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'Chuck': Chuck feels the power of the dark side

February 1, 2010 |  9:01 pm

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 Why do you watch "Chuck"? Is it for the characters? The goofy humor? The emotional conflicts? Or do you just like the spy missions? It'd be hard to argue that many people have watched "Chuck" for the overarching storyline, which has been perfunctory at best, even in the series' good episodes. In its third season, though, "Chuck" is heading toward a more intricate and thought-out storyline, but by taking what it's doing seriously on an emotional level, the series is also pressing against one thing that makes it so enjoyable: its very weightlessness. "Chuck" is a show that's so much fun because you don't have to take it seriously if you don't want to. It aims only to please. But now that the show is apparently embarking on a plot that will roughly become the dark temptation of Chuck Bartowski, is the series heading into a place where fans might not want to follow?

I'm ruminating about this because "Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler" is a good episode but probably the weakest of the season. What makes it interesting is mostly the stuff that it sets up to be paid off in episodes down the line. The central plot -- wherein Chuck tries to help a nerd just like he used to be who's seemingly inadvertently created a new weapon for the Ring -- relies a little too heavily on convenient moments when the Intersect flashes at just the right moment, and it has a handful of plot holes you could drive a truck through. And while the inside-joke-style commentary on things like nerd culture and fan service is mostly enjoyable, there's a weird sense around the edges of the episode that much of this has a mean-spirited bent to it.

So let's return to those final moments of the episode when Chuck, who almost let the guy who'd created another Intersect walk away to a life of freedom, finally embraces his cold, hard spy side. After a season that's mostly been devoted to how Chuck's lack of guile is the thing that ends up making him more effective than most professional spies, this tumbles into dark, moral ambiguity a little too quickly for my tastes, but Zachary Levi sells the moment perfectly, and the final shots of him nursing a stiff drink while trying not to think about how a guy who reminded him of himself has ended up in a cell somewhere far below the ground were well played by the actor. Manoosh's crime? He was really smart and wanted to make a quick buck. Even in the lighthearted universe of "Chuck," that's a deadly combination.

I praised the last two episodes for having lots of exciting twists and turns, but I think "Nacho Sampler" had too many twists and turns or did a poor job of justifying the ones it used, ultimately. I was down with the episode's attempts to use Manoosh as an analogue for Chuck, to suggest just how far he's come (and just how far Sarah has come too), but the second the episode made all of this painfully literal by suggesting the poor guy had just been working on an Intersect in his basement this whole time, the plot kind of lost me. Having him go to the weapons show to try to sell his invention also ended up being a big setpiece, full of comedic moments that didn't go anywhere and an action sequence that was a little undercooked by the show's standards.

What was better here was the episode's suggestion that Manoosh is the alternate-universe Chuck, the guy who ended up on the path Chuck might have ended up on if not for Bryce's ill-timed e-mail back in the pilot. By bookending the episode with two replays of the scene when Sarah and Chuck first met (the latter scene shown from Sarah's perspective for the first time), the episode firmly grounded its ideas in the sense that Chuck has come a long way since those days. He's no longer lonely and lacking in friends, to be sure, and he's finally leaving behind the label of underachiever. But I didn't quite like the way the episode suggested that someone like Manoosh could be so easily pandered to, first by Chuck's rather obsequious offers of friendship and then by Sarah showing up and blatantly coming on to him. I mean, obviously, if Yvonne Strahovski started making out with any random guy, he'd probably go along with it, but putting her in a "Frak Off" T-shirt almost felt like the show was having too cruel of a laugh at fandom, particularly when its fans are ones who rallied to save it just a year ago.

The Manoosh pander found an interesting mirror in the story of Morgan trying to change himself to appeal more to Hannah (who's still not evil but unfortunately ended up stranded in a Buy More B-plot tonight). The guy who pretends to like things he doesn't actually like to impress the cute girl is a time-honored comic tradition, and this story ended up staying just goofy enough for it to not seem too been-there, done-that. I particularly liked watching Morgan clamber over the desk in his office, formerly a broom closet. The rest of the Buy More stuff was more shrug-worthy, though the notion that Morgan is going to have Jeff and Lester spy on Chuck to figure out just what's up is a promising one in regards to future episodes.

Ellie and Awesome also turned up after sitting out last week's episode, and perhaps my favorite thing about the episode is the way that Ellie has organically been pushed into a position where she's fairly certain that everyone is lying to her. Her paranoia -- especially when her brother isn't telling her the truth about going to Paris and her husband seems to be losing his mind -- seems perfectly natural, and Chuck's fears about her being taken away from him if she finds out stretch plausibility a bit but are emotionally sound enough to make some sort of sense. Ellie and Morgan launching an unholy alliance to figure out just what Chuck and Awesome are up to strikes me as a promising plot development, and between that and the turn of Chuck into Mr. Ice Cold, the climax of the episode set up some strong stories.

After next week's episode, "Chuck" will be going away for a few weeks so that the world may see the Winter Olympics. And while I don't think this week's episode is anywhere near as good as the two previous ones, I'm also far more intrigued to see where the story's going. "Chuck" is setting up a storyline where it's finally going to deal with the emotional toll of Chuck's secret life a little more thoroughly than it has in the past. I just hope it doesn't get written off as "too dark" by some of the very fans who've embraced the show so much in the past.

Other thoughts:

  • I considered writing up a full post on this but decided against it. Entertainment Weekly says Fred Willard and Swoosie Kurtz will join the show toward season's end as an over-the-hill spy couple. Now, Willard and Kurtz are reason enough to celebrate, but the item also compares the concept to "Hart to Hart," which is one of those cheesily enjoyable '80s detective shows that are so fun to stumble across in reruns and has the benefit of one of the best, most mockable opening credits sequences ever. Consider me sold.
  • I'm still very much in favor of Kristin Kreuk's Hannah, but I'm hoping we'll get to see more interaction between her and Chuck next time around. Seeing her rattle around the Buy More isn't as interesting.
  • I love when shows give us a new look at an event we've already seen from another character's perspective. So that final scene of tonight's episode pretty much had me in the palm of its hand.
  • And, yes, that photo's from a Season 2 episode. You're very perceptive to have noticed that.

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

Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi) is growing colder and colder the more of a spy he becomes. (Credit: NBC)

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