Saturday, 17 December 2011

Television - Chuck 'Chuck vs The Curse' review

Since my Christmas holidays start on Monday, this will be my last Chuck review until the new year, with tomorrow's tenth instalment of DEAD DROP ending this blog's 2011 (and marking the serial's halfway point) with a bang. If you enjoy spies and action, which should be a given if you are reading this article, check it out.

Enough with the promotion, though. It's a shame not to be able to say better things about this week's Chuck, which turned out to be a mixed bag. It is obvious that showrunners Josh Schwarz and Chris Fedak want to see their series go out on a high - though a few episodes will be missed, my reviews will definitely be back in time for the big farewell, 'Chuck vs The Goodbye', on Jan. 27th - and have been throwing bigger and braver ideas at the screen to ensure that happens. Noble ambition, no doubt, but storytelling has rarely been one of Chuck's many strengths, and even the most sensational of plots can feel flimsy if not handled correctly, as was the case last night.
As usual with the series, the episode was at its most engaging when having fun with its characters. Awesome and Ellie haven't contributed as much as they have deserved to in the past couple of seasons, mostly demoted to C-plots and insubstantial comic relief. While that situation didn't drastically change last night, with them still having a negligible impact on the episode's final outcome, it was fun to see them doing something different, being involved with the main action in some (any!) way and actually getting some time to themselves.

Chuck and Sarah have unsurprisingly been the series' number one couple, so having Awesome and Ellie (as a really inane sidenote, I like how their initials spell A and E, when they work in a hospital. Aaaanyway...) spend some time together, getting a little romantic along the way, was a sweet grace note for them. It's probably back to the sidelines until the finale now - what a shame Ellie at least hasn't played the bigger role in her brother's spy life that was hinted at for this season - but at least they got this deserved goodbye tour.

Back in Castle, the consequences of Decker's explosive demise were beginning to hit home, as Chuck and Sarah decided they needed to go on the run from the CIA, who were holding them responsible. This was a story which needed to be told over several episodes at least and while Chuck may not have a huge amount of time left, my instinct is that Schwarz and Fedak could have reached this point earlier (Decker already had his team out to get them, after all) and integrated it with some of the ideas that the season has already used up.

I mentioned that while this season has not been short of big ideas, they have not always been effectively used: one of Chuck's enduring issues is its eagerness to hit the reset button on any major developments and refusal to escalate the consequences of its actions to any worthwhile extent. That's not always a bad thing if an idea becomes more trouble than it is worth (Morgan becoming the Intersect, for example) but it can be frustrating when trying to engage with a season arc if every seemingly important step is taken back an episode later.

Budgetary restrictions might have made it difficult to show Chuck and his friends being constantly on the move, but having them camp out at Orion's hut for a few episodes at least, while trying to work out who is after them and what their gameplay is, would have given more heft to the notion that not only are these characters now operating outside the CIA, but on their bad side as well. On that same point, Casey's escapades in gaol now look to be over: that premise might have been more restrictive, but the question remains as to why it was introduced in the first place, other than to allow a cliffhanger ending.

This episode might have been more satisfying had it been the last piece in an ongoing subplot about the authorities trying to get Chuck and co. under lock and key, finally drawing them out by threatening Chuck's family. Instead, other than as a fun outing for A+E, it was a pretty flimsy one-off that had was resolved with a push of the all-encompassing reset button. Chuck's apparent betrayal of Sarah, for one thing, should have had longer lasting effects than a kiss-and-make-up: it might have thrown Chuck back to his most irrationally neurotic, and arguments with Sarah are never as engaging as seeing them work together, but as a single episode conflict, it felt needless (as did Chuck's constant referencing of 'The Bartowski Curse', a term invented and ended here). The cliffhanger, with the Omen virus spreading throughout the world, provided a neat ending, but was severely diminished by fears its consequences (which should be gargantuan) will be dismissed within one or two episodes.

A good example of how keeping a story running can add gravity to even an otherwise insubstantial story came through the Morgan and Alex reconciliation. Nothing between them has been particularly surprising or well-developed, but Josh Gomez and Mekenna Melvin are sweet enough together and their romance has been an ongoing thing. Morgan's quest to retrieve Chuck's P.A.N.T.S. (Private Artefacts Never To Share - excellent acronym work) box with Alex's help didn't add anything to the episode's main plot, but because it is believable that these are two characters whom the programme has been willing to invest in as a long-term match, seeing them work together and get over their differences - and deploy a lot of enjoyably childish jokes - was more satisfying than any of the drama which the episode chose as its main focus.

Next week's Christmas episode is supposedly much stronger and while I won't be around to write about it, hopefully the return of the villain with the closest personal ties to Chuck and Sarah will give it the dramatic strength that this episode lacked. Until next year, Merry Christmas and New Year, readers and Chuck fans!


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