Review: Chuck 3×1-3×3

He's back and he's better, in more ways than one

Chuck 3x1-3x3

In the US: Sunday 10th & Monday 11th January 2010, NBC
In the UK: On Virgin 1 some time during the dawning of the Age of Aquarius probably

Well blow me. No Chuck for ages and then suddenly three come along at once. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made there. Hmm…

But it’s back all the same, following a brief brush with cancellation that was only averted thanks to a certain sandwich franchise stepping up to the plate and offering NBC loads of money for a bit of product placement – oh, and if the producers were willing to cut the budget a bit. You know, lose a few characters…

Now if you watched the end of the second season, you’ll know that changes were planned for the show anyway – which, for a show that hardly ever strays away from its formula and always resets everything back to the status quo/the nicest possible option, was a bit brave.

Well, let me tell you, if you were worried that things were going to stay exactly the same, you’d only have been half-right, because although there’s been an awful lot of resetting going on, there’s been a whole lot of changes as well.

Spoilers and more after the jump.

No More Mr. Nice Spy. Our favorite secret agent is back in the one-hour action-comedy series. Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi, “Less Than Perfect”) returns as a regular guy, working at a Buy More electronics store, who becomes the government’s most vital secret agent.

Chuck is transformed into the Intersect 2.0 after another data download into his brain. This time around, he not only knows government secrets, but he also is well equipped with deadly fight skills. Chuck has the potential to become a real agent, but he has one problem — his emotions. Now he faces the battle of keeping his emotions in check in order to protect himself and the people around him.

The ever stoic Colonel John Casey (Adam Baldwin, “My Bodyguard,” “Firefly”) returns with partner Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski, “Gone”), one of the CIA’s top agents and Chuck’s dream girl. As Chuck assumes his new role as the Intersect 2.0, Casey and Sarah need to protect him but also help him become the agent he is destined to be.

Also starring are: Joshua Gomez (“Without a Trace”) as Morgan Grimes — Chuck’s best buddy; Sarah Lancaster (“What About Brian?”) as Chuck’s ever-supportive sister Ellie; Ryan McPartlin (“Living with Fran”) as Devon Woodcomb (also known as “Captain Awesome”), Ellie’s husband. Chuck’s Buy More team consists of Big Mike (Mark Christopher Lawrence, “The Pursuit of Happyness”) and the Nerd Herd, which includes Lester (Vik Sahay, “Time Bomb”) and Jeff (Scott Krinsky, “The O.C.”).

“Chuck” is co-created by Josh Schwartz (“The O.C., “Gossip Girl”) and Chris Fedak, and is executive-produced by Schwartz, McG (“Charlie’s Angels,” “We Are Marshall”), Fedak, Allison Adler and Matthew Miller. “Chuck” is produced by College Hill Pictures, Wonderland Sound and Vision, in association with Warner Bros. Television.

Schwartz and Chris Fedak wrote “Chuck,” which is produced by College Hill Pictures, Wonderland Sound and Vision, in association with Warner Bros. Television.

Is it any good?
For the most part, Chuck is as it’s always been. Chuck loves Sarah, Sarah loves Chuck. They want to be together but can’t as long as Chuck has the Intersect in his head. Casey hates the both of them, but likes them a bit. Chuck works at the Buy More, where he has to guard his secret from his fellow nerds. He also has to protect his sister from his spy life and finding out what he’s been up to.

So far, so much the same, and despite the installation of Intersect 2.0 in Chuck’s head and Awesome, Chuck’s brother-in-law, finding out about his double life at the end of last season, the first, disappointing episode of the third season sees everything go back to normal again. Chuck can’t hack it as a proper spy, even with Intersect 2.0 teaching him kung fu and any other skill he needs in just a ‘flash’. His rejection of Sarah’s offer to elope in favour of his spy life, his return to the Buy More – it’s a restoration of the status quo that we all knew was going to happen.

Sure, a couple of characters whom no one will miss much do disappear in the first episode, one off-screen, one on-screen, and Intersect 2.0 does mean that Chuck actually does get to do proper spy stuff. But if you were expecting any big changes in the set-up, sorry, no can do.

Episode two didn’t do too much to advance anything at first, although the writing was several notches better than episode one’s. We have a return of Sarah’s friend and co-spy Carina, as well as a guest appearance by Vinnie Jones as a Swedish arms dealer. No, I’m not kidding. No, he’s not great.

It featured a great athletic scene from Chuck, but the real highpoint of the show was Chuck’s moving speech to Sarah through a metal door that she only gets to hear in full at the end of the episode. It’ll have you crying at the same time as she does.

Game changer
So you’d expect it to be all change going into episode three, except everything’s back to normal again. Sarah and Chuck are officially still no longer an item. Magic reset button: pushed.

But this was again an increase in quality. As well as being funny, we got a great episode for Awesome and Ellie. Awesome truly is awesome and gets to play at being a spy as well.

Which makes the ending a real eye-opener. No. They couldn’t. They wouldn’t. I’d be impressed if they did it, although I suspect they won’t have (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it), particularly given the name of the next episode. But it would change the show into something completely different from the lightweight, fun escapism of previous years if they did, and it would be a real loss to the show.

Talk about cliffhanger. Much as I love Heroes, Tim Kring and co take note: this is how to do action-adventure and character on a low budget.

The changes that take place were pretty much the ones I was expecting, so no surprises there. The essential core of the show is the same, but it does look like the producers are actually trying to start changing the show.

There are the usual gripes: Sarah, for the most part, is simply something to be gazed at by men and make hurt-puppy looks at Chuck, rather than a truly well-developed character; Casey is there just to growl; there’s not really a true sense of danger for any of the characters (I may revise this, subject to what happens next week); ‘The Ring’ isn’t any more of a threat than the last lot of inept spies that Chuck was up against; and nothing much changes between Chuck and Sarah.

But despite the budget cuts, compared to the mostly lackluster, water-treading season two, season three is looking like a definite step-up so far.