Saturday, 29 October 2011

Television - Chuck 'Chuck vs The Zoom' review

Not many programmes get the grace of going out on their own terms, but in its final season, Chuck, a series that has always had to adapt to uncertainty and last-second renewals, gets the farewell tour it and its insanely dedicated fanbase deserve. 'Chuck vs The Zoom' was one of the series' best season premieres, full of the adorable little character details that make this cast so wonderful to be around each week and offering a nicely staged bit of symmetry with the first season, where Chuck was trying to work out who he was in his new life and whether he would be stuck in the van forever or able to get out and make a difference.

The big change is, of course, that back at the beginning, Chuck had been unintentionally super-powered by his accidental acquisition of the Intersect database. His dilemma was working out how to deal with the new power and knowledge at his fingertips and whether it was putting him in danger or keeping him alive. Now, the question is whether he can live without it and, with his life transformed over the past four years, whether there is a place for him as anything other than financier of the newly privatised spy team and if he can still make a difference in his vanilla state.
Obviously, the answer is yes. The most satisfying thing about this episode was that it didn't drag out its conflicts - Chuck (the series) has previously had a habit of making its protagonist's angst outstay its welcome, such as with Chuck (the character) feeling insecure with what Sarah wasn't telling him or whether she really wanted to marry him. The aforementioned question about whether there is a place for the de-Intersected Chuck on the new team looked like it might be similarly overwrought, but was given a satisfying answer by the episode's end.

When Chuck was agonising over finding Sarah's dream house, all it took was a trademark Sarah seduction for him to spill the beans - and a whole lot more besides, I'll wager - and find the house by the final scene, even if they can't actually buy it just yet. Walking through that red door is now a positive aspiration, something to look forward to in episode thirteen (hopefully), spurring the characters on rather than weighing them down. Chuck is always at its best when its characters are working in harmony, riffing off each other and bringing the laughs, rather than moping. After two seasons marred by an excess of frowny faces, 'Chuck vs The Zoom' suggested that the warmth shared between this set of characters, the series' most appealing characteristic, is finally going to be placed front and centre again. That said, the 'Next Time' trail had Morgan saying Chuck wasn't his friend anymore, so perhaps I'm being premature. Even if it is only for this one episode, it was a happy surprise to see everyone working to resolve problems, rather than needlessly lingering over them.

It was also a pleasure that the now traditional rewind on the previous season's final twists was handled in a fairly natural manner. Now that the Volkoff fortune has allowed Chuck to set up his new team, cancelling out those financial reserves looks like a good move that should prevent the writers from deploying convenient escape routes, à la 'Chuck in trouble? Why not have him call in an air strike? He can afford it!'. I continue to be less than convinced by Morgan as the new Intersect, however, because it is difficult to see where it can take him. His character arc has been him proving himself as a brave and capable human being in his own right, not just Chuck's sidekick. While his getting Intersect access does make him the team's number one for a change, he had already proved his worth in becoming a valued part of Team Bartowski, thus making the promotion seem unnecessary. Time will tell whether that extra step to knowing kung-fu was really needed.

If there was a downside to this episode, it is that it did not allay those fears: Morgan didn't play any particularly vital role in the main plot and, though his new skills were enjoyable to watch, there was too much working around Josh Gomez's limitations as a fighter (and dancer) and not enough Morgan in the way he used his skills. His 'bouncing around' fighting style vaguely recalled Yoda in Attack Of The Clones, which was fun but required excessive cutting and stunt doubling. Similarly, his dance with Yvonne Strahovski had her doing most of the legwork (literally) since - and I say this as someone not gifted with much in the way of height - her being noticeably taller than him clearly limited the dance moves he was able to pull off. The writers are obviously caught between keeping an Intersect-ready Morgan the same old sideline act, or allowing him to become instrumental to the plots in the way he rarely has before, but risking him taking the spotlight away from Chuck.

Chuck's realisation that he still had the skills to make a valuable contribution as team leader was handled much more pleasurably. As I said, having him stuck in the van was an effective callback to the first season, a doubly neat trick if this season is going to be about tying up the final mysteries surrounding how he and the Bartowski family came to be so tangled up in the spy world in the first place. As a way of showing he was still the same old Chuck but with added experience, the manner in which he saved his friends - in an outfit recalling his Nerd Herd days, no less - made the point clearly without being sledgehammer obvious.

The plot might have been as rote as usual - ponzi scheme, break into secret lair, blah blah - but the strength of a Chuck episode has always been in the opportunities it gives its characters to express themselves and have fun as part of the ensemble, rather than the narrative. 'The Zoom' was full of those moments, from Morgan personalising his Intersect experience (no more 'flashing') to his little finger shake with Sarah, Casey's utter fury at the villain having ripped off Rush Limbaugh, or Ellie chilling in Castle, supporting her bro in his work as she should have been doing from a long time back.

A shame that Mark Hamill's cameo was so limited, but I assume he'll be back: you don't get geek-bait that good and then waste it in a one-scene villain role. The best thing I can say about 'Chuck vs The Zoom' is that, as well as being full of everything that makes the series special, it was a start that inspired confidence in this last season giving its characters a worthy send-off.


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