Chuck: Chuck versus Santa Claus

Chuck creator Josh Schwartz had a lot to live up to with the first Christmas-themed episode of the series. (Last year a mid-winter hiatus skipped right over the holiday season). Schwartz’s crowning achievement, The O.C., consistently excelled at Christmas episodes. Whether inventing the new holiday of Chrismukkhah, sending key characters to an “alt-world,” or just emphasizing the importance of friends and family, Schwartz always managed to combine the plaintive sweetness required of any good holiday episode (Buffy’s “Amends,” anyone?) with just enough flip irreverence to keep us laughing through our tears.

So how does “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” stack up against The O.C.? And the holiday-episode genre in general? Quite well—although I must admit, this episode wasn’t what I was expecting. At first, everything seemed to be going according to plan. On the sweet side, Chuck played Tiny Tim to Sarah’s Scrooge. On the flip side, warm and sunny weather and a high-speed freeway chase kept us firmly in the tongue-in-cheek Valley. A surprisingly low-key hostage takeover of the Buy More, by a down-on-his-luck sad sack named Ned, provided this week’s plot-MacGuffin. The delightful elf costumes—well, who doesn’t love a geeky elf? Even Casey getting shot is played for laughs and treated lightly.

But around the halfway mark, everything changed. Chuck realized that both the hostage negotiator and poor Ned work for Fulcrum (the CHAOS to Chuck’s CONTROL). The bad guys threatened Chuck’s sister Ellie, and—by telling them that he’s the Intersect—he gave up his freedom, and possibly his life, to save her. Sarah and Casey rescue Chuck from the Fulcrum agents, but Chuck sees Sarah shoot an unarmed man to save his own way of life. Meanwhile, the Buy More staff take down Ned, only to have Morgan think he’s lost Anna to Lester.

The stakes on Chuck never seem particularly high: the good guys usually win, the bad guys get taken to “secure locations,” and on the rare occasions that people get shot, they don’t bleed much. The spy-game antics are just an excuse for touching love stories and low-key sarcasm. Even this season’s recent arc, in which Chuck reunited with an old (and evil) flame, never ruined my certainty that Chuck and Sarah will eventually live happily ever after. But this episode asks some difficult questions: in life-or-death situations, how does a hapless nerd grapple with life-or-death stakes? And how can a good man reconcile his beloved’s potentially immoral action with his knowledge that she did it for him?

The typical holiday episode resolves tensions, brings people together, and provides a heartwarming conclusion to the front half of the season: it gives us a chance to laugh at everything we hate about the holidays and smile at everything we love about them. “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” seemed designed, at first, to do just that. But instead I’m left with an unsettled feeling, as though the rules of engagement have suddenly changed—much as Chuck himself must feel. The sudden dark turn, which was beautifully reflected in this week’s soundtrack, could mark a shift in Chuck’s unrequited relationship with Sarah as they work through a real moral dilemma, or it could just be another will-they or won’t-they plot device. Either way, I can hardly wait until February 9th to find out.

Four out of four Nerds.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

10 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Welcome to the blog, Josie!

Jess Lynde said...

Yes, welcome Josie! I enjoyed your first Chuck review. I love this show and don't know many others that watch it, so I look forward to having a good review to read every week.

I actually don't think Chuck heard the Fulcrum agent's threatening remarks to Sarah. I think he just saw her shoot a man in cold blood, and doesn't realize exactly why she did it. They didn't make it entirely clear what he heard based on the way it was shown, but that's my take.

Also, I absolutely loved that they got Reginald Val Johnson to play Big Mike's cousin on the L.A.P.D. He's the same actor that played Bruce Willis's L.A.P.D. contact in the original "Die Hard," another Christmas hostage tale. What a subtle and hilarious pop culture reference! Having those sprinkled throughout the episodes is one of my favorite things about Chuck!

Anthony said...

