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'Chuck': The pains of being Chuck at heart

January 10, 2010 | 11:01 pm

Looking for coverage of hour one? It's here!

"Chuck vs. the Three Words" begins deepening what looks like the main theme of the season: Can Chuck keep his essential self if he becomes a hard-core spy, or is he doomed to become another emotional cipher like the people he works with? "Three Words" offers up Sarah's friend-rival-partner Carina as the vessel for this idea. She's running a long-term game on an arms dealer, pretending to be his deeply loving fiancee, and means that she has to act as if she's in love with him, even though she's not. Spies are not to fall in love with their assignments, she says, a pointed gaze toward Sarah, whom she knows has fallen for Chuck. But Chuck's too far gone. He'll never be able to stop himself, really, from loving Sarah. That's why he'll never be emotionless enough to make a good spy. It's Sarah that's the key figure here. If she gives in, the mission is likely shot. If she can hang on, it might all be OK.

But is it worth sacrificing your own happiness for professional fulfillment? That's one of the questions "Chuck" is constantly asking of its characters (albeit, not in as serious a fashion as that implies), and even as Carina is upbraiding Sarah for falling for Chuck, she's also leaving her a video that shows Chuck making an honest confession of his feelings. Clearly, national security secrets are one thing, while actually managing to seize some form of happiness is quite another. The Chuck and Sarah relationship is one of the few will-they/won't-they pairings on TV right now that I can actually stand, and some of that stems from the stakes being pretty high. At the same time, the relationship is coming to a point where it may start to seem tiresome if the two don't make some sort of move soon.

It certainly makes sense that Chuck and Sarah can't be together, based on their professional relationship with each other, but at the same time, that beat -- "We can't be together for the good of society!" -- is going to start to feel old. (Indeed, it already was in Season 2, before the show pushed the two to almost consummate their relationship and then broke it off at the last minute.) I find it a bit incredulous that Chuck wouldn't know how Sarah feels about him after the whole train station thing of the premiere episode, but she is sending him pretty mixed signals, and that sequence of the two fighting, Sarah trying to get the Intersect to trigger and failing, was a nice, sad little moment.

But there was plenty of other great stuff in this episode to go around, marking a nice step up from the premiere. (And Monday night's is even better!) It was the first episode to really show some of the show's budgetary constraints this season, as Ellie and Awesome sat the episode out, but the Buy More stuff, with Big Mike back from his Emmett-imposed hiatus, was funny. I don't always enjoy the Buy More plots, which occasionally seem dropped in from another series, but watching Morgan try to land Carina with the help of Jeff and Lester and being almost insanely horrible at it before somehow pulling it off (accidentally!) in the end was both endearingly goofy and nicely tied in with the episode as a whole.

It's also nice that the episode gives us a sense that not every episode is going to feature Chuck saving the day by using his new powers. Sure, he managed to get into the vault to get the briefcase by doing a somersaulting dash through those lasers, but his bumbling attempts to be honest with Sarah about his feelings inadvertently got Carina in trouble, and then he saved the day at the end by starting a fountain full of some sort of alcoholic concoction on fire, causing an explosion that sent arms dealer Karl and his thugs scattering and into the arms of law enforcement (like Casey, who was there to get involved in the firefight). As Sarah told Chuck, it was because he was allowed to feel his emotions freely that allowed him to catch the bad guys. Those emotions didn't hinder him, as Sarah and Carina seemed to fear they might. Just as the show's premise has flipped from Sarah and Casey protecting Chuck from the world to them protecting the world from Chuck, the emotional core has now flipped from whether Chuck can win over Sarah to whether Sarah can win over Chuck and what damage that might do to him as a person.

But again, that's really high-minded for this show (or it feels like it at least). For starters, this episode had tons of great moments for Casey, insofar as generating laughter. I loved the sign set up outside his apartment during the party that read "ANGRY NEIGHBOR!" and the insult to his pride over the thought of having to go undercover as Carina's father (before being relieved at getting to be Carina's uncle -- "her father's much younger brother"). Casey's a great comic creation -- maybe the best on a show full of them -- and Adam Baldwin plays every single gag from the guy so terrifically that it's hard to know where he ends and the character begins. "Three Words" ends up being a great showcase for everything he does well.

Similarly, let's return to the storyline of Morgan trying to seduce Carina. A little of Morgan and the Buy More guys can go a long way, but everything here was just about right, from Morgan's inability to grasp that Carina was at the Buy More to see Chuck to the way that Jeff and Lester's plan to get the girls so drunk they'd pass out and give the two a chance with them (which could have been distasteful and somehow wasn't) ended up backfiring on them (which was, perhaps, the reason it wasn't distasteful). Bumbling guys aren't exactly the most original comedic premise, and "Chuck" has a million of 'em, but the laughs here were well done.

In the end, though, it all really comes back to that sense the show is giving off that Chuck's new abilities and his new sense of duty to the world are keeping him from the personal happiness he'd really like. In that sense, he's probably more like Sarah and Casey than even he'd be willing to admit, and that's the sort of situation that's setting up a storyline that should be ripe for the kind of light, TV tragedy that this show specializes in. More importantly, the series seems to be building more consistently this season than it was last season. The stop-and-go narrative momentum of "Chuck" was one of the bigger issues in the otherwise enjoyable second season. To see the show building so confidently from the very beginning this season gives me hope that everything from here on out will continue to be as good as this show can be.

Some other thoughts:

  • Says the wife: "This one was better, but I don't get why Chuck and Sarah can't just get together or just give it up, if it's that important that they do so. It can be irritating! But Adam Baldwin is doing good work, and he's probably my favorite so far."
  • Anybody miss Anna? I rather do, but I sometimes feel like the only one.
  • Be back Monday night for Part 3 of the giant "Chuck" opener!

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

Photo: Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Chuck (Zachary Levi) explore the urban jungle of Chuck's apartment complex. (Credit: NBC)

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