Chuck is a difficult television show to review. Often, it does things that are aggravating, stupid, or just plain weird. However, those things are always outweighed by the entertaining bits. So, while I’m about to tear “Chuck Versus the Suitcase” to shreds, I should say that I enjoyed it overall; it was certainly better than last week’s lackluster premiere. But Chuck isn’t doing as well as it could be doing, and I’m going to try to explain why after the jump.

Let’s start with the good. GPS bullets? Awesome. In “Chuck Versus the Anniversary,” we also got to see EMPs. It looks like Volkoff Industries has a lot of cool spy gadgets up their sleeve, which makes me excited. I also enjoyed Devon trying to be the world’s greatest father while his child is still in the womb. Ryan McPartlin is great at being sweet and funny (and shirtless) at the same time. The Buy More provided a lot this episode’s amusement. Morgan telling Beckman about how a Buy More should be was hilarious, as was Isaiah Mustafa (a.k.a. Old Spice Guy) as a Buy More green shirt.

I haven’t been too happy about Ellie being lied to about Chuck’s spy life, but Ellie had a lot of good moments in this episode. Her line about her baby being the size of a walnut got a chuckle out of me, and her reaction to the new Buy More was priceless. But Ellie’s best moment in this episode was when she took out her old photo album to look at pictures of her parents. It turns out that she lied to Devon; she does miss her mother. (By the way, kudos to the props people for that album. That was some good Photoshopping.)

Now, on to the bad. Chuck has had massive pacing issues for two weeks in a row. This week, the opening was slow, and the ending dragged on forever, LOTR-style. In the middle, it seemed as if a lot of things had been cut out. (Bronson Pinchot’s guest appearance was cut to just a few seconds and no lines. Heck, they might as well have given a guest star credit to the kid who wanted to work at Buy More.) Bouncing back and forth between Burbank and Milan didn’t help matters.

The fight scene between Sarah and Sophia, while full of impressive stunts, was poorly directed, poorly edited, and set to awful music. The result was one of the worst fight scenes in the show’s history, capped off with Sarah showing her bloody face to triumphant applause, an obvious (but unfunny) callback to “Chuck Versus the Cougars.” The slap fight between Chuck and Sophia’s bodyguard was equally stupid.

Taking Casey out of the mix this week was a mistake. I understand the desire to pair him off with Morgan (as overrated as that pairing is) but reducing him to a tiny role here didn’t work. It also put Chuck and Sarah alone on a mission, and missions are just more fun when Casey is on them too. At least it was interesting last season when Shaw was messing with the team’s dynamics. Here, it seemed pointless.

The larger problem here is that the writers seem intent about making Chuck a show about Chuck and Sarah’s coupledom. That isn’t such a huge problem in and of itself, but it makes me wonder: can’t Chuck and Sarah just have one episode where they aren’t facing some sort of relationship hurdle? Can’t they just exist as a couple while other, more interesting things happen around them? The way this episode ended, I don’t even need to look at spoilers to figure out that the next episode is going to be all about Chuck and Sarah’s relationship hurdles. There are more interesting sources of drama to be mined than relationship issues. For instance, how will Ellie react when she finds out that Chuck is still a spy? Will she start to draw parallels between Chuck/Sarah and Stephen/Mary? Or what about Casey’s relationship with his daughter? What about how Chuck feels about the search for his mother? It’s quite possible that the show is sidestepping these issues now because it’s going to bring them up later, but all we’re left with is “light” drama, i.e. Chuck and Sarah bickering. (To the show’s credit, the bickering was somewhat amusing this time, in sharp contrast to “Role Models,” when it was just plain annoying.) The other big issue with focusing too much on Chuck and Sarah’s coupledom is that it reinforces the notion that Sarah isn’t a person outside of her relationship with Chuck. “Anniversary” took strides in the right direction, allowing Sarah to exist outside that relationship (though not to the extent of such excellent Sarah-centric episodes as “DeLorean” and “First Class”). However, this week, we were back to square one. (Or more appropriately, square negative one.) All of Sarah’s character bits in this episode revolved around how she functions in a relationship. (To be fair, so did Chuck’s, but Chuck has already been well-defined outside of his relationship with Sarah.) In my opinion, the best way to rectify this situation would be to give Sarah her own plotline that isn’t directly tied to Chuck’s (e.g. being in charge of taking down Volkoff Industries). Sarah Walker can be more than the girlfriend who is also a spy. The show needs to do a better job of demonstrating that.

Is Chuck still enjoyable? Definitely. But so far this season, it has been batting way below average. (To be fair, the first two episodes of season 3 were worse than this, but those episodes aired back-to-back, and things really picked up after that.) We’re only two episodes in, so it’s not a big deal, but it’s time for the show to ramp up the quality and deliver the kind of episodes that I know it can deliver.

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