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'Chuck': Chuck vs. the false drama

January 10, 2010 | 10:01 pm
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There's a long tradition of shows that were on the bubble for renewal the year before but returned somewhat improbably to a sustained amount of buzz coming up with season premieres that try to catch up new viewers as quickly as possible. These premieres are usually a little convoluted, and they often end up feeling a little unsatisfying for new viewers and returning fans both. "Chuck" has now come up with two of them, and while the Season 2 premiere walked the line between boring old fans and overwhelming new fans relatively well, the Season 3 premiere has moments when it seems like it's trying to do too much and threatening to lose everyone watching. It's ultimately a pretty good episode, but it's the most cluttered of the five new episodes I've watched.

The episode starts off deftly, with Chuck on a mission in Europe that ends up with his new Intersect skills abandoning him at the worst possible moment as he attempts to zip-line away from the bad guys pulling guns on him. At that precise moment, the lights come on, and it becomes obvious: This is a simulation. Government intelligence agencies are trying to find a way to keep Chuck's new powers under his control, but it's hard because Chuck, like most of us, keeps his emotions close to the surface, unable to bury them beneath the layers upon layers of icy cool that a real spy would have. This sets up the central conflict for the episode and, it would appear, the season.

"Chuck" has always used Chuck as a compare and contrast point with its career spooks, the people who've made a life out of lying. One thing that made the show shaky in its early going was that Chuck, as good-hearted as he was, was too frequently a point of laughable comparison with people like Casey and Sarah. The show enmeshed us in the suave, savvy spy world that these characters trafficked in, then dumped in this bumbling fool and asked us to root for him. It created a level of disconnect so large that it was easy to see why a lot of people wrote the show off as too goofy. The series improved all of this in Season 2 (largely thanks to Zachary Levi's performance as Chuck growing more confident), but the show still had that central disconnect.

At the same time, the series was arguing that Chuck's very nature was one of the things that made him so valuable to the CIA and NSA, even if they didn't realize it. Chuck was capable of having feeling, of being broadly empathetic. That he could fall in love with someone like Sarah was not a sign of weakness as a spy but of his value as a way to humanize the cold people around him. To a degree, the show seems to argue, Sarah's affection for Chuck has grown both because he's a pretty great guy and because he loves her so hard (sort of like a puppy). It's becoming a show about what separates our human nature from what we do. Working at a job is always sort of a clinical thing, right? I mean, if I suddenly started talking at length about my feelings in the middle of this review, you'd tune out, most likely. So I don't (or I bury it). Chuck, then, is a mirror for everyone else in the show to either recognize or not recognize themselves in. Sarah can see the scared, geeky teenager she was in him, while Casey sees only something to be avoided.

OK, that's a lot of heady stuff for an episode that scored a pretty great action sequence to Wilson Phillips' "Hold On," but these are the kinds of questions "Chuck" tackles when the show is at its very best. And that's some of the stuff "Chuck vs. the Pink Slip" tries to engage with, but it doesn't manage the leap to that extra level as well as some of the other early episodes primarily because the episode is full of false drama. False drama is kind of a necessity on TV, but it's really good only when it reveals something important about the characters. Here, the false drama mostly just reveals stuff we already know about Chuck and Sarah (in particular), and that makes large portions of the episode's midsection feel kind of perfunctory.

When I say "false drama," I mean a story point that is obviously set up to get us to worry about something that will never happen because if it happened, there'd be no TV show. (TV writers call this "schmuck's bait.") So when Chuck gets fired from the CIA or when Sarah seems to cut off all contact with him and her former employers, it's hard to take either threat seriously. We know that soon -- probably by the end of the episode -- Chuck and Sarah will be back to where they were at the start of the series. It'd be one thing if this was all a cliffhanger that the show was trying to undo (since most cliffhangers are elaborate examples of false drama), but it's not. It's all drama introduced within the episode itself, and that makes the attempts to unravel it within the episode seem even clumsier.

This is not to say that all of the false drama here was unnecessary. It was pretty obvious that the Buy More would not stay under the thumb of Emmett for long and that Chuck and Morgan would end up working there again sooner rather than later, but the show mostly played these plots for laugh, understanding that we would understand all of this was somewhat inevitable within the show's structure. Similarly, Chuck's gradual descent into bum-hood while unemployed and crashing on Ellie and Awesome's couch was enjoyable (with a great music choice for the montage), and it revealed that his work with the government is more important to him than possibly even he knew. But finding out that Sarah was trying to keep her feelings for Chuck from interfering with her work? Been there, done that.

I don't want to complain about this episode too much, ultimately. It was still a lot of fun, and I laughed early and often at the show's attempts to put everything right (particularly anything involving Casey, who's turned into the show's most reliable laugh-generator). What's more, the episode did a good job of setting up just how this new Intersect works and how Chuck's feelings might be even more of a danger to him (and the world at large) than they were in the past. There are some great sequences -- like Casey coming in on the helicopter to save the day -- and some tremendously funny moments. I just wish there hadn't been as much in the way of story points that were obviously just there to create conflict where there was ample conflict already present (from Chuck's new powers manifesting).

A few other thoughts:

  • I promised my wife's thoughts on this episode in my "Chuck" introductory write-up, and here they are: "I could follow everything, but it didn't engage me like the pilot of a show would. I did feel like I was missing out on some things, but it's a nice enough show. I like the main character."
  • I'm not as big of a fan of Jeff and Lester as some, but they were great fun in the segment where they seemed like automatons under the control of Emmett.
  • Check back here after Hour 2 for thoughts on the second episode!

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

Photo: The many talents of Chuck (Zachary Levi) now include being a guitar wizard. Credit: NBC.

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