Zachary Levi and Josh Gomez of 'Chuck'
I'm a TV critic, but I'm also a TV fan. I'm a "Chuck" fan, but I'm also a TV critic. And if you're looking for me tonight, you may find me off on an island, all by myself.
As the Olympics were beginning and "Chuck" went off the air for a couple weeks, critics and "Chuck"-friendly bloggers were sent the next four "Chuck" episodes. I watched the episodes, greatly enjoyed them in the balance and felt pretty solid in my feelings.
Then I started reading reactions to Monday's (March 8) episode, titled "Chuck vs. the Beard" via twitter. From the people whose opinions I respect the most (The Sepinwalls and Ryans and a few others) to the people whose opinions I respect the least (You're seriously expecting specific examples?), the reactions were unanimously positive. And they weren't just positive. My Twitter feed has been full of "Best episode ever!" and "I laughed, I cried, I was cured of my chronic halitosis"-style tweets.
And the "Chuck" fan in me understands where they're coming from. There are things that happen in Monday's "Chuck" that have been long overdue and things that happen that promise to change the foundation of the show, presumably permanently. And the "Chuck" fan in me hopes that other "Chuck" fans are happy, because I know from message boards and comment fields that there has been some up-and-down reactions to recent episodes and not just from Chuck/Sarah 'shippers, who unfairly get painted as the only viewers capable of dissatisfaction. So just as I want to be pleased in my own fandom, I want "Chuck" fans to be pleased. I think that after "Chuck vs. the Beard," there will be happiness.
If I'm going to rave about the "Chuck" episodes that I love, I can't be tacit about the episodes I don't like, because that's not true to either the critic hat I wear, nor to the "Chuck" t-shirt I sometimes wear to bed.
Like I said, I'm on an island, because I'm the guy who didn't really like "Chuck vs. the Beard."
I'll try to explain myself after the break, while also recapping the episode. Then, I welcome any appreciation for the episode that others might have... I'll also include a small, leaky dinghy in case anybody wants to join me off-shore...
Want me to bottom line my problem with "Chuck vs. the Beard"? The tone felt off, really from start to finish. Every good "Chuck" episode is a tightrope walk, because we love the character-driven humor, but we equally love the character-driven drama. The stakes can often come from moments that are rooted in comedy, but what I like so much about "Chuck" is that it can simultaneously play the wackiness and the seriousness with sincerity, with the best episodes honoring both sides.
"Chuck vs. the Beard," to my mind, honors the wackiness to excess and can't find the right calibration to make the emotionally meaningful parts of the episode stick. Both the comedy and the drama are played too broadly and the result is an episode which, to me, felt like it was yelling for 44 minutes.
The episode is a big MacGuffin leading up to something that some fans have been dying for: Morgan now knows Chuck's secret (and he also knows Sarah and Casey's secrets, if we're tabulating properly). And one thing I can't deny is that Morgan's reaction to the knowledge being dropped on him is probably perfectly in character.
"My best friend is a spy?" Morgan said, seemingly staring down death at the hands of Ring agents led by Diedrich Bader. "This is unbelievable. This is the best news I've ever heard!"
Morgan lives small, but he dreams big. That's one of his defining characteristics. And in this episode, Josh Gomez plays Morgan as broadly as he ever has before. There isn't an ounce of subtly to the entire Morgan arc, as Morgan has to play spy himself, ducking around corners and perching above lockers and basically reveling in the idea that he's finally got this opportunity to be James Bond or Maxwell Smart. Morgan is also a spy unencumbered. Unlike Chuck, who only became a spy when the Intersect was pumped into his brain and thus had spy-dom forced upon him, Morgan chooses his destiny from the beginning and thus feels no fear or anxiety in his proto-spooking. As the sportscasters can't help but say about Brett Favre whenever he unretires and comes out chucking the ol' pigskin around, "He's like a kid out there."
Or, as Morgan put it, "I've been a loser my whole entire life and I'm done with that. Time for me to be a hero!"
Now, the Morgan spy stuff could have been played with more restraint or with more seriousness, but once the decision was made to have Gomez mug up a storm, maybe it would have been wiser to have a grounded B-story?
Instead, "Chuck vs. the Beard" features one of the show's most outlandish Buy More plots, or maybe just the most outlandish since, say, "Chuck vs. Santa Claus" last season?
The B-story and the A-story actually dovetail, with Bader's character weaseling his way into the Buy More world in the guise of a corporate hatchet man, visiting to decide which jobs would be slashed and which saved in a possible takeover. After misreading the signals through their own spy work, we had Jeff, Lester and Big Mike staging a revolution which was part "Red Dawn," part "Braveheart," part "Les Miz," part "Flags of Our Fathers" and part whichever archetypal Vietnam-era drama would best support a Jeffster! cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son."
There was so much bombast to the Buy More story -- grand speeches, Iwo Jima tableaus, musical crescendos -- that the Jeffster! performance actually got lost in the chaos. And that's hard to do. Jeffster! stood out in "Chuck vs. the Ring" even in the presences of the wedding-from-hell action scene that still ranks among the show's finest.
Tonal contrast is one of the most important things in "Chuck" storytelling and in this case, both the A and B stories were turned up to 11 and, for me, they drowned each other out and a lot of potential awesomeness was drowned out.
