Judge Patrick Bromley is a master of Chuck Fu.
Our reviews of Chuck: The Complete First Season (published September 10th, 2008), Chuck: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) (published November 10th, 2008), Chuck: The Complete Second Season (published January 15th, 2010), Chuck: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray) (published October 6th, 2011), and Chuck: The Complete Fifth Season (Blu-ray) (published June 7th, 2012) are also available.
No more Mr. Nice Spy.
Rescued from the brink of cancellation at the end of its second season (thanks to a groundswell of fan support and Subway sandwiches), the wonderful NBC series Chuck came back for a third season that pushed the show in awesome new directions. Now, Chuck: The Complete Third Season arrives on in a Blu-ray package that's technically underwhelming but which is more than made up for by the quality of the show itself.
Facts of the Case
It would be impossible to discuss certain elements of Chuck: The Complete Third Season without spoiling specific plot elements from the series thus far. Therefore, if you haven't watched any of Chuck but have every intention of doing so, read no further. You have been warned.
Season Three of Chuck picks up a little while after Season Two left off. That season ended with Chuck (Zachary Levi, Less Than Perfect) downloading the Intersect 2.0, giving him not just knowledge of all the government's secrets but also an endless series of spy abilities (Who could forget the amazing "I know kung fu" moment that ended the last season?). With his newfound abilities, Chuck is now in training to become an actual spy—though first, he's got to pass (and survive) a series of tests and missions. Complicating matters somewhat are Chuck's emotions, which are out of control after a huge decision leaves his future with Agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski, The Canyon) uncertain and a new superstar member, Agent Daniel Shaw (Brandon Routh, Zack and Miri Make a Porno) is added to Team Bartowski. Together with militant John Casey (Adam Baldwin, Independence Day), the team continues to fight the evil forces of The Ring and protect the secret of Chuck and the Intersect. Also this season: new characters are let into Team Bartowski, new love interests (including Smallville's Kristin Kreuk) are introduced and new plugs for Subway are crowbarred into the show.
I love, love, love Chuck. It's not a show for everyone, but the people it's for, it's really for. Criminally underwatched but with a fervently devoted fanbase (closing in on the cults surrounding canceled-too-soon shows like Firefly and Dollhouse; more on Joss Whedon in a bit), Chuck is one of the most consistently enjoyable shows on television—perhaps all the more so because we are in near-constant danger of losing it forever. For those that bailed after the truncated first season, the show made a huge leap in quality in its second season, ramping up both the silliness and the action and making every effort to create a real mythology for the show. And though the third season doesn't demonstrate quite the same growth as its sophomore season did over Season One, it's at least as good (and possibly better).
Season Three's best episodes are the ones that advance the show's ever-growing mythology. The "villain of the week" episodes are still entertaining (and this year include Angie Harmon, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Robert Patrick), but have always been where Chuck has faltered most (and are what comprised most of Season One, which is why I suspect a lot of the show's audience didn't return for the second season and weren't around when it got really great). But this most recent season wisely advances many of the stories and characters that have been bogging it down for three years now. I won't say what those are, but it involves new people finding out about Chuck's secret and being brought into the overall story in a way they haven't been before—the gap between Chuck's spy life, his home life and his life at the Buy More begins closing to the show's benefit. Scott Bakula also returns for a multi-episode arc as Chuck's dad, doing great work—he really is an underrated actor—and rising above his own stunt casting (Bakula is already a geek icon, having starred on both Star Trek: Enterprise and Quantum Leap) to become an integral part of the show; you feel his presence even when he's not around.
Yes, there are missteps. The show takes shortcuts in storytelling, too regularly depending on Chuck accessing the intersect to get out of a jam (and just in time, too). Some of the storylines, like Chuck's sister Elle and her husband's marital troubles and participation in Doctors Without Borders are unnecessary distractions that only marginally tie in to the greater narrative. The first half of the season, in particular, is occasionally marred by too much romantic longing and moping—too many repetitive, wistful looks between Chuck and Sarah well past when we've gotten the point (and I say this as a major Chuck-and-Sarah "shipper"). Sarah's entire character, in fact, is sidelined too much in the early goings. She's a symbol—a placeholder at the center of a love triangle rather than an active participant. Thankfully, it's easy to overlook a lot of that, because at the same time some of the most interesting stuff of the season is going on with the addition of Brandon Routh's Shaw, playing against his Superman niceness (though not before the show can make a joke at his expense) and becoming one of the best elements of a terrific season. And, if you're a shipper like myself, Season Three has some well-deserved payoffs.
