In anticipation of recapping the first two episodes of the new season of "Chuck," I made sure to read Dan Fienberg's review in advance. After all, I didn't want to accidentally repeat everything he already said. But I was glad to see that Dan, like myself, likes this show in a way that bypasses critical faculty and directly hits emotional buttons. And to me, that's not the only way to enjoy the show, but it's perhaps the best. After all, Season 3 seems to be all about the best way for Chuck to become a spy: via the head or via the heart. So far, Team Heart is winning big time. 
 
[Full recap of Sunday (Jan. 10) night's "Chuck" premiere after the break...]
 
Sure, "Chuck Versus the Pink Slip" and "Chuck Versus The Three Words" featured spy action, cool weaponry, and the introduction of new mythology to the show's universe. But at heart, these two hours sought to creatively yet realistically re-establish familiar settings and characters while adjusting them ever so slightly to accommodate Chuck's newfound abilities. With the introduction of The Intersect 2.0 (Electric Boogaloo) into the narrative mix, the show could have drastically revamped itself to assimilate Chuck's potentially limitless skills. We're talking about a guy who could kick as much butt in real life as his does online in "Call of Duty" at this point, after all. 
 
But massive change would violate the trust put in the fans that bought $5 footlong after $5 footlong in order to even see this season at all. Moving "Chuck" away from the Buy More would be catastrophic for the franchise. A "Chuck" without Jeffster or Captain Awesome isn't really "Chuck" at all, quite frankly. The show's solution? Establishing that while Chuck Bartowski has the potential to be the world's greatest spy, he's got a long way to go before he can get there. Exactly how that untapped potential can be exploited (in every sense of the word) will frame the show's third season's overall plot. 
 
When the season kicks off, Chuck's in Prague, six months after the end of Season 2. Surrounded by unknown adversaries, he flashes onto his recently obtained kung fu skills and escapes. However, his ability to flash on the Intersect's vast database of abilities isn't exactly honed. On top of that, we soon learn what looked like this show's version of an "Alias" cold open is the latest (and last) unsuccessful attempt by the government to turn Chuck into a real spy. (If you had the phrase "real spy" in your "Chuck" drinking game, let me sincerely apologize for the hang-over you now have.) 
 
At the heart of Chuck's flashing issues lies Sarah. In the aftermath of Season 2's finale, Sarah suggested that the two follow-up on their plan to simply leave the spy world behind and forge on anonymously with their own lives. She gave Chuck a time and a train in Prague to rendezvous, at which point I felt less like I was watching "Chuck" and more like I was watching Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset" films. Would this be another case of star-crossed lovers unable to meet at a Prague train station? 
 
Not quite. Chuck does meet her there, but insists he's staying on to train to become a spy. For most of the two hours aired tonight, the exact reason for such a decision seemed murky at best, and metatheatrically ridiculous at worst. (Two years of pining for her, only to deny her the second she fully opens herself up to him?) Luckily, the show managed to pull off a plausible explanation by the night's end. Sure, part of the appeal of being a spy lies in Chuck's long-gestating feeling of worthlessness since his expulsion from Stanford. But the spy business is also intensely personal for him as well. Speaking from inside a locked room in a mark's mansion, Chuck declares to an unseen Sarah, "I chose to be a spy for my friends…and my family…and for you." 
 
Here's where we get back into this notion of Team Head vs. Team Heart. Sure, it's not Team Edward vs. Team Jacob, but nevertheless stands at the heart of why Chuck is uniquely positioned to help the U.S. government in its new mission to take down the organization known as The Ring. If you are a fan of hard-core spy dramas, then Chuck's insistence on grilling Sarah for information about her feelings for him mid-mission must sound like nails on chalkboard. But while there ARE life-and-death stakes in the world of "Chuck" (just ask the late, great Emmett Milbarge), often the spy cases deployed in the show are window dressing to the interpersonal stories the show wants to tell. In other words: the stakes involved in most missions are not much different from those in the staged simulation that starts this season. 
 
Is that a harsh criticism? I don't think so, since it doesn't get at what the show seems to feel is most important. The spy elements certainly differentiate "Chuck" from many other shows, but they certainly don't define it, either. I'm curious to know what's in that gold suitcase, and why it scares the bejesus out of General Beckman, but it's just another in a long line of MacGuffins. What matters is Chuck's relationship to those around him, and how his unique combination of heroism, nerdiness, and irony-free pathos infect and inspire those around him.
 
What the show teased out tonight, and will continue to do so as the government refines ways in which to more reliably use The Intersect 2.0, is the following: do Chuck's emotions help or hinder his ability to flash as needed? Seems clear enough that Chuck's empathy works in much the same way as Peter Petrelli's used to do so on "Heroes." In other words, it's his connection, not dissociation, with others that allows him to access these abilities. It's hard to imagine that his father designed this new version of the Intersection to be utilized by a cold, ration, unfeeling agent. So keeping Sarah close, not distance, seems paramount in terms of honing his ability to access his inner Neo. 
 
There is, of course, a flipside to this activation process. It's one that General Beckman hinted at near the end of "Pink Slip" when talking with Sarah: "For the last two years, we protected Chuck from the world. Now, we have to protect the world from Chuck." In short, manipulating his emotions could turn nice Chuck Bartowski from Bruce Banner into The Incredible Hulk, from Willow Rosenberg to Dark Willow, from Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. The Ring need not steal The Intersect 2.0 so much as wield it. As such, Chuck's greatest asset (his empathy) is also his biggest liability.  
 
A few more highlights from tonight's episode: 
 
*** Emmett's death, briefly alluded to earlier, shocked the hell out of me. While I'm not advocating that the show ramp up the violence, occasional reminders of the stakes involved wouldn't hurt make the weekly spy games have a touch more tension.
 
*** I'm not saying the show HAS to continue showing Sarah moving in slo-mo while wearing lingerie/bikinis/form-fitting dresses, but I'm not gonna be the one telling it to stop, either.
 
***Loved Captain Awesome assuming Chuck's Cheesy Poof phase was part of his undercover work. Allowing him to be part of Chuck's spy world will undoubtedly be... well, awesome.
 
***"I'm the button!" might be one of my five favorite John Casey lines of all time.
 
*** I'm disappointed Jeffster didn't play a set at Morgan's housewarming party. But not as disappointed to learn that Anna Wu's inappropriate work attire will no longer be seen in the Buy More. Hopefully both are temporary oversights on the show's part.
*** I give the show six week before we get "There's an app for that!" as a punch line to one of Chuck's Intersect-related abilities.
 
***The business with "Shaw" and Beckman clearly involves the ongoing mythology of "The Ring," of which former Big Bad Fulcrum was only one piece. What might Chuck have learned about that group had he opened up the suitcase? And if Chuck, Sarah, and Casey are supposed to take down the ring, why can't/won't Beckman give them all the necessary and available intel? I hopeful both questions will be answered in the weeks to come.
 
All in all, "Chuck" made a triumphant return to form tonight. Given the current turmoil over at NBC, it makes sense that they've pushed the hell out the show's return. As one of the few shows remaining with a fervent (if unfortunately small) fan-base, the network clearly is trying to create a hit with an established property. Here's hoping that fans don't need to start making daily trips to Subway again to ensure that the show has a long and healthy run. 
 
What did you make of the show's premiere? Leave your thoughts below!