TV: Chuck (Season 3)

I’ve finally caught up with season three of Chuck — way late, as usual. After promising developments in the show’s second year, I hoped it would continue its steady improvement, but season three turned out to be a kludge. It’s not without its charms and high points, but ultimately feels pretty seat-of-the-pants, and with some highly disappointing flaws.

The third season’s nineteen-episode journey pits the increasingly competent neo-spy Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) and his team against a nefarious international conspiracy known as “the Ring,” a nebulous MacGuffin of an organization designed to keep the heroes hopping. Added for sexual tension are new love interests: for Sarah, square-jawed superhero spy and Ring expert Daniel Shaw (Brandon Routh) and for Chuck, civilian computer hottie Hannah (Kristin Kreuk). For a while, anyway, these characters serve the purpose of keeping Chuck and Sarah confused about each other. Meanwhile, Chuck’s secret spy life continues to create new complications for his nearest and dearest, including best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez), sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), and brother-in-law Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin).

It’s the usual mix of campy spy action and loopy comedy, but the quality backslides in season three. The overarching through-line is a flimsy moving target, and the Buy More shenanigans — particularly the lame “Jeffster” subplots — are more and more distracting. Especially disappointing, though, is the show’s handling of female characters, never a strength of Chuck, but even worse here. In order to make Chuck more heroic, Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) is simply reduced, a shadow of her former ass-kicking self; even Morgan gets more glory this year than Sarah does. Worse still is the plight of poor Ellie, who’s saddled with scene after thankless scene of worry for Chuck — and that’s when she isn’t getting relentlessly lied to by friends and enemies alike. Would it kill the show to give these characters some time to shine?

There are still reasons to stick around, though. The breezy style is infectious, the theme song still grooves, and Zachary Levi still brings it all together in the central role. Both Casey (Adam Baldwin) and Morgan get some great episodes this season: Baldwin is more and more fun as the increasingly developed Casey, while Joshua Gomez’s Morgan has been thoroughly rehabbed out of his obnoxious early days into a much more fun and integral character. There’s campy drama and exciting action and plenty of well played, emotionally charged character interaction. So the pieces are still in place for the show to rebound; hopefully the writers will get their act together in season four, and stop relying on the talented cast to rescue their lazier, clumsier pages.

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