by Jon Bastian
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It was with great relief that I learned that NBC picked up Chuck for a third season, because this is, by far, one of the best shows on television. First off, it avoids being a police procedural or a medical drama or a reality show – in other words, it isn’t the same old crap. Second, it isn’t some teen angst drama on the CW. Third, it is brilliantly written, well thought-out, and a heart-tugging cross between Melrose Place and Alias.
In case you’ve missed it, Chuck begins with a simple, if somewhat farfetched premise. Charles Bartowski (Zachary Levi, “Less than Perfect”) works for the “Nerd Herd” at Buy More (I’m sure you can figure out the real-life counterpart pretty easily), after having almost but not quite graduated at Stanford, thanks to being betrayed by his best friend and roommate, who accused him (wrongly) of cheating, meaning that he was refused his degree only weeks from graduation. Said roommate returns, via email in the pilot, to download a high-tech program called “The Intersect” into Chuck’s head, and suddenly Chuck has become a very important government asset. While maintaining his day-job life of geeky loser at the Buy More, he is suddenly also a pawn in government intelligence, saddled with two keepers, CIA agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski, “Persons of Interest”) and NSA agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin, Serenity). Needless to say, Chuck must keep his super-spy life secret from the people in his life, including his big sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster, “Scrubs”), her fiance Devon, aka Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin, “Living with Fran”), and his best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez, “Without a Trace”). To complicate matters, their “boss”, The General (Bonita Friedericy, Miss March), has placed Sarah as Chuck’s pretend girlfriend and John as his co-employee – but reality quickly overlaps fantasy, and from the get-go, the show is about the emotional complications caused in Chuck’s “real” life by his secret life – as well as his inability to reveal to anyone not in the know what’s really going on.
Season One suffered somewhat because of the writer’s strike, only reaching 13 episodes, with an obvious “Oops, we might have to pull the plug” set-up in episode 12, and a nice cliff-hanger in 13. After a hiatus, Season Two began with a bang as the problem set up in 1.12 was resolved, and then continued to keep on banging as the premise paid off over and over again, further complicating Chuck’s life, increasing the emotional stakes, and, most of all, progressing this cloak and dagger story not via plot, but by character. The end result is that we’re presented with a wonderfully taut soap-opera in which the emotional stakes are high because very few people can tell the truth. Central to all of this is Chuck and Sarah being unable to express their true feelings for each other – she may be playing his pretend girlfriend, but between the lines, we know that they are ideal for each other, and suffer the pain every time that one of them has to deny it because the “Mission” requires it. As comic-relief counterpoint to the espionage and romance, the world of the Buy More in Burbank is mostly played for the laughs, but with very real consequences for Chuck and his childhood best friend Morgan – in fact, this relationship most frequently provides the intersect between Chuck’s spy life and his work life, much to Morgan’s detriment. This is heavily abetted by Joshua Gomez’s pitch-perfect performance as the “I’m a loser and I know it” sidekick to Chuck, one of the most unrequited bromances ever to appear on television.
But that’s what makes this show sizzle – the emotional stakes in the writing and the commitment of the actors in making their characters multi-dimensional, real people. On top of that, character arcs are strong, and everyone grows and changes. By the end of Season 2, the producers pull a series of brilliant ratchetings of the stakes, and Chuck’s spy life and real life are drawn closer together as we learn several important truths, and he transitions from being innocent victim caught up in circumstances to crusader fighting for the survival of his family. It’s a nice change, because Chuck is a really likable guy – dual credit to the writers and to Zachary Levi’s completely ingenuous and engaging performance. We want him to win, to get what he wants, and by the end of Season 2, he has gone from being a pawn who wins despite himself to being an active fighter for what he wants.
Of course, the entire cast is superb, from ensemble to extras, with the interplay between Chuck, Sarah and Casey, as well as the dynamics of the rather… um… scary Buy More regulars, bringing humanity and humor to the enterprise – and the extras and villain casting is also spot-on. It’s a rare case of excellent writing and amazing acting colliding in the perfect entertainment that hits both the heart and the mind.
I only hope that the production staff can keep it up in Season 3, but I have no doubt that they can. They’ve already brought us two seasons of a unique show that combines several genres in a very successful mesh of comedy, romance and action. If you’re not watching it, you should be. If you’ve been watching, then you know. “Chuck” is the best thing on TV right now, hands down.
Addendum: I finally caught up with the last two episodes of “Chuck” online (damn them for putting it on at a time when I’m not home) and… I can only say that my esteem for this show shot up about five million points. In the penultimate episode, it’s clear that the producers aren’t sure whether they’re getting a pick-up, and so they conclude story lines and bring everything together as Chuck’s sister finally weds — and they manage to take the stereotypical series finale wedding episode (nods to Melrose Place) and turn it into something else, doing the obligatory “move everything back toward the pilot” routine while still moving the story forward. Morgan and Chuck quit the BuyMore. The Intersect is removed from Chuck. The mission is ended…
And then, in the last episode, when it’s clear that there’s going to be a season three, the producers pick it all up, kick it into high gear, and take the show to a whole new level. Call it Chuck 2.0, but goddamn… at the end of “Chuck vs. The Colonel”, I was crying, because the emotional stakes were torqued so high. At the end of the last episode, I was laughing and crying at the same time, because everything — and I mean everything — that had come before was paid off in a finale that literally kicked ass. This is character driven TV at its finest, and if you’re not watching it, you’re losing out. Go buy Season 1 — your mission is to watch it before Season 3 begins. Catch up with Season 2 online, or buy it if it comes out before Season 3 premieres. But, whatever you do, watch this amazing show. It leaves critic-hyped crapola like Heroes or Lost or House in the dust. It will make you laugh, cry, smile, feel, cringe in sympathy — in short, it will move you.
And, after all, isn’t that what the stuff on the little box is supposed to do? “Chuck” gives us true heroes that we can really care about, then pulls them through the wringer. We’re all the better for having made that trip with them, coming out the other side a bit enlightened.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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