Warner Bros. // 2007 // 585 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // September 10th, 2008
Computer geek by day.
Government operative by night.
An excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Nerditius:
"And it shall come to pass that one shall appear, the Übernerd, he who shall rise up above the heir, and the jock, and the star. He shall lead the forces of nerditude against the ignorant, and his skill shall be without equal. His wisdom shall bring together warring factions at the intersection of truth, and his charms will sway both the beauty and the brawn. Yea, verily, he will find himself living the life of Riley, whoever the hell that is. And he shall be called Chuck."
As Chuck: The Complete First Season begins, Chuck Bartkowski (Zachary Levi, Less Than Perfect), head of the Nerd Herd at the electronics superstore Buy More, inadvertently gets the combined intelligence databases of the CIA and the NSA uploaded into his head. The data had already been cross-referenced, the result of a top-secret computer system known as the Intersect. If Chuck sees something that "jogs" the Intersect, he gets a flash of information about the item -- whether it's an agent, a blueprint, whatever. Needless to say, neither the CIA not the NSA are particularly thrilled with this turn of events. They send their most trusted -- and deadliest -- agents to protect Chuck: the stunning Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and the taciturn John Casey (Adam Baldwin, Serenity). Chuck now lives a double life, juggling saving the world with saving crashed hard drives, all the while keeping his secret life from his sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster, Everwood) and her boyfriend Devon, a.k.a. Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin), as well as his best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez, Without a Trace). Worse still, Sarah's cover story is that she is Chuck's girlfriend -- and Chuck isn't really sure where the cover ends and true feelings begin.
Warner Bros. brings the first season of Chuck to us on DVD. We get all 13 episodes from the strike-shortened first season:
* "Chuck Versus the Intersect" (Pilot) -- Chuck receives an email from Bryce Larkin, an old roommate and friend who is a rogue government agent. The CIA and the NSA send their agents Sarah and John to retrieve the data. They are stunned to discover that Chuck now is the Intersect.
* "Chuck Versus the Helicopter" -- When a doctor brought in to recover the data from Chuck's mind is killed, John and Sarah turn against each other.
* "Chuck Versus the Tango" -- Chuck's visions tell him that an arms dealer known only as "La Ciudad," whose appearance is unknown, will attend an art auction. Chuck must infiltrate the party with Sarah to identify La Ciudad. Chuck ends up dancing the tango with a seductive Latin woman.
* "Chuck Versus the Wookie" -- Chuck helps steal a massive diamond that is to be used in funding terrorism. Complicating things is the appearance of Carina, a DEA agent who tries to help in her own way.
* "Chuck Versus the Sizzling Shrimp" -- Chuck faces his first moral dilemma as an operative when he inadvertently sabotages the mission of a Chinese spy trying to save her kidnapped brother. Meanwhile, Morgan is caught in a dilemma of his own when Buy More forces him into a Glengarry Glen Ross sales competition.
* "Chuck Versus the Sandworm" -- Chuck runs into a runaway agent who is a gadget whiz; his brain makes him a national security asset and a dangerous liability, much like Chuck. Meanwhile, Halloween, a holiday that means a lot to Chuck and Morgan, proves to be a little different this year as Morgan feels that Chuck is neglecting their friendship.
* "Chuck Versus the Alma Mater" -- Chuck has to return to Stanford University, the institute that expelled him, to help a former professor, who turns out to be a government operative being hunted for a sensitive top-secret file. More importantly, Chuck discovers why Bryce had Chuck kicked out of Stanford.
* "Chuck Versus the Truth" -- Chuck battles with his cover love life and real love life when he meets a girl named Lou (Rachel Bilson, The O.C.). Meanwhile, someone is trying to obtain codes to nuclear facilities by using a "truth" poison to help get his answers -- and he has inadvertently poisoned Ellie.
* "Chuck Versus the Imported Hard Salami" -- Chuck starts dating Lou, but things get complicated when Lou is discovered to be part of a smuggling group.
* "Chuck Versus the Nemesis" -- It's Thanksgiving and Chuck's nemesis, Bryce Larkin, returns after being thought dead. Meanwhile, Buy More is prepping for the biggest shopping day of the year and Morgan is left in charge.
