Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chuck, Season 5 Episode 1 – "Chuck Versus the Zoom"

Chuck is easily the most "fun" hourlong show I've followed in the last five years. Not the only pure piece of pulp, to be certain: I've seen every episode of 24, I continue to watch The Walking Dead (but don't let that show's fanboys hear you call it anything less than high art, or they'll attack), and in recent weeks American Horror Story and Revenge seem to have wormed their way onto my viewing schedule. But unlike those shows, Chuck, save for the occasional season or midseason finale, makes no pretense of gravitas. It's just unadulterated goofy effusive action-comedy fun from stem to stern, for better or for worse.

No doubt linked with that playfulness is the show's fairly straightforward, uncomplicated plotting and, save for the last few episodes of any given season, generally light serialization. In addition to being the breeziest hourlong I've followed in years, it's also the most episodic, with most of its villains being defeated within the space of 42 minutes. In certain ways this makes it easier to review – like the stories themselves, reviews can be relatively self-contained and closed off – but also tougher, as there's less speculation and discussion to engage in.

As for the main story this week: It was amusing. By no means great or anything I'll remember years from now (maybe not even months from now), but a charming enough way to pass the time. The extended massage / racquetball espionage set piece halfway through was quite fun, the kind of madcap zaniness topped off with a dollop of action that Chuck specializes in. The final act was a little more problematic. Sarah and Morgan dancing to throw off suspicion seemed like a lot of other bits the show has done before, and Craig Kilborn was neither particularly funny or intimidating as the villain.

But one little part of the climactic sequence I did really enjoy was Chuck seemingly heroically sacrificing himself, only to actually have left a video message back in the van hyperactively begging the team not to leave him. It did a great job showing off that while Chuck is definitely more courageous than ever before, he's still got a little of that goofy guy from the pilot left in him. He's a hero, not a fucking D&D paladin.

I'm not sure that I'm feeling the handing off of the Intersect from Chuck to Morgan just yet (and I'm also not sure that it'll last long enough to demand I get used to it, but who knows). It's not Chuck not having the Intersect that bugs me – I actually think Chuck having to use his spy knowledge sans artificial superpowers is an interesting story concept they blew through too quickly last year – but the Morgan part. I like Morgan as the techie backup but, at least as of one episode in, he's just a little too manic and goofy to anchor spy action, even in a show as lighthearted as this one. It's like if Q replaced Bond in the field.

As for the serialized aspect, I am as of now enjoying Decker as the recurring villain, even if he does seem to be more a nuisance than the rich and mighty organization-fronting evildoer we're used to with the likes of Ted Roark and Alexei Volkoff. I just hope that Decker's not the true big bad (and I doubt very much he is), and someone above him is going to supersede him partway through the season, maybe around the winter finale. This is the last season, so they might as well go fucking nuts and blow this shit up as big and ambitious as they can possibly afford to on their admittedly tight budget.

One thing I'm less than ecstatic about is seeing Jeff and Lester once again. At this point, with twelve episodes to go, I understand that they're in it for the long haul (although the eagle-eyed viewer will note that General Beckman, Bonita Friedericy, was absent from the opening credits, though I'm sure she'll at least guest spot at some point before series' end), but there was such a good opportunity for this show to shed its loose weight with the destruction of the Buy More at the end of the third season, and it's a shame they wormed their way out of it.

The episode where they went camping with Chuck and the gang was the only Jeff / Lester story I enjoyed all of last season, and this episode shows no sign of that changing. In a perfect world they would have swapped them out of the main cast and swapped Mekenna Melvin and Linda Hamilton in, but alas, this world is but fantasy.

(Speaking of Mekenna Melvin, no sign of Alex this week, but I certainly hope that changes in weeks to come. She's been a consistently quality addition to the ensemble since her first appearance.)

Finally, I'll finish positive by mentioning that I totally loved the opening sequence with Mark Hamill as a slimy European supervillain (and the one part where I did mostly enjoy Morgan as the Intersect). It had little to do with the rest of the episode, but just taken as a little Chuck short film it was pure fun, and another notch on this show's belt of knocking it out of the part when it comes to geek-friendly casting and cameos.

Final Grade: B-

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