Wednesday, 19 January 2011

'CHUCK' 4.11 - "Chuck Versus The Balcony"

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

It feels like Chuck's been on hiatus for six months, not six weeks, but it's finally back with "Chuck Versus The Balcony", roughly halfway through this season's extended 24-episode run. And, as usual, the cast's winning chemistry and the show's warm tone managed to vanquish a dull storyline bloated with clich├ęs and capped with an eye-rolling relationship obstacle.

This week, Chuck (Zachary Levi) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) were sent to France's Loire Valley to retrieve a sensitive nano-chip a CIA agent was killed trying to protect from villain Pierre Melville (Jean-Christophe Febbrari), unaware the murdered agent injected the chip into a bottle of wine after being cornered in a chateaux cellar. Having recently failed to propose to Sarah during a romantic meal at an Italian restaurant, Chuck is persuaded by Morgan (Joshua Gomez) to use the Loire Valley as the setting for a "sub-mission" to pop the question in the idyllic country surroundings.

At the Buy More, Lester (Vik Sahay) was bitter about his parents insisting he honour their culture's tradition of arranged marriages, until he saw his beautiful bride-to-be Jensona (Pooja Kumar) walk into the store -- and, inevitably, straight into that invisible wind machine that seems to trigger if an attractive woman passes through the automatic doors. Suddenly more open-minded about the notion of arranged marriage, Lester did his best to impress Jensona to seal the deal, but found his wooing technique had the exact opposite effect.

"... Versus The Balcony" contained some fun and appealing moments, such as when Sarah became aware Chuck's planning to propose to her and, reflecting her profession as a spy, kept her silence but cleverly influenced his "sub-mission" to ensure Chuck's perfect moment on the titular balcony went ahead at sunset. Involving Morgan and Casey (Adam Baldwin) in the operation, both watching events unfold on computer screens, was also a nice touch.

But I've had my fill of storylines that require Chuck and Sarah to mingle with important guests at dinner parties, which appears to be the show's default setting most weeks. While it’s a trope of the spy genre there's no escaping (and something I'm sure happens in reality a lot), it's become such a fixture of Chuck storylines that I find myself chewing my fist when required to watch more scenes of Chuck and Sarah being served drinks and talking to each other via earpieces. It's officially boring. Throw in another macguffin with the nano-chip and French rent-a-villains, and the basic storyline was itself very humdrum.

Second of Strahotness: sexy but sozzled

However, as I said in my opening, the sheer likeability of the performances is a potent force in this show. Strahovski gave Sarah a more playful vibe, and worked especially well with Morgan this week, which is such an amusing pairing I'm surprised Chuck's never done a story focusing on Sarah and Morgan on a mission. A sequence where she pretended to be tipsy to catch some henchmen off-guard also gave Strahovski something a bit different to play, before tackling the weightier drama of the denouement -- when Chuck's proposal was interrupted by Sarah being arrested by the CIA for treason, which is actually all part of a plan to send her into Volkhoff's organization undercover.

To be honest, nothing about this episode's "shock ending" sat well with me, as I don't accept the suggestion Volkhoff will be dumb enough to believe Chuck's girlfriend is a turncoat and wants to join his evil organization. But this is Chuck; a TV series that often breaks credibility in pursuit of new storytelling avenues. We'll see how the next episode fares in trying to make Sarah's fake treachery feel plausible, but it didn't work for me here. You could feel the writer's hand keeping Chuck and Sarah apart, as it used to in the earlier seasons, only now it's their marriage the fans are being teased with. I suppose that's all part of the game, to keep people on the hook, which is fine, but I wish they'd concocted a more believable way to turn Sarah into a mole.

Overall, I liked "... Versus The Balcony" and the manner in which it handled Chuck's proposal woes, even if the broader story was awfully formulaic and the ending left me gnashing my teeth. The Buy More storyline with Lester was fine, but it flushed away a lot of its early promise, ad I've come to the conclusion Jeffster's musical performances are overrated. They've been funny and entertaining maybe twice in Chuck's history (a great rendition of "Africa" and their performance at Ellie's wedding), but every subsequent attempt to replicate those joys has fallen on its face.

What did you make of Chuck's return? Are you likewise bored by its cookie-cutter plots now, or don't you care? Does the plan to put Sarah undercover with Volkhoff work for you? Are you happy they're pursuing a Bartowski/Walker marriage?

WRITER: Max Denby
DIRECTOR: Jay Chandrasekhar
TRANSMISSION: 17 January 2011, NBC, 8/7c