Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

The challenge for any long-running series is keeping it fresh, without sacrificing the heart of the show, the things that keep fans tuning in week after week, year after year.  Of course, that presupposes that writers, cast, and crew all know and understand what that heart is—how the magic works.  Final seasons are especially tricky: how to round off the characters’ storylines in a way that feels complete and satisfying, while still giving viewers a reason to watch.  We’ve seen shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer suffer disappointing decline, while shows like Monk turn in final seasons that rivaled any good year in the show’s history.

And so we arrive at the final season of Chuck, the pop culture phenomenon that pays affectionate homage to pop culture phenomena.  And if the Season Five premiere is any indication, the gang over at Chuck has no intention of letting things slide off into the sunset.

In “Chuck vs the Zoom,” we join our heroes in the middle of their latest mission as independent contractors, spies-for-hire.  Things have changed for Chuck; he’s a married man now, free of CIA oversight, and running his own business.  And, oh yes, he’s lost the Intersect, the computer in his brain that turned him from Nerd Herder to superspy, … to lifelong best friend Morgan Grimes.  In lesser hands, these developments might have felt contrived or strained, but the Chuck gang pulls it off with the same humor and heart that have made the show what it is.  A guest spot by genre legend Mark Hamill in the opening sequence declares the show’s intention to continue with its hallmark stunt casting.  And a subplot involving Chuck’s efforts to surprise Sarah with a dream house provides the emotional throughline, proving that no matter how much Chuck’s life may change, his commitment to his family remains at the heart of everything he does.

This emotional storyline has been a key element of the series from the start, and while it has occasionally bogged down episodes in the past, it’s part of what makes the series and its star, Zachary Levi, so lovable.  But the series never loses sight of the fact that it’s also an espionage adventure show, and “Chuck vs. the Zoom” is no exception.  A solid story about newly-minted Carmichael Industries’ mission to bring down a corrupt investment banker offers lots of opportunity for spy stuff, not to mention capitalizing on the comedic potential of Morgan-as-Intersect.  From fumbling the payoff in the Mark Hamill job, to a classic tango sequence, one senses that Morgan just might be an even more entertaining Intersect than Chuck (which, of course, is the source of Chuck’s anxiety in this episode, and likely season-long, as well).

If there looks to be any shortcoming to this season (coughJeffLestercough), it’s in the notable absence of Ryan McPartlin as Captain Awesome, Chuck’s aptly-named and ever-enjoyable brother-in-law.  To be sure, that storyline has been relegated more and more to the sidelines as the Chuck-Sarah romance took over, but perhaps we can still hold out hope for a guest spot or two this year…?  Teasers hint at more great guest appearances to come, including Matrix buster Carrie Ann Moss and former Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd.  Inevitably, this will be a bittersweet season, but you want to miss a show when it’s gone, and if this first episode is representative of what’s left for the show, I think we’ll be mourning the loss of Chuck for a long time to come.