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'Chuck': Say hi to the bad guy

May 24, 2010 | 11:58 pm

 If I were going to make a gift registry of things that I'd like "Chuck" to pick up for me in the off season, one of those things would be a villain. Actually, that would be the only thing on the list. "Chuck" is a very good, very fun show, most weeks, but it has a severe stakes problem, and episodes like this two-hour extravaganza or the earlier "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" show just how good the show could be if it figured out a way to bring in someone who could give Chuck and his other pals a run for their money. The Ring, this season, hasn't been that. They've felt pretty inept throughout, and there's never been a real sense of danger.

A lot of people don't like Shaw. And I'd agree that as a romantic foil for Chuck or as an all-American hero archetype, Shaw was kind of problematic. He and Sarah's relationship was never as convincing as it could have been, and he could be dull when he was doing spy stuff. My favorite moments were the ones where he revealed that he had a plan all along and was going to execute that plan, come hell or high water (like when he pulled out that cool maneuver with the plane all the way back in "Chuck vs. First Class"). Shaw would have worked well as a machine of a spy, a man who was too smart for the room and always three steps ahead of everyone else, but, instead, the show flailed around with what to do to him before abruptly turning him into a bad guy. Chuck shooting him was a satisfying moment, yes, but the arc for Shaw himself mostly lurched around.

I say all of that as preamble to this: I think Shaw as the big bad of these last few episodes has mostly worked, and I think the fact that he was a presence in everyone's life tonight was one of the best things about the finale. I'm not saying that I was watching scenes featuring Chuck and Sarah and Casey and saying, "I wonder what Shaw's up to?" or anything like that, but I was much more invested in what they were doing. I feared for their safety, even as I intellectually knew none of them would die. Bringing Shaw back in and giving him an insane personal vendetta against these people worked up the stakes, and having him kill the one person who would provoke an emotional response in Chuck without killing off a series regular (because who are you going to kill off in the main cast? Lester?) worked just as well.

Obviously, it's easy to sit here and say all of this stuff when "Chuck" is a show that brings even its most skeptical fans a lot of joy at any given moment. I can rest secure in the knowledge that when the show comes back in the fall (and thank God for that), I'll laugh at the jokes and find the stunt sequences very well executed and enjoy the scenes where Chuck and Sarah explore just how their relationship and their work life fit together. It's the stuff I've always loved about the show, and it's the stuff that's always worked best. It's a show that blends a lot of stuff in every episode, and that means that something has to go out the window.

But I'm not sure that a  bad guy would be the worst idea in the world or even wreck the show's existing template. Indeed, now that the Buy More has been destroyed, it would be easier to fit in weekly trips to the villain's lair to find out what he or she is up to (as we frequently got in the show that seems like the most obvious template for "Chuck," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). The series has been so good at coming up with colorful characters around the edges of the main ensemble that I can't imagine the writers wouldn't be able to figure out how to make a bad guy and/or henchmen sing. Preferably, said bad guy would have a nefarious plan that we're never quite sure of and a personal vendetta against our heroes and all of that good stuff. And while Shaw is not quite the bad guy I'd imagined, he certainly has all of those things, and that's what makes his grand return so much fun.

Let's face it. This episode did a lot of things this mini-season of "Chuck" hasn't done, necessarily. It moved like a rocket. It made great use of its special guest stars (particularly Scott Bakula, turning up for the last time in the land of the living as Steve Bartowski). It had terrific moments that were both exciting and funny, like Casey convincing Morgan to break his thumbs to escape the handcuffs. And it had some big reveals, as well as some moments when it really felt like everything could change. It was a terrific episode, a reminder of how good this show can be when everything is clicking. Shaw's return as a villain was integral to all of this stuff moving, and I think the show could do even better by introducing a villain that was even more compelling and connected to our heroes. (Who could that be, though? I have no idea. I wish the show had never killed Bryce Larkin. He would have been excellent.)

The thing with the widest-ranging impact for the show's future here is the fact that Ellie now knows that Chuck is a spy (or WAS a spy, to her mind). The scene where Awesome told her everything he knows was terrifically executed, both funny and moving in equal measure, and everything about her concern for her brother and the way she was there to save him whenever she could be there was great as well. I'm so glad the show no longer has to carry the load of having Ellie not know what's going on because it so often made a pretty smart character seem stupid to not at least have a suspicion beyond a comic one that something was going on.

And, yeah, there's a lot of other stuff that happens here. Mama Bartowski is still alive and, apparently, also a spy. (Is Lena Olin available?) Chuck has quit the CIA after saving the country from a Ring takeover of its espionage agencies (the least we can do for Chuck, I imagine). But he's also discovered his father's secret lair, which is full of files that sound like the titles of '60s spy novels and other cool stuff. The idea of Steve being Chuck's secret mentor from beyond the grave is full of promise, and I hope that the show figures out a way to tear Bakula away from his other series long enough to film some low-grade Web videos to help guide Chuck along or something.

I think there's a lot of awesome stuff to build on here for a fourth season, and when the show comes back in the fall, I think it will have a better sense of where it's going. I'd say that the series suffered from trying to split up the dark stuff and the goofy stuff into two parts of the season, and I still wish the series had built these last six episodes in a more organic way. Season 3 of "Chuck" has been one of growing pains, but it's been a season when the show has learned a lot of valuable lessons as well. And hopefully, when it comes back, there'll be someone there to knock the Chuck gang around. Just a little bit.

Some other thoughts:

  • * Jeff and Lester's music video was funny, but it felt like it was trying too hard all the same. But the idea of the two on the run because they think they accidentally blew up the Buy More has a lot of potential.
  • * Man, Shaw's plan was really diabolical. I kind of wanted to see it succeed. The idea of a show where the "Chuck" gang is on the run and striking back at nefarious government forces, "A Team" style? I could really get behind that.
  • * I hope we see much more of Alex next season. Her reunion with Casey was nicely handled on all ends.
  • * So let's talk in comments. What do YOU want to see from a fourth season?

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

Photo: Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) learns that Chuck (Zachary Levi) is a spy in the third season finale of "Chuck." (Credit: NBC)

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