A problem comes up in assigning blame within the criticism. Normally, if an episode falls this flat to me, I turn my attentions to the writer and director. Well, the episode of written by Scott Rosenbaum, who I've come to respect tremendously since I began my embarkation on an epic progression through "The Shield." And it was directed by first-timer Zachary Levi, as beloved as any TV leading man by his show's passionate fanbase. So it almost feels like a betrayal of certain core "Chuck" principles to even dare to question the awesomeness of "Chuck vs. the Beard."
But it happens that I found "Chuck vs. the Beard" to be pretty poorly directed. Every performance felt indulgent and cranked to a level where the whole tenor of the show could have hinged on individual scene choices. Instead, while the episode should build from quietness to largesse, Gomez and the Buy More Variety Players are cranked up from the start and it just goes from loud to deafening.
I also didn't buy the stylistic choices, including the one-homage-after-another Buy More revolution, nor did I think that the fight scenes showed any inspiration or flair. And if everything in the Buy More was dialed up to 11, the Sarah/Shaw stuff, tied in with Ellie and Awesome's failed romantic getaway, was turned down almost to mute, so very much a claustrophobic afterthought that I couldn't gauge how much was Ring-driven misdirection and how much was coincidence.
Performance choices, tonal shifts and narrative flow fall, alas, largely on the director's shoulders and I watched "Chuck vs. the Beard" never forgetting that I was seeing a first effort by an actor-turned-director. I could also criticize camera positioning in several key shots and a few sight-line cuts that just didn't match, but I'd really be piling on.
Plus, I can't let Rosenbaum off the hook. "Chuck" has been falling into thematic repetitiveness in recent weeks, but the redundancy of this episode coming out of last week's "Chuck vs. the Fake Name" was so very avoidable.
Last week, we had Chuck losing his identity and his moorings and realizing, in the end, that what he was missing was his sister, his rock, being able to share things with Ellie. Because of his climactic conversation with Ellie, it appeared that Chuck had regained his sense of purpose, remembered his love for Sarah and he went off and broke Hannah's heart, which felt like it was a big step.
It was a step that was lost in the shuffle this week.
Instead, we began with Chuck losing his identity and his moorings and experiencing Intersect Impotence of the sort that Cialis just can't cure (if you experience flashes lasting for longer than four hours, consult Orion immediately). If Chuck can't flash, Chuck has no value and therefore no place in the world. But, in the end, it turned out that Chuck was really just missing the ability to talk to his best friend. Because of his climactic conversation with Morgan, Chuck was able to regain his ability to flash and he also remembered his love for Sarah, which felt like it was a big step.
I don't get how two consecutive episodes could be broken in the writers' room with that degree of structural similarity.
"I'm a spy again, because I have my best friend back," Chuck announced, arguing in favor of keeping Morgan in the loop. But all it was was the season's fourth or fifth or sixth reminder that Chuck is who he is because of the support structure of his family and his friends. And the odd thing here is that at least one of the next two episodes is yet another "Chuck has to do a solo mission" episodes, as if nobody within the series is learning the lesson that Chuck keeps teaching them every week. Have we not seen "Lost," y'all? Live together, die alone. Not that anybody is dying.
But what was up with the ending of "Chuck vs. the Beard"?
The Ring communicator goes off -- I'd say "rings," but that would be too precious -- and Casey picks it up...
"Hello, Colonel Casey. It's been a while."
Intriguing, right? That gets more interesting next week. In fact, many things get more interesting in "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac," a Casey-centric episode which I may like more than some of my colleagues. Forget that "no man is an island" nonsense. All men and women are islands occasionally, or at least the folks I respect tend to be.
Other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Beard"...
*** Sepinwall and I discussed this in our our podcast a couple weeks back but... SUBWAY!!! All of those reports on how Subway saved "Chuck"? Didn't make much of a difference for the first half of the season. But tonight? Nothing says rekindled friendship like a meatball marinara sub and Duck Hunt. I'm not saying that rewatching this episode caused me to want to go grab a sub for dinner tonight, but before I head off to my island, I'm gonna get some provisions...
*** I don't know if you got this, but "The Beard" had two meanings: See, Morgan *has* one and Sarah *was* one. Oh. You got that? Because it was just one of many thematic points that were probably delivered a bit too overtly? Yeah. Probably.
*** Dunno. I'm happy with the idea that Morgan knows and intrigued by the potential that this shared secret carries, but there wasn't the liberating sense of relief and amusement that came from Captain Awesome learning before anybody else. That was zigging when the audience expected a zag.
*** Favorite sight gag: Jeff stuffing a whole apple into his mouth, with Lester playing carny barker. "Do not wager against The Brown Beauty and the Snake... He can unhinge his jaw and he sheds skin."
*** Second favorite site gag: Another week of skin-heavy "Chuck," working Sarah Lancaster into a bikini to join the constantly topless Ryan McPartlin.
*** Line of the episode, Casey joining the Buy More revolution and announcing, "Because the only thing I hate more than hippy, neo-liberal fascist anarchists are the hypocrite fat cat suits they eventually grow up to become."
*** But others may prefer: "Bag 'em and tag 'em Sarah. Excuse me. Agent Walker."
*** And still others may like: "These corporate fat cats think they can take whatever they want. They may take our dignity. They can take all the hot women. But they will NOT take our jobs. And they will never take our store!"
*** I was pleased that the episode contained at least three different references to the Stanford degree that the government secured for Chuck at the end of last season. Next, perhaps we'll find out what's been happening to Chuck's accumulated government paychecks this season.
Anyway, I totally welcome disagreement, though my preference would be towards friendly and civil disagreement. What'd you think of "Chuck vs. the Beard"?