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‘Chuck’: A Retrospective on an Underrated TV Series

Excerpt of Chuck Poster
Chuck was a TV series that ran from 2007-2012 on NBC and while it put out approximately 90 episodes, it didn’t perform as well as it should have. Here’s a retrospective on why it was one of the better series of the late 2000s and early 2010s, and why it remains enjoyable today. And because the series has been off the air for some time there are many spoilers throughout this article. Also, a handful of the videos contain adult situations and rough language.

Chuck probably is my favorite all-time television series right now. (And by saying, “right now,” I’m indicating that could change. The older you get, the more you realize how true it is that earthly things are transient.) But favorite doesn’t mean I think it’s the best series of all time (it’s not even close). That’s okay, of course, since “favorite” and “best” often are separate things. And just because something isn’t the best doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or well-done. And Chuck definitely qualifies as being a quality series even as it was never a hit with the public.

Why Chuck Succeeds

Chuck is a thoroughly enjoyable TV series. And the biggest reason it’s a thoroughly enjoyable series is because of its characters and the actors portraying them. The characters/actors are the strength of the series. In fact, they are so much the strength of Chuck that they make up for some weaknesses (intentional and unintentional) within the series. Indeed, Chuck would not work without the likable characters and strong performances by the actors portraying them. This doesn’t mean Chuck doesn’t have other strengths because it does, and we’ll soon look at them. But first, here is a quick summary of what Chuck is about.

Chuck Summary

The eponymous series follows an underachiever who was kicked out of Stanford University after having been accused (falsely, as the series eventually reveals) of stealing tests. Following his dismissal from Stanford, Chuck Bartowski went to work in Burbank, Calif. as a computer tech guy at a fictional chain store known as Buy More. (Specifically, Chuck is part of the Nerd Herd portion of the Buy More. That’s right. Buy More is a stand-in for Best Buy and Nerd Herd is a stand-in for Geek Squad.)

The first episode shows Chuck getting U.S. government intelligence uploaded into his head by way of a series of cryptographically encoded images which were emailed to him by his old college roommate (now an intelligence professional) who sent them to him for reasons revealed later in the series. (The program and/or server that created/housed this intelligence is known as the Intersect, and Chuck becomes known as the Intersect after he has the data uploaded into his head.)

Chuck is now a wanted man and the U.S. government sends two people to locate him: a CIA officer named Sarah Walker and an NSA officer named John Casey. After some initial confusion, confrontations and threats, Sarah and Casey ultimately end up handling and watching over Chuck. They even go on planned operations with Chuck (based on the intelligence in his head) or sometimes have to mount rescue operations for him when trouble comes his way due to the intelligence inside his head. And all this goes on while Chuck continues working as a Nerd Herder and while he deals with his relationships with his friends and family . . . and while he tries to keep his status as the Intersect a secret. Action, hijinks and humor ensues.

I’ll stop with the summary here. You get by now that Chuck is a comedy/espionage series.

Intelligence Portrayed Inaccurately

And this brings us to one reason for why the strength of the characters/actors is so important: Chuck is terrible at accurately portraying espionage and intelligence work.

There are plenty of reasons why Chuck doesn’t portray the intelligence world accurately. Here are just a few of them.

The Intersect doesn’t make sense—not as far as I can tell anyway. Why would the intelligence community (IC) put all its intelligence into one server or database? What are all the IC organizations doing if all their intelligence is now stored in Chuck and being used by Sarah and Casey? Or if the intelligence in Chuck is still available to the IC, then why is Chuck so important? Why does the government need to use him at all (and thus increase the risk of revealing that he has all that intelligence in his head) instead of just having him keep a low profile? Why are so many intelligence and national security threats in Burbank? And why are so many of Chuck’s (and Sarah’s) past and present acquaintances and friends friendly or adversarial intelligence professionals and assets? And then there is the whole issue of the CIA and NSA conducting operations on U.S. soil and against American citizens—neither organization does that in real life.

Intel Inaccuracies Help Chuck

The list of problems and errors I just gave might sound like a huge criticism of the series but in general it isn’t. I never got the impression that Chuck is trying to portray espionage and intelligence work realistically. I always saw the intelligence/national security part of the show as a component that allowed the producers to focus on creating intriguing characters, dialogue, character interaction, humor, action-based plots and so forth.

