Following a couple weeks of lackluster season finales, I’m contemplating shows that start out great and then go off the rails somewhere. Sometime it happens in a moment, like when a couple finally gets together and dissolves all of the show’s sexual tension, or sometimes it happens over time as the characters just run out of funny and interesting things to do. Sometimes you even know it’s going to happen before it happens, the way we know that Barney Stinson is going to get married. In a church.

Don’t get me wrong. Shows–and characters–have to evolve. But sometimes you look back on a pilot wistfully, longing for the way things used to be. Such is the case with Chuck.

Chuck really hit its stride in Season 2, with a finale so good that we were willing to eat at Subway just to resolve the cliffhanger. But you can see the seeds of that greatness in the pilot. It has it all.

We meet Chuck Bartowski as he and best friend Morgan Grimes are playing spy–attempting to sneak out a bedroom window to escape a birthday party Chuck’s sister Ellie is throwing for him. One look at these guys hanging half out a window and we know they’re total dorks. Somewhere around Season 3, Chuck (Zachary Levi) got hot, and that’s just weird. Even Morgan (Joshua Gomez) got better looking. It’s their awkwardness that makes them so loveable.

Chuck’s unease with women is illustrated nicely as he attempts to chat up women at the party, lamenting the loss of a girl who dumped him back in college. She dumped him for a guy named Bryce Larkin (Matt Bomer), who we meet in short, interspersed scenes. Despite Chuck’s assertion that “I think he’s an accountant now,” Bryce is covered in blood and running across rooftops doing somthing very un-accountant-like.  

Since you probably know the story, I’ll zip though it. Bryce emails Chuck a shitload of images encrypted with CIA secrets and they become seared into Chuck’s brain. A hot girl named Sarah comes into the store where Chuck works and asks him on a date. She’s really a super-spy trying to get the secrets back, assuming they’re sitting on a hard drive. When she and her NSA counterpart, Colonel John Casey (Adam Baldwin *drool*), realize that the secrets are in Chuck’s head, they use him to help disarm a bomb and save the day.

Here are the cool things to note. In saving said day, Chuck uses a combination of the intersect (the data in his head) and his own skills (knowledge of DOS, a particular model of laptop, and the existence of a certain computer virus). That’s what makes Chuck awesome. If the intersect ended up in someone else, this story could not have existed. (It gets even better when he flies a helicopter in Ep. 2.) Also, we’re never sure who are the “good” guys and who are the “bad” guys. Bryce is killed–apparently–by the CIA. Was he a good guy? Can Chuck trust the CIA? And what’s the relationships between the CIA and the NSA in this case? The question of who Chuck can trust lasts throughout the season, as we wonder at times whether Sarah or Casey is really on his side.

This pilot is also brilliant at giving us just what we need to know about each character, no matter how minor. We get a good sense of loving big sister Ellie and her boyfriend Awesome. The scenes at Buy More are hysterical, despite being slowed to a snail’s pace at one point while Chuck helps a dad film his daughter doing ballet. But we get a taste for Anna, Lester, Jeff, and for a moment at the end–Big Mike.

The pilot showed us that this show had heart, suspense, and tons of humor (e.g. Chuck singing “Vick-vi-vicki Vale” as Sarah enters. “It’s from Batman,” he says. She replies “Cuz that makes it better.”)

You know what it doesn’t have? Jeffster. As funny as that was once, maybe even twice, Jeffster got completely out of control. And one long-lost parent who’s really an underground spy, I can take. But not two. And, for all her talk about spies not falling in love with spies, that’s kinda all Sarah does. Sometimes shows run their course in a season or two and this one has done it. So let’s appreciate the early days.


I have been putting off writing this entry for a long time, which is in no way a reflection on my opinion of the show. It’s more like I’m afraid I can’t do Firefly justice, especially considering the rapturous devotion of its fans. If you’re a loyal browncoat you probably know the pilot backwards and forwards. If you’re not, it may be that you blinked and missed it before Fox canceled it. (I won’t rehash the whole fan outcry/Serenity story.)

It’s not like Joss Whedon invented a new genre here; we’ve seen space anti-heroes before. And I, for one, was not a Whedon fan prior to this, so I wasn’t like “Hooray, a new show from the creator of Buffy.” The show just hit all the right notes with cool setting, fascinating characters, great dialogue, and a healthy dose of dark humor.

The show opens with an in-the-trenches war scene, which could be out of any number of movies. The clue that something is different is that the aircraft flying overhead look like nothing we’ve seen before. A man (Mal, played by Nathan Fillion) and a woman (Zoe, played by Gina Torres) are leading a shell-shocked contingent against an attack. Their language is slightly heightened; in fact, the whole scene is a bit confusing the first time around. All we really need to know is that the troops are forced to lay down arms when their back-up abandons them. The look on Mal’s face and the music playing tell us all we need.

Music is huge in this pilot. The score is a twangy, gritty collection of music reminiscent of old westerns. Its juxtaposition with high-tech space travel gives Firefly its own unique tone.

We jump ahead six years from the battle scene to a spacewalk by a crew of three. The striking quality of this scene is that it is very quiet—opposite the previous scene—with sound seemingly sucked up by the vastness of space. Meanwhile the pilot of the ship, who seems to be keeping an eye on the mission, is actually playing with dinosaur toys on his console. (I may have to add this to my list of best character introductions.) “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal,” cries the Stegosaurus to the Tyrannosaurus.

From there, we start to meet the rest of the crew. There is the ever-cheerful mechanic, Kaylee (Jewel Staite). There is a “companion,” or prostitute, Inara (Morena Baccarin). And there’s Jayne (super-dreamy Adam Baldwin), all-around tough guy. The pilot is Wash (Alan Tudyk), Zoe’s husband.

The crew has to quickly shut down the ship’s power as they pass an enemy, and we find out a few details. The ship our crew flies is an out-of-date model called a Firefly. Its name is Serenity, and it becomes a character unto itself over the course of the series. The ship and its crew are, for lack of a better term, off the grid. They’re clearly hiding from something.

Captain Mal and company land on a dusty planet and pick up some new passengers, a preacher, a doctor, and a third man. A lot of characters and a lot of information are introduced very fast. The show demands your attention and is worth watching over and over, because so much happens. The dialogue is layered with character revelations and plenty of wit. The basics are, they’re short on cash, carrying stolen cargo, and on their way to seek help from a woman who once shot Mal. This is not going to go smoothly.

If you haven’t seen this, watch and enjoy the twists and turns for yourself. No one is who they seem. They all have secrets. Some violence beaks out now and again. And the doctor is transporting some very unusual cargo. Our protagonist, Mal, seems cool on the surface, even when angry, but clearly that war experience—and maybe a lot of other pain—is seething beneath the surface. Oh, and there are enemies out there in space called Reavers, to whom the crew’s reaction is bone-chilling. Just watch it.