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'Chuck' recap: Does this show deserve a renewal? Let's discuss

May 10, 2011 |  9:00 am

Chuck There’s some hilarious stuff in the penultimate episode of Season Four of “Chuck” (and maybe the next-to-last episode ever), but there’s also stuff that doesn’t work so well, and much of that stems from the worst decision the show has made this season: the decision to make Vivian Volkoff such a big player in the season’s endgame. In theory, I like the idea of there being this exact opposite to Chuck in every way, but in practice, the development of her character has been so scattered and random that it’s hard to gain much sympathy for her or even build up a good dislike of her. She’s just kind of there, neither as a cautionary tale or a good villain.

I know that the reason this has developed this way is because the show has been renewed and nearly canceled so haphazardly over the years. This season alone, episode 13 was one where the producers had every reason to believe they’d never be coming back, and then they had to come up with a storyline for another 11 episodes of television. This was accomplished well in some cases (I really liked the reveal about Alexei Volkoff’s origins last week) and poorly in others (Vivian might have made more sense stretched over an entire season, instead of a handful of episodes). It’s hard to hold this against the show, but every time it starts to build some momentum, as it did last week, there’s Vivian again, holding things back.

And it’s a pity, because Monday night’s episode had some fine ideas in it, from Chuck being quite literally torn between his mother and his fiancée while on a mission (and just days before his wedding!) to a final twist that put Sarah in mortal danger. Now, granted, this show isn’t going to kill Sarah, particularly in an episode that may end up having to serve as the series finale, but having the usually capable Sarah felled by Vivian, if only for a little while, will make Chuck’s emotional investment in bringing her down that much stronger. And I also found plenty to laugh at in this episode, from Lester’s insanity invading the first draft of Chuck and Sarah’s wedding video to Chuck getting Morgan psyched up by humming the “Imperial March” from the “Star Wars” movies (complete with transition to the full version on the soundtrack).

So it’s not like the episode was a total waste, but everything involving Vivian and her new evil pals fell flat for me. I’m sure there’s a way the show can pull all of this together next week, but I’m far more invested in the health of Sarah and Chuck and Ellie’s work to save Volkoff from his life as a bad guy, thus returning him to his status as Hartley Winterbottom. Vivian just doesn’t register for me, as either a foil for Chuck or some way for the show to do a “what if” scenario featuring our fair hero.

So that dispensed with, let’s tackle another question: Does “Chuck” deserve to get renewed?

First, from a business standpoint, it’s clear that if NBC cancels “Chuck” next week (the network holds its “upfront” meeting, where it will announce its new schedule, on Monday), no one will be terribly surprised. The show’s ratings have crumbled quite a bit in 2011, and even though NBC has huge holes on every night of the week, the success of “The Voice” may have convinced the network that doing something new will be better than hanging on to the old. At the same time, no one would be too surprised if NBC picked up the show. Its ratings are bad, but it’s cheap, and it has a built-in fan base. Picking it up for 13 “final” episodes would allow the show to get one last chance to tie up all loose ends.

But does it have that many loose ends to begin with? Now that the show has let virtually every other character in on Chuck’s secret (or every character we wanted to learn about that secret) and now that Chuck and Sarah are on their way to the altar, there aren’t a great deal of things still hanging over the show. Some of this has come about because the show has aired so many potential series finales over the years (since at least the midpoint of Season Three), but there still isn’t a great dramatic impetus driving the characters forward. The story of “Chuck” is all but done, especially once Chuck and Sarah are married.

That said, would I stop watching the show if it came back for a fifth season, one specifically billed as the end? Probably not. Many of the problems of seasons Three and Four have stemmed from the unusual episode orders NBC keeps tossing at the show. With a set number of episodes and a set end-date, the show could likely come up with a sweet story that lets us know what all of the characters are going to be up to in the years to come (when we’re not watching them). It could also come up with some fun standalones and so on. That said, the show’s budget would likely be so low if it returned that every episode would be a standalone on the BuyMore set, where Captain Awesome talked about the virtues of his awesome minivan. Is that a show I want to see? I’m not as sure about that.

Regardless, when I write my piece next week at this time, we’ll know whether the series is coming back or not. If it does, well, we’ll watch those episodes, I’d assume. And if it doesn’t, we’ll certainly have our memories of the show as it was. Even if it was never able to rise again to that Season Two level, it’s never been anything less than pleasant. And that’s not nothing.

Photo: As we contemplate what might be the end of the road for this show, let's remember how this all started, with Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), Chuck (Zachary Levi, center) and Casey (Adam Baldwin). Credit: NBC.

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