"Chuck, what happened?" -SarahSo happy. So very, very happy right now.
"Something... awesome." -Chuck
"Because I don't want to hurt you!" -Chuck
"Don't worry, Chuck. You can't." -Sarah
I shared some general thoughts on why I love "Chuck" late last week, so lets move onto specifics about the double-barreled season three premiere.
As I've been saying, "I know kung fu" has not fundamentally altered the DNA of the show, at least not in any negative way. It's fun to see Chuck be able to kick ass on occasion, but the twist hasn't just turned into an excuse for every plot to climax with Sarah telling Chuck to calm down and Chuck flashing on the requisite skill. Yes, there's a bit of that in "Chuck vs. the Pink Slip," as you'd expect there to be in the first full episode featuring Intersect 2.0, but Chuck still needs a helping hand from The Colonel and his great big mini-gun. And while Chuck shows off some gymnastic cat burglar skills in "Chuck vs. the Three Words," in the climax he saves the day just by being good old Chuck - recognizing the high flammability of Jeff's "jail juice," and appealing to Karl's need for his relationship with Carina to be real on some level.
So even though these two episodes weren't designed to air as a double-feature, doing it this way not only gave us twice as much Awesome (and Morgan and Lester and the rest), it allowed the series to show a few more colors, and a few more sides of how the new status quo is going to work.
It also allowed us to move a bit more quickly through the latest roadblock in the inevitable Chuck/Sarah pairing. As I said in the column, I don't really care if they get together, but we're at that point that a lot of series built around Unresolved Sexual Tension hit - see also "Ed" and "Moonlighting,"(*) to name two - where the obstacles stop being a fun game and start being a distraction.
(*) I know everyone claims that "Moonlighting" died because Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd finally got together, but nothing could be further from the truth. By the time the two hooked up, the show was already dead - in large part because viewers gave up after getting sick of waiting for it to happen. I've written about this in the past, if you care to read more.
The sequence in "Three Words" where Sarah was trying to break into Karl's vault while Chuck kept slowing her down to talk about his feelings was maybe the most annoyed I've ever been with this show, and certainly the first time I've actively wanted to punch Chuck in the face. In the six months he spent training with General Beckman in Prague, did he not get one lesson about staying on-mission? I get that he's only kinda sort of a spy, and that if he ever started acting just as cold and professional as Sarah and Casey, a lot of the fun of the show would be gone, but the latter half of season two went a long way towards making Chuck seem like he was learning what to do, and a scene like that made him seem like an idiot who just happens to have a useful computer in his head. Despite the obvious, ample chemistry between Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski, I'm almost ready at this point for the writers to either put them together immediately or put the subject on ice until that happens.
I say "almost" because we followed up on the heist on Karl's safe with one of my single favorite scenes of the series: Chuck and Sarah practicing their bo staff work at their underground HQ, Chuck trying to talk to Sarah about what happened in Prague, Sarah venting her anger at Chuck because he made her drop her guard and let herself get hurt (even as she denies it). Great work from Levi and Strahovski (this stuff's her specialty), and in isolation, I believe this latest fork in the road for the two, just as I did when Bryce came back, or when Jill did, etc., etc. It's the sum total of things - and the clear sense that this is being done because this is how people think it's supposed to be done - that becomes the issue.
By the end of "Three Words," we're at least done with any misunderstandings between the two about what happened at that train station in Prague and why. Sarah thought Chuck was being selfish, that he enjoyed all the attention and excitement that came with the Intersect 2.0, and was choosing that over her. By the end, she knows that the opposite was true - that he was being selfless, trying to use his gifts to help people because of her. Hopefully, with those cards laid on the table, we can move on, either with the two accepting their star-crossed status quo as friends but not lovers, or with them finally going for it. And at least by getting these two episodes in one night, we're done with this particular fight between them.
