Right off the bat, let’s address the two big questions about “Chuck Versus the Zoom.” Is it better than the average season 4 episode? Yes. Definitely. Does Morgan as the Intersect work? Yes, surprisingly well, despite the fact that it totally rewrites the show’s mythology. I’ll offer more thoughts about Chuck’s 5th season premiere after the jump.

If NBC were run by people who used any modicum of logic, Chuck wouldn’t have lasted more than two seasons. But because the Peacock Network has been running a charity for low-rated fan-favourite shows instead of running an actual business, shows like Community, Parenthood, and Parks and Recreation are still on the air, and Chuck has managed to secure a miraculous 5th and final season. At the start of this year, when the show came back from its winter hiatus with by far its worst episode ever, this was a season that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see. But for what it’s worth, the back half of season 4 addressed many of the problems I had with the front half, and now that the nonsensical, convoluted mess that was the Volkoff family is out of the picture, Chuck finds itself on much sturdier ground.

So, we enter this season with Team Bartowski no longer in the employ of the US government and instead trying to run a private espionage firm, Carmichael Industries. There are hiccups, obviously. Attracting clients to a new business is difficult, and while Morgan doesn’t have all that much trouble dealing with the Intersect, he’s far from the super-competent spies that Sarah and Casey are. Meanwhile, Chuck has to come to terms with the fact that he’s no longer the human Intersect, and Casey is having trouble adjusting to working at a job that isn’t directly serving his country.

“Zoom” set the stage for all those ideas – albeit with somewhat of a heavy hand – all the while interweaving it with a fun – if slightly nonsensical – mission about a Bernie-Madoff-esque fraudulent investment manager named Roger Bale (Craig Kilborn), and pulled it all off quite successfully. The mission: gain access to Bale’s accounts in order to return the swindled money. It wasn’t very substantial, but any mission that features a random squash match and a fun Latin dance number gets a free pass from me. Kilborn also provided the show with its first memorable one-off villain since Dolph Lundgren in last season’s premiere, clearly having a lot of fun playing a rich douchebag, but not overplaying it like a certain former James Bond who shall remain nameless.

More importantly, though, this mission – as well as the episode’s cold open – served as a way of introducing us to Morgan as the Intersect. The idea that Morgan would be running around with the world’s most important computer in his brain gave me pause at the end of the previous season, but it worked surprisingly well here, in that it was funny enough to fit with the show’s vibe, but not so ridiculous that the show turned into self-parody. For those who feared that Josh Gomez would become the new star of the show: fear not; the show still very much revolves around Chuck, but it also feels like more of an ensemble show, with Sarah, Casey, and Morgan playing central roles, than it ever did before. Zachary Levi has been given stronger dramatic material here than he ever was last season in contemplating his role on the team now that he’s no longer the guy with the Intersect. In this instance, I have to applaud the show for what it did do as much as for what it didn’t do. It would have been so easy to pump up the drama by having Chuck be overtly jealous of Morgan or for him to freak out over Morgan and Sarah having to go on a date for a mission. But “Zoom” opted for a little more complexity and subtlety, showing that Chuck still cares for his best friend more than he misses having the Intersect in his head. Levi nailed the required mixture of wistfulness and happiness, with just a tinge of jealousy, perfectly.

That’s not to say that Morgan being the Intersect is problem-free. There’s the obvious problem of the show rewriting its own mythology, since the capacity to use the Intersect was supposed to be the ability of a limited few. (I suppose one could fanwank that Morgan is one of the limited few, but that might be pushing it.) I also don’t think the government would be too happy about a human Intersect running around outside of its control. That might be one of the new villain’s concerns, however, so I’ll let it slide – but more on that in a bit. Most importantly, though, Josh Gomez’ stuntman didn’t look at all like Josh Gomez, which made the fight sequences look kind of silly. I suppose that there aren’t too many stuntmen in Hollywood with Gomez’ stature, but the least they could have done was slap a fake beard on the guy.

One could also complain that Morgan has mastered the Intersect too quickly, but I actually think that was a smart move for the show. For one thing, he hasn’t completely mastered it. At Bale’s party, Morgan got angry when he saw Bale feeling up Sarah and was about to flash – sorry, “zoom” – when Chuck talked him down from it. It was a clever way to allude to the fact that the Intersect can be affected by a person’s emotions without actually showing it or having it impact the story. More importantly, though, putting Morgan through a half-season of flash impotence, like the show did with Chuck at the beginning of season 3, would have been incredibly repetitive, so I’m glad that it has decided to do something different by focusing on Morgan developing his espionage abilities more than on his ability to control the computer in his brain.

I’m also glad that the show seems to being doing something different with Chuck and Sarah this season. Last season, the couple spent way too much time hacking out relationship problems, more serious versions of which they’d already hacked out in season 3. Those problems would then be resolved with cloying scenes that I can only assume were attempts at fanservice, and I’d feel the need to vomit into the nearest bucket. Their relationship felt tired and sitcommy, and I found myself wishing that the show would magically transport itself back to season 1, hook Chuck up with Lou permanently, and be done with it. However, for some reason, the writers have decided that because Chuck and Sarah are now married, they have to treat their relationship with infinitely more maturity, and it’s a change I welcome. Chuck trying to purchase a dream home for Sarah sounds cloying on paper, but it played out surprisingly sweetly in this episode, never overwhelming the main plot, making Sarah look like a rhymes-with-rich, or making Chuck look like an insecure, whiny wet noodle. Yes, there was some silliness with the “T.I.T.S.” binder and Sarah seducing Chuck, but it was all low-key, never making anyone involved look like a total idiot. In fact, this subplot reminded me of why I liked Chuck and Sarah as a couple back in season 3, and for the first time in a very long while, I found myself interested in their relationship. Of course, I reserve the right to change my opinion on the dream home plot if it starts to become the focus of the show, but for now, it’s a personal goal for Chuck that seems as if it will play in the background and that I imagine the show is setting up as its emotional endgame.

