It’s hard to believe that the spy comedy Chuck came so close to cancellation just a few short months ago. At the end of its second season, the consistently costly show, despite constantly schlepping for Subway on air, never picked up the ratings NBC wanted, which made execs at the financially troubled network uncomfortable. But after a barrage of support from fans, Chuck has not only returned for a third season, it has returned as one of the tent pole franchises of the network’s winter lineup.
At the conclusion of last season, the government computer downloaded inside guileless computer nerd Chuck Bartowski’s (Zachary Levi) head received an upgrade. Now, Chuck can download skills directly into his brain, teaching the bumbling geek everything from kung fu to the tango in an instant. With the ability to become a world class spy finally secured, Chuck had it all; he and fellow spy Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) declared their love for each other, he escaped his retail job at Buy More, and secured his path to a successful career.
At least, it seemed that way. Season three quickly redacts the characters’ progress by sloppily shuffling them back to where they started. With the status quo so quickly reestablished this season, it seems that the growth the cast experienced at the end of last season was more a product of its looming cancellation than actual forward momentum. Chuck may still know kung fu, but he’s back working at the Buy More, at square one with Sarah, and struggling for purpose in his life. It’s a shame that a show with as many richly drawn characters as Chuck is afraid to move forward with any of them.
With Chuck and Sarah back in full will they/won’t they mode, their romantic interactions point to a narrative spinning its wheels. After two seasons, the audience knows that Chuck’s puppy-dog affection has made its way into Sarah’s heart, and seeing them continually pine over each other despite their obvious mutual feelings is immensely frustrating. There’s drama to be had in two spies openly caring for each other while on the job, but as it stands the situation with Chuck and Sarah is worn down, tired, and typical. It also doesn’t help matters that Sarah is about as flat and interesting as plain white toast.
Still, with a show as genuinely enjoyable as Chuck, status quo is far from a death sentence. Despite some tweaking in the main storyline, Chuck‘s tone remains generally affable. Fans concerned that Chuck has evolved past screaming like a girl in the face of danger need not worry. Since he can’t control when he has an ability flash, Chuck’s newfound skills sometimes leave him with a gun in his face and no idea what to do about it.
Like the rest of the series, Levi and his band of supporting actors remain the show’s strongest asset. Adam Baldwin returns as Agent John Casey, a Reagan-era leftover whose barely contained bloodlust and discomfort with everyday life still provides some of the show’s biggest laughs. The Buy More crew also makes a comeback with especially silly subplots like starting a fight club in the store’s back room and an ongoing prank war that gets out of hand. Sadly, their stories feel increasingly shuffled aside, damned into the purgatory of tertiary B plots. Scott Krinsky’s Nerd Herder Jeff continually breaks into new boundaries in pathetic sleaziness, in one instance showing his full intention for an evening of date rape by serving a highly flammable cocktail at a party he calls “Prison Juice.”
It’s unfortunate that this new season of Chuck lacks inspiration in the face of its 12th-hour rescue from cancellation. Unashamedly goofy, there’s no lack of blistering action and thinly veiled nerdy allusions (“Chuck Bartowski is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”) to make this season enjoyable for its dedicated fan base, but if the show’s core story doesn’t start going somewhere soon, Chuck may find itself on the chopping block yet again.