I've missed this show so much since last spring. As a TV critic, I watch, and subsequently enjoy, a lot of television, but rarely does a show get under my skin in a good way like Chuck does. It's smart, funny, got plenty of non-cheesy action and a whole lot of pop culture savvy. Plus: Casey and Sarah. My Mondays felt empty without it (especially with only Heroes to keep me company, which, you know…), and after last season's truly game-changing cliffhanger, I couldn't freakin' wait.
And even though Chuck now has a million useful spy skills trapped in his head (right alongside the already million useful spy factoids), I'm happy to report that not much about the show's dynamics have changed. I've always liked the fact that Chuck fails despite his best efforts, and succeeds in spite of his shortcomings; turning Chuck into an all-powerful programmable automaton would surely have changed all that. Instead, the writers have wisely kept the possibilities in check, taking everything about the immensely likeable Chuck and simply raising the stakes. Chuck still so desperately wants to do good, and now has an increased capacity to do so, but his inability to emotionally rein himself in, as usual, means his Intersect doesn't fire. Everyone relies on him more, and his failure has more dire consequences.
Of course, that means it's way more fun to watch Chuck succeed, because he pulls some awesome martial arts business out of nowhere and takes people down! Or, he limbers up and flips his way past a bunch of laser sensors like it's nobody's business. After seeing Zachary Levi fumble around for the better part of last season, it's like watching another person snap into Chuck's body, don the boxing gloves, and throw punches (and, consequently, fade to an oil painting).
Chuck's spy lifestyle always had him constantly questioning what aspects are real and which are simply part of the mission. The first episode of tonight's double header expands and complicates that questioning given Chuck's new abilities. Fittingly, the episode starts with Chuck in a fakey training simulation (I'm definitely not a fan of the "surprise, it was all an exercise" mock drama trope) that quickly explains everything that's happened in the off-season. Chuck was asked to go to Prague so the government could turn him into a real spy; meanwhile, Sarah wised up and asked Chuck to run away with her and start a new life—a real life; Chuck turned her down, and now finds himself ejected from the operation when it becomes clear that his emotions cloud his judgment and his Intersect abilities. If only he were more like Bryce Larkin.
Chuck returns home to lounge around the couch, eat cheese balls, and grow a beard that'd make even the boxcar-iest hobo jealous. It's not a cover, he tells Captain Awesome, who responds, "Wait, this is really you?" and the sadness sets in for real. He's not the only one feeling like a failure. Morgan, kicked out of the Benihana academy—"I couldn't flip the shrimp"—and dumped by Anna, returns to town (still wearing his uniform), and is now living out of the Buy More. Sarah and Casey have moved on, though they seem like they're just going through the motions at this point: Sarah's trapped wooing a Ring contact undercover, and Casey's packing away his prized machine guns before taking them for a test drive. Thus this episode's Buy More stuff becomes anchored in Morgan and Chuck's shared attempt to get back into normal society, and the spy stuff is about Casey and Sarah realizing how much they miss and need Chuck to go after the big guns.
Designing the Intersect to function or malfunction based on Chuck's mood is both a blessing and a curse for the show. On the one hand, because it's so fickle, it can inadvertently thrust Chuck into the middle of the action, which has always made for enjoyable viewing. When Chuck barges in on Sarah's fake date and gets himself locked out, he accidentally kicks the band's lead guitarist in the face, steals his instrument, and finds himself on stage plucking the strings the Intersect tells him to. It affords Chuck a front-row view of Sarah and her fake-date's seductive dancing, which leads to an epic leap from the stage when he spots an assassin trying to take her out, made possible by Chuck's shoddy wiring and the fact that the programmers of the Intersect took the time to throw in a few guitar scales. But after that moment, it becomes clear that Chuck's abilities only manifest themselves when he's calm, and Sarah, surprise surprise, has a calming effect on him. So she's going to be around for a while.
That's the part that worries me. I think Sarah's a great character and enjoy the casual chemistry she and Chuck share. But I like it in small doses. Almost every conversation between Chuck and Sarah about "them" winds up becoming about big issues like "Are we really in love?" and "What do we do about all these feelings?" Again, a little is okay, but there was a lot in these first two episodes, and I just hope it stays in check. That, and the OC melancholy indie rock that plays when they see each other. Small doses.
But back to the good… the show writers have found a neat way to give Sarah something to think about on the side. While Chuck struggles to get back into the spy game, Sarah is finding herself more and more distant, which leads us to episode two. Karina returns, undercover and with wind machine in tow, and goes out with Sarah for drinks, where it's revealed that Sarah still has feelings for Chuck. Back at the homestead, Morgan and Chuck decide to hit the town ("Drinks? Cosmos? Mojitos? Already well hydrated?") and run into Sarah. Karina's arms dealer fiancé Karl shows up, Karina introduces Chuck as Sarah's boyfriend, and all of a sudden the two find themselves working together to recover a piece of tech from Karl's heavily guarded house. Using their new cover IDs, plus one for Casey as Karina's uncle (her dad's much, much younger brother, Casey will assure you), the two make their way to Karina and Karl's engagement party to do the deed. And on the way, we get two scenes showing very different takes on friendship: Morgan helps Chuck get ready, hiding his keys unless Chuck invites Karina to the pair's housewarming party. It's sort of sweet. Karina and Sarah get ready together, too (ho boy, do they ever…), and couldn't be more distant from one another. Sarah asks Karina if she ever imagines her cover was real, how she would feel if she was off to her real engagement, to start a real life. Karina doesn't even humor the question; spies don't fall in love, she snaps.
By the end, the episode neatly ties up a lot of the ambiguity between Chuck and Sarah that seemingly drove them nuts while the two were apart. Chuck admits his love for Sarah, who accepts it in that final heartbreaking moment (demonstrating Yvonne Strahovski's strength in subtlety). I'm excited to hopefully watch it fester over the next few weeks, because the show works best when the character let a lot out at once.
As for the other characters, "Chuck Vs. The Three Words" was one of the strongest ensemble pieces teh show has ever done. The Buy More guys made their way out of the store—a location that sometimes feels like it limits their comic potential—and helped throw Morgan and Chuck's housewarming party, all the while encouraging/antagonizing him to pursue Karina ("You snooze, you lose boobs"). The ensuing interaction with Karl and the rest of the tough guys was unabashedly geeky and uncomfortable: There's nothing more sweetly pathetic than watching Lester and Jeff guard the "VIP" area, getting pushed aside, then conceding that they're "going to allow this." And glasses guy guarding his corn dog as Casey sprays him with a hose? Geez, these guys are great.
So Chuck is back. The new story makes sense, the characters are back to doing what they do best, and there's a new mythology to explore in Shaw, the mysterious man from the very end. These episodes weren't constant laugh-out-loud funny, but serve as a solid base for this third season, which came about against all odds. Here's to Chuck, Subway, and Jeff chewing ham.
- Please, can Casey refer to Chuck as "The Lemon" from now on, always?
- Poor Emmitt; that scene got real, didn't it?
- As one of his last moments, I loved how Tony Hale mumbled along to Wilson Phillips, slurring the words.
- One other thing that bothers me: Chuck failed the simulation because he couldn't zipline, a thing that involves him simply holding on to a belt. That's it?
- "Say it!"
- Chuck on being knocked out by a slap: "I was caught off guard, on an empty stomach."