Back when it first premiered in September of 2007, airing its truncated first season just before the writer's strike, I don't think anyone could have predicted what a roller-coaster ride the experience of being a fan of Chuck would turn out to be. This show has been almost canceled every five minutes since it has existed. (And saved at least twice by that rarity: the successful fan campaign). There have been at least five episodes that could have served as season finales, and there's been almost an equal amount of moments where the show has said, "Okay, let's try this new thing now." While all of those new things didn't work right out of the gate, overall it was a very smart decision on the part of showrunners Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz to allow the show and its characters to evolve over time. It's the little show that could.
Just exactly how much has the show and its characters changed since 2007, and what do you need to know if you're tuning in for the first time? Let's take a look:
Chuck and Morgan: The Nerds
When we first met him, Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) was the manager of the Nerd Herd desk at the Buy More. He'd been kicked out of Stanford his senior year, had his girlfriend stolen by his former best friend (also the same best friend responsible for getting him kicked out of Stanford), and spent the last five years living with his accomplished sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and her boyfriend, Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin), both doctors. He hadn't been on a date in years, and his job was a dead end. Worse, he had no confidence in anything he did. So, as can only happen on TV, when his life is shaken up by the improbable and accidental (though entertaining) downloading of all the government's secrets into his head, Chuck becomes a walking computer, and is forced to live a double life, working at the Buy More by day and saving the world by night. As one might imagine, this forced him out of his comfort zone. The show spent the better part of its first two seasons combining various parts of Chuck's very normal life, his nerdy tendencies and his king intelligence, with the contrast of the high-voltage, crazy excitement of working as a pseudo-spy for the CIA. Chuck was awkward at everything: dating, violence, dancing, breaking and entering . . . you name it, he was awkward at it. And all the while he was being inducted into spy-life, he was beginning to fall for his handler, the mysterious and closed-off Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski). Chuck's central conflict during the first three seasons is his attempt to balance the domesticity of family and friends with his high pressure secret identity, both of which he needs in order to maintain his sense of self.
Fast forward three years: With years of experience in the spy-game under his belt, Chuck is no longer a hapless rookie who fumbles at every turn. He is confident in his job, his love life (with new wife Sarah), and having been fired by the CIA, being his own boss. He has successfully found a career path after years of wandering aimlessly, and because now everyone important in his life now knows his secret, he has stopped living the lie that was threatening to tear him apart. The character of Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez) followed a similar path. Four years ago, he was a pathetic sidekick with no ambition, and no love life whatsoever. After being let in on Chuck's secret in season three, however, Morgan gains a new sense of purpose. He sometimes treats the spy game like a joke, but he is surprisingly competent, and his newfound confidence gives him the courage to pursue the otherwise terrifyingly off limits daughter of NSA agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin). As we head into season five, Morgan has now traded places with Chuck as the one with the government secrets in his head (it's called the Intersect), so we will once again be treated to the humorous spectacle of having a semi-incompetent nerd learning to be a super spy.
Sarah and Casey: The Spies
In the pilot, and throughout most of the first season, Sarah and Casey are emotionally distant from Chuck and his every day life. They are killers, professional identity changers, and neither have had a home to speak of in years. They always choose duty over kindness, the mission over family. So what happens when you force to super-spies to babysit a nerd with a super computer in his brain? As stubborn and kick ass as both of them may be, they're eventually going to become domesticated, which is exactly what happened. While Chuck and Morgan were working their way up the ladder, Sarah and Casey have gradually worked their way down. Sarah, in finally giving in to a relationship with Chuck, accepts that her life is no longer going to be that of a nomadic super spy. She, too, is now going to attempt to balance her spy life with the calm center of having a family, a place to come home to.
As for Casey, the process was a bit more rough, but over the course of four years, we see him go from a man who cares nothing for Chuck except in the capacity that do his duty for his government, to a man who genuinely cares for Chuck. Hell, he let Morgan Grimes move in with him. He let Morgan Grimes DATE HIS DAUGHTER. Speaking of his daughter, she is another important part of his domestication. We learn in season three that Casey left his serious girlfriend behind when he first joined the NSA, letting her believe him dead, so that he might perform what he saw as his duty to his government. Over the course of the last couple of years, although he still believes what he did was the right thing, the acknowledgement of his daughter, and the whole process of getting to know her and let her into his life has opened up a whole new side of John Casey. A more human side.
Ellie and Awesome, The Buy More Team, etc.
The watchword on Chuck is "family." The fact that such a familial environment could exist on a show about spies is one of its more ridiculous aspects, but it's also one of the things that makes the show so rewarding. Ellie and Awesome (whether they're being underused at any given time or not) are always going to be Chuck's backbone. The search for his mother and father is just as much a part of the show's identity as Chuck learning to be a spy. And all the time the show is airing, it constantly expands "the family." One by one, each person is let in on Chuck's secret. Ellie and Awesome have a baby. Chuck and Sarah are married now, and Morgan and Casey's daughter Alex (Mekenna Melvin) soon to be, which brings Casey into the official fold of the family as well. Even the Buy More is essentially an extended family for Chuck, which is one of the reasons the show has been so reluctant to leave it over the years, despite the fact that in terms of story, it's completely unnecessary at this point. Even the guest stars are factored in to this extended family: Chuck's parents, played by fabulous guest stars Linda Hamilton and Scott Bakula, the use of Timothy Dalton as good guy-turned villain-turned good guy Alexei Volkoff, etc.
It's important to note that Fedak and Schwartz never let either Sarah and Casey or Chuck and Morgan for that matter (or any of the other characters) lose their essential qualities through all of this. Chuck will always be kind and nerdy, whether or not he's good at being a spy. Morgan will always be . . . Morgan. Sarah and Casey will always be incredibly badass. I feel like Chuck is building towards a happy ending this season, and I'm okay with that. This isn't the kind of show you tune in to for deep thoughts, but Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak have built a narrative over the past four years with solid, evolving, and most importantly, lovable characters. It may not be realistic, but it feels good. That sentiment sums up the whole show, really.
Come on down, season five. I'm ready.