In a move that makes absolutely no commercial sense, the third series of Chuck is set to begin to show on television here in the UK, a few short weeks after airing the finale in North America. Clearly designed with a young adult geek/nerd demographic in mind — the very same sort of person who will happily pirate TV shows via filesharing sites if it is not made available in the traditional manner — one cannot help but wonder why they would allow for such a delay between the two markets.
Many in their target audience have probably already watched the show, which will only hurt their UK ratings.
For those of you who have yet to watch it, this is a review of the entire third season. It contains spoilers, so read at your own peril.
The beginning: why the third season is awful
When I first started to watch episodes from the third season, I was incredibly disappointed. As you may recall from an article posted almost a year ago, I have long found some of the dynamics about the show to be frustrating and was quite happy when most of these frustrations were resolved at the end of the second series.
Series three, however, begins by stuffing all those worms back into their cans.
The series starts out with Chuck and Sarah back on the outs — the relationship never happened, basically. The two of them have resumed their Sam & Diane holding pattern. On top of it, he now has “Intersect 2.0” super powers, which take away one of the more compelling elements of the show: Chuck as a fish out of water.
On top of this, the Buy More plots become weaker in the third series, as the show’s focus moves from Chuck as a nerd thrust into the spy life, to being the story of Chuck The Spy. While this progression makes sense, it eliminates the show’s safety net — it used to be that every episode contained a spy story and a Buy More story. With the dearth of Buy More intrigue, there is little to save those episodes in which the spy story becomes a simple re-hash of the Chuck and Sarah story. This happens far too often.
The problems are compounded with the addition to the team: Shaw. This character is basically Bryce II — the good guy who doubles as Chuck’s rival. Shaw is pretty much exactly the same guy, only he appears in every episode.
A kick-ass spy who also holds a piece of Sarah’s heart.
The viewer wants to hate him, but he is also one of the good guys … and who can hate a good guy when he’s saving the day?
Why the awful start is genius
This set-up is painful, but the payoff is worth it.
One of the biggest things that was missing — even though you might not have noticed it — during the first two seasons is that Chuck never gets to face off against his rival. His enemies were always rogue organizations rather than people — FULCRUM, or the Ring. But organizations cannot be a protagonist’s rival. Instead, Chuck’s rival had been Bryce, who is nothing but a good, stand-up guy all the way through the first two series. You were forced to grudgingly like the guy.
Shaw suffers from the same problem; he becomes the rival, even as he is fighting on Chuck’s side. However, he does not come with Bryce’s baggage. He is not Chuck’s former best friend, the guy who made Chuck into a superhero. He has not protected Chuck from day one.
Instead, Shaw is the perfect guy to be turned to the dark side and become Chuck’s true arch-rival. So, of course, he does. Shaw’s betrayal also kick-starts (what we hope is) a final resolution to the Chuck/Sarah plot, which is most welcome.
A wonderful end to the season
By season’s end, a number of fantastic developments have taken pace which, quite simply, make Chuck a better show.
First, Chuck finally gets to confront — and overcome — his rival. He finally has the chance to defeat a villain who was built over an entire season, and get the girl.
At last, Chuck finishes the season in a truly heroic manner.
Second, the secret is revealed. The show suffered for two years with Chuck’s double-life — it works for a few episodes, but not for a series. Every other show with secret identities — such as Buffy and Smallville — functions much better when there is a larger circle of friends and family who know the secret.
Chuck is no exception. Throughout the first two seasons, the two people closest to Chuck — Morgan and Ellie — were unaware of Chuck’s secret. But there are only so many ways to make the hiding-the-identity scene entertaining, and only so long that it can go on and continue to be believable.
In the third season, first Morgan and then Ellie find out. Not only are the individual episodes (and scenes) compelling in and of themselves, but the series becomes much more watchable as a result.
Where do we go from here?
The third season ended with a reveal for the beginning of the fourth season, so we know where we go to a certain extent. The question is whether the series can move forwards or if it will rehash old ground.
Chuck has promised Ellie that he will quit — clearly he will not. Does this mean that we backtrack to the lying-to-family stuff, or does the series move on from that?
Do Chuck and Sarah stay together, or do they somehow backtrack into being broken up — yet partners — again?
Backtracking on the first count seems more likely than the second, but I honestly hope it doesn’t happen. The de facto reset for season three — Intersect 2.0, backtracking on the Sarah/Chuck relationship and (essentially) recasting and redefining the role of Bryce worked well for series three. It probably will not work in a fourth series.
I hope that they keep the idea of having a proper villain to defeat over the course of a season, rather than just having the head of a rogue organization surface in the last two or three episodes. But one “reset” season is enough, and repeating plots grow old.
Here’s hoping that season four introduce some new twists, rather than taking us through the same paces all over again.