It has taken me a while to write this review for two reasons: 1) How I feel about this episode in and of itself, and how I feel about this episode in the context of the series are very different. 2) I wanted to sleep at a reasonable hour last night.

“Chuck Versus the Cubic Z” was a bottle episode. It took place almost entirely within Buy More and Castle. (I read a comment somewhere that it could have been called “Chuck Versus the Air Ducts,” and I’d have to agree.) Evaluated against the strength of other bottle episodes, it certainly didn’t measure up to season 2’s stellar “Chuck Versus Santa Claus,” but it was much, much better than last season’s overhyped and overrated “Chuck Versus the Beard.” More details after the jump.

“Cubic Z” brought the action in a big way. There were fight scenes galore, and each one of them was better than last week’s poorly-edited catwalk and changing room fights. Instead of forcing Steve Austin to act, the show just let him do what he does best: running around with guns and beating the crap out of people. Nicole Richie also had an excellent fight sequence.

Last night’s episode was also very funny. The Buy More shenanigans were at their usual level of insanity, and as a closet Big Mike/Bolonia shipper, I was overjoyed to find out about their upcoming engagement. (Now, they just need to get Patricia Rae back on the show.) Big Mike carried the Buy More plotline, whether making speeches to Morgan, quelling an angry riot, or taking out Hugo with a “disco stick.” (No, not that disco stick, you pervert.) Outside the Buy More storyline, Sarah’s subtle humour is starting to creep into the show more and more, and I welcome it. She was hilarious in her sparring scene with Casey, and her “time machine” scene was equally funny. Yvonne Strahovski can bring the laughs when she needs to, and while I still think that she should be carrying more of the show’s dramatic weight, I’m enjoying her comedic side as well.

Nicole Richie isn’t the world’s greatest actress, but I enjoyed seeing her insanely nasty character again. Plus, she added “Frosty the Snow Bitch” to the Great Pantheon of Insults. (It’s up there with “spastic cock jockey” and “dick-infested man mattress.”) The only false note about her character was the “Hallmark” moment at the end with Sarah. It was totally believable that she’d cave and tell Chuck about Frost, but it was totally unbelievable that she’d compliment Chuck and suggest that Sarah was capable of love.

As for Chuck and Sarah, I was glad to see that this week, their issues didn’t resolve around something as contrived as not unpacking. Relationships that move too quickly can be unsettling, and I’m pleased that the show recognized that instead of throwing up another barrier that should have been dealt with last season.

Overall, “Cubic Z” was a great episode. A little humour and a lot of action go a long way in making Chuck a fun show to watch.

On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about how this episode fits into the larger picture. To convey what I’m trying say, we’re going to have to rewind a bit. Last season, when some fans reacted negatively to the Shaw arc, a number of *ahem* suggestions were made: Chuck and Sarah should spend more time on screen together, dramatic issues should be resolved within an episode, the tone should be lighter, etc. Unfortunately, these suggestions aren’t necessarily the best course of action.

The idea behind putting Chuck and Sarah on screen together is based on two things: 1) They were spending less time together than in previous seasons (which is false when compared to season 1, but I’ll let it slide). 2) Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have good chemistry together (whatever that means). Shocking news: it’s not that special. Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry had it on Friends. Lee Pace and Anna Friel had it on Pushing Daisies. David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel have it on Bones. There are many other pairings with lots of chemistry; pick your favourite. In fact, Pushing Daisies hit its stride once Chuck (Charlotte) and Olive’s friendship developed, i.e. when Anna Friel and Lee Pace started spending less time on screen together. Furthermore, chemistry can’t just be an excuse for two characters to have scenes together. If two characters have no good reason to be speaking to each other, then they shouldn’t be speaking to each other. Moreover, if Chuck and Sarah spend too much time together, then that limits how much time there is for Chuck and Casey to interact as mentor and trainee, Chuck and Morgan to interact as best friends, Chuck and Ellie to interact as siblings, Sarah and Casey to interact as partners, and Sarah and Morgan to interact…awkwardly.

