Saturday, 19 November 2011

Television - Chuck 'Chuck vs The Business Trip'

'Chuck vs The Business Trip' was a perfect example of how far strong characters can go towards redeeming mediocre plotting. Everything revolving around the episode's narrative was contrived and messy, but it offered an opportunity to spend an hour hanging out with this fantastic cast interacting in a more relaxed, slow-paced environment and subsequently became rather good fun, despite itself. In other words, it was the polar opposite to last week's episode, which was fantastic for being driven by story and action.

As we all know, Chuck isn't long for this world. The series' official end date has been set on January 27th 2012 with 'Chuck vs The Goodbye'. Maybe that is what made this episode feel that much more enjoyable than it otherwise might have done, since it is now only two months until Team Bartowski leaves our screens forever. Or at least a few of them, given its ever-worsening ratings.
There was a lot of nerd humour in last night's episode, an aspect of the programme which has largely gone by the wayside in recent series, barring the odd moment like Chuck and Morgan humming the Imperial March in the back of their van in the highlight of last season, Timothy Dalton honourably excepted. Chuck had a little moment of envy at how Morgan was going to be able to experience all the Star Wars and Indy movies afresh, which Casey used to get revenge in the most devastating way possible for Alex being dumped last week: first, telling Morgan to watch Phantom Menace first, then spoiling the twist in Empire. (The Jedi twist too, but I doubt Morgan was too fussed about that one). Still, once they had reconciled, at least Casey had the good grace to keep Morgan innocent for just a while longer, by pretending there are only three Indiana Jones movies. WHICH IS OBVIOUSLY TRUE.

Meanwhile, in the plot which gave the episode its title, Chuck (in the guise of Morgan) and Sarah went to a Buy More awards do (raising for all sorts of questions about exactly how this company is set up, but let's do the Chuck thing and gloss them over) to search for an assassin out to kill their newly de-Intersected friend. Given how little happened in this part of the plot, apart from the two having random conversations with fellow Buy Morons, it took up a surprisingly large chunk of the episode. That wasn't a problem, though: it was fun to watch Chuck and Sarah getting to have a bit of fun outside the usual havoc of a mission. There were a few attempts at building tension, all unsuccessful since anyone with even a passing knowledge of how this series works will have pinpointed the real assassin from the moment she appeared on-screen, but it was all mostly an excuse to throw Chuck in a swimming pool and get Sarah to join a conga line.

The story that led to them attending the Buy More party couldn't have been much messier, unfortunately: having discovered last week that Morgan's Intersect contains a brain-destroying virus, Chuck summoned General Beckman to have it removed, which happened very quickly and without a hitch. (The throwing stars scene, shoddy CGI apart, was a lot of fun and a nice farewell to the super-powered Morgan). The CIA have shown that they have the equipment to remove the Intersect several times before, but this felt like an almighty cop-out given how much importance has been assigned to the Morgan plot over the past three weeks.

Wouldn't it have been more fun to have Ellie come up with some way of removing it, rather than just calling in the CIA? She studied the workings of the Intersect fairly extensively last season and it is always gratifying when she gets involved in her brother's spy life. Bonita Friedericy is never an unwelcome presence, but as enjoyable as the 'Chuck and Sarah go partying' story was, letting Morgan off the hook so easily wasted a lot of potential for strong drama and left Ellie doing more baby stuff, which has never been very interesting.

Chuck and Sarah's sudden yearning for a normal life and regular friendships also came a little out of nowhere and only served to let Sarah's guard down so she could let Decker's assassin into her confidence and later get into a half-hearted car bomb scene - not the same bomb as was placed on Morgan's bike thingy at the end of the last episode, incidentally, showing a distinct lack of imagination for novel ways of assassinating people. To be fair, the development wasn't totally out of left-field, since a key part of this season's story arc would appear to be the couple finding a way to buy their dream home and presumably retire from the spy life for good - although I would like to imagine that they will still have adventures even after they are long for our televisions. However, the manner in which it manifested itself was too sudden and too strong to be convincing as anything other than a plot device.

The only story elements which really worked came in the final few minutes, where Casey took down the assassin and her team in a moment of distinctly un-Chuck cold-bloodedness (and gave an amusing nod to the idea of villains who talk too much for their own good), leading to his arrest by a smarmy Decker. In the Buy More story, Lester also found himself taken away by the cops after attempting to get Jeff back to his old self through the always sensible means of monoxide poisoning. The Casey situation is significantly more interesting than the Lester one - although they will inevitably collide in gaol - but it was a surprising change in tone for the traditionally comedic Buy More plots to have Jeff sell out his friend.

Chuck is putting some interesting ideas in play, but discarding others a little too easily: there is a formlessness to the early part of this season which has undermined some otherwise strong episodes. Still, with only nine adventures remaining in the company of Chuck and his friends - alluded to in a sweet dinner scene prior to Casey's arrest - just having them around for a little longer is good enough for me.


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