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'Chuck': 'Chuck' heads toward the big picture

January 18, 2010 |  9:01 pm

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 For all of the things I enjoy about "Chuck" -- the fun characters, the great humor, the way the show builds its character relationships -- I'm less enamored of the way the show builds both its spy missions and its overall mythology. I often don't really feel like the universe of "Chuck" is one that extends beyond the main characters and settings, like there's nothing more to it than what we see on screen. The best TV shows create worlds that feel detailed and complete. Think of the most obvious predecessor for "Chuck," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." By that series' third season, the town of Sunnydale and the world of the Hellmouth were both so thoroughly thought out and detailed that just getting to know more details about the world and people in it was almost as fun as anything else the show tried. Now think of "Chuck" and its world. It often seems like it consists wholly of Chuck's apartment, the hideout beneath the Orange Orange and the Buy More.

Some of this is just because "Chuck" probably doesn't have the budget to do madcap, spy adventures, simply because it's produced fairly cheaply for a big action show. This is why seemingly every other spy mission ends with the bad guys being lured to the Buy More (as they were in this episode). At the same time, though, it feels like the show's interest is often more in playing up its character dynamics than in telling spy stories or coming up with great action-adventure tales. I think the show is better because it doesn't really bother with coming up with intricate, twisty spy adventures from week to week, because I'd much rather hang out with the characters. But this choice does lead to the spy missions having a bit of a same-y feel to them, as if every week Chuck and the gang have to infiltrate some soiree to get the drop on a bad guy and/or obtain some crazy object.

One reason "Chuck Versus Operation Awesome" is one of the better episodes the show has ever done -- despite a fairly perfunctory Buy More subplot - is because the spy storytelling is surprisingly tight. There's a lot of fascinating stuff around the edges of the story, stuff that suggests the show is finally building a mythology for itself beyond just the sense that Chuck is fighting some nebulously horrific bad guys. If last season's evil syndicate -- Fulcrum -- always seemed to mostly just be there to be opposed to everything good in the world (like puppies), already the series is giving the Ring more of an identity. Granted, a lot of that identity stems from the nicely malicious performance by Angie Harmon, but, hey, you gotta take what you can get.

Now "Chuck" has certainly done storylines where one person seems to be bad and turns out to be good (and vice versa), but it's rarely done something as elaborate as the Ring mission that Captain Awesome goes on that turns out to be so much more. The five minutes or so when it seems like "Chuck" has gone off the rails and is going to start throwing insane plot twists at us left and right are pretty much thrilling. "Chuck" is a lot of things, but it's rarely unpredictable, and the whole sequence from when Casey and Sarah's van is locked out of the proceedings and they're told that if this looks like a setup, that may be because it is, and Chuck and Awesome enter a small room and meet a man who's calling himself Chuck Bartowski and is dressed roughly similar to our hero is pretty much nuts.

And from there, it gets even wilder, as the new Chuck tells the original Chuck that he has to shoot him in the chest, but be precise. Why? Well, Chuck's going to just have to trust new Chuck that it will all work out. When he refuses, of course, the new Chuck shoots himself (apparently precisely enough that the bullet misses major organs), and after the Ring shows up to see that the man they believe to be Chuck is dead, they give Awesome a pat on the back and say they'll be in touch. Which is when Awesome springs into action, saving the life of the fake Chuck, who reveals himself to be Shaw, the guy who will now be in charge of taking down the Ring.

Sorry for the blatant plot recap, but the sheer, heady thrill of the sequence -- of heading seemingly at random down a long hall of mirrors -- is unlike much that "Chuck" ever does and suggests that the writers, who have always had firm control over their characters and relationships, are finally going to buckle down and give us some awesome spy action as well. They bolster this point by making Captain Awesome basically a Chuck stand-in throughout the episode, because he's forced to lie to his wife about where he's been while kidnapped by the Ring. (Hilariously, he tries to convince Ellie that he was attacked by a bear, which he ended up decapitating, in Griffith Park.) As the episode proceeds, he does whatever he can to get out of the spy life, but he keeps finding himself getting pulled back in by a Ring that seems to think he's just what they needed. The convoluted plan that Chuck and the gang launch to get him free from the Ring's clutches, that he might return to a normal life, is heavy on Awesome having to play spy and on a nicely flipped relationship between him and Chuck, which results in Chuck giving Awesome all of the advice.

But the character of Shaw -- who just seems to be another take on the lonely, professional spy who ends up envying everything Chuck ever has at first -- ends up being another key addition to the show's mythology. Brandon Routh is a guy who's mostly banged around Hollywood without really getting much to do since the collective shrug America greeted "Superman Returns" with, but he's a lot of fun here, both aping Chuck's persona and managing to find a way to suggest that Shaw is just a little over the edge of sanity. The scene where he shoots Sydney (nice shoutout, by the way) in the gut is a nicely twisted dramatic moment, and I also liked the final moment, when he gazes at Chuck's family gathering together for supper with a wistfulness and then pulls out a ring. (What the ring is for is probably going to dominate "Chuck" discussion this week, so feel free to go nuts about it in comments.)

The Buy More stuff didn't ever rise up to the height of everything else here, to the degree where when Lester electrified the fence in the back-room fight club, you pretty much knew that was how Chuck and pals were going to take out the bad guys in the end. More basically, the story of Morgan's maturation has always been running parallel to Chuck's maturation, but it's just much less interesting because Morgan's character has always been less defined than Chuck's (by necessity). Making him the assistant manager isn't a bad idea, but making the whole first episode about how he has to learn how to be assertive and get people to take him seriously felt like the easiest path to take with the story.

But that's only a slight black mark on an episode that's as twisty and fun as this show can be at its best, an episode that uses just about every member of the show's fairly wide ensemble well (only Ellie gets too little to do, a disappointment in an episode that's largely about her husband). "Operation Awesome" is also a good argument that "Chuck" can come up with interesting ideas to further expand its world and the kinds of stories it can tell if it really wants to. While the 13-episode order that the show initially had this season seems to have cut out time for standalone episodes, maybe this is for the best. Maybe having a limited time frame has forced "Chuck" to start getting big picture.

-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Brandon Routh, left, Zachary Levi and Ryan McPartlin take on the Ring on "Chuck." Credit: NBC.

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