Warner Bros. // 2010 // 1032 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // October 6th, 2011
Underestimated. Underpaid. Undercover.
Over the past four years, Chuck Bartoski has battled death-dealing beauties, rogue agents, incompetent colleagues, and the odd ninja. His toughest opponent, though, has always been the ratings. Chuck never turned into the breakout hit NBC had expected; instead, it found a small, but incredibly loyal audience that managed to keep the show alive beyond all reason. However, like the GOP this primary season, NBC simply couldn't commit; in Season Three they initially ordered only thirteen episodes, then extended the order to a full season in the middle of production, forcing the writers to scramble to convert already plotted story arcs. The writers pulled a Tim Gunn and made it work, using a somewhat weak first half of the season as a springboard for a spectacular, tragic, and awesome season finale.
The network pulled the same stunt on Chuck: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray); this time, the results were neither spectacular nor awesome. Tragic, yes. But not in a good way.
At the end of Season Three, Chuck (Zachary Levi, Tangled) was most certainly at a crossroads. He was finally with his onetime handler, Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski, Killer Elite), and following the death of his father, he was out of the spy game, to the relief of his sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster, Everwood). However, a message from his dead father sent Chuck back to his boyhood home. There, he discovered Stephen Bartowski's underground lair, filled with all his inventions, and, more importantly, all the intelligence he had collected on the quest that had consumed his life: The Search for Mary Bartowksi (Linda Hamilton, The Terminator) -- Chuck's mom. Said search takes Chuck around the world, ultimately leading him to the man who will change Chuck's life forever: Alexei Volkoff (Timothy Dalton, Licence to Kill).
Taken at face value, Chuck's premise is patently absurd; it's as though the creators stayed up all night watching a James Bond marathon and followed it up with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Despite the dopey premise, the first two seasons were fantastic, partly because of the stellar casting, partly because of some slick writing, but in large part it was because of the production values. The show looked like a James Bond movie, with car chases, big-ass explosions, and fight sequences to make John Woo weep with envy. As a bonus, the "Ooh, SHINY" reaction makes it a bit easier to ignore some of the more egregious plot contrivances.
Here's where the harsh reality of network television comes into play. Remember those weak ratings? Well, they translated into smaller budgets and weaker production values: cheaper sets, less location work, etc. The problem is compounded by sloppy writing -- the plot contrivances are even more contrived; for instance, the question of whether Mama Bartokski was evil or good bounced back and forth waaaay too many times. The season seems to me a mishmash of missed opportunities -- the underground lair in particular was underused. Finally, the back half of the season lacks a strong villain. Alexei Volkoff is magnificent in the first half, but his daughter Vivian...not so much. Lauren Cohen handles the role well until she turns to the dark side; from then on, she's never quite convincing. The aura of menace never quite develops, and the device on which the finale hinges simply doesn't make any sense. When the dust settles, Season Four is more a comedy with action-adventure trappings, instead of a show that neatly balanced the two genres. The show is still fun, mind you -- the characters themselves are still great -- but the season lacks the massive adrenaline rush that typified the earlier seasons.
Technically, Chuck: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray) continues to underwhelm. While colors are more consistent than in previous releases, the image is somewhat soft, and there are some compression issues. (Note: I have been unable to determine what video codec was used.) Sound is...odd, as though they recorded in stereo, realized during mixing that they had all these surround options, and then threw a couple of sound effects onto the back channels. It's clear and easy to understand, but hardly immersive. They've stepped up a bit in terms of extras. The usual suspects of deleted scenes and gag reel are back along with a featurette on Zach Levi directing "Chuck vs. The Leftovers." The highlight of the extras is "Chuckipedia," which basically a commentary track on steroids for "Chuck vs. the First Fight." It's a video commentary with creator/exec producer Chris Fedak, Zack Levi, and Joshua Gomez. The commentary is fun in its own right, with a lot of cool info and some good natured sniping back and forth. Then, from time to time, a logo will appear on the screen; pressing the Enter key on your remote will then launch a brief clip on some aspect of the show -- everything from a quick profile of the Nerd Herd to aspects of the production to cast interviews. It's a lot of fun, especially when Fedak talks about getting Timothy Dalton on board, but it gets overwhelming at times, and might have worked better if the information were spread across multiple commentary tracks.
Acting. Any and all acting accolades simply must begin with Timothy Dalton. No matter how ludicrous the storyline, whether he's menacing, bumbling, silly, charming, or any combination thereof, he sells every freaking second. Without his presence, the season would have been in serious trouble. Linda Hamilton does a good job, but she's hamstrung early on because the writers hadn't decided whether she was going to be good or bad (they dragged that question out way too long, btw).
The core group continues to do solid work, Zach Levi in particular. Yvonne Strahovski remains a vision of beauty and strength, the stuff that dreams (and the occasional restraining order) are made of.
We're coming up on the fifth and final season for Chuck and the gang. It will be a thirteen-episode season; there will be no more reprieves, no more last-minute extensions. Chuck: The Complete Fourth Season left a bad taste in the mouth; here's hoping that the show gets the sendoff it deserves.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 1032 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Official Site