"Dear God, it's us 30 years ago." -TurnerIn recent years, cable dramas like "The Shield" and "Breaking Bad" have suggested that the 13-episode model of a cable season makes better creative sense than the traditional 22-episode broadcast model. When you have only 13 hours to play with, the argument goes, everything is plotted more tightly, there's no filler, and the cast and crew don't burn themselves out two-thirds of the way through each season.
"Sarah, that's us in 30 years!" -Chuck
The odd construction of this season of "Chuck," though, is suggesting that tighter isn't always better.
Going into the year, Schwartz, Fedak and company thought they only had 13 episodes to work with, and nearly all of that was devoted to telling the story of Chuck becoming a real spy, the arrival of Shaw and the war with The Ring. There simply wasn't room for goofy, largely standalone episodes like last season's "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer" or "Chuck vs. the Best Friend." So if you were on board with the Shaw/Ring story, you were okay, but if you weren't, it was largely that week after week. Now, I liked the Shaw stuff a lot more than some of you, but I was worried about the lack of one-offs even before the season began, and there absence was noticeable as the original 13 went along.
With this bonus mini-season, we're sort of getting those little palate cleansers we otherwise might have gotten earlier in a regularly-planned season, just at the end. Until Ellie's friendly Doctors Without Borders pal was revealed to be a Ring operative in the episode's closing moments, this was the second "Chuck" in a row whose only ongoing elements were largely internal (Chuck and Sarah's relationship, Morgan's assimilation into Team Bartowski).
That's been a nice change of pace, as has the lighter tone of these two, and I suspect the creative team recognized how much better the show is when there's more balance between silly and serious, and between arcs and episodics. And if the show comes back next season, for however many installments, I would hope we see more of that give and take, because I have been having a lot of fun watching these last two.
As I had suspected, Sarah and Chuck as a couple have so far provided plenty of story fodder, as well as plenty of humor. I had long ago accepted that Yvonne Strahovski brought so much else to the table that it didn't matter that Sarah rarely seemed to be funny, but for the second week in a row, Strahovski was bringing the laughs. Sometimes, it was more about the characters around Sarah (Morgan and Sarah living under the same roof already is and should continue to be splendid), but other moments like her withering delivery of "You're not asking me to move in with you again, are you?" were all her.
Beyond Sarah being funny - and in a less blissful situation than we got last week on the train - the episode also gave us a tiger (which Chuck refused to kill because "They are endangered, and majestic!"), plus Casey reluctantly teaching spycraft to Morgan, plus Fred Willard(*) and Swoosie Kurtz as the bickering Turners.
(*) I watched a screener of this episode back-to-back with last week's "Modern Family," also guest-starring Fred Willard. The man is everywhere, and his ubiquity gives me an excuse to once again link to "Wha happen?"
Sometimes, "Chuck" casts guest stars for the iconography of them. Sometimes, with John Larroquette last season and Willard and Kurtz here, it casts them because they're funny. I don't know that I look at those two and automatically think Levi+Strahovski+(30 years x 2), but the two old pros played off each other, and off our regulars, quite nicely. And whether writer Phil Klemmer intended it or not, I like how the Turners' staged bickering tied into the fear some had that Chuck and Sarah together would eventually become a bickering couple with no obvious chemistry. Assuming "Chuck" is still somehow on the air 30 years from now (and we'd have to get some really big flash mobs today for that long an extension, methinks), we can worry about them down the road. Right now, they're doing fine, and "Chuck" is doing fine with them together.
For the second week in a row, we got a lot of Chuck and Sarah in one group of scenes and a lot of Morgan and Casey in another. I don't want this to be a permanent state of affairs - Casey needs to be more present in future missions to show his disgust with Chuck and Sarah's new schmoopiness, and, again, Morgan and Sarah look like a comic combo with a lot of possibilities - but right now it's entertaining to see them have to work together. In the silly world of "Chuck," the idea that neither Chuck nor Morgan would ever have to undergo any kind of real spy/combat training is about middle of the pack on the implausibility meter. But in watching the scenes with General Beckman, I get the sense that she has no expectations of Morgan ever amounting to anything; she's just making Casey suffer for forcing her to ever have to deal with the little bearded one. And that's amusing to me - as is Casey's attempt to balance his growing respect for Morgan ("Semper Fi-Dizzle!") with his public persona and usual hatred of nerds, dorks and geeks.
With Awesome again crossing paths with someone from The Ring (is this the third time this season? fifth?), it looks like we're heading back to both more serialized and more serious storytelling in the weeks to come. And that's okay, as I've loved a lot of the darker moments of seasons two and three. I just want there to be a balance, which we're finally getting during this little victory lap of season three.
Some other thoughts:
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Morgan's dream sequence at the beginning was a riff on the opening credits to "Hart to Hart," a late '70s/early '80s detective show about a super-suave married couple who were still sexy and sleuthy in middle age. (Chuck should aspire to be more like Robert Wagner and less like Fred Willard.) Morgan once again talks about learning about guns through "Call of Duty" (then turns out to be inept with the real thing), and I suppose you could call the bad guy (played by Hey, It's That Creep! Udo Kier) keeping a tiger with a fancy collar a riff on Blofeld (who had a much smaller cat) from the James Bond movies.
• This week in "Chuck" music: songs tonight included Mel Torme's "Comin' Home Baby," Barry White's "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby" and Miike Snow's "Sans Soleil."
• Unexpected quasi-trend: last week's "Cougar Town" had a running gag about Courteney Cox and her friends gathering to watch her son sleep, and here Big Mike complains to Morgan that he doesn't like anyone watching him sleep. We need one more for a full trend, people!
• With Morgan essentially filling the role Chuck had two seasons ago, I liked seeing Morgan and Chuck's collar-stealing attempts intercut with one another.
• Awesome and Ellie's story in the Congo was largely about setting up whatever's coming next with The Ring, but I thought Ryan McPartlin did a great job of showing Devon being so charming and reassuring with Ellie as he promised her a date night under the stars. Truly, he is Dr. Super Fantastic White Person.
Finally, as mentioned several times (including this morning), this is the last review that's going to be posted to this site before I move to HitFix.com tomorrow. I'll be blogging about the rest of season 3, and a lot of other shows, and hopefully "Chuck" season 4, so please come early and come often. Though the timing was largely accidental, it feels kind of right to say goodbye to this home with "Chuck," doesn't it?
What did everybody else think?