The good news: Chuck's had so many would-be series finales (as the threat of cancellation forever snaps at its heels) that every season premiere tends to result in a necessary revamp of the show. The bad news: these revamps tend to become resets, and the status quo is reestablished soon after. Now in its fourth season, I get the feeling Chuck played its best hand last year (certainly the finale was a great place to end the story), and is perhaps running out of ideas. "Chuck Versus The Anniversary" wasn't awful, but it wasn't great, and sometimes struggled to just be good. Is the survivalist spy-comedy showing signs of fatigue? Picking up from season 3's excellent finale, Chuck (Zachary Levi) is now aware that his mother Mary's (Linda Hamilton) alive, and swears to find her with the help of buddy Morgan (Joshua Gomez). An added complication is that he must keeping his search a secret from girlfriend Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Agent Casey (Adam Baldwin), seeing as sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) insisted he retire from the spy-game, following the death of their father. The first half of this premiere was stilted and awkward, with Chuck and Morgan globetrotting on public transport, following leads Chuck's father left to his mom's whereabouts. There was even a bizarre and unnecessary appearance from Harry Dean Stanton as a Repo Man, which had absolutely no bearing on the story. Simultaneously, Sarah continued to jet around the world with Casey on missions (love the parachuting off a Shanghai skyscraper), and was introduced to the delights of "sexting" as the strain of her long-distance relationship began taking a toll. Fortunately, the episode drew the characters back together in the final act, as Chuck and Morgan (posing as "New Ring" agents) infiltrated an arms dealership in Moscow, coinciding with Sarah and Casey being captured in the same building by Soviet heavy Marco (Dolph Lundgren). Chuck's always had a strong sense of family, as practically everyone in the cast is either related to Chuck (sister Ellie), has married into his family (brother-in-law Devon), or is considered family (childhood friend Morgan, girlfriend Sarah). Even Casey has an older brother vibe to him, increasingly. This episode ended with a reveal from Ellie that she's pregnant, inevitably setting up the birth of Chuck's niece/nephew in the finale, and I wouldn't be surprised if this season weaves in Chuck getting married to Sarah -- provided the writers realize a fifth season may not be likely, in time. But there are only so many family events and relatives you can squeeze drama from, and Chuck only has a few left to exploit. But a search for his mother is, frankly, not as interesting to me as it's clearly intended to be. Season 2 spent time on the search for Chuck's absent father, so we've done the whole "quest to find a missing parent" arc before. The fact Mary Bartowski is an ass-kicking super-spy who doesn't seem to need rescuing lessens my interest, in some respects. The show did a better job foreshadowing Chuck and Ellie's heartache over their absent father, as I'm not emotionally invested in seeing Chuck find his mother. This may change, but for now that's what undercut the emotional meat of this episode. And what of Linda Hamilton (The Terminator), another of Chuck's surprising casting decisions? Forgiving the now fiftysomething Hamilton's heavy make-up, soft focus/lighting, and (possible) stunt-double for an action sequence, her presence feels like stunt-casting right now. We don't really know too much about Mary, so she's just another of the many '80s pop-culture jokes this show loves to crack. Joining her, Dolph Lundgren gets to snarl his "I must break you" line from Rocky IV. Ultimately, "Chuck Versus The Anniversary" was a tepid start to the season, but admittedly Chuck tends to need five episodes to lay a narrative foundation to build on. Last year, Brandon Routh took an entire season before his character Daniel Shaw found a groove. The problem I've always had with Chuck is that it doesn't seem to understand what parts of its show should be abandoned, content to make mistakes it has to rectify when there's a backlash, or else ignore the perfect opportunity for a refresh. Case in point: after the Buy More was destroyed in season 3's finale, it felt that maybe the show would now embrace the fact its lead is a bonafide spy and evolve into that. But instead, "... Versus The Anniversary" resurrects the Buy More as a tricked out CIA stronghold, employing undercover agents to sell electrical goods, and managed by General Beckman (Bonita Friedericy, now a regular). That's certainly preferable to what existed before, but how long before Jeff and Lester are inexplicably back in the aisles being idiots, holding impromptu Jeffster concerts, and lusting after the female staff? I guess what I'm saying is that more people would enjoy Chuck if it concentrated on what definitely works: Chuck, Sarah, Casey and Morgan going on spy adventures crammed full of stunts, jokes, and appealing guest stars, with a strong family backdrop. But it seems determined to involve the Buy More -- maybe out of loyalty for the actors involved, or the fact it gives them a standing set to use nearly every single week. I appreciate the financial and logistical needs here, but creatively the Buy More is spent. I'm not sure turning the place into a gadget-laden wonderland is enough to salvage what's always felt like the show's weak spot. Overall, ".. Versus The Anniversary" disappointed me, but maybe it was always going to considering how fun and refreshing season 3 became once the writers were brave enough to develop things (making Chuck and Sarah genuine lovers, letting Morgan and Ellie in on Chuck's secret, etc.) This premiere didn't really thrill, amuse, or get me excited about the possibilities with Chuck's search for mommy... it just hummed along being competent but uninspired. A straight down the line shrug. Asides You can view Sarah's "sexting" photos on the official Chuck website. Just saying. If General Beckman is now the Buy More manager, does this mean Big Mike won't be returning to the show? I can't see where he'd fit in, unless they make him her assistant manager for some reason. Would Beckman/Big Mike be a winning duo? "Sexting" is short for "sex" and "writing"? I always thought it was an abbreviation for "sex" and "texting". 2010's been a good year for Dolph Lundgren, what with his role in The Expendables this summer. He's also reunited with his Masters Of The Universe co-star here, as Robert Duncan McNeill directed this episode. Seriously, what was the point of Harry Dean Stanton? Was he just around on the lot, so they gave him a scene? Did director Robert Duncan McNeill owe him a favour? Is he a massive Chuck fan? Apparently, "Greta" (the character in the Buy More played by Olivia Munn) will be played by a variety of hot actresses, as a recurring joke.
WRITER: Chris Fedak DIRECTOR: Robert Duncan McNeill GUEST CAST: Linda Hamilton, Dolph Lundgren, Harry Dean Stanton, Olivia Munn, Larry Cedar, Katie Cleary & Joshua Rush TRANSMISSION: 20 September 2010 NBC, 8/7cTo continue reading my reviews of this TV series, please visit my blog Dan's Media Digest.