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'Chuck': Also starring Zachary Levi as Batman

March 1, 2010 | 11:03 pm

NUP_131960_0190  After three weeks of Olympic fever and strained relations within the "Chuck" community, the show returned with another one of its best episodes yet. I'm sure the folks who are concerned that the show is keeping Chuck and Sarah apart too long will find themselves still concerned after this episode, but the series is getting quite good at telling twisty yet still funny spy stories, and this episode featured one of its best spy stories yet. Despite some awkward and really obvious product placement, this continued what's been a very strong third season, and it tightened the screws considerably on some story developments and tossed out one of the biggest revelations in the series as if it were no big deal.

"Chuck Versus the Fake Name" is all about Shaw sending Chuck out into the field impersonating a cold-blooded assassin who can kill a man from a half mile away. The Ring has an interest in the man, whose name is Rafe, and Shaw and Sarah want to know why that's the case. So they grab him (in a terrifically smooth maneuver near the episode's beginning) and lock him up, sending Chuck out to take his place. The series has been toying around with the idea of Chuck so getting into his work that he starts to lose a little bit of what makes him so uniquely Chuck-y for most of the season now, but this episode was the most convincing downward spiral for our hero yet. It's funny to hear him using a Christian Bale Batman voice to talk like Rafe, but seeing him get into his role and force himself to, say, perform a little torturous dentistry on Casey is miles away from the goofy, geeky guy we met back in season one. It's a great little bit of character development, and good on the writers for pursuing it to its logical ends.

For me, the key scene in this episode comes when Chuck finally breaks up with Hannah, having realized that his feelings for Sarah are stronger than even he was letting on. Most of the episode plays up Chuck and Hannah as a pretty great love match, having Ellie catch her staying over at his place and having the two bond later when he has everyone over for dinner. Hannah's obviously not Sarah, but in some ways, that's a good thing for Chuck, who probably needs to be grounded a little more than Sarah can ground him. As the relationship grows -- with a cleaning-related assist from Shaw and Sarah, of all people -- it seems like there's going to be a twist where Hannah is revealed to be an evil spy or something.

Instead, the show just plays this all out rather efficiently and with a level of emotional brutality I didn't know it was capable of. After the big fight in Shaw's hotel room, when it seems like Sarah has died, there's a horrifying moment when both Chuck and Shaw's eyes go wide and you know just how much the girl means to both of them, but especially to Chuck, who wasn't exactly acting when he tackled Shaw and accused him of stealing his girl. Sarah's a wound in his heart that Chuck can't quite patch over, and when he tries to do what he thinks is the noble thing and break up with Hannah, he only begins to realize how much of a jerk he seems like. He's breaking up with her one night after they first spent the night together, before taking a big step in their relationship. He looks like a casual, smooth player, and he's so blinded by focusing on himself and his mission that he misses the forest for the trees.

But Sarah is starting to realize that her feelings for Shaw are more than just feelings. It's rather a classic bit of misdirection to have one half of your will-they/won't-they couple leave his romantic distraction to refocus on the one we know he really belongs with and then have her take up with a new guy she's been previously uninterested in. While I think it mostly works here, there is an element of "Let's keep these two apart a while longer" to it that feels more rote than the last episode did. (As Alan Sepinwall points out, when you have other characters start to make meta comments on how the will-they/won't-they storyline needs to end, it's probably time for it to end.) I buy the chemistry between Sarah and Shaw, unlike some fans, but delaying their hookup a week, just so it would come after Chuck breaks another girl's heart, feels a little too planned out.

The Buy More storyline was typically out of nowhere, as Big Mike accidentally orders a huge supply of Crock Pots, in a storyline that really feels like product placement, since the characters spend plenty of time extolling the virtues of the Crock Pot. Now, you won't catch me bad mouthing the virtues of this device or anything, but the whole plot hinged on such a flimsy mechanism that it made the product placement "Chuck" is usually so adept at blending in feel more out of nowhere than usual. (Also bizarre was that series of shots of an extra playing Wii Sports bowling, seemingly just to show off how well the Wii functions.) I often only tolerate the Buy More stuff, but this week's plot felt weirder than usual.

However, I liked Ellie's attempts to figure out just what was broken in her relationship with her brother and her husband. She knows both are lying to them, and while she'll never guess the truth, she'll keep hounding them until one of them spills the beans. It's a ticking clock that the series has played nicely in the background all season long, and I really do hope that it results in Ellie learning at least something about her brother and just what he spends all of those hours doing. I fear that the show will have Morgan figure this out instead, but I think it's far cooler if it's Ellie who does. It would introduce more story possibilities too. (I also liked the way this story provided an emotional payoff where Ellie gave Chuck the advice about what he had to do.)

In the end, though, it all comes back to that big, swirling spy story at the episode's center. Zachary Levi's performance here is genuinely worthy of some sort of awards nomination, as he bounces between vulnerable, easy-to-wound Chuck and the hard-edged, ready to kill someone Rafe with an alacrity that should alarm just about anyone in his little circle. And in the course of it all, we get to see some nice moments as he watches Sarah confess her real name -- Sam! -- to Shaw, a moment we always thought would be Chuck and Chuck's alone. (And from the look on Levi's face, you can tell Chuck thought it would be his moment, too.) The best spy stories on "Chuck" have an emotional element to them, and while this one didn't offer some of the happy fun the series can at its best, the emotion was still there. It just took the form of a punch to the gut.

Some other thoughts:

  • * Casey was very funny in this episode, and I feel remiss in only bringing him up now. I really like the way the show is paying off a lot of the emotional conflicts it's been building all this time, as though it realized there was every chance it could be canceled after this season. Seeing Casey praise Chuck for doing a good job, then, was a moment long in coming and just as effective as the writers wanted it to be.
  • * Having Tony Sirico and Louis Lombardi turn up as a couple of wise guys was a funny bit of stunt-casting, since both were on "The Sopranos," though you may remember Lombardi more for his arc as the doomed, computer-handy Edgar on "24."
  • * We're headed into the homestretch of what was originally meant to be this season of "Chuck." As such, I'm hopeful that the plotting will just get tighter and tighter as we head into episode 13. And then we'll see how the writers figured out a way to kill time for six episodes.

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

Photo: Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) finds her affections running more toward Shaw on "Chuck." (Credit: NBC)

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