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'Chuck': Ladies and gentlemen, meet Dark Chuck

March 22, 2010 |  9:07 pm

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 Man, that was kind of a dark hour of "Chuck," wasn't it? So dark, in fact, that I'm not sure how to feel about it. I get that the episode is taking its place as the darkest hour before the dawn, but, lordy, that one had some pretty grim stuff going on underneath the surface of it. Now, this is somewhat alleviated by the Buy More story being pretty funny (and uses the now-nongovernment employee Casey very well) and  because this is "Chuck," and you have to know that all will be goodness and light within a couple of weeks. But at the same time, this is a dark story about how willing you are to sell your soul to keep a job you don't particularly want but don't know how to define yourself without. (And that's a topic that'd oddly apropos in this economy, no?)

My biggest issue with this episode is one of those dreaded plot holes that I bring up every so often. As I said to a commenter last week, I'm fine with plot holes if I don't think of them while watching, but you have to swallow a pretty big one to buy this storyline at all. The issue at hand here is that Gen. Beckman says that if Chuck passes his final test -- which involves both completing a difficult solo mission to out a mole and then killing the mole -- he will become a "real spy." ("Chuck" is rather too enamored of the word "spy," which it says at every given opportunity, and the use of "real spy" just feels more goofy than it should most of the time.) If he doesn't, well, he'll be released to his pre-national security life. He'll head back to the Buy More and not have to worry about working with the government anymore. 

Look, I'll swallow a lot to keep watching and enjoying "Chuck," but I found this particular twist just a bridge too far. Chuck is basically a weaponized human being who has all of the secrets of government intelligence in his head. Even if you don't buy that Chuck is going to use this intelligence for nefarious purposes (and I don't buy that at all; Chuck's too much of a patriot and, more importantly, too much of an ice guy), you still have to wonder why the government that insists on the mole's death and has always been portrayed as -- at best -- a shady organization willing to do what it needs to to keep the country safe would be willing to just let this guy go. I'm sure some will make the argument that Beckman (who's threatened death to Chuck before, mind) is secretly plotting to kill Chuck if he fails, but everyone involved acts as if this is totally a realistic set of options. If there were something else going on, you'd think at least Sarah would have misgivings about it, and she seems to completely buy the premise.

I don't think "Chuck" introducing elements of darkness, drama and danger into its usually breezy world is entirely a bad idea. Indeed, I've praised the show for some of the episodes where Chuck is torn between his early, goofy self and the new spy self that emerged earlier this season. And the storyline here -- Chuck seems to make his first kill (which apparently you have to do to become an agent in the show's video game version of the CIA) and that causes everyone around him and especially Sarah to question every step that's led them to this point, even though Casey was the one who pulled the trigger -- isn't necessarily a bad way to ramp up the tension heading into what were originally supposed to be the final two episodes of the season.

But I do wonder if the show needed to push this far into moral ambiguity this fast. The whole season has been to some extent about whether Chuck having the new Intersect in his head and becoming a "real spy" (I hate that term so much) is going to fundamentally alter who he is and make him somehow a lesser person emotionally and morally. To that end, a few episodes where things get pushed too far are probably necessary. But in this one, everybody's got shades of gray, and it's often hard to tell who the good guys are. As our dearly departed mole says, if he's caught the Ring is going to kill him. But the government's going to kill him too, when they could just as easily arrest him. Similarly, Casey's not above doing a little under-the-radar murder (with a gun helpfully procured for him by Chuck) to help out a friend. I don't need everyone on this show to be squeaky clean, and I also don't mind if the series wants to dabble in some criticisms on what prosecuting the War on Terror has done to America's soul (or whatever it's going for here). All I ask is that it not come out of nowhere, which it seems to tonight.

Or maybe all of this is just another way of saying that the spy missions on "Chuck" really don't seem to take place in the real world most of the time. This is fine. "Chuck" takes place in what a nerd like Chuck might imagine the spy world to be like. It's a fun, exciting, live wire of a ride, and everything that happens is filled with gorgeous girls and fast cars and all of the trappings of a James Bond film. In the first two seasons, where the spy missions were usually beside the point, this was fine. The spy world was just a place for nerdy Chuck to play. Now that the series wants him to be serious about being a spy, though, it's much, much harder for it to give these storylines any kind of emotional stakes or make them feel like they're filled with moments of real importance for the characters. Again, I'd prefer "Chuck" grow and evolve from just being a goofy spy show into something else, but this week it all felt a little heavy-handed.

Fortunately, the episode kept cutting to the Buy More, and while I usually don't like the antics there, I thought they were a lot of fun tonight. Throwing Casey amid Big Mike, Jeff and Lester was a lot of fun, and seeing how he couldn't stand to be working with the latter two (and ended up conking their heads together) was great. In particular, I thought the show made great use of the Subway product placement. Since Subway essentially saved the show last year, it's always been a necessary evil that the characters have to down a sandwich now and then, but "Chuck" kept the whole "Subway can help you lose weight like Big Mike!" thing refreshingly low-key, and the sight of Jeff enjoying his tuna-roni sandwich and then inviting Casey to have a bite was the episode's biggest laugh.

I realize that much of what I've said about this episode sounds fairly negative, and I want to reiterate that I enjoyed the episode, all things considered, and appreciate that the show is forcing Chuck to decide between his spy life and his personal life. I also liked the way the show pushed the inevitable Chuck and Sarah pairing closer to happening in tonight's episode (though you knew they weren't going to kiss), and I look forward to seeing if the show lets us observe Chuck's bumbling adventures as an international man of mystery in Rome. It was a solid episode of television. I just wonder if it couldn't have been slightly more if more of it didn't feel so on-the-nose.

Other thoughts

  • * I forgot to mention that the first part of Chuck's mission -- going to the hotel and ID'ing the mole -- was the sort of fun mission the show usually comes up with. I particularly enjoyed Chuck ending up naked on the side of the hotel. (At the same time, it became far easier to tell Zachary Levi's stunt double from the actual actor when neither was wearing a shirt. I wonder why that was?)
  • * That was Kyle Bornheimer from "Worst Week" as the mole. This was probably only bothering you if you watch as much TV as I do.
  • * I realize that I just said "spy" about a jillion times in that review, but it really does bug me the way the show treats the process of becoming a "real spy" like it's a series of progressive levels in a video game. On the one hand, it fits the show's conception of spycraft as an ultimately fun diversion from everyday life. On the other hand, it makes it difficult to take anything that happens in that world terribly seriously.
  • * Cool? No "previously on" segment. Not as cool? Opening with the episode's most fraught-with-tension moment, a trick that's become seriously played out in recent years on TV.
  • * So do Chuck and Sarah finally make it official in next week's episode or the one after that? You know they're heading that direction.

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

Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi) must pass one final test before becoming a spy. Credit: NBC.

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