"Chuck" has begun its fifth and final season. I offered a review of the first three episodes yesterday, and I have specific thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as I get a house with a second bowling alley...
"We're still working out the kinks." -Chuck
What he said.
The ending of "Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger" left "Chuck vs. the Zoom" with a whole lot of changes to deal with while still telling a spy story: Chuck and Sarah are married, Chuck is filthy rich and owns the Buy More, everybody works for Carmichael Industries rather than the government, and, perhaps most importantly, Chuck is 100% real boy again, while Morgan is the Intersect. And even though "Zoom" was written by the same guys who did "Cliffhanger" (Chris Fedak and Nicholas Wootton), you get the sense that over the summer they developed writers' remorse on a few of these ideas.
Most notably, we begin the season with Chuck having spent most of the Volkoff fortune on start-up costs, with the CIA freezing access to the rest of it by the end of the premiere. I can see where giving your heroes limitless resources might take some of the dramatic tension out of stories, but I wish the show could have had some fun with Chuck having a fat bank account for at least an episode or two before letting Decker freeze the cash. Though I've said I'd like for the show to actually end with these 13, rather than making Fedak and company scramble to stretch out the storyline past another Series Finale That Isn't, going into this season with a plan for 13 means certain story points get rushed, as was the case at times last year.
On the plus side, the team running out of money gives the Buy More itself relevance for the first time in forever, rather than just an excuse to watch Jeffster-related hijinks and hear Big Mike extol the virtues of different "Chuck" sponsors. Lester scamming customers out of money to pay for Jeff's non-existent medical expenses was itself a thin story, but it was a reminder of how little attention Chuck and Morgan paid to the store even before Chuck bought it, and hopefully will lead to more storylines where Chuck, Casey and even Sarah have to interact with the employees.
Morgan as Intersect also doesn't get off to quite the bang I had hoped for. They do a good job of building up his ridiculous entrance in the opening scene, but the fight itself doesn't really let Joshua Gomez be Joshua Gomez, in part because they have to work in a stunt double so much. Back when Chuck first got the Chuck Fu powers, the show managed to let him kick ass while still being funny, and we don't quite get that here. (Also, Morgan's impressive dance moves mainly seemed to be him standing around while Sarah made him look good.)
Where I think Morgan's new powers worked best was in showing Chuck's anxiety over not having them anymore. The show dealt with this a bit last year when Chuck's mom managed to turn the Intersect off for a few episodes, and a few of those episodes came too close to suggesting Chuck was useless without it. But as we've been reminded, he's picked up some skills over the years, knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team and is both brave and good at coming up with outside-the-box solution. By far the strongest sequence in the premiere was the action climax, with multiple Chucks - one in the present, one recorded on computer a few minutes earlier - giving the team instructions while Chuck sprinted through the building, counting on his guys to be there to save him like he was there for them.
As I said in my review yesterday, the season really starts to take shape in the third episode, and for all the bumps along the way to that, I'm glad to have the gang back one more time.
Some other thoughts:
• This week in "Chuck" music: "Devil's Music" by Teddybears (Morgan comes to the team's rescue against Jean Claude's men), "Ice Cream" by New York Pony Club (Chuck finds Sarah at home in sexy lingerie), "TAke My Hand and Lead Me Home" by Simian Ghost (Sarah tells Chuck about her real dream house), "Pucho's Descarga" by Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers (Chuck has to wait in the van while the rest of the team goes to Bale's party), "He Regresado" by En La Palma Orchestra (Morgan dances with Sarah) and "The Honest Truth" by Typhoon (Chuck runs to safety and crashes through a window).
• This week in "Chuck" guest stars: I will be perfectly honest and admit that I did not recognize Mark Hamill as the lead bad guy in the opening scene. Of course, he mostly does voice work these days, and the last time I saw him in something live-action was his cameo in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike" back, which was both 10 years ago and had him in a mask and giant yellow wig. (And the last time I saw him before that was 20 years ago as the Trickster on CBS' "The Flash.") But it wasn't until Mo Ryan asked me what I thought of Hamill that I realized who he must have been. Oh, well. He's older and heavier, and the role itself didn't have any kind of "Chuck"-ian nod to what makes him an ideal guest star for the show. As Roger Bale, Craig Kilborn at least looked more or less like he did on "SportsCenter," "The Daily Show," his CBS talk show and his occasional acting gigs. He made for a convincing smarmy rich guy but didn't leave a big impression overall. Also, episode director Robert Duncan McNeill got to work with his old "Star Trek Voyager" co-star Ethan Phillips, who played the client who sends Carmichael Industries after Bale.
• The opening credits giveth, and the opening credits taketh away: with Chuck and friends no longer employed by the government, there's no need for weekly General Beckman appearances, so Bonita Friedericy is out of the regular cast and out of the main title sequence. Beckman never looked happy to be alongside Jeff and Lester anyway.
• We'll see how Decker's agenda plays out over the season, as I'm not sure the "Chuck" mythology needs one last retrofitting that tells us how everything we thought we knew was wrong.
• Obviously, when this episode was made, no one had any idea it would be airing opposite Game 7 of an exciting World Series. But as things played out, Morgan's complaints about baseball turned out to sound very meta.
• One good thing about Chuck going broke is that it gives us Operation: Toes In The Sand (and its unfortunate acronym) as an aspirational end game for the season. Now that Chuck and Sarah were hitched, I had wondered what the goal for the couple would be. Having a baby didn't make much sense in this limited window, both because the show just did pregnancy last year with Ellie and because giving Yvonne Strahovski a padded belly would get in the way of scenes like her lingerie-clad interrogation of Chuck tonight. (Though I think it could be funny for one episode at the very end.) Chuck wanting to get his bride her dream house seems simpler, and also something the show doesn't have to dwell on each and every week, while still setting us up for a nice payoff in the final episodes.
• Good to know that Chuck's apartment now has its own wind machine to go along with the one at the Buy More that turns on whenever Sarah or an equally attractive woman enters.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org