Dramatic issues shouldn’t be dragged on forever. [Chuck and Sarah’s will-they/won’t-they dragged on for about a third of a season too long. (Actually, it should never have continued beyond early in the second season, but that’s a different rant for a different day.)] But resolving issues too quickly and too neatly prevents viewers from getting emotionally invested in the storyline. As a result, whatever drama does take place feels cheap and unearned.

Finally, tone. Tone comes from story, not the other way around. If you’re going to tell a dark story, you don’t tell it with rainbows and unicorns. If you’re going to tell a light story, it’s probably best to leave murder and famine out of the equation. With one glaring exception (“Chuck Versus the Mask”), Chuck has always gotten the right tone for the story. The problem with picking tone before story is that it severely limits what the story can do. If your tone says rainbows and unicorns, you kind of have to tell a story about rainbows and unicorns.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that these suggestions are completely without merit. Fans can make whatever suggestions they want. But they should be considered in a wider context than “get Shaw off my TV screen.” When you’re a fan of a TV show that’s as responsive to its fanbase as Chuck is, then demanding rainbows and unicorns can have unintended consequences. Sometimes, you actually get rainbows and unicorns. (This isn’t the fans’ fault per se; it’s the writers’ fault for thinking that rainbows and unicorns are a good idea.)

Chuck and Sarah have certainly spent a lot of time on screen together, which has unfortunately taken Casey out of the equation, but let’s leave that aside and look at the dramatic stakes so far. As established in “Anniversary,” Chuck is searching for his mom. In that episode, Chuck kept his search a secret from Sarah, but by the end of the episode, he promised that he would no longer keep secrets from her. In “Suitcase,” Sarah hadn’t yet unpacked her belongings. (No need to revisit how silly that idea is.) Just when she was starting to feel comfortable, Chuck brought up the idea of marriage and kids. In “Cubic Z,” Sarah felt scared about her relationship moving too fast, but Chuck reassured her that he didn’t want it to go too fast either. Just as they were feeling comfortable, an engagement ring dropped from an air duct. (To Chuck’s credit, that scene was done way better than a similar scene on Friends. Moreover, it’s not the season finale, so even if it is a little silly, it doesn’t matter as much.) Apparently, the pattern is that Chuck and Sarah face a relationship hurdle each episode, and the next hurdle is usually introduced at the end of the episode in a lame attempt to maintain viewer interest. Even though it all seems kind of bland, it sounds alright on paper (minus the fact that I called it “lame”), but there’s a problem.

I don’t care.

Yes, Chuck and Sarah are a couple now. Yes, couples face issues together. I get it. But I don’t need to see them work their issues out in every single episode. The spy world isn’t couples therapy. The way “Cubic Z” ended, I can pretty much guarantee that the next episode is going to focus on Chuck and Sarah’s issues as well (and keep in mind that I’m relatively spoiler-phobic).

There’s a silver lining to all of this. If the first third of the season focuses heavily on Chuck and Sarah as a couple, then their issues can be taken care of quickly before moving on to the meaty part of the season. Plus, it’s not as if Chuck and Sarah are actively annoying together. It might even be harsh to call them boring.

Unfortunately, the big cliffhanger at the end of season 3 made it seem as if season 4 would be focused on the search for mom. It would be easier to care about this storyline if Chuck were actively searching for his mother. As it is, he’s more concerned about the pace of his relationship with Sarah. True, if Chuck were a real person, that would be a more pressing concern. But Chuck is television, and on television, you’ve got to deliver the goods. “Cubic Z” did very little to advance the plot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in a season where you’ve got 13 episodes to tell a story, a small clue about Frost’s whereabouts that the audience already knows (even if Chuck and Sarah don’t) doesn’t seem like enough. As a viewer, it’s hard for me to become emotionally invested in a storyline that the show itself is neglecting.

After a couple more episodes, I believe that Chuck will be at a crossroads. It can choose to go out kicking and screaming by being the brilliant spy dramedy that it was in its first three seasons, or it can fizzle out as a disposable, lighthearted action comedy. I hope that Chuck chooses the former path. The show is too good not to.