Furthermore, I take the unrealistic portrayal of espionage as a way for the series to tell the audience that it isn’t taking itself seriously. (The way Chuck portrays espionage also means that those who like to pick apart fictional portrayals of the intelligence, military and defense worlds for errors or for “revealing too much” have nothing to target in Chuck since it isn’t trying to be accurate.)

Ultimately, the errors in portraying espionage and intelligence are intentional errors, and they generally are good things. Indeed, the lighthearted nature of Chuck is a big reason why it was and remains an appealing series.

So in addition to being a character-driven series, Chuck is also light-hearted fun.

But Chuck is still more than this. It’s also a series about fantasy and relationships.

About Fantasy & Relationships

Spy Disguises

Chuck is a fantasy series in that it takes advantage of its spy-based format and often dresses up its characters in various disguises, tailored to suit whatever operation or adventure the story has them in at that moment. And dressing up characters in a bunch of different disguises is fun for the actors and the audience.

Actors regularly say they want to play different parts instead of the same type of character. And in spy-based stories, they somewhat get to do that just within the confines of that particular role. In other words, their role of being a “spy” is one part and when they get to pretend to be a socialite, a bartender, or cable guy it serves as an opportunity to play a different part. True, this isn’t exactly what actors mean when they say they want to “stretch” and play something different, but it does allow them to be slightly different characters from time-to-time in a series such as Chuck.

And for the viewer, seeing the characters dress up and act different than they normally do in the reality of the show is fun too. Apart from seeing Sarah the CIA officer dressed as a dirndl-clad Wienerlicious girl or Orange Orange girl (the cover jobs she holds next door to the Buy More so she can help monitor Chuck), a flirty computer repair girl, or a nurse in a short skirt with a rifle balanced on her hip, viewers at times got to see the no-nonsense Casey in unique covers (such as a dopey uncle) and the self-doubting Chuck in unique covers as well (such as when he pretended to be a confident German businessman or rich software guru).

Women Fill Chuck’s World

But Chuck is also a fantasy series because it is a universe that (a) is filled with beautiful women who regularly end up having some sort of interest in Chuck and (b) it is a universe that not only centers around the protagonist, but also slowly reveals that the protagonist (portrayed as a seemingly nerdy loser at the start of the series) just might be the most important person in the world. Here’s what I mean.

Like the currently running Castle on ABC, the protagonist of Chuck is constantly surrounded by gorgeous women who are interested in him for one reason or another. In fact, it isn’t just that beautiful women surround the protagonist (on Chuck and on Castle), it at times seems like nothing but beautiful women inhabit the realities of these two universes. Comparing the two series (in a quick aside) will show what I mean.

Richard Castle lives with his attractive mother and daughter, and he pursues an attractive cop who often has to protect him while fending off his advances.

Chuck Bartowski lives with his attractive sister Ellie (at the start of the series) and he pursues an attractive CIA officer who often has to protect him while fending off his advances.

Castle has two attractive ex-wives who remain interested in him in one fashion or another.

Chuck has one attractive ex-girlfriend from college (Jill Roberts, whom he later learns is working for the bad guys) and gains some level of romantic interest from multiple, beautiful women (such as characters played by guest stars Rachel Bilson and Kristin Kreuk).

Castle encounters a treacherous CIA officer with whom he had had a fling in the past. He also meets a movie star who shadows his love interest (Beckett) in order to learn how to portray the character of Nikki Heat (which is the protagonist of a series of books Castle writes based off Beckett—oh, just watch Castle to see what my confusing explanation means). The movie star eventually propositions Castle in a failed attempt to fully understand Nikki Heat’s “motivation.” And then there is the beautiful female doctor/serial killer whom Castle encounters. There’s also the attractive medical examiner on the series. And there’s the attractive British private detective.

For Chuck, there’s Lorena Bernal who portrays an attractive and villainous arms dealer. Rebecca Romijn shows up by playing an attractive and villainous CIA officer. Noureen DeWulf portrays an attractive and villainous Fulcrum agent on Chuck. Mini Andén, Olivia Munn, Tricia Helfer, Robin Givens, Summer Glau, Stacy Keibler, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jenny McCarthy and Angie Harmon all portray attractive women whom Chuck encounters as well; all of whom are somehow interested in him (directly or indirectly; positively or negatively). There’s even a Charlie’s Angels-like group that Sarah used to be a part of.

