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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chuck: "Chuck Vs. The Cougars"

Illustration for article titled Chuck: "Chuck Vs. The Cougars"
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Illustration for article titled Chuck: "Chuck Vs. The Cougars"

I have to admit, when I heard the title of this episode and saw the above picture on NBC's press site, I immediately thought of a very different episode–one involving Chuck seducing a pack of wild fortysomethings on their fifth flirtini at Tavern on Rush (Chicago reference). Hell, I'm sure I wasn't the only one. But what I imagined to be a gimmicky outing was actually a pretty fun, well-rounded episode, albeit slightly lacking the control of the last three.

For starters, we see a strong, confident Chuck a few weeks in the making. He's shown flashes (hey-o!) of it in the past–talking down Michael Clarke Duncan; stepping up his game to woo Melinda Clarke–but now that his relationship with Sarah is diving into the realm of total fantasy, it seems he's eager to go whole-hog into the secret world of spies. Thus he's eager to take credit for saving new pal Mark's life (Ben Savage, slummin' it a bit) and assume the role once again of Charles Carmichael/Mad Dog. Of course, Chuck talks a big game, but still betrays signs of himself–the worried look that crosses his face when Mark places his life in the protection of Chuck's hands; catching food in his mouth at the high school reunion. And in the end, Chuck manages to save the day (or at least be perceived to have done so) and bleed his newfound confidence into the rest of his life.

Then there's Lester at the Buy More, once again struggling to show authority over anyone or anything. He flails again tonight, desperate to prove to Big Mike that he's got the chops, and winds up implementing a flexible price plan that pushes a lot of merchandise, but leaves the store in the red. So everyone throws a party and charges an entrance fee, but when that gets predictably out of hand, Lester, who always skirts responsibility for failure, is at a loss. So he steps down. (Do you think the show's going to have each of the key employees–Jeff, Morgan, etc.–try their hand at managing?)

But we've seen all this Chuck and Lester stuff before, and done better; the real star of tonight's episode was Sarah. I've mentioned before that Sarah was never really given much to do in season one–other than protect Chuck and cast longing glances towards things. And just as much as I enjoyed seeing the inside of Casey's life in the first episode this season, so too was I eager to learn more about this beautiful spy.

I was following along just fine for most of the episode. Sarah grew up in San Diego under the name of Jenny Burton. She graduated high school in 1998, and endured endless torture for being a weird, underblossoming adolescent. Also, her dad was into some shady dealings, and left her a shoe box full of cash when the feds took him down. Now she's presumably 28 and very uncomfortable thinking about her awkward past–it makes her punch things harder, in fact–and now we sort of understand what she sees in Chuck.

(Side note: At first I couldn't believe the show had Sarah in her late 20s. C'mon, I thought, really? She's only that old? But then I went on IMDB and saw that Yvonne Strahovski is 26–hell, her birthday is close to mine–so I guess it's not that far-fetched. Maybe it's just hard to grasp the fact that there are young CIA agents, like the feeling you get when your doctor is younger than you.)

And perhaps I'm reading too far into this, but the episode's final flashback threw me off. We catch a glimpse of the now-deceased CIA boss tailing Jenny after her father's capture, and he's in revelatory mode. Jenny's no stranger to her father's ways–he trained her well, in fact, whatever that means–and has assumed numerous false identities throughout her life. So how old is she really? Was she really a high school student, or just masquerading as one to help her father's cover? How legit is her background as a gangly, outcast teenager? There's certainly a lot more to know about Sarah Walker, and the fact that I'm beginning to care is yet another testament to how far this show has come over the season break.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

- Surprisingly, Nicole Richie was pretty credible. She managed to play the part of "slightly ditzy, surprisingly compassionate and nostalgic ex-cheerleader" without any major flops. I suppose she could have rehearsed the locker room scene, specifically the part where she recites her motives, a bit more.

- What's with TV shows and holding iPhones upside down? Mark got a text on his, then held it upside down for the remainder of the scene. Over on CBS's The Ex-List (stop; it's actually really good), Bella holds hers upside down all the time. You'd think those acting types would own one already and know how to hold it.

- "Of all the semi-tart, Asian-inspired frozen yogurt shops…"

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