Sometimes, you can do everything right and still come up a bit short. Chuck’s fourth season premiere nailed the combination of action and humour that fans have come to love, but somehow, the episode didn’t quite gel. I’ll try to get at why after the jump.

Sometimes, I like to think of an episode of television as being like a gift basket. Gift baskets tend to contain lots of things I like: I like potpourri; I like fancy chocolates; I like expensive moisturizers (hey, I like having smooth skin); and I like pretty ornaments. However, every time I receive a gift basket (which admittedly, is rarely), I can’t help but think, “What the hell is this?”

With that in mind, there was a lot that I liked about last night’s episode. After the stretch of episodes last season from “Role Models” to “Living Dead” that had a lot of failed jokes, it was nice to see that Chuck hasn’t lost its humorous touch. Harry Dean Stanton was excellent as the Repo Man, and his love of Chinese food had me cracking up. I was especially amused by Sarah’s sexting photo shoot in the plane. (Yvonne Strahovski doesn’t get enough credit for her comedic abilities, which also extend to physical comedy.) I also appreciated the “New Ring” gag, which actually made me laugh out loud. (I wasn’t as frustrated with the Ring as some fans were, especially since their master plan turned out to be cleverer and more elaborate than anything Fulcrum ever did, but I appreciate that the show is willing to mock itself on occasion.)

Team Bartowski was also in fine form last night. After focusing too much on the spy-couple/odd-couple dynamic in the final third of last season, it was nice to see Chuck and Morgan having adventures together; Zachary Levi and Josh Gomez play so well off each other. It was also nice to see Sarah and Casey being badass on a mission together and that Sarah was trying to get Casey to open up about his “lady feelings.” The Chuck/Sarah relationship was handled deftly, allowing a real conflict to develop, but addressing it promptly and preventing it from overwhelming the episode. Furthermore, it occupied exactly the correct amount of screen time: enough to make me happy, but not enough to make me yell, “Stop kissing and/or bickering and get back to beating up bad guys!”

Speaking of the characters, Dolph Lundgren, Harry Dean Stanton, and Larry Cedar were brilliant casting choices who all played their parts well. I was a bit worried about Lundgren, seeing as he’s a washed-up 80’s action star, but he did a great job here, appearing suitably menacing, but still with enough cheesiness in his acting to fit the tone of the show. But the real star was Linda Hamilton. She was perfect in the role of Mary Bartowski, making me believe that she could be both a loving mother and a fearless spy. Heck, I’ll just go ahead and say it: she’s better as Mary than Scott Bakula was as Stephen. (Yeah, yeah, apples and oranges, I know.) Hamilton was born to play this role.

Now, all those things look like great items to have in my metaphorical gift basket, but somehow, they didn’t quite make a great episode, and I was left asking, “What the hell is this?” Jeff, Lester, Devon, and Big Mike didn’t appear in this episode, and their absence was strongly felt. Ellie appeared in only one scene, and I’m not pleased to see that Chuck was lying to her again. It was basically a replay of the scene at the end of “Tooth” where Chuck lied to Sarah about his condition, but Ellie’s “I’m pregnant” felt a lot more contrived than Sarah’s “I love you.” Since I care a lot about Chuck and Ellie’s sibling relationship, I hope that this particular bit of dishonesty is dealt with soon.

However, those are just minor quibbles. What really held this episode back from greatness was its awkward pacing. The storytelling was really choppy, and I had no sense of where the episode was going or from where it was coming. Part of the problem was that this episode had to put the characters in a lot of different locations, so it couldn’t waste much time on making the scene transitions smoother or on linking the different elements of the plot. The other part of the problem was the decision to stick all the big emotional stuff at the front of the episode, leaving only a little of it for the end. The opening set a much more somber tone than the stuff after the opening credits. (There’s a reason that TV episodes tend to leave the emotional stuff for the final few minutes; it just works better.) Then, the episode ended with a very cool action sequence involving Mary, but it didn’t seem to fit with what preceded it. Normally, Chuck juggles these tonal transitions with ease, but here, they just felt kind of schizophrenic.

At this stage, if I were judge season 4 based solely on this episode, I’d say that Chuck was headed for its worst season yet. But it’s unfair for me to judge an entire season of television on one episode. (I’m not an Emmy voter.) Next week, when I expect the show to return to a clearer “mission-of-the-week” format with serialized elements, things should pick up. All things considered, the season premiere did an excellent job of getting me excited about what’s to come. That’s exactly what a season premiere should do.