To achieve that goal, Chuck is going to have to amass enough funds from both the Buy More and his spy business. Running the Buy More means dealing with Jeff and Lester, and thankfully, they seem to have been toned down, which means that the Buy More antics might be funny again this season; I definitely got a kick out of Jeff being stupid enough to get up from his wheelchair and climb a step ladder even though he was pretending to be crippled. On the other hand, running a successful spy business will involve finding clients, which will provide the show with some fun missions of the week (though I imagine that the show will dispense with that format towards the end of the season). Having seen only one episode of this season, I can’t judge how entertaining that will be on a week-to-week basis. Nevertheless, it seems a lot more difficult to screw up than, say, a plot about searching for a lost parent. I spent a lot of the front half of last season yelling, “Hey, Chuck: quit being a whiny dumbass and GO SEARCH FOR YOUR MOM!” But unless Chuck stops being a spy show, I don’t think I’ll feel the need to remind Chuck to run his business.

Of course, running Carmichael Industries won’t just involve finding clients and carrying out missions successfully. Chuck also has CIA baddie Decker (Richard Burgi) to contend with, and here’s where I have some issues with the direction the season might be taking. Apparently, Decker is behind a vast conspiracy, and Chuck is at the centre of it. I’m not in agreement with those who think this is a bad idea on paper. This season needs a spy arc to shape it, and I don’t see why this approach is worse than any other. To me, predicting it will fall apart before it has even started seems like the pessimistic equivalent of counting one’s chickens before they hatch. But I do have a few problems with how it’s being executed so far. Firstly, I’m still not completely convinced that Burgi was the right person to play Decker. He was better here than he was in last season’s finale, but I maintain the belief that the role requires someone more menacing. Secondly, I’m not sure what Decker’s motivations are, beyond just being a power-tripping asshole or possibly wanting the Intersect out of Morgan’s brain. (Does he even know that Morgan has the Intersect in his brain? The show wasn’t clear on that.) I suppose that’s part of this season’s mystery, but keeping the audience in the dark about why he’s doing what he’s doing makes him a much less compelling character than he could be. But my biggest problem is that Decker is way, way, way too powerful. He can hack into Carmichael Industries’ equipment, he can hijack their video screens, and he can sabotage their missions. On top of that, he’s backed by a cabal of CIA lackeys who do his bidding. I have no idea how Team Bartowski is supposed to defeat this guy, considering that he has legitimate government support. Right now, I can’t envision a sensible, non-contrived scenario in which Decker goes down. Heck, at this point, he can even freeze Carmichael Industries’ assets and run the company into the ground.

I suspect that development will annoy some people, especially those who were looking forward to Chuck being a billionaire. Truth be told, Carmichael Industries losing access to all their funds kind of came out of the blue, and it’s difficult not to be annoyed by what sounds like the reset button being pushed, especially since that button was pressed repeatedly over the course of the first three episodes of last season. On the other hand, I think it’s a necessary development. Chuck spending billions of dollars on worthless crap would have been a one-note joke. (“Honey, I bought an airplane.” “Again?”) I don’t think it would have been funny beyond a couple of episodes. More importantly, Chuck is supposed to be a relatable everyman, and making him a billionaire wouldn’t help that image. As ridiculously stacked as the odds are against Team Bartowski right now, I’d rather watch a David-vs-Goliath struggle than a Clash of the Titans.

Overall, “Zoom” represents a kind of Chuck that is very different from seasons past. It’s much more low-key; it’s not as flashy – and not just because “flashes” are now called “zooms.” Everything and everybody has been toned down a few notches, which is especially welcome when it comes to the Buy More. The show seems more sure of itself, more mature, and more comfortable in its own skin than it ever has before. It also has a greater sense of purpose and focus. That doesn’t mean that Chuck is a better show now than it was before, but it does mean that though it might not go out kicking and screaming (like it would have if it had ended after season 2 or 3), it’s going to bow out with grace.

Some random thoughts to close out the review:

  • No more Beckman, it seems. In fact, Bonita Friedericy is gone from the opening credits. I’m not complaining, to be honest. I’ve never been a huge fan of Friedericy on this show. (She’s welcome to reappear any time on Parks and Recreation, though.)
  • That was a weird cut from Chuck and Sarah in bed talking about their dream home to them being on a mission together. *sigh* The editing on this show just isn’t as good as it used to be.
  • I agree with Morgan: baseball is boring. Though the writers could never have predicted it, that dig was unintentionally fitting, seeing as the episode was airing against Game 7 of the World Series.
  • One slightly irritating thing: this episode felt the constant need to remind us that Chuck and Sarah are married. We get it. They’ve got rings now. I suspect those reminders were included because this was the season premiere, and they’ll probably disappear next week.
  • I don’t know why the gratuitous lingerie scenes bother me, seeing as I’m a heterosexual male who finds Yvonne Strahovski very attractive, but they do. We get it. Sarah Walker Bartowski is hot. She looks just as hot in regular clothes.
  • Nice to see Ellie, if only for a brief scene. It’s easy to forget how good Sarah Lancaster is, but she always makes the best of whatever time she has on screen.

Overall, “Zoom” was a very entertaining episode of Chuck and a solid opener to what’s shaping up to be a pretty good season. We’ll see if the show keeps it up next week.