Whatever issues I have with the pace of that relationship, the rest of this "Chuck" sandwich was so filled with the things I love about the show that I don't want to fill this review with complaints. (That I went on for that long says something, I think, about how it's the one part of the show that isn't usually working like gangbusters.)
The opening scene in Prague nicely set up the new spy status quo, and the slightly altered tone of the series. Chuck's in what seems to be a very serious situation, kicks butt (and defies Beckman's orders because he still has issues killing people, even if he accidentally gave Borat's a heart attack last season), and then winds up looking like a boob with his pants around his ankles. That's our Chuck (and our "Chuck"): sometimes cool, sometimes goofy, always entertaining.
"Pink Slip" has to spend a lot of time undoing some of the events from the end of season two, ending up with Chuck, Casey and the newly-single Morgan back at the Buy More (and Big Mike back at the start of "Three Words," after a stint at the El Segundo School of Finance, where he hopefully did not leave his wallet). But because I love the Buy More crew, I can't object much to the show returning there. And because Chuck made the choice to download the new Intersect in last year's finale, and because he's now an occasional man of action - still an unlikely spy, but with the emphasis more on "spy" than "unlikely" - it no longer feels so much like a prison for him than an annoying part of his new career. It's a reset of the parts of the status quo necessary to keep the show funny and recognizable, but it's not an arbitrary reset button. When Chuck first suits up for a spy mission in "Pink Slip," it's the Nerd Herd uniform he puts on, and it's just as much a costume for him now as the mariachi jacket. When he winks at Sarah before flipping his way through the vault, he looks every bit the natural spy that Bryce Larkin was; he just can't draw upon that confidence (and those abilities) all the time yet.
And as we spend time putting most of the pieces back in place (with allowances for new arrangements like Ellie and Awesome moving across the courtyard, and Morgan and Chuck finally becoming roommates), "Pink Slip" (written by Chris Fedak and Matt Miller) offers plenty of laughs, like Millbarge turning the store into the totalitarian nation of Buy Moria (and Chuck trying to resist the Intersect 2.0's attempt to strangle Millbarge), or Chuck discovering that the Intersect offers more than just combat skills when he has to take the stage with the mariachi band. And it had some good action scenes, from Chuck's pistol-whipping skills in the opening to Chuck taking out Javier (twice!) to Casey finally getting to use the mini-gun.
"Three Words" (written by Ali Adler and Scott Rosenbaum) was a bit lighter on the action (other than the "Charlie's Angels" scene with Zach Levi's very flexible stunt double dodging the lasers), but even more comedy: Morgan Guillermo Grimes accidentally (and temporarily) winning the heart of Carina (last seen causing mischief for the team in season one's "Chuck vs. the Wookie"), Vinnie Jones playing the sappy (but still deadly) Karl Stromberg and Casey as "the button" who has to protect the courtyard when the housewarming party rages out of control. And, once freed from under the late Millbarge's opressive thumb, Jeff and Lester were free to be their disgusting, hilarious selves: Lester tossing around Yiddish-isms like "tuches" and "trafe" in front of Morgan, Jeff explaining that he's been drinking jail juice "since I was in diapers" (this explains so much), or Lester fretting that they'll blow their chances with "the medium hot chicks from Underpants Unlimited."
So we had action, and we had comedy, and we had romantic angst (for those who are more patient about that stuff by now than I am), and we have "Chuck" back.
And that's damn splendid.
Some other thoughts:
• Adios, Anna Wu. The reduced budget for the new season means we not only won't get all the supporting characters in every episode (no Big Mike in the premiere, no Awesome and Ellie in "Three Words"), but that Julia Ling got cut from the cast altogether. She'll be missed, but she was also the least-used of the Nerd Herd crowd last season, so the footprint she leaves is smaller than if they had cut either or both of Jeffster!
• I like how, even though we briefly see Casey and Sarah in the flashback to six months ago, each character is still given a big entrance moment later, with Sarah emerging from the pool and Casey stepping over the cheese puffs, Terminator-style.
