Spoilers for tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I eat a pen cap...
"She kissed me. No spy stuff, no lies. Just me." -Chuck
"Chuck" is a very funny show. It has attractive people wearing ridiculous outfits getting involved in cool fights. It has plot holes you could drive a Hummer through (if you could afford the gas), but is so clever otherwise that nobody pays them much attention.
But if Chuck himself weren't so likable, and so recognizably human, none of the other stuff would work nearly as well as it does. "Chuck" without Zachary Levi providing the pathos would be fun, but it would be a disposable kind of fun. Episodes like "Chuck vs. the Ex," kicking off a big three-part sweeps arc featuring the return of Chuck's heart-breaker college girlfriend Jill, is a reminder of just how important Levi's non-comic skills are to the show.
Yes, there are a lot of great gags, highlighted by Chuck somehow getting it in his head that the only way to save Casey's life is to plant a big wet kiss on him -- followed by Jill immediately declaring it the stupidest thing she's ever heard -- but what holds the episode together, what makes the big moment at the end where Chuck saves the day, kisses the girl and gets applauded by surrounding law-enforcement work, is the vulnerability that Levi projects throughout.
This girl hurt Chuck, and Levi shows us that. This double life Chuck leads is awfully lonely, and Levi shows us that, too. He wants a normal life, and Jill's return -- even though she winds up entangled in another spy mission -- suggests he can occasionally have something like that. And you realize that as much as Sarah makes his heart skip a beat, Chuck wasn't totally lying in "Chuck vs. the Break-Up" when he told her he'd be better off with a "real," down-to-earth girlfriend. And Levi shows us all of that with a very expressive performance that in turn elevates the sillier stuff. Chuck planting one on Casey would be funny regardless, but because we believe in Chuck and therefore believe in this life-or-death situation, it's actually funnier to see him talk himself into this ridiculous path. And when Chuck gets his second standing ovation in as many episodes (he's on a good streak right now in spy world, isn't he?), his moment of triumph is all the sweeter.
Jordana Brewster did a solid job playing the girl of Chuck's dreams. Almost any actress would have a problem living up to the Jill described in previous episodes, but she was a good combination of smart (though the glasses did a lot of the heavy lifting there) and sexy (complete with a slo-mo entrance previously reserved for Sarah), and her reaction to Chuck's unraveling web of lies was convincing.
Just as good was Yvonne Strahovski. We know by now that the sensitive stuff is one of her specialties, so it's not a surprise that she would be strong in an episode where Sarah has to shut down any jealous feelings out of professional necessity (and out of her desire to let Chuck move on from his crush on her), but it still deserves mention.
I was a little concerned that a lot of people -- albeit mostly anonymous government agent types -- this season have gotten a look at Chuck in action as a spy, which seems to defeat the purpose of hiding him in his lousy job at the Buy More. Fedak and Schwartz's argument is that Chuck being the Intersect is the big secret, and that it's okay for cops and feds to get a look at "Charles Carmichael" in action as a spy type, or even for someone like Jill to know his real name and side gig, just so long as no one finds out about the computer in Chuck's brain. I still think that that gets in the way of the show's basic premise (if people can know that a guy who looks like Chuck is a spy, why does he need to be stuck at the Nerd Herd?), but, again, the parts of the show that are good are so good that I can't complain about this stuff for more than a micro-second.
Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Ex":
• Casey's disguises don't usually amount to much more than slipping on a bartender's vest and bowtie or a limo driver suit, so it was nice -- and funny -- to see him get the goofy-looking wig and soul patch to go along with Sarah's Louise Brooks bob for Chuck's big date.
• Speaking of the big date, their entrance into the restaurant was clearly meant to be an homage to the legendary tracking shot from "Goodfellas," when Henry Hill takes Karen into the back of the restaurant and everyone knows who he is. I'd complain loudly about "Chuck" not attempting to do it in a single take ala Scorsese (or the "Swingers" homage to "Goodfellas"), but I also know how much preparation those kinds of shots take, and how difficult that would be to do on an episodic TV show schedule.
• The song playing throughout this episode, starting with the Stanford flashback, was Iggy Pop's "Pumpin' For Jill."
• Two weeks (and one episode) after Jeff's biggest showcase to date, our resident Missile Command master got one hilarious piece of business after another: asking for a donut after watching Big Mike almost choke on one, Jeff raising his hand in response to Captain Awesome's "Who's ready to pound some plastic?" (and Lester pushing Jeff's hand back down), Jeff and Lester flirting with their CPR dummies, Jeff following up Lester's "I was born ready" with "I was born premature," and, of course, Jeff reluctantly eating the pen cap so that Lester and Morgan could cheat off of Awesome saving Jeff's life. (So, does this mean that Jeff now has to take the much longer CPR course?)
• I have to say that, while a lot of funny stuff is going on in the Millbarge storyline, very little of it is coming from Millbarge himself. I had higher hopes for Tony Hale's guest stint than to see him turn out to be the straight man killjoy who inspires the others to do funny things.
• Okay, that's now two guest stars this season conspicuously named after sports figures, this time with Guy LaFleur. Can anyone come up with a thematic link between LaFleur and Von Hayes? And, if so, can you then extrapolate which athlete's name will be borrowed next?
• Unlike a certain bionic woman from a previous season on NBC, Yvonne Strahovski doesn't suddenly turn boring whenever she has to use her non-regional American diction, but it was still nice to hear her actual accent for a few moments when she was posing as an Aussie scientist.
• Funnier caller ID photo on Chuck's iPhone: Captain Awesome kissing his biceps, or Casey scowling? Somehow, it seems perfect that this is how each guy responded to Chuck asking to take their picture for the phone. I look forward to this gag continuing to run with wacky pictures for other characters.
What did everybody else think?