And the lists go on with each episode of each series.

So that’s what I mean when I say the universes of Castle and Chuck are both filled with gorgeous women, many of whom surround the respective protagonists and have some sort of interest (romantic, familial, professional, competitive, or even malicious) in them.

(Interestingly enough, Chuck stars Adam Baldwin—Casey—and Joshua Gomez—Morgan Grimes—each have guest starred on Castle. Also, the installation under the Buy More that Chuck, Sarah and Casey use as their base of operations is called, Castle.)

Chuck Is the Universe

But the fantasy universe for Chuck doesn’t end with Chuck being surrounded by beautiful women who regularly are interested in him for one reason or another. Chuck is also a fantasy because it tells the familiar tale of the unimportant failure of a nerd who turns out to be the most important person in the world—so much so that a beautiful woman seeks him out so that she can always be with him, protect him and eventually train him. And Sarah isn’t just a beautiful woman in a fantasy world; she’s a fantasy woman in a fantasy world.

Sarah is skilled CIA officer who protects Chuck yet she’s also great at being The Girl. She’s an excellent dancer (shown in various episodes), skilled in etiquette, knows how to cook (see “Chuck Versus the Suburbs”), can be a seductress and is great at being Chuck’s girlfriend (even when it’s initially just a cover act). Sarah is perfect.

Again, this is not a criticism of Chuck. In fact, this is where the series really shines again. In a lesser series with less-competent production, this setup would have resulted in a series that seemed self-indulgent and unlikable. For instance, take the movie Wanted (starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie). There are some significant similarities between it and Chuck but Wanted is executed in a fashion that results in an entirely different feel.

Wanted is a 2008 tale of an unimportant failure working as an office drone who eventually turns out to be the most important person in the world—so much so that a beautiful woman seeks him out so that she can always be with him, initially protect him and eventually train him. But Wanted has the protagonist, by way of an ancient order receiving instructions from a weaving loom, getting a license to murder people. And he never shows much (if any) remorse about it even after the story reveals (spoiler alert) that he has been murdering the wrong people. The protagonist and his friends are self-centered, egotistical and unrepentant. Thus, Wanted ends up being a movie with a plot and characters that are entirely unlikable.

Chuck is different. As produced and executed, you care about the characters and the series. They aren’t self-indulgent, aren’t unrepentant murderers, and they don’t wallow in self-pity or self-righteousness even after Chuck becomes the Most Important Person in the World. Thus, they are likable and thus the series is likable.

So Chuck is a fantasy series. And the fantasy works.

Threesome Relationship

But in addition to being a fantasy series, I also said Chuck is about relationships. It’s about Chuck’s relationship with Ellie. It’s about Chuck’s relationship with his estranged dad, and then his mom. It’s about his relationship with his best friend, his old college roommate, his ex-girlfriend (who, again, is revealed to be a villain—with conflicting emotions). It’s about Chuck’s relationship with his co-workers at the Buy More and even his relationship with his own life and where he wants it to go. But the biggest relationship Chuck has is with Sarah and Casey, particularly Sarah.

Before focusing on Chuck and Sarah, it’s important to look at the threesome of Chuck, Sarah and Casey. That’s a relationship that easily could have failed—it could have even been disastrous. Why? Because that’s a relationship with a third wheel. And how often do third wheels work?

Chuck and Sarah are the leads of the series, and the romantic tension between them is a core component of the series throughout its run, even after they marry. So how do you manage all that all the while also fitting in Casey? Very skillfully. And Chuck manages to do that.

Credit here again goes to the actors but it also has to go to the writers in this case (especially those who guided it through its first two to three seasons). It at first seems counterintuitive to have Casey as a character. (Why is he there if Sarah is both the romantic interest and Chuck’s protector?) But when you watch the series it makes perfect sense.

For instance, when Chuck and Sarah have either a tender moment or an awkward one, Casey often comes in to break it up with a brisk word about getting back to business, which is done to comic relief effect. Casey also serves to counter Sarah’s constant boosting of Chuck’s confidence by telling Chuck how awful he is. This balances what Sarah is doing and keeps the series from becoming sappy.

