Saturday, 5 November 2011

Television - Chuck 'Chuck vs The Bearded Bandit' review

Last week, Chuck Bartowski came to terms with who he was without the Intersect guiding him. This week, he struggled to help the recently Intersected Morgan maintain a grip on his own identity. That's not a bad turnaround, showing us how Chuck has grown before revealing where he needs to go next - no longer enough to just be a competent spy, now he needs to become a competent spy handler. Unfortunately, Morgan has never been as thoughtful and empathetic as his best friend: he is more driven by his desires, his excitement and his insecurities, where Chuck always had his friends and family foremost in his mind.

Morgan isn't a bad guy, of course: he places a high value on loyalty and friendship, which is one of the many reasons that he and Chuck get along so well and why he was able to slip into Team Bartowski relatively easily, despite his lack of outward skills. Unfortunately, his lack of self-control makes him a prime target to be corrupted by the Intersect's power. He still wants Chuck around, but not if it means he has to sit back when he could be going on Dark Knight on evildoers everwhere.
The problem with tonight's episode, also a slightly concerning prospect for the season ahead, is that the same lack of self-control also makes him a character increasingly difficult to engage with when driven by darker motives. It's a brave gambit, taking a major character and turning him to the dark side, but as was clear in Spider-Man 3, it is brave because when it doesn't work, the character can come across as whiny and annoying, rather than concerning. Unfortunately, Morgan was pushing rather too heavily towards the former in 'Bearded Bandit'.

One of the problems is that we haven't really seen Morgan be Morgan yet this season: his fighting style is rather generic and his loyalty and close friendship with Chuck is something we're asked to remember, rather than seeing. That contrast is important so that we can feel what is being lost. I don't think his constant whining in this episode could have ever made engaging viewing, regardless of context, but its effects might have been mitigated slightly had there been a more immediate sense of who he used to be. On that same note, even though it is in character for how the impulsive Morgan might react to the sudden acquisition of Intersect super-skills, it would have been more enjoyable for those of us watching at home had he earnt the right to complain, rather than starting from the get-go.
Had he saved the gang from imminent death at Wesley Sneijder's house (obviously a Dutch football fan on the writing team this week) halfway through the episode rather than at the end, then been frustrated at being instructed to return to the van afterwards, it would have generated greater justification for his moaning. There's no narrative or character reasons for him not to be annoyed from the start, but it all felt a bit sudden. Less justifiable was his sudden bout of recklessness: it is clear by the end of the episode that the Intersect is starting to dominate Morgan's mind so completely that his old self is being lost - hence his forgetting who Luke Skywalker is, which I'm assuming (and praying) is a clue towards a bigger picture involving memory loss of some kind - but given how he could remember to do the Christian Bale Batman voice at that point, his refusal to take advice and listen to his best friend seemed a jarring inconsistency with the character's previous behaviour. Again, had that boring 'rescue the Sneijder brother' plot been done and dusted earlier, the moment might have enjoyed a smoother arrival.

The Sneijder plot didn't bring anything to the episode other than some mundane action sequences - I liked Sarah scaling the cliff, although it could have been tenser and was a bit ridiculous to have Chuck and Casey shouting at her from below, with armed guards presumably patrolling the grounds at the summit. Also, no For Your Eyes Only reference from Chuck? Missed opportunity. The standalone/spy elements of each Chuck episode are rarely particularly strong, but they are at their best when working in tandem with the character work. Nothing in the mission showed us anything about the conflict being played out between Morgan and Team Bartowski that wasn't already obvious from their scenes together, making a large chunk of the episode feel disposable.

Significantly more enjoyable was the introduction of Gertrude Verbanski, aka Carrie-Anne Moss, leader to Carmichael Industries' highly funded, militarily organised competition. As was obvious in her outings as Trinity, Moss is extremely capable at doing the hard-ass bit while preserving some sense of her humanity, which came through to thrilling effect in her tête-à-tête with Sarah. She may not be as hilariously showy as Timothy Dalton, but looks a canny choice for the role. Fingers crossed that she and Sarah get to exchange punches at some point in the future, because a showdown between Trinity and Sarah is surely too perfect a proposition to pass up. Her previous with Casey also has potential, given the similarities between the two, although hopefully their interactions won't be isolated from the family life that Casey already has with Alex and her mother. It also has the possibility of all tying into the Morgan storyline, seeing how protective Casey became of his beardy little charge last season, and Alex potentially the only person able to bring Morgan back from the brink.

The Buy More plot didn't do a lot of anything, other than providing a means for Carmichael Industries to pay off its escalating bills at the end of the episode. On the plus side, it did allow the reintroduction of Big Mike, with Mark Christopher Lawrence as entertaining as ever - that cheesy '70s ad was a little overcooked, but got by on his insurmountable charisma - and Ryan McPartlin's Captain Awesome, who got a long-deserved blast from the Buy More wind machine. They're a terrific pairing, with Awesome's zen-like calm playing off Mike's intensity, and single-handedly kept their side of the episode afloat. It's a little sad, but ultimately for the best, that Jeffster! look to have played their final gig. They were great fun at their best, but suffered from diminishing returns as the series progressed.

'Chuck vs The Bearded Bandit' wasn't a terrible episode, just a messy and occasionally irritating one (primarily down to Morgan's complaining) that possibly felt worse than it was due to hopes for Chuck to go out on the highest possible note, with every hour needed to be as good as it possibly can be. Some potentially neat season arc threads were laid out, but for anyone tuning in after missing last week due to the baseball - and given the previous episode's horrible ratings, fingers crossed that it was just a sports-based blip - something much stronger was needed, at the very least highlighting the series' strengths rather than its weaknesses.

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