1, which can *not* get a good picture out of ABC)

Finally watched Chuck, read the blog but not the comments (read the blog to my friend on the phone, actually), and my friend made me watch a Buy More Training Video (with Casey) that took me an hour to locate. Bottom line - my friend and I are both ticked off that Mr & Mrs Smith couldn't pull this off.

Are the ratings still crappy?

Rob Rogers said...

I'm a little late to the table here, but I enjoyed the episode a lot. And yes, I'm one of the ones who assumed that "Cougars" meant some older women.

I liked the flashback with Tony Todd, but it made me regret that they'd killed off his character. It's a shame that they fleshed him out a bit, humanized him, and gave him a potential emotional connection with one of the show's main characters only after he was already dead. I'm wondering if they could find some way to bring him back, but if I remember correctly, his death scene was pretty definitive.