Tomorrow night at 8, NBC premieres the fifth and final season of "Chuck." Think for a minute about how ridiculous that is - or, if you're a fan of the show (which I've been from the start), how awesome that is.
This is a show that debuted during the cursed 2007-08 season that was truncated because of the writers strike, a season that was notable (a year after the "Heroes" freshman phenomenon) for both the sheer number of nerd baiting shows that debuted and the number that failed. ("Chuck" and "Big Bang Theory" survived, while "Bionic Woman," "Journeyman," "Moonlight," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," "Reaper" and "New Amsterdam" are long gone.) It may not have been renewed after the first season if not for the strike. It was only renewed after the second because of a huge, organized fan campaign and (more importantly) because the studio agreed to drastically slash the budget.
And then after that, it kept coming back for the incredible, mortifying reason that everything else on NBC kept failing, and suddenly the small-but-loyal "Chuck" audience became not a liability but an asset. Its ceiling was low, but its floor turned out to be much higher than virtually any new show NBC tried for a couple of years.(*)
(*) In addition to "Bionic Woman" and "Journeyman," NBC has scheduled, and then canceled, more than FORTY new shows either concurrent with "Chuck" or after: "Bionic Woman," "Journeyman," "Life," "Lipstick Jungle," "The Singing Bee," "Fear Itself," "America's Toughest Jobs," "The Chopping Block," "Crusoe," "Howie Do It," "Kath & Kim," "Kings," "Knight Rider," "The Listener," "Momma's Boys," "Merlin," "My Own Worst Enemy," "The Philanthropist," "Southland" (though TNT rescued that one), "Superstars of Dance," "100 Questions," "Losing It With Jillian," "The Jay Leno Show," "Mercy," "Persons Unknown," "Trauma," "America's Next Great Restaurant," "The Cape," "Chase," "The Event," "Friends with Benefits," "Law & Order: LA," "Love Bites," "Outlaw," "Outsourced," "The Paul Reiser Show," "Perfect Couples," "School Pride," "Undercovers," "The Playboy Club" and "Free Agents." That list seems almost as long as the one Peter Griffin recited when FOX resurrected "Family Guy."
So now the little spy show that could gets a victory lap season of 13 episodes - and already this fall, things are so dire in so many timeslots at NBC that it wouldn't be insane to see that season get extended. (Though it's still unlikely.) Hell, at the rate other NBC shows are failing, there's a remote chance I could be back here at this time next fall talking about the absurdity of a sixth season of "Chuck."
Even "Chuck" seems aware of that danger. In one of the early episodes, Buy More troublemaker - and, in one of the show's more popular running gags, frontman for the heinous band Jeffster! - Lester (Vik Sahay) tries singing in the store, and Big Mike (Mark Christopher Lawrence) groans, "Man, I am so over this whole Jeffster! thing," to which Lester admits, "Me, too."
To be perfectly frank, I began to worry we were already at that point with "Chuck" when I began watching the three episodes NBC sent out from the new season. I enjoyed the first two, but there were hiccups along the way - most of them involving changes to the status quo introduced at the end of last season (in the hope that another season would exist) - and I began to wonder if we might have all been better off if one of the 15 previous "Chuck" episodes designed as a series finale had actually been it.
Then I got to the third episode(**), which did a better job of handling the changes in structure, and in laying out a clear direction for the 10 episodes to come(***), and in simply reminding me, "Oh, yes. This is why I love 'Chuck.'"
(**) Seeing it reminded me a bit of watching the first season, where the pilot was interesting but not quite there, the second episode an uninspiring rehash of conflicts from the pilot, and the third episode ("Chuck vs. the Tango") the one laying out the very entertaining template for the series going forward. I doubt the symmetry here was intentional, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
(***) And much as I love me some "Chuck," about the last thing I want is some last-minute order of 9 more episodes to go along with these 13. Again, it's almost a running gag that the show keeps getting extended after everyone thought things were wrapped up, but if there's a plan in place for these last 13, let it play out as planned. Please.
When last we left our heroes, Chuck (Zachary Levi), Casey (Adam Baldwin) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) had all been fired by the government, Chuck had inherited a vast fortune that he used to purchase the Buy More and set up their own freelance spy company, and Morgan (Joshua Gomez) had accidentally acquired the Intersect superpowers that Chuck had lost earlier in the finale.
These were all promising ideas, but when we come back for the new season, the show seems uncomfortable dealing with a lot of the changes. Some are abandoned altogether, some are downplayed, and some are just awkwardly worked around.
When I watched the season 4 finale, I was especially fond of an Intersect'ed Morgan, since Gomez had become the show's MVP the last couple of years, since the show had probably taken a super Chuck as far as he could go without being unrecognizable, and since it seemed like the show could have a lot of fun with the little bearded one suddenly becoming the world's mightiest warrior. In practice, it doesn't work out so well. You get the sense that either Gomez can't fake the kung fu moves as well as Levi could, that he's harder to seamlessly insert a stunt double for, or both, and as a result, Morgan's heroic moments are scanter and less impressive than one might have hoped for. (On an undercover operation, for instance, Morgan and Sarah have to perform a sexy dance together, but most of the routine ultimately leans on Strahovski.)
But if Morgan isn't quite the hero I had hoped for, the show gets good mileage out of Chuck trying not to be jealous of his best friend - and wondering what it is he contributes to the spy team if he doesn't have Morgan's powers or Casey and Sarah's training. The best moments in the first two episodes deal with how much Chuck has grown from the klutz we met four years ago into someone that Sarah and Casey would plausibly look to as their leader.
And the third episode finally seems to kick the season into gear, not only finding an unexpected place to take the Chuck/Morgan story, but doing the best job of exploiting a guest star. "Chuck" has always been a show that's done well by its geek-friendly guests - whatever pacing and logic problems season 4 had were always easily solved just by bringing back Timothy Dalton - but the first couple of episodes don't make optimal use of Mark Hamill, Craig Kilborn, Jeff Fahey and Justin Hartley from "Smallville." Carrie-Anne Moss, on the other hand, fits in marvelously (starting with the second episode) as Gertrude Verbanski, head of a far more successful private espionage outfit and potential Casey romantic interest. Baldwin and Moss work very well together - this has the potential, in fact, to be the best Casey storyline of the entire run (and provides a good role for Sarah in absence of an arc of her own at this early stage) - and it becomes clear she's not here just because the fanboys and girls will recognize her, but because the writers have a plan for her.
There comes a point with some shows where your affection for the characters and the world supersedes everything else - like most "Chuck" fans, I've learned to wave away the large weekly plot holes because the rest of it makes me too happy to care - and I'm glad under any circumstance to get 13 more hours with Chuck and friends. But as both a fan and a critic, I want these final episodes to be as good as they can be. I know I can always put on the Jeffster! performance of "Mr. Roboto," or Chuck silently proposing to Sarah in a hospital corridor, or Morgan presiding over Chuck and Sarah's wedding, and just treat one of those as the "real" finale, but I'd rather the show actually go out with a bang. When I started watching the final season, I wasn't sure that it would. By the time I got to the third episode, I felt significantly more confident.
And no matter what, we got five seasons of "Chuck." I still can't quite believe that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org