Chuck: “Chuck vs. The Pink Slip,” “Chuck vs. The Three Words,” & “Chuck vs. the Angel de la Muerta”

Hero to Zero

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. The Pink Slip”

Written by Chris Fedak & Matthew Miller

Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill

“Chuck vs. The Three Words”

Written by Allison Adler & Scott Rosenbaum

Directed by Peter Lauer

“Chuck vs. the Angel de la Muerta”

Written by Phil Klemmer

Directed by Jeremiah Chechik

Finally. Seems like I’ve been waiting for a return of this show since the Dark Ages. I have seriously missed its light heart and belly laughs, its sly wit and its clumsy love story. Welcome back, Chuck Bartowski. As if to make up for lost time, NBC slams three separate episodes of Chuck at us in less than 24 hours, almost an overload. I think the idea was to show how fast-paced and exciting the show is, but the effect was rather like drinking from a fire hose.

At the end of Season Two, the series had come to a crossroads. Bryce was dead, Anna and Morgan had left for Hawaii, Papa Bartowski was out of the picture, and Chuck had quit the Buy More. He had a new Intersect in his head, new talents, new challenges, and a new lease on Sarah Walker. I saw every indication that the show was ready for a complete re-tooling, and expected the third season to show us a new and improved Chuck. I was certainly ready for a fresh new take on the basic premise of the lovable nerd and his golden princess.

Instead, Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak hit the “Reset” button. My jaw dropped as I watched almost every single change that was showcased in Season Two returned to the original factory settings. Since Scott Bakula (Papa Bartowski) and Matt Bomer (Bryce Larkin) have new TV shows of their own, I knew that their characters were not coming back, but I also thought we would not see the Buy More again. Instead, by the end of the first episode, we were essentially back where we were at the pilot episode: Chuck is struggling to come to terms with this thing in his head he cannot control, he’s at sword’s points with Casey, and his relationship with Sarah is a mess. And he’s still working with Morgan at the Buy More, under Big Mike. Chuck has better software, more skills, and major potential as a spy. Yet where do we find him six months after “Chuck vs. The Ring”? On the couch, unemployed, eating cheeseballs and vegging out on cartoons. He has gone from hero to zero in sixty seconds.

Worst of all, his relationship with Sarah Walker seems to have deteriorated. They were closer than they had ever been at the end of Season Two; now they are farther apart than ever. I don’t know if I can stand any more of this on-again/off-again “romance”. And from the grumbling I’m hearing in chat rooms, I don’t think fans are going to stand much more of it, either.

This is only the largest of the problems inherent in this do-over. You can’t unring a bell–viewers are not going to forget how far Chuck came in two years. When he first got the Intersect in his head, he was a struggling, naive but good-hearted geek we all fell in love with. But two years later, he has voluntarily re-acquired a new Intersect, has been professionally trained as a spy, has been through the kind of grief and heartache that makes most people grow up fast. He has been up, down and sideways in his relationship with Sarah Walker. We who have been here for the whole ride expect a more mature Chuck, one who is, to be sure, still the lovable geek, but recognizably older and a little wiser, definitely NOT the same naive innocent he was in the pilot.

But that’s not who I saw on Sunday and Monday night. Where’s the geek humor I loved? Where are the in-jokes? Where is that lovable, honest Chuck, my nerd with the heart of gold who speaks to the human locked inside even a John Casey? At least he no longer whimpers with fear when confronted with danger, but he also no longer struggles to find a non-violent solution to every confrontation.

Worse, I got the feeling that the writers don’t get it any more. Take the scene in “Chuck vs. The Pink Slip”, where Sarah and Chuck meet at the Prague train station. The idea is that Sarah has finally renounced the CIA and is willing to run away with Chuck to make a new life. He backs out because big, important men he respects have told him his skills can make a difference in other people’s lives and therefore he must heroically sacrifice not only his happiness, but Sarah’s. This is not the Chuck I grew to love two years ago. That Chuck would have refused to run away not based on some assertion made by outsiders, but because he could not have borne to hurt Ellie and Awesome, could not have hurt his friends and family. That’s the down-home Chuck I love. Who is this noble knight renouncing love in order to become a do-gooder?

Another example: Emmet’s death in “Chuck vs. The Angel de la Muerta”. Injecting a cold-blooded murder into this light-hearted spy spoof makes as much sense as adding a rape scene to “The Office”. It totally changes the tone, atmosphere and gravitas of the show. Or it should. Having Casey lie to Chuck about Emmet’s whereabouts does not change the fact that we know Emmet died a meaningless death in a cold back alley in a pile of trash, and it inevitably affects how we react to the show.  Are we supposed to be more afraid for Chuck now that “the stakes have been raised”? Actually, it shows me how cold-blooded the writers are, and how much they misunderstand their audience and its expectations.

The one good change I’ve seen in Season Three so far is Agent Walker. Sarah has finally learned how to form an emotional attachment, just as Chuck is trying to distance himself from his emotional attachments enough to become a real spy. They seem to be moving closer―Chuck becomes more like the spy he thinks Sarah is, and Sarah acquires a conscience like the one she thinks Chuck has. But in reality, they are moving farther apart than ever.

Chuck and Sarah are now back to Square One. Chuck is at the mercy of the Intersect, once more. He lives in the same complex as Ellie and Awesome, and still hangs out with Morgan. He still works at the Buy More, a milieu creator Josh Schwartz has described as “a dysfunctional hotbed of competingly bizarre personalities”. Welcome back, Chuck. It’s like you never left, unfortunately.

NBC had a lot riding on this re-introduction of the beloved yet struggling franchise. Chuck clocked a 3.0 rating for its first hour Sunday and a 2.9 for its second hour, with both hours pulling a 7 share. Sunday night’s broadcasts averaged just under 7.5 million total viewers; this is the show’s highest rating since its post-Super Bowl episode in February 2009. Nor did stiffer competition on Monday night slow it down; it came in with a 2.6 rating and a 7 share, with a total of 7.3 million viewers. This is the highest rating since February 2009 in its regular Monday night timeslot. These are not stellar ratings, but they are good enough to allow Chuck enthusiasts a cautious sigh of relief, for now.