* "Chuck Versus the Crown Vic" -- Still licking his wounds after realizing Sarah still has feelings for Bryce, Chuck must assume the cover of being Sarah's boyfriend on a mission to foil a politically connected counterfeiter.
* "Chuck Versus the Undercover Lover" -- Chuck discovers that many Russian arms dealers are secretly meeting in Los Angeles. One particular Russian woman catches his attention, and he flashes on her as being Agent Casey's ex-girlfriend.
* "Chuck Versus the Marlin" -- Chuck discovers a bunch of bugs in the Buy More; if they cannot determine who planted them, the government will take Chuck into protective custody. Meanwhile, Captain Awesome plans to propose to Ellie, and asks Chuck to hold on to the ring. Chuck locks it in his Buy More locker, but returns the next day to discover that everything has been stolen from the store.
On paper, Chuck is blatant geek wish fulfillment -- hell, the creators admit it in the roundtable discussion. Zach Levy's Chuck is geek-chic personified; sweet, handsome in a moderately goofy way, oddly charming. In fact, all of the main characters are stereotypes: femme fatale (Sarah), social retard (Morgan), overachieving yet supportive older sister, etc. But the actors inhabit the roles so completely that they take on lives of their own, even when storylines become repetitive. Adam Baldwin brings the same snarky menace that endeared him to millions on Firefly. As Sarah, Yvonne Strahovski handles comic scenes, dramatic scenes, and quasi-romantic scenes with ease -- and she is smoking hot. Joshua Gomez as Morgan manages the near-impossible -- he takes a character that appears to be written to be as utterly annoying as possible and makes him perversely endearing. The other Buy More employees are a terrifying array of gene pool rejects, but they are freaking hysterical. The writers even give Sarah a ridiculous job at a nearby hotdog shop, called -- wait for it -- Weinerlicious. Yeah, I'm 12. Shut up. And then they put Sarah in this outfit.
But they do not stop there, oh no. A babe in a pseudo-Bavarian outfit is right up there in Fantasyland, but in the annals of geekdom, the Impossible Dream, the Holy Grail, the Holiest of Holies is a hot chick in a Princess Leia metal bikini. Never let it be said that the producers don't understand their demographic:
But if the show were nothing more than a flight of wildest geek fancy, the show would have crashed to earth by the second episode (See Revenge of the Nerds II for details). Chuck balances that geek-chic with unexpected depth and humanity, and it's all about family. To begin with, Zach Levy and Sarah Lancaster make Chuck and Ellie totally believable as brother and sister -- their body language, the way they communicate with looks, it's all spot on. Furthermore, the show takes pains to develop that familial bond in different ways. Take for instance, the way that the writers transform the fairly clichéd "guy misses important family dinner due to job/date/assignment" plot device into strong character development. In this case, the celebration in question is Mother's Day -- not the usual birthday or Thanksgiving. More importantly, though, as we discover only at the end of the episode, their Mother's Day celebration has a bittersweet twist. After the death of their dad, their mother just up and left; so for them, celebrating Mother's Day is all about celebrating the day they learned to take care of themselves. It's a B-plot, but it's a B-plot that makes us understand why they are so protective of one another.
At the end of that episode ("Chuck Versus the Sizzling Shrimp"), Chuck assures Ellie that she'll always be his best girl. Ellie laughs and replies, "Oh, I hope not." She wants Chuck to have the same sort of relationship that she has with Captain Awesome. Ellie and Devon have a warm, supportive relationship, the kind in which each person accepts the other as he/she is, warts and all (though, we do find out some little things about Devon that get on Ellie's nerves when she is exposed to a truth serum). Chuck sees this wonderful relationship every single day, and then looks at Sarah and wants the same kind of relationship with her -- but that is exactly the kind of relationship you cannot have with an undercover agent. But between his feelings for Sarah and the Intersect, Chuck doesn't really have any other options -- he's stuck in a fake relationship. For her part, Sarah's on the other side of the window -- she's attracted to Chuck, and she wants that kind of relationship -- not just Ellie and Devon, but the entire sense of family that binds Chuck, Ellie, Devon, and even Morgan together. At the same time, she was previously involved with Bryce Larkin -- the agent who sent Chuck the Intersect. In a way, she's torn between the simple pleasures and passions of real life with the adrenaline-fueled passions of espionage.
