February 2, 2010

Chuck: Chuck vs. Nacho Sampler

"He's turning into a spy. It's a good thing."
"Is it?"

I'm definitely going to have to be pretty careful in my review of Chuck's latest episode: "Nacho Sampler". Now, that may be because I was having some difficulty formulating my thoughts (owing to how loud someone I was with was laughing at every scene), or it may be because I thought the episode had some pretty major flaws. Who can say? What there can be no question about is that "Nacho" had some pretty terrifically funny moments. If the last two episodes where comic spy capers of the Spies Like Us variety, "Nacho" was Spies Like Us had it been written by people addicted to Looney Tunes, or perhaps The Three Stooges.

Not (as the cast of Seinfeld would say) that there's anything wrong with that. Some of my favorite episodes of Chuck feature some absolutely ludicrous plot lines: from a class of super spies at Stanford to a drive-in movie theater turned FULCRUM super base. For goodness sakes the whole show is premised on a supercomputer being incorporated into the brain of a Best Buy/Buy More employee. I have no problem with ludicriousness.

The problem, however, comes from the fact that Chuck has been, and hopefully forever will be, grounded by the emotions of its primary cast as they navigate the travails of their many zany or insane obstacles. There was a noticeable absence of this in the bulk of "Nacho Sampler".

Instead, the episode was largely one broader-than-life comic scene after the next: from Jeff and Lester's (and Morgan's) stalking of Hannah, to Awesome's inability to lie to Ellie, to new asset Manoosh's repeated tranquizations, to his coming out a changed man at (ugh...) Weap-Con, to Chuck's being forced to use his mouth to extricate a Japanese laser sword/pen from the "inside pocket" of Casey's jacket.

The whole episode was absolutely teeming with comic asides, which turned it into something of a farce. Now, there wouldn't be anything wrong with that if that was all there was. As my wife will attest, the episode was very funny, and there can be no doubt that the Chuck writers can hit these comic beats when they want to. If it was a simple farce set in (or at least proximate to) the Chuck world, then we could look at it as a very amusing aside and move on. The problem is that the producers wanted to have their cake and eat it too. (Fitting since "cake" is referenced prominently in the episode not once, but twice.) They wanted to have emotional relevance and major game-changing plot developments, but all based on the elements of comic farce. It just didn't work.

Let's take a look at the three major plot lines created or advanced in this episode that will have (or could have had) a profound effect on the ongoing nature of the series.

First and most obviously, we have Chuck's becoming hardened to the ways of spy life by turning on his first asset, Manoosh. This could have been the potent and sobering decision the producers evidently wanted it to be if placed in the context of another episode, but here, since the events of "Nacho Sampler" (most notably the Weap-Con and its insipid "announcer" character) were so out there, it is difficult to believe that Chuck (or any human being for that matter) could be so affected by them. As I said to my wife last night, it was like the last act of a Three Stooges episode got replaced by the cloyingly poignant bits of a Grey's Anatomy. It simply didn't work.

Second, the main plot of the episode is that Manoosh freaking created another (apparently mass produceable) Intersect! In an episode that featured craziness around every corner, the writers apparently thought it a good idea to bring into the fold the single most mythological aspect of the entire show. In any other episode (say a season finale, etc.) this would have been a major revelation. Here because of the tone of the episode, we the audience, know that it can be nothing more than a blip on the radar screen. Not to mention the damage it did to the "specialness" of what was Orion from season 2.

Finally, in what is the least offensive mistaken plot line, the universe of Chuck's friends and family started to be brought into the fold based on the events of this episode. This has been a long time coming so it's inclusion is not all that problematic, but still it seems absurd that the comic events of "Nacho" should be the thing to finally put Ellie and Morgan over the edge.

So in short, "Nacho Sampler" is a very funny episode that is best treated as a comic aside in a universe even more bizarre than the one Chuck usually inhabits. Unfortunately the plot revelations and character moments effectively prevent me from treating the episode as the "one off" that it should have been, and that, I feel, was a mistake by the show's producers. Not a fatal one, but not an insignificant one, either.

Quick Thoughts

A Little Light on Shaving Cream?: The comic nature of this episode makes it a little difficult (read: silly) to take a look at the plot in any hard, analytical way, but I couldn't help but wonder whether Manoosh knew of Chuck's secret identity during the entire Weap-Con sequence. I mean where did he think his shaving cream device ran off too? I suppose it doesn't matter since Chuck comes out to him in the very next scene they share together, but it seemed an odd oversight for Team Bartowski to make.

Hannah's Sticking Around: Now, for my money Hannah is still too nice to Chuck for all this flirtation to be accidental, but I still stand by my opinion from last week that at some point the writers have to stop making everyone that crosses Chuck's path into a spy of some kind. Still, something is definitely up with her character and it does seem odd that an IT technician valuable enough to be regularly shipped across the world should have to make due at the Burbank Buy More. For the time being, however, she is sticking around and she is definitely worth it (if only for the Jeff and Lester dialogue).

The Princess Suite: Could anyone tell what room of Castle was converted into the very girly Walker apartment? Was it one of the interrogation chambers? I have to say, I never would have pictured Sarah in a room that...well, pink, so that was interesting.

Frak Off: Nothing really to add here. Sarah's "Frak Off" shirt in the bar was just a nice shout out to one of the better sci-fi television shows ever produced. No doubt, the CIA was sure that a Galactica reference was just the thing to turn the head of our engineer turned Ring puppet. Not that they would be wrong...

Awesome's Still Awesome: Devon spent the better part of two years being the perfect, ever-so-slightly arrogant brother figure to Chuck, so it's been really interesting to see him out of his element and looking up to Chuck this season. Even more, the inability of Awesome to be awesome in the context of lying to his wife has provided the opportunity for him to be funnier than I ever knew he could be. Credit belongs to the writers for recognizing a comic asset when they had one.

A Little Jealousy Perhaps?: Like I said above, the tone of this episode should basically rule out most thoughtful analysis, but I couldn't help but notice that Casey was particularly prickly in this one, throwing out cutting insults in both the direction of Sarah and Chuck with almost reckless abandon. Now, for the most part his lines were very, very funny, so I know why they were included, but still, even in a full on farce like "Nacho" the writers have to be a touch more careful to ensure that the characters don't lose whatever minimal emotional center they have. The jokes were good though, so what do I know?


  1. Agreed...Casey was particularly prickly, in almost an off-character kind of way. It was a little off putting as I admire Casey's ability to put up with the Chuck/Sarah duo and still manage to care about them in the process. You did not mention that Ellie's acting in all this seemed a bit strange ala "you were attacked by a bear" that you mentioned last week. Perhaps it was the absurdness of the episode, but only Chuck seemed to be "himself." Also, (1) why does Manoosh refer to it as the intersect? Did they call it that when contracting him to make it? Seems odd that he would so candidly use that word after Chuck does. Shouldn't there be some sort of disconnect there? (2) Is this really an "intersect" as we know it? Seems like all it really does is channel kung fu. At first glance I found this episode particularly hilarious, but much like Jack's Tattoo episode, I wonder about its relevance and longevity in the greater story of the series.

  2. Interesting that you should point out that all Manoosh's intersect does is "channel kung fu" as that seems to be all that Chuck's intersect has done for a little while. There hasn't been any information gathering through Chuck in a couple of episodes. If anything you would think that Weap-Con (Ugh) would have tripped a few alarms in the Intersect, but nothing.