Then there is the fact that Casey as a third part of the relationship both helps advance individual episode plots from a tactical and artistic perspective. If the trio is assigned to go on an operation, Casey as a third person makes sense, often serving as a security element or even a command and control element. From an artistic perspective, this also allows the producers of Chuck to pair Chuck and Sarah on these operations with Casey serving in a support role. Additionally, Casey is often needed as a quick reaction force, coming to rescue Chuck and/or Sarah when necessary (although at times those roles are reversed).

Having Casey in the series also allowed the producers to keep Chuck and Sarah from living together (and thus keep the tension going) by having Casey live next door to Chuck (and work in the Buy More with him). This sustains the internal logic that the U.S. government is constantly monitoring Chuck even as it allows the producers to keep from having Sarah be with Chuck at all times, emphasizing the sense (at the beginning of the series) that Chuck has not gotten the girl.

On top of all this, Casey actually serves as a semi-threat for the first one or two seasons of the series. He initially is at odds with Sarah (each suspect the other is trying to murder Chuck at the start of the series) and he occasionally butts heads with her when he wants to follow orders coming down from their superior (General Beckman) and she questions them. (During the Season 1 finale, Beckman even orders Casey to murder Chuck but that order is cancelled—during the Season 2 premiere, I believe—due to unforeseen events. This semi-threat disappears during the latter part of the series when the trio’s relationship with one another solidifies.)

So the third-wheel relationship works.

Chuck and Sarah

But the best relationship in Chuck is the one between Chuck and Sarah. They deliver the most poignant moments of the series, with Chuck pining for Sarah and Sarah rejecting his advances during the early run. She rejects them at first because her feelings don’t reciprocate but as time passes she rejects them only because she is ordered to do so.

The poignant moments between Chuck and Sarah also showcase the best moments of the character of Sarah as well as the actress (Yvonne Strahovski). Sarah says a lot, through expression, when she says nothing at all. Watch her eyes any of the numerous times Chuck tells her he’s in love with her. Even when she’s not saying a word you see all the conflict in her eyes and face. Again, the early seasons of the series are the best. You can see she’s falling in love with Chuck and she wants to say it, but at the same time she doesn’t want to say it because she can’t say it—she’s not allowed to say it. And the fact that she wants to say it yet can’t say it makes her uncomfortable when Chuck is telling her he loves her. All that comes through her eyes. Watch the below clip to see what I mean.

By the way, watching Sarah at these times also emphasizes why, contrary to popular belief, it is a secondary character (often the primary secondary character) who is regularly the most interesting character in a story—not the protagonist. The nature of Story has the plot focus on the protagonist and therefore the audience finds out the most about him. And because of this natural focus, we end up finding out less about the secondary characters. This often gives them an aura of mystery. And what is the spice of life? What makes life interesting? Mystery. Hence, Sarah comes off as the most interesting character in Chuck. This does not detract from Chuck or even Casey one bit. In fact, Chuck the TV series is a good example of where the protagonist gives the secondary character a run for her money in being the more interesting of the two. That’s how strong this aspect of Chuck is, and how well Zachary Levi portrayed Chuck.

So Chuck is a light-hearted, character-driven series that’s about fantasy and relationships, all of which are executed in a way that made it highly watchable during its run and even now going on four years after it went off the air.

Chuck’s Women Support Him

Another strong aspect of the series is how the two main women in Chuck’s life (Sarah and Ellie) want what’s best for him. This might seem like a minor thing but it isn’t. Modern entertainment often portray men as dolts and women as superior in every way possible. I guess it’s arguable that Chuck does this at times since Chuck and his best friend Morgan are often portrayed as bumbling idiots, but as a whole it does not (especially since Casey is almost always portrayed as competent).

Sarah and Ellie are clearly portrayed as having made more of their lives than Chuck has at the start of the series (Sarah being a sharp CIA officer and Ellie being a medical doctor) but this portrayal actually serves the larger story arc of the series by allowing Chuck to grow and completely change by the end of the series.

And while Sarah and Ellie often have to correct or motivate Chuck (or in Sarah’s case, save him), they never do so in a malicious way. (And mostly, in the case of Ellie, she’s not really correcting or motivating Chuck. She thinks he is underachieving at the Buy More—which he truly was before having the Intersect uploaded into his head—but he actually is overachieving and engaged in national security work, with his underachieving job as a Nerd Herder only being a cover.)

