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'Chuck' recap: How we met Chuck's mother

September 20, 2010 |  9:00 pm

I enjoyed the fourth season premiere of "Chuck," for the most part, but I wish it hadn't undone so much of its new storyline so quickly. Obviously, Chuck and Morgan going out and pursuing their own missions on the way to finding Chuck's mother wasn't going to work as a season-long setup, since it didn't involve so many of the characters in any way. This is a TV show, and at some point, the series has to set a status quo that involves most of the people that live in its universe. But there's taking your time to explore the characters in new situations and then there's backing rapidly away from anything not having to do with the status quo. By the end of the premiere, Chuck is again a CIA employee, again lying to his sister about his job, again working at the (reconstructed) Buy More as a cover and again working with Casey and Sarah. Heck, he's once again searching for a missing parent (though at least in this case, we in the audience know where she is).

That sense of hurrying up to get back to the status quo mars a premiere that's pretty fun otherwise. The pre-credits sequence of Chuck and Morgan racing all over the world and running up giant credit card debt in their pursuit of Chuck's mom is very funny and tells the whole story without expensive stunts or anything like that. For the most part, it's just Zachary Levi's eyes, looking worried, a cartoon map on the opposite side of the screen. The whole thing was a goofy riff on old spy movies, and it really got the episode off on the right foot. Since this was an episode that had a lot of different things going on, that was probably for the best. It would be easy to overwhelm the audience.

There's one thing "Chuck" didn't bother undoing, and I'm glad it didn't: Chuck and Sarah are still together and celebrating their anniversary (which they end up celebrating on a bus in Moscow). In general, the emotion in this episode was very well deployed, from Chuck and Sarah missing each other while they each pursue separate assignments to Casey's look of sadness when he thinks he's heard Chuck die over the radio. It's a great moment for Adam Baldwin, who can play so many different emotions, yet rarely gets asked to go beyond generic tough guy stuff. Casey's cared for Chuck for a long time now, though he rarely shows it, and it was wonderful to get a very overt nod to that. Another emotional beat that worked? Chuck deciding to save Sarah and his friends instead of get the identity of his mother.

The other stuff that worked in the episode was all over the place, in several different storylines. But much of it had to do with the guest stars. I have next to no idea why the producers brought in Harry Dean Stanton to play a repo man, nor why they only had him in two scenes and mostly gave him goofy stuff to say, but it somehow ended up being a stroke of genius. Stanton is always fun, no matter what he's doing, and this is no exception, as he laments about how much he loves dumplings, pulls guns on people and wanders the wastelands of Los Angeles, looking for things to repossess. I hope the show brings him back. Dolph Lundgren was seemingly brought in just to say that he would "break" someone, but he seemed to be having fun. And any time you can end an episode with Linda Hamilton shooting someone in the head, it's probably a good episode of TV. As Chuck's mom, she brings something fresh to the proceedings, and I hope the show doesn't hesitate to bring her and the rest of the cast together.

But there were plenty of things that didn't work for me as well. Chuck has never made any fuss about its storylines taking place in a fictional world that's as much an homage to spy novels of the '60s and '80s movies as anything else. That can make some of the spy storytelling sort of jarring, particularly when it tries to incorporate real world figures. This episode didn't really have that problem (most of it was kind of a riff on Cold War archetypes -- again with the classic spy movie references), but the show's inconsistent portrayal of the CIA -- first, they're cruel taskmasters, then they're the best workplace ever! -- hurt this episode in some places, as did its inconsistent portrayal of Chuck's gradual growth into a good spy. I think the show might have thrown away a great thing in Chuck having a secret lair, where he worked on cases on a freelance basis. That would have gotten it away from the real world agencies it uses and made its storytelling feel looser. (Some of the CIA storytelling here often feels like the writers looked up the Wikipedia article on the CIA, then called it a day.)

In another storyline entirely, I wasn't a huge fan of the "Chuck interviews for a job" montage. Setting aside the fact that the guy somehow has five job interviews (in the alternate universe the show is set in, the employment picture in Los Angeles is just rosy!), the whole thing went on too long and resorted far too often to pretty stupid jokes about Chuck throwing up or what have you. I did like the later scene where Chuck and Morgan ended up on the bus, Chuck in his nice suit, and I liked the way it mirrored the later bus scene in Moscow, but the whole montage felt cheaper than the show usually goes.

"Chuck," like its hero, often seems to be in search of a little direction. It's a very fun show, and there's always something to recommend, even in its weakest episodes, but this season premiere suggested that the show isn't sure where to go, moving forward, so it's just going to go back to what sort of worked before. Chuck coming clean to Ellie was one of the best moments of last season, and Ellie telling Chuck she's pregnant was one of the best moments of this episode (can you imagine Chuck as an uncle?). So I'm not sure why the show feels the need to have him be lying to everyone again, aside from the fact that he's always been lying to everyone. Similarly, I don't know why we need the Buy More back. It just got in the way of the storytelling before, and it probably will again, much as I might like the characters that work there. In its fourth season, it's probably too late to ask the show to tighten some of this up. For better or worse, the shagginess of the series is what makes lots of people (including me) love it. But it also constantly holds the show back from taking that next step up, from winning and funny to one of the best shows on TV.

Some other thoughts:

  • It's nice to see Bonita Friedericy added to the regular cast, since she's been in practically every episode since the show began anyway. Not so sure she needs to be sharing a credits screen with Jeff and Lester.
  • Nice gag: Chuck interviews at Vandalay Industries.
  • Oh, right. I have another complaint. That whole "sexting" storyline was just stupid. It's been done on a million shows now, and every time a series does it, it simply feels like the show's writers read an overheated newspaper feature about the term and decided it sounded like something they could work into their show. No storyline about sexting has worked ever, and this one didn't either. Also, the word isn't that funny. So stop saying it.
  • "I either leave, or they die." John Casey, on the ladies he's loved.
  • It's good to be back for another season of "Chuck." Expect to see a report on how the show did in the ratings tomorrow, so you know if you need to start hoarding delicious Subway sandwiches.

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

Photo: Olivia Munn starred in the season premiere of "Chuck," but only just barely. Much more time was spent on Morgan (Josh Gomez, center) and Chuck (Zachary Levi). As it should be. (Credit: NBC)

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