“Jumping the Shark” is a truly meaningless phrase.
Part of this is due to simple issues of overuse, where every little storyline that someone doesn’t like is a “jump the shark moment,” but it’s mainly the fact it creates the idea that shows fall apart in a single moment of lunacy. Anyone who claims to “quit” a show over a single moment is lying through their teeth. In truth, they are using a single moment to justify what is, in fact, a more complex falling out with the series, using a particular development as an excuse to bail (and exaggerating its impact by comparing it to that ever-famous Happy Days example).
Admittedly, I stopped watching Chuck upon its January return, but Chuck has not “jumped the shark.” Its problems are far less dramatic, and certainly far less sudden, than Fonzie’s great leap (which Henry Winkler memorialized on Twitter the other day, by the way). Sure, that fake proposal was odious, and the terrible green screen throughout the season has made the show seem cheaper than ever, but the show is basically doing the same things it has always done. This is especially true in the wake of Chuck’s real proposal, which freed the series from an ongoing tension that allowed the ugliness of the drawn-out “Will They, Won’t They” scenario to continue even after the point where the couple could logically be broken up again. Starting with last week’s episode, the show has time to focus on what it does best: charming characters, fun spy fare, and homages layered on top of homages.
Then why does the result feel so staid? I spent most of “Chuck Versus the Cat Squad” rolling my eyes, predicting every turn, and grimacing at every exposition-filled, un-humanlike word coming out of the characters’ mouths. The episode occasionally sprung to life, but even then my inner (or, let’s face it, outer) cynic couldn't help but feel as though it hadn't been earned.
Part of me wants to believe, for the sake of the show and for the sake of those who enjoy it, that this is just a personal vendetta against the show. I knew I was reviewing it and knew that I had stopped watching, so I obviously watched the episode with the desire to rip it apart, act by act. However, it’s not as though this was a messy breakup: I didn’t write some sort of screed against the show’s value, or tear apart this season’s storytelling. Truth be told, I just stopped caring, and I like to think that I’d be capable of rewarding a solid episode of the show, despite the fact that I was simply too busy to find time to watch something I was no longer enjoying on the level I once did.
At the end of the day, though, this was not a solid episode. While the idea of paying homage to Charlie’s Angels by introducing the C.A.T. Squad (The Clandestine Attack Team… Squad) seems fine if we imagine how the show might have handled it two years ago, there was no life in the storyline beyond the sheer attractiveness of the parties involved. If you didn’t figure out Amy was the mole within two seconds of seeing how hard the show was pushing Zondra as the guilty party, you were not actually paying attention: With Carina having been made a prominent recurring here, demoted to a seduction storyline with Morgan, and with Zondra being way oversold, and with Mircea Monroe being the more prominent guest star, the writing was on the wall, floor, and any other surface imaginable.
The bigger problem, however, was that we were told almost everything about The C.A.T. Squad's relationship, without actually seeing anything beyond that which related to the plot. We didn’t see any of their big night out with Mikhail Gorbachev in Miami, and what little we saw in Rio de Janeiro was frankly unimpressive beyond the attractiveness factor. Their collective identity was so wrapped up in the homage (which was playful, but ultimately slight) and in the plot (which was predictable) that they have no actual meaning: Outside of having been falsely accused and being able to wield a hair straightener as a weapon, what did Zondra do to make any non-plot-or-beauty-related impact?
Yes, when we get to episode’s end, we see the storyline’s function: Sarah has chosen to separate herself from her friends and family, and now the show is going to bring them back into the picture in order to shed more light on her past. That’s a noble endeavor, and I thought her brief little scene with Ellie at episode’s end would have been meaningful… if it had actually been built by the hour which preceded it. We can support the idea of Sarah getting more characterization, but can anyone argue that this episode did a good job of this? Similarly, while Morgan telling Alex he loves her was all sorts of sweet, was the material with Carina not just one enormous cliché?
This is a show that can still be amusing, I will give it that. I chuckled at some of the Carina/Morgan stuff, even given the “current girlfriend gets suspicious about ex-girlfriend’s presence in complicated situation that can’t be entirely explained” storyline, and even considering the law of diminishing returns, a good girl fight is a good girl fight. But the fact of the matter is that, either because of budget limitations or a lack of ambition, this was just a really dull hour of television. It isn’t that it didn’t have an overarching mythology, or even that it didn’t have a hook, considering that the Charlie’s Angels montage felt as though it might have potential. Taken on its own merits, this simply wasn’t good enough.
“Chuck Versus the Cat Squad” claims to be meaningful at its conclusion, pitching this particular mission as a key turning point for Sarah’s relationship to her past (and, apparently, the very notion of friends) and in Morgan’s relationship with Alex. And yet, could we really chart any of this to specific moments, or specific individuals within these stories? Was Lou Diamond Phillips’ Augusto Gomez anything but an accent? Was Mircea Monroe’s Amy ever given any motivation beyond a two-second line about how she was tired of pretending to be ditzy? Was any substantial work actually done to try to create emotional weight at any point other than the story’s conclusion?
Chuck may be doing the same things it did two years ago, and is certainly in a similar standalone mode to the comparable period from last season, but the execution just isn’t there. If the show had embraced its fun, goofy side free from its mythology and just let the Cat Squad devolve into a cat fight without the mole drama, I think I could accept that this was simply an enjoyable episode of a show that I stopped caring about on any level beyond pleasant background noise.
This, however, was just not well done. It's not the kind of episode that will convince fans to abandon the show: The emotional conclusion gives promise for the future, and "Chuck Versus the Cat Squad" reads so much like a solid episode of Chuck on paper that it probably worked for many of you. For me, meanwhile, it was confirmation: At its current success rate in terms of execution and given my current engagement with these characters, it just isn't going to work.
And while I honestly hope that you don't all reach that point in the future, it's a reality that we often have to face with shows we once loved.
- If you read the above and thought “Why, I’d love to hear Myles further explain his ambivalence towards Chuck in audio form!” I stopped by the TV Times Three podcast to chat about Chuck and a host of other shows.
- Steve, meanwhile, will be back next week.
- As Jaime Weinman observed after recent news of a Charlie’s Angels remake setup at ABC this pilot season, the original Charlie’s Angels was purposefully straightforward, so perhaps the predictably of “Chuck Versus the Cat Squad” was an homage! That explains everything!
- I don’t know which painfully out of character, lame line bugged me more: General Beckman’s “This comes from the top, Sarah: The cats are back” or Casey’s “Yeah—the business of terror.” The former was just too gimmicky for such a generally humorless character, while the latter lacked any of Casey’s trademark bitterness.
- Your thoughts on the cat-claw transitions into act breaks? I went with an eye roll the first time, and an exasperated sigh the second!
- While some parts of the episode just looked problematically lazy, I did at least smile at the use of what looked like classic movie footage to establish Carnivale (presuming, of course, that it was intended as a joke and wasn’t just actual laziness). Anyone know if that's from a particular movie?
- Is a Whitman Sampler considered a good way to woo a girl? I was unawares.