I loved the homage to Die Hard. Pop culture references are one of the reasons I love watching Chuck. That and the never ending tension between Chuck and Sarah. Its gratifying that she doesn't completely avoid or deny her feelings for Chuck. So it rises above the old "Moonlighting" or "Cheers" dynamic of tension and affection masked by hostility.
I find Chuck to be a more realistic representation of such tension. I was a bit disappointed that this did turn into a Fulcrum episode as I think it would have been better to keep it a simple hostage situation and allow Chuck to flex his character growth.

Josie K said...

Billie and Jess, thank you for the welcome!

And Anthony and Jess, I agree about the Die Hard homage. I didn't recognize Big Mike's cousin until someone pointed it out to me, so I thought it was great that they didn't let the in-joke spoil everything else.

Anthony said...

Yah, they even did the thing about showing Big Al eating Twinkies which he was buying in Die Hard when he got the call and he and Bruce Willis discussed the merits of Twinkies. Chuck really has its moments. I think they are learning a thing or two from Psych and how to be funny with their referential humor.

Billie Doux said...

I'm finally watching season two on DVD, and this episode is (pardon the expression) awesome. I loved the homages to both Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. And the turn to the serious was unexpected and well done. What is Chuck going to do now that he knows the woman he loves is capable of killing someone in cold blood and lying to him about it?

Tom L said...

I just watched this episode today and, OMG, it was so good.

But I actually came here to say how in love I'm with this show (I tried and looked for the forums, but couldn't find them).

I started watching Chuck recently, and it's impressive how it can be so consistently entertaining. Up to this point, it has been nothing but great, apart from some silly spy plots (and not in a comedy way, just in a poorly constructed plot way).

My favorite TV show ever is Buffy, but Chuck is quickly winning my heart at a Buffy level, and I started to wonder why.

So just last week, I was reading one of those eternal debates: whether Buffy or Angel was the better show. And someone posted a comment that made me realize why Chuck completely won me over:

"I would have to go with Buffy being better. Angel always felt like a good enough show, with characters I liked to spend time with. Good friends.

But Buffy and its cast always felt like family, and all the highs and lows of the seven seasons felt that much more intense because of it. At least in my opinion."

While I disagree on Angel being a "good enough show" (it was really good), the whole thing about Buffy and its cast feeling like family is so true. And the same goes for Chuck.

Whenever Chuck opens his big wide smile, or Sarah is truly nice and sweet to Chuck, or Casey makes that snarly noise, or Ellie is the best sister ever... It feels like family. And shows like that always win your heart. :D

Josie Kafka said...

Tom L, thank you for your great comments--it's a perfect description of Chuck (and of Buffy). I always felt a bit more of the family thing with Angel, but that's a debate for a different thread!

As for the forums: we realized we were spreading ourselves too thin. With everything on the blog, it just makes more sense to keep commenting on old reviews. Billie and I both read every comment that gets posted.

Katherine said...

In keeping with my tradition of being on the cuttingest of TV cutting edges I just discovered this via Netflix putting together a liking for The Finder and Psych. Due to this site I actually get some of the references to be found here. Apparently I'm going to have to get through a few episodes without having my hand held, but I'm glad there is something and not nothing here.

ChrisB said...

Josie -- your first post. Very cool.

Like Katherine, Netflix has been pushing this series at me for the better part of a year. A few weeks ago, having finished another marathon, I was looking for something new and thought what the hell. Just to emphasize how clueless I am, it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I discovered the reviews on this site. Senior moment jumbo size.

Anyway, I have really been enjoying this show, but not at a "drop everything and marathon through" level. The characters are fantastic and I love Chuck, Sarah and Casey as well as their dynamic. The stories, however, have been a tad light. Fun, but hardly compelling.

This episode changed that. I was shocked at the turn it took -- from giving Sarah the bracelet to watching her kill the guy was a huge leap, but believable. Unfortunately, I am off to work or I would spend the rest of the day seeing what happens next.