Quick sidebar: I'm constantly told I should be watching The Big Bang Theory on CBS. I like sitcoms, and that show is supposedly about geeky stuff pitched at fellow geeks, so I've given it a shot three or four times. Maybe I haven't given it a fair shake yet. Maybe the show is not for me. But when I hear people go on and on about what an excellent celebration of geekdom BBT is, I get frustrated. The few times I've seen the show, it's gotten stuff wrong. There are jokes about movies and DVDs and comic books that are incorrect, and while that's fine for the average viewer it's just not going to cut it for geeks. If that's who you're pitching your show to (I would argue that Big Bang Theory is not actually pitched at geeks), you should be sure you're getting stuff right. The show that people are actually talking about when they say "it's a show for geeks" is Chuck.
Actually, the series that Chuck reminds me most of is the late, great Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm not suggesting that Chuck is as good as Buffy (hardcore Whedonites scare me, because they will literally cut a brother); Buffy was richer and darker with better metaphors and an insanely compulsive need to kill off its characters. But, like Buffy, Chuck is able to juggle a number of genres and tones: it's a comedy, a romance, an action adventure, a spy thriller, a pop culture celebration and more. And, like Buffy, it doesn't just shift gears from scene to scene; more often than not, it's all of these things at once. Plus, Chuck is often a lot more light and fun. After all, Buffy's role as the slayer was a curse; Chuck's role as a spy is all about adolescent male wish fulfillment. He's the nerd-turned superhero, seeing the world, getting the girl (and what a girl; there are hardly words to describe Stahovski) and beating the bad guy and, better yet, he doesn't need to really change to do so. He retains his nerdiness—in fact, more than once it's exactly what gets him and his partners out of a jam.
While pop culture references do not a compelling show make, I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a kick out of them. That's probably because Chuck always gives me credit enough to catch them on my own—it's a show that's actually for geeks that way. From The Big Lebowski nod in the season premiere to a Rocky III finale to Fight Club to The Warriors to The Empire Strikes Back, Chuck is forever paying homage to geeky genre cinema in ways both big and small. Even in one of Season Three's most pivotal moments, Chuck takes the time for a visual reference to Die Hard. No direct attention is called to it, and it's not necessary for you to catch the reference to appreciate the scene—it manages to work on more than one level (on a network show, no less). But knowing that the reference is there does, in fact, make the moment more enjoyable. After all, the central character of Chuck is a geeky guy who grew up loving comic books and video games and genre movies like Die Hard, so the fact that his life has taken such a direction as to resemble an action movie is enough to give savvy viewers a vicarious thrill. We live out the fun of living in a movie by watching him do it. Or maybe that's just me.
For three seasons now, Chuck has had something of a checkered history on Blu-ray; while The Complete Third Season is a marginal improvement over past seasons, it's still got a lot of its own problems. The 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is plagued by a lo of the issues that have plagued Chuck in the past: excessive noise, inconsistent flesh tones (ranging from too-hot orange to unnatural pink) and rampant softness can be found throughout. Some of the flaws—like the amount of noise and grain in the image—appear to be a product of the source material and not a bad transfer, but the HD visuals can be disappointing all the same. The 5.1 audio track is just as disappointing. Like most (all?) Warner Bros. TV releases, no lossless audio option has been included, and though the standard surround track does have occasional dimensionality (like some of the neat effects during the opening credits), most of the action takes place front and center. Even some of the action noise is inconsistent and, at times, downright wimpy. Don't get me wrong: there's nothing about the Chuck Blu-rays that ruin watching the show, but from a technical standpoint the discs just can't compare with superior HD offerings.
The same thing goes for the meager offering of bonus material. Besides a collection of deleted scenes on each disc, all of the supplements (I say "all" as though there are a lot) are relegated to the fourth disc. There's a pair of featurettes: "Chuck Fu and Dim Sum," which gives the standard overview of the season, and "The Jeffster Revolution," a Behind-the-Music-style piece about the show's popular musical duo Jeffster that's amusing but little else. The only other extra feature is a gag reel consisting of the actors blowing takes.
Despite being on the bubble for cancellation for the past two years, Chuck has been granted another stay of execution and is miraculously returning for a fourth season on NBC. I couldn't be happier about that—particularly given where Season Three leaves a lot of the characters and the overall story. If you're not already watching Chuck, please start. I would like the ratings to go up so NBC will continue renewing it. I want as much Chuck as possible.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Deleted Scenes
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