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Chuck aired the second of two satisfying finales last night at 8 p.m. on NBC — and the season isn't even over. One was broadcast a month ago and was indeed intended as a season if not series capper when written, but the network ordered another half-dozen episodes; the first of those ran last night and would also have been a fulfilling end to not just Season Three but the show as a whole. This makes three great final chapters of Chuck in less than a year, which is three more than many series manage. Spoiler warning: I get into plot details in the last few paragraphs.
TV shows are often reluctant to shake things up until they need to, when it's usually too late to feel organic within the series' premise or too much to even maintain the familiar vibe of the program. Most are at the opposite extreme of Law and Order, the king of cast turnaround (of which I've never seen a single episode); characters haunt the squad, the school, or the starship longer than credibility warrants and keep a very closed clique to boot. Change tends to come only in cliffhangers, with the status quo soon reinstated, or when stars finally decide to muster out. Producers and network brass are reluctant to monkey with a show's setup even when that setup becomes less believable in its stagnancy, fearing viewer discomfort and revolt; they may have a point, but for my money the only thing more frustrating in series fiction than lack of progress is being teased with progress only to have it yanked away.
While not exactly a comedy, Chuck definitely has a situation that makes the series much more of a mixed bag than most of its talented crew deserves. As noted in my capsule review last year, the subplots set at the Buy More drag the series from enjoyably light action-romance to painfully unfunny inanity, and a consistent failure of the show despite its admirable character development has been its repeated boomerang back to Buy More farce as a crutch despite numerous opportunities to leave the location and the dreaded duo of Jeffster behind.
Otherwise, Chuck has been notable for exploiting its premise with more forward movement than normal for a network series. The pilot episode had the Intersect, a mother lode of data from every US intelligence agency, downloaded into the brain of supposed slacker Chuck Bartowski (played by Zachary Levi), with CIA agent Sarah Walker (Naomi Watts lookalike Yvonne Strahovski) and Col. John Casey of the NSA (Adam Baldwin) set up as his handlers. Chuck could have milked its hero's apparently unrequited affection for Walker and his double life as Nerd Herd computer tech by day, government asset with unparalleled access to classified information by night — or whenever else duty calls — for seasons on end. Yet the producers allowed Sarah and Chuck to not only genuinely fall in love but admit that love to other characters and then one another, instead of maintaining Sarah's aloofness until the series' end, albeit with some regrettably traditional yo-yo work along the way. And Chuck was allowed to undergo training, first so as to simply not be a liability, then with the aim of becoming a real agent, instead of being confined to the role of bumbling, accidentally-vital-to-national-security civilian to be exploited. While Team Bartowski's general confinement to Burbank is highly implausible given the breadth of knowledge contained in the Intersect, and there's plenty of Keystone Kops in Chuck's covert cavorting, it's important to remember that the show was designed as a romp with as much Get Smart as Alias in its DNA.
Chuck's Season One finale wasn't planned as a finale, but the Season Two premiere was heavy on show mythology with Chuck's service as the human Intersect nearing an end — until the planned next-generation incarnation of the supercomputer is destroyed. Throughout the second season we got further Intersect intrigue with the return of presumed-dead Bryce Larkin (Matthew Borner), Walker's former CIA partner and lover and the college buddy of Chuck's responsible for implanting him with the killer-identifying app, as well as the introduction of Chuck's long-absent father, Steve Bartowski (Scott Bakula), who turns out to be the mysterious Orion, co-designer of the Intersect, and whose presence is the only gift that Chuck's sister Ellie (Lynda Carter lookalike Sarah Lancaster) wants for her wedding to Devon "Captain Awesome" Woodcomb (Ryan McPartlin).
The Season Two finale begins with Chuck having revealed his secret to Devon, Steve having built a new Intersect under duress for rogue espionage agency Fulcrum and having uninstalled the previous version from Chuck's mind, and Chuck's best friend Morgan Grimes (Seth Green lookalike Joshua Gomez) having quit the Buy More. Chuck and John Casey quit the Buy More too, with Casey no longer needing the cover to monitor Chuck and Chuck able to move on with his life Intersect-free. Warned by a fatally wounded Bryce that the new Intersect is too powerful to fall into the hands of Fulcrum or evil über-organization The Ring, Chuck voluntarily downloads it into his brain before destroying it. While the finale ended on a perfect note of conclusion of the series to date and promise of further adventures to come, a baker's dozen episodes were ordered amidst considerable fan, critic, and commercial support (from Subway, sponsor and focus of much activity from Chuck aficionados).
Chuck's would-be Season Three finale wrapped up an even more eventful string of stories during which Chuck entered genuine spy training (or what passes for it in Chuck's fast-and-loose realm, although to be fair the series has made it clear that it runs in real time and there have been many more missions than episodes) while struggling with the reliability of his new, souped-up Intersect skills, which include on-call mastery of foreign languages, martial arts, and other talents — if he can concentrate properly. CIA operative Daniel Shaw (Christopher Reeve soundalike Brandon Routh) came aboard as leader of Team Bartowski at the behest of Gen. Beckman (Bonita Friedericy) and began a romance with Sarah Walker, Morgan discovered the CIA station underneath the Buy More and was made privy to Chuck's double life, Casey was stripped of his commission, and Chuck was offered a position in Rome after being inducted as a full-fledged agent. Viewers had been made to wonder all season long whether Shaw was a Ring mole, but it turned out he wasn't until The Ring revealed to him that Walker had killed his wife, culminating in a showdown in Paris shortly after Chuck and Sarah unreservedly shared their feelings and planned to run away together. Again we were treated to an episode that could have satisfyingly ended the show, with Casey reinstated after nabbing The Ring's director, Beckman reluctantly making Morgan an official member of Chuck's team, and our hero getting the girl for good, preserving the series' premise while rewarding both characters and viewers with growth.
Last night's episode was almost an epilogue to the previous installment, feeling at once like a finale, a season premiere, and even a DVD bonus or reunion episode giving fans one more adventure tying things up and looking toward the future. Whether Chuck works with Chuck and Sarah together remains to be seen; I'd hate for the show to have come so far only to fall apart before it does really end, but bold moves have worked for the series until now and if the first step in this latest new direction is any indication then fans should have no fear. At the same time, I don't hold the passion for Chuck that I do for such utterly absorbing programs as Fringe, Supernatural, or even Glee, due in large part to its inability to ankle the supporting-cast shenanigans that are deadlier than any Fulcrum scheme; it's had a good run, and as with last month's and last year's finales I'd be fine with Chuck being up when this season does end. Maybe its writers could go on tour throughout the industry to help give other series the exciting cliffhangers and dignified conclusions they deserve.