• RIP, Emmett Millbarge. I don't know that the show ever totally knew what to do with Tony Hale, but the image of him dying in slow-mo to the strains of Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" was hilarious. And Casey's cover story to Chuck (that Millbarge went to work at a Large Mart in Alaska) makes me worry if Harry Tang really is in Hawaii, or sleeping with the fishes.
• In addition to "Hold On" and the aforementioned "Model Homes," other songs of note in the two episodes include Frightened Rabbit's "Backwards Walk" (Chuck and Sarah at the train station), "Young Adult Friction" by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Chuck and Morgan prepare to be roommates), David Lee Roth's "Just Like Living in Paradise" (Carina's theme - or, if you prefer, Carina and Morgan's theme), "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor (Chuck and Casey spar at Castle) and Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" (Chuck in his robe and slippers lounging around Casa Bartowski). And speaking of those last two...
• Tonight in "Chuck" pop culture references: "Rocky III" (Chuck and Casey's sparring session was a match for Rocky and Apollo's at the end of that movie, down to the freeze frame), "The Big Lebowski" (the beard, robe, slippers and Kenny Rogers song were all designed to evoke The Dude), "The Godfather" (Millbarge's bloody, broken glasses look like Moe Green's, plus Karl toasts that he wants his first child to be a masculine child), "The Spy Who Loved Me" (Karl Stromberg is the name of the bad guy), and perhaps "Die Hard" (Sarah in the vents, though everybody seems to crawl into vents these days).
• Sarah and Carina speak
• Vinnie Jones didn't have as much to do as some of last year's guest stars, but the idea of him calling his fiancee "Smooshie" is funny, and I liked the moment in the Buy More where he's cockily spinning his gun on his index finger while confronting Carina.
• As Carina, Mini Anden again gets extensive use of the show's wind machine, not only at the Buy More (where it's usually positioned), but when entering the courtyard of Chuck's apartment building.
• IMDb has only a 16-year age difference between Anden and Adam Baldwin, so Casey had a half-decent argument for not wanting to play Carina's father. Still, funny to see the usually taciturn NSA agent placed in a position where he had to talk, and talk, and... talk.
• One of the closing scenes of "Three Words" features our first-ever glimpse of General Beckman looking worried, thanks to whatever the mysterious, half-glimpsed Agent Shaw has in mind for Operation Bartowski.
• The much-publicized deal where Subway would help finance the new season in exchange for more prominent product integration wasn't finalized when these early episodes were shot, so Subway won't be an on-camera presence until later in the run.
Back tomorrow night with "Chuck vs. the Angel De La Muerte," featuring both shirtless Awesome and Casey with another fake mustache, for those who like either of that sort of thing. (As opposed to those of you who enjoyed tonight's scenes with Sarah in a bikini and/or Sarah and Carina in lingerie. Though I suppose the various groups could have some overlap.)
I'll have a note in that review on how these two did in the ratings, but I should warn you right now not to get too stressed about what the numbers are. Yes, it would be great if the show miraculously becomes a hit in this third season - and given NBC's struggles in so many other areas, it may be enough just to do roughly what the show did last year. With whatever's going on with Jay Leno and Conan, NBC is going to need a lot of programming inventory to get through this season, and the network has a lot riding on "Parenthood" (which will air after "Chuck" when the Olympics are done). The network ordered more episodes before the season even debuted, and they're going to have to ride it out for a while. As Jeff Gaspin put it after the NBC exec session this morning on whether the current status quo lowers the bar for "Chuck," "I wouldn't say the bar's lower, but we obviously have less choice at the moment, so he's got a better shot."
And if the numbers aren't good tonight, or tomorrow, or two months from now? Well, then we got an extra season - specifically, you got another season, with your passion for "Chuck" last spring - to enjoy when the show might otherwise have been canceled. And an extra year - especially one as after to this strong a start - ain't too shabby, in the grand scheme of things.
What did everybody else think?