So Sarah and Ellie always correct and push Chuck because they want him to become a better man. And they succeed in doing so. They never put him down or act as if they are superior to him. They are genuinely happy when he does something right, achieves a new goal or generally improves himself.

Supporting Cast

Finally, the supporting cast of Chuck serve as a strong point for the series. This actually is an extension of what I said about the characters/actors being the strongest part of the series. The three leads are great, but the supporting cast is fantastic too and, again, Chuck wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without them.

In addition to Ellie, General Beckman and Morgan, the series regularly features Ellie’s boyfriend (and eventual husband) Devon (aka: Captain Awesome since he seems perfect in every way), Chuck’s eccentric Buy More coworkers—Lester, Jeff and Anna—and his Buy More boss (Big Mike). I could write a paragraph or two on each of these characters, explaining what makes them work and how they all contribute to making the series a better one than it would’ve been without them. But I’ve already written way more than I planned to write on Chuck (I thought I’d go between 500 and 1000 words; I’m now past 3000) and it’s time to begin to wrap things up. So I’ll only mention one of those characters, Anna, and that’s because her departure from the series marks a slow, downward turn in the quality of writing for the series that it never truly recovers from until it ends.

Decline in Quality

Anna was written out of the series after Season 3. I don’t know if this was done for budgetary reasons or if the producers felt her character wasn’t working. If it was for the second reason (and I don’t think that it was) then they were wrong. Her presence at the Buy More adds a needed female presence and actually helps amplify some of the hijinks and adventures the Buy More employees regularly get into as part of each episode’s “B” story. It’s possible to watch Chuck episodes without her and not miss her, but when you go back and watch episodes with her and then compare them to those without her, you notice she generally improves the Buy More scenes and B story.

Still, the writing quality on the series didn’t have to decline with her departure, and in fact I’m not arguing that her departure contributed to it (i.e. it was a correlation; not a causation).

As I’ve mentioned, the plot writing throughout the entire series is a weak point (in the sense that it doesn’t make sense if you think too much about it—the writing in Chuck is excellent, during Seasons 1-3, as it relates to dealing with humor and character interaction). But when Anna exits the series the quality of overall writing slowly begins to get worse.

My guess is that this occurred because of budgetary restrictions due to declining (or regularly low) ratings for Chuck. Season 3 holds up well. But by Season 4 and 5 you can definitely notice a dip in writing quality if you look for it. Don’t get me wrong, Seasons 4 and 5 are still eminently watchable and if you don’t look for the dip in quality, you might not notice it. But here are a few examples of what I mean about the lessening of the quality of writing.

Chuck always shows Sarah engaging in physical fights—even with men. And she regularly wins. This is one of those areas that always strains the so-called suspension of disbelief. But during its earlier years, Chuck actually portrays Sarah’s fights as best as anyone can portray a woman beating up a man (or men). In other words, if you’re going to have a woman beating up men and you want to retain some semblance of reality, you should portray it by showing a woman fighting in a way that a woman would have to fight a man in reality just to survive (much less win).

Early on, the series sort of does this by showing Sarah getting in quick and/or surprise hits which either allows her to win through knocking a man out or by stunning the man long enough for her to get away or find another object with which to strike a defeating blow or incapacitate him. (Although even in its early years Chuck doesn’t always follow this semi-reality based style.) It also helps when the man fighting her really isn’t in to beating up a woman (see her fight with Casey below when the two don’t yet trust one another early in the series).

In reality, there is no way a woman is going to defeat a man in a sustained battle where the two are within reach of one another. Yet in one episode of Season 4 or Season 5 of Chuck, the writers see fit to turn Sarah into an unrealistic superhuman by having her get into a primitive ring with a male opponent in a foreign nation and beat him in an MMA-style fight (see the below video). It’s a scene that’s hard to watch. Sure, there are exceptions where a woman will beat a man in hand-to-hand fighting (see the video below the other one) but that is exactly what those are: exceptions. Writing that shows a non-superhuman woman acting like a superhuman by regularly beating up men is just of poor quality.

Other signs of decreasing writing quality include gaping plot holes that are just difficult to overlook. Like I said, the fact that Chuck doesn’t portray the intelligence world accurately isn’t a weakness—it allows for other strengths to shine through. But even when intentionally ignoring how the real world works, you still need to pay attention to some details and keep some level of reality.

