February 9, 2010

Chuck: "Chuck vs. The Mask"

"So if I have to see you with someone else, it might as well be a hero."
"What can I say? I have a type."

"Chuck vs. The Mask" presents an interesting conundrum for me. On the one hand, it is a perfectly competent, enjoyable ride. On the other hand, it doesn't strive for too much, and thus, never rises to the level we know the show is capable of. "Mask" is an average episode of Chuck, which means it's a fun hour of TV, but it's never quite more than that.

The main thrust of the spy world plot line in "Mask" revolves around a sequence of museum robberies orchestrated by Team Bartowski to steal an artifact (the mask of the title) that is being used by the Ring to smuggle in elicit material. Now, I love a heist movie, whether it's objectively good or not. I love the Ocean's movies, I love The Italian Job (both iterations), I even love misfires like Heist and The Score. So the cold open of "Mask" (which was more like a first Act given its length) was very exciting for me. Unfortunately, "Mask" turns out to be far more about the relationships that Sarah and Chuck have with the Superman substitutes (Agent Shaw and Hannah) than about stealing much of anything.

By the time of the episode, Shaw has decided that he is going to stalk Sarah into liking him (more on that below), and Hannah has gotten sick of being as ignored as she was in "Nacho Sampler". Thus, they both begin to put the moves on their respective targets (with Hannah facing significantly less resistance than her "super" counterpart) and both face death as a result of the events of the episode. When both wind up finding comfort in the arms of their newly impassioned targets (or at least in massaging their target's arms), who could be surprised? Yet another roadblock in the Chuck and Sarah relationship. Ho hum.

Like I said, it's a good episode, it's just not a great one. The Ring plot is almost entirely unnecessary, and even the potential Shaw reveal at the end is so cryptic as to be almost unanalyzable (which doesn't prevent me from analyzing it; see below). I had hoped the show would have a stronger lead in to the Olympics-imposed three week hiatus, but it will be interesting to see if it loses any viewers as a result of this average effort.

Quick Thoughts

Superman Returns: If there was any singular image that defined the failure that was Brandon Routh's Superman Returns, it was the sight of superman hovering in the bushes outside Lois Lane's house, effectively using his super senses to stalk her and her family. Now, that scene wasn't Brandon Routh's fault. He didn't write the screenplay. Still, it's troubling to see him in exactly the same scenario here.

Sarah Falling: Okay, so Sarah's falling for Chuck has always been a bit of a stretch, but are we really expected to believe that she is attracted to a man that obsessively observed her coffee habits and all but molested her while on a mission. I know her admission to Shaw was at least partially influenced by the fact that she was reasonably certain she would die, but still. Also, how does the CIA ever place Sarah? She falls in love with whomever her partner is. Now that's a liability.

Extra, Extra: The best part of adding "special guest stars" or whatever other title is given to non-regular cast members on a show, is that there is always a palpable sense of danger in scenes that might otherwise lack tension (the show isn't going to kill Sarah or Chuck, but they might just kill Hannah). This episode actually has a very good act break in which both of Chuck's lady loves (the "blonde" and the "computer girl") are put at risk at the same time. While we know that Sarah is at relatively little risk (and to be honest both Yvonne and Brandon treat the scene as being somewhat less than tense), Hannah is a real mystery. That tension serves the show well, and makes an otherwise mediocre scenario significantly better.

Pairing Off: As I said above, the focus of "Mask" was really on pairing Chuck and Hannah and Sarah and Shaw, the plot line about the mask was almost extraneous to that goal. That being said, I thought that Chuck had a lot of nice moments with Hannah. Though I didn't enjoy Shaw's obsessive stalker act, or buy for one minute Sarah's acquiescence to it, Yvonne and Brandon also had a certain amount of chemistry together, so I suppose not all is lost.

The Problem Solvers: At the end of "Nacho Sampler" the team of Morgan and Ellie was formed to sniff out just why Chuck had been behaving so strangely over the past few weeks (I guess they though things have been "normal" over the past few years). While this turn of events promised to be interesting (and potentially to bring one or more of Ellie and Morgan into the spy world fold) this episode turned the team into real life cartoon characters. I mean, I enjoyed Sarah Lancaster's performances in the first two seasons of Chuck, but this season has been all over the place. From "You were attacked by a bear?" to raising her head over the DVD racks at the Buy More like she were still on Saved by the Bell, she just seems to have leaped completely over the fence that separates the comically implausible from the straight up ridiculous. This is not a good development.

Further complicating matters, Ellie's and Morgan's discovery that Chuck was sneaking off to be with Hannah could derail their efforts to find out more about Chuck, in so far as they decide that they have discovered Chuck's secret. If that is the case, the promise of one or more of them becoming more fully featured on the show all but falls by the wayside. Given Ellie's recent turn for the (comically) worse, this may or may not be a bad thing, but it certainly feels like the show is spinning it's wheels if it takes both characters back to square one.

And the End Times Shall be Marked by Pong: As a regular video game player, it always bugs me when video games are vilified as the end of western civilization. Unfortunately, TV and movies give me the opportunity to be bugged on this point quite a lot. In "Mask" we get a number of discussions between Ellie and Morgan regarding the risk that Chuck might revert to the antisocial pastime of playing video games (the horror!). While I understand that some might succumb to video games as a private retreat from the troubles of the world, it would be nice if a show like Chuck, which so revels in the more nerdy qualities of much of its cast, could acknowledge that games aren't the destructive force that the media so often claims them to be. (And no, Chuck's using Morgan's Call of Duty strategy to save the world in Season 2 doesn't count.)

Ring, Ring: By far the most intriguing scene of "Mask" was the final one, in which the shadowed heads of the Ring execute the lead terrorist of the episode seemingly merely for having the temerity to recognize Shaw as the leader of the joint CIA/NSA operation against him. Following closely on the conclusion of a scene in which Shaw tells Sarah that she will always be safe with him (which scene lingers on Shaw's face long enough to add an air of ominousness to the proceedings), the meaning of the scene with the Ring is unclear. Certainly, we are meant to assume there is more to Shaw than meets the eye. As I indicated before, it may not be coincidence that one of Shaw's lingering obsessions is a lost operative with whom he shared a set of rings. Could Shaw have turned on the government and actually formed the Ring? If so, was the terrorist in this episode executed because his discovery of Shaw would otherwise disrupt some master plan? The Ring leader (no pun intended) does indicate to the terrorist that he intends to do the same thing to Shaw (i.e., execute him), but why, then would the terrorist need to be killed? And why would the show include the ominous hold on Shaw's face immediately prior to the scene with the Ring? As you can see, I don't have answers, only questions.


  1. I did not like this episode very much. I suppose it will be fine enough in the grand scheme of television (even The Office has a few missteps here and there). I found this episode to be rather convoluted and surface level. I love the conflict of "picking which girl to save" which gets dropped in this episode, but could have been a good plot point. As a girl, I am surprised that Hannah continues to pursue Chuck, especially after the previous episode where he blows her off so many times. This seems not well thought out.

  2. Sorry to hear that you didn't like the episode. It's true that there was no "pick the girl" twist put on the crisis in this episode, but that probably would have been cliched. I agree that Hannah's pursuit of Chuck is unrealistic, but so was sandwich girl's, and Sarah's. I think we're just supposed to view it as ordinary in Chuck's world (and wish fulfillment for the audience.)