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'Chuck': Ah, spring, when a young man's fancy turns to kicking butt

April 26, 2010 |  9:00 pm

NUP_133874_0086.JPG  I don't know that I'd say "Chuck" is a better show with Chuck and Sarah together, but it's certainly a more natural show. There's just something about the series that breathes more easily when the two are just hanging out and being in love as opposed to having great deals of angst over whether they will be together. The show has always juggled so many tones and types of tones that just removing one element from the equation -- or treating it as something that just happens to exist and makes the central twosome happy -- gives the other elements more room to breathe. I don't know if this is exactly the case, but I vastly enjoyed "Chuck Versus the Honeymooners," and I hope it shows the way forward for the series (particularly as this parody of the opening credits to "Hart to Hart" from an upcoming episode is exactly my kind of TV geekery).

Or maybe all of this worked because, once again, the episode was mostly confined to a single mode of transportation. Like with the earlier "Chuck Versus First Class," which took place almost entirely on a plane, the episode took place almost entirely on a train, and the journey from Paris to Zurich made for a great time. Because Chuck and Sarah threw their cellphone out the window at episode's start, the better to not have the CIA tracking them, the two were truly isolated, and being forced to figure out ways for them to get out of their predicaments throughout the episode kept the writers coming up with neat ways for the two to escape. 

And the episode just kept ramping up the tension. First, Chuck and Sarah realized just how little the spy world would leave them behind so long as Chuck would be flashing on bad guys. Then, after a brief discussion of how they would give up the spy life eventually, they decided to take in the terrorist on board the train. And things just kept rolling from there, with near misses in the terrorist's train compartment, Casey and Morgan tracking down the two using Morgan's knowledge of Chuck's comic-buying habits and the terrorist being revealed as someone being brought in to the witness protection program, a man mercilessly hunted by some of the people he'd betrayed. Some of this was a little predictable -- it was obvious that "Canadian" girl was a baddie from her first appearance. But most of it was very, very fun, and it suggested the series won't fall apart now that its leads are together.

It's a myth, I think, that TV shows are destined to become unwatchable when the romantic leads hook up. If you build the show entirely around the unresolved sexual tension, maybe. But most shows with UST are built around something else entirely, and eventually, having the two characters not hook up when they're obviously well built for each other and obviously attracted to each other just makes things seem even more ridiculous than they would be normally. How often would this happen in real life? And how often would real life keep throwing ridiculous obstacles in the way of two people? It's one thing on a show where the whole purpose is slowly watching two people come closer and closer to getting together. It's quite another on a show like "Chuck," where we have plenty of other stuff to watch in the meantime, like spy action or Buy More comedy or Chuck and Ellie drama. 

And let's be clear here: Chuck and Sarah work together as well as a couple as they did as a noncouple. They may even work together better. That scene where they are handcuffed together and have to help each other through the fistfight is yet another fun action sequence in a season that's had any number of them, and it's helped even more by taking a pretty been-there, done-that conceit -- the characters are handcuffed together and must fight! -- and adding that extra element of the new lovers being just a little thrilled by being in such close proximity to each other and kicking butt. It's not often directly stated on a show like this, but there is something thrilling about sharing something like this with your partner. Chuck and Sarah might be able to build a life together without being spies, but it would probably be a life that eventually trashed their relationship. To some degree, the episode argues, these people are dependent on having that thrill and excitement of fighting side by side to keep the relationship fresh.

But even if the episode seemed almost unnaturally focused on the Chuck and Sarah relationship being the series' newest element to incorporate -- seriously, that last shot was something like half a minute of the two kissing, as if to say, "SEE, 'shippers? They DID get together" -- the rest of the episode contained charm to spare. Morgan being the newest member of the team has reinvigorated the spy storylines, which were in danger of falling into the same old patterns week after week. Morgan's kind of a klutz, but he's also widely read and surprisingly intuitive about things, and that makes him surprisingly helpful when Casey is trying to track down Chuck. To some degree, we know that Morgan is going to be able to find Chuck very quickly, since he knows Chuck better than he even knows himself, almost. But that he's able to poke holes in the bad guys' stories toward the end is even better. It shows that Morgan maybe won't have the natural aptitude Chuck has had, but he will have the smarts to carry him through.

I was also rather moved by the story of Ellie waiting for her brother to come to say goodbye to her before she and Awesome left for Africa. The scene at their party, with Jeffster! performing "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," was actually poignant, given that it prominently featured, y'know, Jeffster!, and the final scene where Chuck gets home and thinks he's gotten there too late before seeing her again really played off everything we've seen about this relationship. The Ellie and Chuck aspect of the show isn't anyone's favorite part of the show, obviously, since it doesn't have big comedy or big action, but it's one thing that keeps the show honest, keeps it from going off the rails.

But the show has another element to keep it honest now in the Chuck and Sarah relationship. I'll admit that I've been a little impatient to get the two together, not because I think they're the No. 1 true love match of all time, but because I thought the show was being rather silly in keeping them apart for increasingly arbitrary reasons. But it's even more fun to see the two together, both personally and professionally, to see them so at ease in each other's company and see them taking out the bad guys with such obvious skill and enjoyment. There hasn't been a show about people who are both openly in love and openly fond of fighting evil in far too long, and I'm hopeful "Chuck" can be that, at least for a little while.

Some other thoughts:

  • A surprisingly low amount of the creepy from Jeff this week, though his delight at Lester's supposed original definition for "bat mitzvah" almost made up for all of that.
  • There was a lot of great music in this one, but it was particularly strange to hear both the Polyphonic Spree's "Light and Day" and Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good" pop up toward the end of the episode, since both are fairly old songs, and "Chuck" goes out of its way to pick newer music. Still, both were used rather well.
  • What do we have to do to get an episode that the entirety of the cast appears in together, "Chuck"? Buy more $5 footlongs?
  • And it looks like the possibilities of "Chuck" being renewed have perked up again, according to these two reports. It's not a surefire thing, but NBC just has so many holes that it's as likely to patch one with "Chuck" as anything else.

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

Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi) finally has the girl. (Credit: NBC)

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