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'Chuck': And they all lived happily ever after

April 5, 2010 | 10:20 pm

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"Before that, you were smart." -- John Casey

"Chuck" is, on some levels, a show about a guy who's trying to get his confidence back. He's a guy who always knew what he was going to do and who he was going to be and then had that snatched away from him when his college girlfriend left him for his roommate and he entered a spiral of slacker-ishness and depression that he was never able to pull out of ... until said roommate again gave him a purpose. Now, a lot of other stuff has happened, both on the series as a whole and in this season, but I read the central thread of the series as being about a young man who discovers all of the potential he's always had when he's given a great gift. It's the story of every loner kid who gets superpowers, writ large.

If nothing else, "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" was a good chance to remind us that this is a guy who's mostly gotten that confidence back. After several long years of pining, he's got the girl. After long years of not being sure if he's got the right stuff, he discovers it in a rather dramatic fashion. And after a whole season of worrying if he'd be able to pull the trigger when the moment arose, he realizes that he can, but only if someone he loves and cares about is in incredible danger. (It's a bit of a cheat, since Chuck is always willing to have others do his dirty work, but whatever. The episode was so good that I mostly didn't care.) And yet, when push comes to shove, he can't rely on his superpower to get him through. He has to rely on something he's always had and has always been able to utilize: his intelligence.

I don't know that "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" completely excuses some of the missteps the show has taken this season, but it definitely proves the show can still bring it when it needs to. "Other Guy" is basically 45 minutes or so of deeply entertaining television, television that manages tonal shifts from dark drama to light comedy with impressive speed and terrific execution. Maybe not everything here works -- the story of Morgan leaving and then not leaving the Buy More stands out as kind of a waste of time -- but the bulk of this episode is so much fun that I doubt anyone, even the hardest of hard-core nitpickers, is going to care all that much.

What's the big takeaway here? Chuck and Sarah are finally together. Now, take issue with the fact that the show has thrown fake obstacle after fake obstacle in their path this season (though I still quite liked Hannah and Chuck's relationship) all you want, but the payoff to all of it was more than worth it. I can't say I'm a big Chuck and Sarah 'shipper, but even I was impressed by how much I enjoyed that moment when the two kissed while he was sitting on the floor of his apartment, drunk beyond recognition and clutching a "Guitar Hero" controller. Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have always had amazing chemistry, and when the show called on them to sell that they were finally going to be together, they sold every inch of it and more.

Of course, as pretty much every "Chuck" fan knows, this was the original season finale when "Chuck" was picked up for a 13-episode run that was to start in March after the Olympics. Instead, NBC's fall schedule bombed, and the series got an additional six episodes to play with, so the fairly tightly constructed first 13 episodes becomes just the first chapter of the season, with the next part picking up in three weeks. To the series' credit, they didn't push the Chuck and Sarah pairing even farther back because of the new episodes, and they made this episode feel like a season finale. (And had it been forced to function as a series finale in some horrifying alternate universe, well, it would have worked just fine as that, too.) The series didn't push back Morgan becoming a part of Operation Bartowski or Casey getting his old job back, either, and that means that when the show comes back in a few weeks, it will almost seem like we're getting a short preview of Season Four, even more than we're getting a closer to Season Three.

But the reason this episode works so well -- besides all of those cool, finale-esque twists -- is because its emotional heart is in the right place. This has been a trying season for the heart of the show, and it's often seemed like the series has misplaced it here or there along the way. While a lot of the storytelling was exciting and while testing just what sort of stuff Chuck is made of was a story the show needed to tell, it was certainly less easy for the series to cut from Chuck freaking out over having to kill a man to whatever was going on over at the Buy More. Now, some of the dark stuff maybe wasn't as well executed as it could have been or shied away from going TOO dark, so it could feel like the show was just doing this to do it. But I think it's all paid off now with a Chuck who's more mature and has looked into the dark side and realized it's not what makes him work.

But at the same time, he's realized he's a guy who can take the shot when he needs to. In something most fans will likely greet with a lack of sadness, Chuck shot Shaw when he was going to send a drugged Sarah tumbling into the Seine on their little Parisian excursion. The fight between Chuck and Shaw was great, and the way Chuck outsmarted him (and allowed Casey to take care of everyone else in the Ring off screen) was good fun as well. But the heart of the show is in that moment where Chuck has to do the one thing he has never wanted to do and finds himself able to do it when the love of his life's, well, life is on the line. It's a dark moment, but it's also a moment that feels quintessentially "Chuck," something the series' darker moments had some trouble with earlier this season.

So now, we're ready for the next chapter in the life of "Chuck," both show and character. By and large, I'm happy with the way this one has closed out. Getting Chuck and Sarah together was the natural next step for the series, and while I could have done without all of the artificial obstacles tossed in the way of the two, I do think the show's heart was in the right place when it was doing this. (I also think the series could have made a bigger deal out of Chuck not running off with Sarah at the train station in Prague.) And yet, this has been a season that has taken some big steps for the show, and most of those big steps have been handled very well. "Chuck" is never going to be as trenchant as something like "Mad Men" or as downright weird as something like "Lost." But when it's in the zone, there's little else like it on TV. And it was definitely in the zone tonight.

Some other thoughts:

  • * Though I've never loved "Chuck" as much as I loved this earlier show, the series that "Chuck" most reminds me of for its balancing of relationship story lines, action comedy and darker moments is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And that's heady praise indeed.
  • * I do worry that Chuck is basically someone the audience is unable to identify with. He's still our hero; he's still OUR CHUCK, in a lot of ways, but he's also a superhuman spy. I get that Morgan's on the team now to take the place of the regular guy who stumbles into the world of spycraft, but I do miss when Chuck was a bit more of a bumbler.
  • *It was weird to see the Buy More gang turn up for so little screen time, overall, but it was even weirder to have Ellie and Awesome completely sit this one out. "Chuck" has always been good about fitting everyone into its big event episodes, and their absence felt particularly glaring.
  • * Final thoughts on the Shaw character? I still like a lot of Brandon Routh's performance, but the series just seemed to be going through the motions with him quite a bit of the time, particularly when it was pushing him and Sarah together. Still, it was worth it for his role in this final episode. It strained credulity to have him film himself fake fighting the Ring operatives, but it still made for a pretty cool moment when Morgan realized the fight was faked (though the CIA couldn't do that? really?).
  • * Hopefully, we'll have some good "Chuck" news to report in the next couple of weeks. But if there's no "Chuck" news whatsoever, you can at least look for a write-up of the next episode, "Chuck vs. the Honeymooners," on April 26. See you then!

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

Photo: Jeff (Scott Krinsky) was barely in this episode, but here's a photo of him looking extra creepy. It's what he does. (Credit: NBC)

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