A review of tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I watch more cable television than is healthy for a young man...

"I can't believe this is happening." -Chuck

Because this six-episode mini-season was planned after the original season three was already plotted out, it's given the show's writers more freedom to experiment. The last two weeks, that meant a return to a much lighter, sillier tone. With "Chuck vs. the Tooth," it meant an attempt at a darker kind of psycho-drama (as well as the return of The Ring, possibly Shaw, and almost certainly Papa Bartowski, setting up an arc for the remaining episodes) as Chuck tries to figure out if he's going crazy, if the Intersect is malfunctioning, or both.

But where the previous two all-comedy, all-the-time episodes were a ton of fun (particularly "Chuck vs. the Honeymooners"), I look at "Chuck vs. the Tooth" as an experiment that didn't quite work.

I think the idea of exploring what the Intersect might be doing to Chuck's mind is a really interesting one. But I think the writers either needed to stretch this story out over a few episodes (say, with the nightmares as a background element of an earlier show) so that the stakes would have felt higher here, or else they needed to commit more strongly to the darker tone.

"Chuck" as a series has often done a great job of balancing its light and dark elements, but in the case of a story about Chuck possibly losing his mind, the dark should have taken precedence. Instead, every time I started losing myself in the claustrophobia and paranoia of the story, the tone shifted again to something goofier. 

Case in point: Chuck's arrival at the CIA mental hospital could have been a really emotionally crushing moment, even if we all knew intellectually that Chuck wouldn't spend the rest of the series in a rubber room. But by immediately going for the laughs with "Merlin"(*), any real sense of danger - of Chuck's life, and mind, slipping away from him - went away. So while Zachary Levi and (especially) Yvonne Strahovski did their usual strong heart-on-sleeve work, I never got into this particular story the way I wanted to.

(*) Merlin also came back to add an unnecessary punchline to the Chuck/Sarah bonding moment after she saves him.

I actually think a predominantly comic version of this story would have worked fine - certainly, guest star Christopher Lloyd can do both drama and comedy, sometimes at once (check out some of his later scenes in "The Dream Team," also about mental patients) - but this was the rare case of a "Chuck" plot that actually suffered from the show's usual something-for-everyone approach.

Meanwhile, the subplot about Justin from The Ring tricking Ellie into leading him to Stephen Bartowski was set up as an obvious parallel to Chuck's story, down to all the talk of people finding Ellie crazy. And while the drama of Ellie finally getting sucked into Spy World wasn't as hampered by the comedy as the main plot, it also felt a bit underfed. I recognize that the writers only had these six episodes to play with, but as with the nightmares, this was something probably better spread out over two episodes rather than in one.

Of course, both storylines still have some room to play out over the final three. Whenever Papa Bartowski shows up, I'm sure Chuck will ask him for some help on staying sane with the Intersect in his head(**), just as I'm sure there will be a moment where all three Bartowskis confront the family's relationship to the espionage community. But the elements that were part of this episode never quite came together.

(**) And is it possible that Stephen has always seemed "off" because he also has one knocking around his cerebral cortex?

All in all, an interesting experiment that didn't quite work out. But I appreciate that they tried.

Some other thoughts:

  • Good to see some quality Casey/Sarah time in this one, and to see Casey be sympathetic towards both her and Chuck during the ordeal. You never want the big guy to get too soft, but he has been working with these people for a few years now, and there's always the little guy to yell at and/or tranq.
  • When I saw Chuck kill Shaw again in the first dream sequence, I thought, "Well, this will please the Shaw-haters, since they get to watch him die again." Then when the final dream had Shaw saying he was still alive, I thought, "Well, so much for that." For the record, I liked the use of Brandon Routh in "Chuck vs. the Other Guy," and think that if he's actually coming back, it'd be as a straight-up villain (rather than a Chuck/Sarah impediment and Team Bartowski killjoy), which can work.
  • Glad to see Julia Ling return for a bit of closure on Anna Wu, even if that subplot played up the character's snootier side (and one can only be so snooty if they're willing to co-habitate with Morgan Guillermo Grimes). And nice that both Anna and Morgan benefited from the Buy More wind machine.
  • This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Schwartz and Fedak have talked repeatedly about what an influence "Spies Like Us" was on the show, and here they shift from minor allusions to having Chuck and Sarah actually watch the movie (and then later the "Spies? Like me?" joke). Long before "The Dream Team," Christopher Lloyd made his first credited movie appearance in the Oscar-winning Nicholson classic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and there was certainly a vibe from that movie in the scenes in the hospital's common room. Chuck's attempt to pull off some Chuck Fu moves while incapacitated by the drugs reminded me of Jackie Chan in the "Drunken Master" films, only much less effective. (And if you have 8 minutes to kill and want to watch some seriously bad-ass Jackie Chan, click here. If you just want to skip to the drunken boxing part, go here.)  Meanwhile, Chuck's comment about the upcoming wasteland of Monday night TV read as an in-joke about what will happen if the show isn't renewed. :)
  • This week in "Chuck" music: "Right Round" by Flo Rida & Keisha over Anna Wu's return to the Buy More, "Jackie Wants a Black Eye" by Dr. Dog as Sarah learns that the tooth was just a tooth, and "Here's Looking at You, Kid" by one of my current favorites, The Gaslight Anthem, over Chuck learning that the Intersect will probably lead to permanent brain damage.
  • In addition to Lloyd and Ling, one other guest star of note: the African leader was played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, best known to geezers like me as Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington from "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Finally, by the time we get to next week's review, we should know the show's future, as NBC will be holding their upfront presentation for advertisers a week from today, and doing a press conference call announcing the schedule in the early evening on Sunday. I'm sure there will be much reading of tea leaves and parsing of executive statements and other pick-ups between now and then, and while I know it's hard not to obsess over this stuff, I would preach patience. I know a week seems like a long time, paricularly since NBC has picked up what seems like every other show on their schedule already, not to mention a bunch of new shows, but unless something comes straight from NBC, Warner Bros. or the mouth of Josh Schwartz, it's not worth stressing over. The pick-up will come or it won't, and the news of it will happen when it happens - and at this point, that's likely not going to be until Sunday.

So while we wait... what did everybody else think?