Dear "Chuck" fans...

We hope you enjoyed the season's first seven episodes. If you think about it, they were sort of a bonus, since the show wasn't supposed to come back at all and then it wasn't supposed to come back this soon. So we hope you won't get too offended by a little hiatus and we also hope you won't forget the show. Don't worry. We promise we'll advertise for "Chuck" occasionally during the Winter Olympics. Not as much as for "Parenthood" or the "triumphant" return of Jay Leno to "The Tonight Show," but we'll remind you that "Chuck" exists whenever there's a lull in the luging. Oh, who are we kidding? There's NEVER a lull in the luging.

And now, are you ready to CURL?!?!?

Love NBC, Your Official Home for the 2010 Winter Olympics

 

Yes, "Chuck" is about to take a couple weeks off for the pageantry and chilliness of Vancouver, but how fortuitous that the "Chuck" mini-hiatus arrived with "Chuck vs. the Mask," an episode that gave the strong impression that it was intended as a natural breathing spot within the arc of the first 13 episodes. "Chuck vs. the Mask" wasn't spectacularly cliffhanger-y, but it pushed the story to a couple emotional points that we've been building to for weeks.

[More chatter about "Chuck vs. the Mask" after the break...]

"Chuck vs. the Mask" wasn't quite an example of what folks in the business call a bottle episode, but it was one of the first times this season I felt like I could see the "Chuck" team cutting corners. The episode used a limited number of sets -- Buy More, Castle and a museum that seemed to be specializing in creative use of white space -- and spent almost no time outside or in environments requiring effects embellishment.

Most conspicuously, although many episodes this season have been missing a major cast member or two, this was the most under-populated the "Chuck" universe has seemed. We had no Captain Awesome, no Jeff and Lester and no Big Mike. Heck, we didn't even have any of the supporting Buy More-ites, or visible customers at the Buy More, or even a brief appearance from General Beckman. In the place of a large number of supporting baddies, we had Henri Lubatti (a scene-stealer from the fourth season of Josh Schwartz's "The O.C.") and a couple guest stars who didn't get named or characters and may just have been stuntmen given extra screentime as a bonus.

But that was OK. We all understood there were minor accommodations being made to keep "Chuck" around and just because this wasn't an expansive episode didn't mean it was bad. It was, instead, about concentrating on a few core relationships, all while unfolding a MacGuffin-ish plot about The Ring using artifacts to smuggle "items" into the country for purposes why continue to assume are nefarious. At the end of the 13th episode, are we going to be able to look back at all of the little criminal activities occupying The Ring's attentions and tie them together into a single Evil Goal? I hope so. All of those MacGuffins can link together like Voltron? Awwww yeah.

Where was I? Oh right. Relationships. Pairings, really.

Pairings like...

Chuck and Hannah. Lots of progress this week, with Hannah sneaking out and following Chuck on a fake off-site and then helping him save Shaw's life with some unknowing fancy computer-work. That led to Hannah and Chuck going on a date/off-site together, which led to Hannah kissing Chuck, but also becoming jealous of Chuck's ongoing stuff with Sarah. When Chuck eventually saved Hannah's life, all was forgiven and making out ensued. I continue to be confused that there's something sketchy about Hannah or at least her not-longer-mentioned former boss. She's too good at what she does to be working at Buy More just because she thinks Chuck's cute. There still weren't explicit signs of sketchiness, though. For now, we're just reveling in Kristin Kreuk's cuteness, which will have to be enough.

Sarah and Shaw. As Sarah told Chuck at the end, "I have a type." She likes spies, especially spies who can save her life and know just how to kiss her neck, even if it's just part of a cover identity. Part of me feels like Shaw and Sarah are just being thrown together as a corresponding obstacle to Chuck and Hannah, that when Hannah turns out to be sketchy, Shaw's additional sketchiness -- other than his close attentions to her coffee-drinking and swizzle-stick chewing -- will be exposed. I have no advance knowledge, but if Shaw and Hannah turn out to be in cahoots, I'm not going to be surprised. So I hope they won't be. I'm also guessing that while Chuck and Hannah (or Kreuk and Zachary Levi) have enough chemistry to temporarily distract 'shippers on that side of the aisle, Shaw and Sarah (or Brandon Routh and Yvonne Strahovski) may not. Sarah's shift from annoyance to attraction wasn't well enough motivated for my tastes.

Ellie and Morgan. Wait. Ellie and Morgan? Sure. They formed a winning little duo with their suspicions about Chuck's secret, what with the secret knock and the early morning meetings. I loved the moment at the end when Ellie and Morgan see Chuck and Hannah kissing, seeing the relief on Ellie's face and Morgan's sadness. I was also tremendously relieved that they weren't able to stage an intervention with Chuck. Characters on TV stage entirely too many interventions. That's a joke that needs to be shelved for a while.

Advancing the Chuck/Hannah and Sarah/Shaw dynamics was essential since we all knew both of those storylines were going in that direction and we also knew that Sarah and Chuck were going to need genuine separation before we bring them back together. Just having Chuck mooning over Sarah and having Sarah pretending not to care wasn't going to work for much longer. So yes, Shaw and Hannah are just walking, talking, good-looking plot contrivances, but they were still probably required to force that separation.

And a real separation looks like it's coming. The episode also advanced the "I'm a Real Little Spy" arc for Chuck, as he proved resourceful and clever and, if memory serves, he only flashed in Intersect 1.0 ways, rather than utilizing Intersect 2.0 skills. He saved Hannah's life once and Shaw's life twice, leading to Shaw's warning that it's time to take the training wheels off.

"Hope you're ready for your Big Boy Bike, Bartowski," Casey cracked. But we don't know what it will really mean for Chuck to have his training wheels taken away. Nobody was packing up the Castle, so what comes next?

We'll see! But not until March. CURLING!!!

 

Other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Mask":

*** I guess it's bad that The Ring knows that Shaw is alive, though Shaw has mostly gone underground anyway, so I don't know if The Shadowy Ring Council has that much more information now than they did before the episode. Evil cabals share similar interior designers in the "Chuck" universe, don't they? Or maybe when Fulcrum was eliminated, The Ring just bought out the lease on their headquarters? Dunno.

*** There was some nice harness-related stuntwork in the episode, both the "Mission Impossible" (or "Rififi," if you prefer) opening and then Sarah and Chuck flying up and down on the wires kicking butt. Additional kudos for Strahovski, as ever, doing damage in spandex.

*** Casey seemed to have most of the episode's best lines. My favorites included ""Those two gab like little school girls when they're out in the field" and "Thanks for the coffee. Just the way I like it. Black and bitter."

*** I like that the "Chuck" writers managed to acknowledge the double-"Superman" ties between Routh and Kreuk in a single line of dialogue. Hannah, watching surveillance of Sarah and Shaw, observes that Shaw is very good-looking, to which Chuck replies, "If you're into the strong sort of Superman-y type of guy," which was funny because Routh *was* Superman and Kreuk played a character who was into Superman. No fuss, no muss and now we don't need to mention it again?

 

What'd you think of "Chuck vs. the Mask"?