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'Chuck': We're living together, but I'm just not sure I'm ready for a relationship right now

May 10, 2010 | 10:34 pm

Here's the part where a little integration between the two pieces of the third season of "Chuck" might have been better. "Chuck vs. the Tooth" is an episode that clearly wants to be a part of the first 13 episodes, which were dark and dramatic and full of interesting character work, even if some of the narrative threads the show picked up ended up in dead ends. But it's in the back six, which have, so far, been light and goofy and all of the things the first 13 episodes weren't. Every time the episode threatens to turn deadly serious, something strange or silly happens. Usually, the fact that "Chuck" tries to be 15 or 16 different shows in one is one of the points in its favor, but "Tooth" often felt like it was missing the target.

I like the idea that the Intersect is making egg salad out of Chuck's brain. It's a perfectly logical development for the show to foist on its main character, and it nicely sets up the return of Chuck's dad, the inventor of the Intersect and possibly the only man who can calm his son's raging nightmares. Christopher Lloyd is cast nicely against type as a relatively dark and sober therapist who worries deeply about the possibility of Chuck remaining sane in the future. He makes a good harbinger of things to come, as he sits in his moodily lit office and worries about the effects of one man having that many government secrets in his brain. Sarah and Casey's dedication to making sure that Chuck doesn't lose himself or his sanity to the Intersect is a good emotional hook for an episode. All in all, this could have been a compelling story for the show to play out.

The problem is that that story should have played out over several episodes, and there's some indication that we'll deal with this going forward. The whole thing comes up so suddenly -- with Chuck having a nightmare and Sarah tossing off some dialogue about all of the nightmares he's been having -- that it's hard to take it seriously for this hour, particularly when the show keeps undercutting it with goofy antics in a mental institution. I don't begrudge the writers the fact that they decided to keep the first 13 episodes and the last six largely separate, outside of character connections. But had they raised the issue of Chuck suddenly having these nightmares he can't figure out late in the first episode and then had that become a runner in the second, with the nightmares getting more and more disturbing, and then made the unsettling presence of those nightmares the main issue in this episode, that might have really been something. Instead, despite the fact that the nightmares were stylishly filmed, they felt like weird intrusions from another show entirely.

I actually, as mentioned, really like the idea of the Intersect freestyling when Chuck goes to sleep and coming up with bizarrely implausible scenarios that start to reflect real life. Sure, I don't want Chuck to become psychic or anything, but the idea that the Intersect might develop a mind of its own and start drawing connections where Chuck wouldn't normally look is a potentially promising one. And those dream sequences were nicely done, with Beckman clashing cymbals and Shaw showing up to suggest he wasn't actually dead. (Though, honestly, who didn't guess that well before the show brought it up?) "Chuck" so rarely heads for the surreal that it was nice to see the show try it. It's the sort of thing the show, which is already pretty divorced from reality, could afford to do more of.

Now, if the fact that this "Intersect is eating Chuck's brain" issue came up so suddenly and that was the only thing that didn't work about the episode were true, I probably would have liked it quite a bit. But that wasn't the case. There was a lot of other stuff that didn't really work. In particular, I'm tired of episodes of shows where the major emotional conflict derives from whether the couple at the center of the storyline will say "I love you" to each other. I'm aware that people often have this discussion in real life and treat it with the utmost of seriousness, but Chuck and Sarah have already essentially declared their love, no? They've moved in together. He killed a dude to save her life. They went on a romantic romp through Europe and nearly ran away from their old lives for each other. I'm sort of shocked that "I love you" hasn't just slipped out. I can't believe Chuck would be stressing out about it or that Sarah wouldn't have just said it. This isn't a problem just "Chuck" has. There are lots of TV shows where this becomes a major conflict. ("Gilmore Girls" stretched it out for what seemed like five years.) I just never buy that it's as big of a deal as TV writers want me to think.

Meanwhile, Ellie was confronted by Justin coming back home to tell her that Casey is a master spy who is putting her and her husband's lives in danger. We've been waiting for quite a while to have Ellie get clued in on the fact that there are espionage shenanigans going on in her apartment complex, but this feels like a particularly clumsy way to do so. Doesn't she wonder why Justin didn't warn her back in Africa? And doesn't hearing that Casey may be a spy cause her to start to ask more questions about why he's in her and her brother's lives? It was clearly a storyline that was setting up future plots, like the return of Papa Bartowski, but it felt a little too transparently like the show trying to get to one place from another.

There were a few things I liked in this episode. I thought Lloyd's performance was nicely subdued, and I liked seeing Anna so surprised to see Morgan looking suave (and the great meta-gag of having the wind machine turn on as Morgan walked in in a tuxedo). What's more, the episode used a song by The Gaslight Anthem, and that's always a nice thing. I liked a lot of the ideas of the show, even as I thought the execution was weak. It sometimes feels like "Chuck" has a failure of nerve every time it decides to dramatically raise the stakes. What I liked about the darker part of this season was that the stakes were always palpable, even if some of the other stuff wasn't working. The show's goofier episodes, then, often don't work simply because the show backs away from any big moments, sometimes abruptly. It's one thing to throw Chuck in a mental institution and have it seem like all is lost. It's quite another to resolve all of that within one episode, largely via a goofy patient who calls himself Merlin. The balancing act is one of the fun things about "Chuck," but sometimes it just doesn't work. This was one of those times.

Some other thoughts:

  • I did like the dark turn of having Chuck punch the Zamibian doctor to try and prove his point, only to have Sarah and Casey realize the tooth wasn't anything like what Chuck said it was. More of that, please.
  • Jeff and Lester were, as always, funny tonight, particularly Jeff's revelation that dumpy housewives are exactly the type he goes for.
  • I've been married for a while. Do you young daters spend this much time worrying about whether your beloved is going to say he or she loves you? And whether you love him or her back? I'd think we'd all have better uses for our time!
  • Christopher Lloyd is one of those guys who really deserves some sort of HBO or Showtime drama series where he plays the central character. He's a great, underrated character actor, who got unfairly lumped in as some sort of daffy star after "Taxi" and "Back to the Future."
  • Michael Ausiello over at Entertainment Weekly is reporting that things look even better for a fourth season. Even though I'm down on an episode, that's good news, yeah?
  • More '80s references I just don't get. I have never seen "Spies Like Us."

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

Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi, left) has to get clearance to continue working from a therapist (Christopher Lloyd). Credit: NBC

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