For instance, there is one episode of Chuck during the latter years that shows him and another character (I think it is General Beckman) simply waltzing into a CIA (or other IC) headquarters for a Christmas party. They don’t have an invitation and one of them even carries a concealed firearm. Apart from the fact that anyone just can’t walk into a CIA or other IC building (much less headquarters) without proper clearance, everyone knows that you just can’t walk into any building (equipped with a metal detector—something the CIA or other IC building surely has) with a firearm. If the writers had critically checking their script, they would’ve caught that. And it only would’ve taken a few extra lines to get around that problem. (Side note: I realize the writers might not be to blame here. Perhaps the change was made on set. Fine. I’m using the term “writers” whenever referring to script/story issues.)

Such failure to critically review the writing also leads to gaping plot holes such as Chuck and Sarah starting their own private intelligence firm, Carmichael Industries. The problem isn’t in them going this route (I thought it was a good idea—a natural evolution of the series) but rather the way they execute it.

Chuck and Sarah (and Casey) are all supposed to be maintaining their undercover spy status when they start Carmichael Industries yet they drop an advertisement (online, if I remember correctly) about their newly formed spy business . . . with their faces in full view of everyone.

Wouldn’t advertising their business with them fully revealed defeat any future ability to work clandestinely? Again, there could have been some simple workarounds to this that wouldn’t have fully solved the problems of the trio starting a private intelligence business, but that would have made the situation seem plausible within the reality of the series.

And there are other declines in quality as well, including some that regularly plague “secret identity” series. By the end of Chuck, it probably is easier to figure out people who doesn’t know that Chuck is the Intersect than it is to figure out who does. Ellie, Devon, Morgan, Chuck’s mom and pretty much every enemy he even encountered knows he is the Intersect at the end.

But even with all of the criticisms I just made, they add up to rather small problems with Chuck overall—even the last two seasons right up to the last episode remain highly watchable.


And this brings us to the finale.

Finales are often hit and miss with television series and I think the Chuck finale is a hit.

I wouldn’t have gone with what the producers do but, again, this is not a criticism. Too often people think that, “That’s not the way I would’ve done it,” means that someone executed something incorrectly. And that’s not true. Thus, the finale of Chuck generally is a good one. The only thing I don’t like seeing is Chuck crying at the end. It doesn’t work for his character. Chuck regularly feels down, and he usually doesn’t try to hide his emotions. But he doesn’t cry—at least not in the way he does with Sarah at the end. Watch it. It doesn’t look right and it actually comes off sort of awkward. Yet again, this is a minor complaint.

In fact, I like some of the things in the Chuck finale that others might not like. For instance, I like the ambiguous ending. It isn’t so ambiguous that you have no idea what is going to happen as Chuck and Sarah go off into the sunset, but it leaves room for the imagination, meaning it leaves a little mystery.

Future of Chuck

Finally, I was chatting with someone on Twitter when a mention about a potential revival or reunion of Chuck came up. I’m not sure that would be a good idea. Although I like the existing Chuck episodes, I’m also aware that often (maybe usually) you cannot go home again.

Time changes things. Cast members looks different. Cast members move on to other projects and even their perspectives can move on—change into something entirely different. Maybe they can’t access that feeling and point in life they had when they were originally portraying those characters. Thus, they might not be able to portray those characters in the same way again.

There also is the issue that some series and movies simply only work in the time when they originally played. For whatever reasons, they worked in that point of time very well but they might not work in the present day—not without major re-workings of their substance that ultimately would result in an entirely different series.

Yet sometimes you can go home again. And perhaps that’s true with Chuck. I can think of ways to continue the series, or even make a movie about it. And if I can think of such ideas, that means others can too.

But if I had to guess, I’d say the world has seen the last of Chuck. And that’s fine. Again, earthly things are transient and there is nothing lost if we never see another episode or rendition of it.

Nevertheless, the 90+ episodes of Chuck made between 2007 and 2012 are pretty entertaining. And if you have the chance to watch them, don’t hesitate to give them a view.

Chuck was one of the better series during the late 2000s and early 2010s. It remains one of the better series even now, four years after “Chuck Versus the Goodbye.”