The character analysis could continue -- discussing the best-friend relationship between Chuck and Morgan could take hours by itself, let alone the dynamics between Chuck and Casey -- but the show might start sounding like Party of Five. Suffice it to say that Chuck skillfully combines real character drama with not-so-real action comedy. There is a lot going on, and it's all managed with the skill of a master juggler.
The action-comedy aspect is engaging in its own way. Fights are well-choreographed and directed -- there's a slo-mo sequence in the Buy More in "Chuck Versus the Nemesis" that rivals fights in feature films. The playful tone, though, is set in the pilot. Chuck, Sarah, and Casey rush to defuse a bomb intended to kill a NATO general. Chuck manages to defuse the bomb (with mere seconds left, of course) by frying the laptop detonator with an Internet porn virus ("So beautiful. So deadly.").
Chuck stands, exhilarated. "I did it! I defused the bomb!!" Sarah congratulates him.
The adrenaline recedes. "Oh, God, what if the bomb had..." Chuck's now looking somewhat green.
"Don't puke on the C4, kid," Casey tells him.
No matter how serious a position our heroes are in, the writers maintain that sense of playfulness. In a later episode, the bad guy doesn't believe that Chuck is just a computer repair geek; pointing a gun to Chuck's head, she asks Chuck to tell her what's wrong with her computer. Right as Chuck begins, we cut to an extended scene of Casey and Sarah trying to figure out what happened to Chuck. When we cut back to Chuck, he's still going on about the speed of the memory bus and the video RAM and the villain's eyes are starting to gloss over. Chuck's computer jargon is all correct, too, not Star Trek technobabble, making it even funnier (to a computer geek like me, at least).
Video is solid; colors are slightly oversaturated, but that plays in with the show's hyper-reality. Sound is OK; everything is clear enough, but the 5.1 mix is not particularly immersive, which is odd given the sound opportunities this show provides. The set has a good set of extras, including Chuck's World, which examines the character initial development and the casting process for all of the leads. We don't get any commentary tracks, but instead get a roundtable discussion with Zack Levy, Joshua Gomez, and series creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak. Each participant picked three scenes that, in his opinion, captures the essence of the series, and the four of them banter and BS about the scenes. It's a nice variant on the commentary track, particularly since you get to see the people involved. There's also a gag reel, one of the few gag reels I've seen that is actually funny.
In a few too many instances, the Intersect becomes a convenient solution -- a "Deus Ex Chuck," if you will -- with Chuck magically getting the information he needs to save the day at the very last second. It's more satisfying when Chuck has to think his way out of a situation. While credulity is occasionally strained, the show finesses the plot holes mainly because it's more interested in being fun than in realism -- after all, the show's premise is basically a riff on The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. While the A-plots often toss realism to the four winds, the B-plots keep the show grounded with their strong emotional resonance.
The whole Bryce Larkin subplot ended very abruptly -- I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the strike forced their hand. A repeat appearance is likely, though the writers should take pains to ensure that his appearance is more than simply a way to prevent Chuck and Sarah from growing closer.
One the Extra front, while the roundtable almost makes up for a lack of commentary tracks, it would have been nice if Yvonne Strahovski or Sarah Lancaster had participated. Or even Adam Baldwin, seeing as he gets most of the best lines.
Chuck reminds me of Moonlighting and Remington Steele, lighthearted shows that used sexual tension and a general sense of fun to engage the audience. The fall of 2007 was something of a disappointment, TV-wise -- but Chuck was one of the very very few shows that I looked forward to every week. If you prefer shows that deftly combine action, drama, and comedy, you owe it to yourself to check out Chuck.
In Chuck We Trust.
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
Running Time: 585 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Chuck on Chuck: Stars and Creators Discuss Several Scenes
* Chuck's World: Character Development and Casting Sessions
* Gag Reel
* Access to Online Featurettes
* Wikipedia: Chuck
* Official Site