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.