Background: Television has a long history of offering up spy shows in my experience, from total parodies like Get Smart to hard edged offerings like La Femme Nikita. The trouble with TV is that the censors typically won't allow producers much leeway in terms of what can safely be displayed on publicly broadcast programming so that drastically limits the kind of tough show that succeeds so well on the big screen, leaving comedic spy spoofs safe ground to roam around. Well, despite a writer strike that crippled many excellent shows last season, a few gems survived their limited seasons, one of which comes out on DVD soon called Chuck: The Complete First Season. A blend of James Bond antics and sitcom sensibilities, I stumbled across the show as it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, catching all too few episodes until the early screener made it my way last week. Here's what I thought of the set:
Chuck with the team.
Series: Chuck: The Complete First Season is a rare show that manages to provide guilty pleasure in terms of action and comedy, relying heavily on the chemistry between lead actors Zachary Levi as Chuck Bartowski and Yvonne Strahovski as sexy CIA operative Sarah Walker. There will be some spoilers here but I'll keep the series description short to limit them, skip to the other sections if you really care about the possibility of my inadvertently disclosing state secrets. Okay, the show's action opens with super spy Bryce Larkin (local Texan Matthew Bomer) stealing secrets as a rogue CIA agent on the run. He fries the top secret computer and just before he is killed by NSA operative John Casey (Adam Baldwin) outside the building, he sends the stolen files to his old roommate Chuck, a hapless slacker working at the local Buy More (read: Best Buy) as part of the underpaid technical support staff for customers called the Nerd Herd (read: The Geek Squad). Chuck's last contact with Bryce was when the man got him kicked out of Stanford in their senior year, Chuck's life collapsing as a result. Chuck now lives in a small apartment with his gorgeous sister/doctor Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and her boyfriend nicknamed "Captain Awesome" (Ryan McPartlin), his best friend Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez) frequently sponging off them while making it clear he wants to bed unwilling Ellie.
Sarah looking great!
Chuck has a small potato rival at the store by the name of sinister Harry Tang (CS Lee) and a hotheaded boss by the name of Big Mike (Mark Lawrence) but his inability to deal with being dumped years ago when his life turned upside down still weighs heavily on his mind. Suffice it to say that when he opens the email and it bombards him with hours of computer images that are the means of storing vast amounts of top secret information, he is stunned into sleep since his brain is not capable of handling the information. So yes, the multitude of Johnny Mnemonic references bandied about by critics last year did have some basis, though limited as fans of the show later observed. See, Chuck can access the information in the form of a "flash", essentially making a mental connection when he sees a trigger image, typically the face of a spy, which connects all sorts of information about seemingly unrelated events. This is due to the way the material was encoded into the images, said material coming from every governmental agency and ally for download into the one original computer. Now that the computer is destroyed, it will take months of work to restore the data unless it can be found (and retrieved) by Walker (for the CIA) and Casey (working strictly for the NSA). They figure out what happens and end up assigned to protect Chuck against others that would love to capture him for the secrets he holds in his head, that forming a majority of the plots in the series.
Ellie and the Captain.
Were the show to just stick with the serious spy angle for the premise, it would grow very old, very quickly but it takes a different path instead, amounting to an ongoing version of the Dexter Riley flicks from Disney so many years ago. Chuck falls for Sarah and she begins developing an unhealthy attachment towards him too, the romantic angle helping fuel the show beyond what would have been rather dull as clumsy Chuck continually gets grabbed by the bad guys, stumbles into a plot by someone wishing to harm US interests, and otherwise plays the straight guy to the humor. As the series progresses, we learn more about all of the characters too, Morgan offering the best comic relief (or at least most frequent doses of it), Casey readily acknowledging that he will kill Chuck or anyone else if need be to fulfill his orders, and Sarah walking a difficult line between falling for Chuck and keeping her professional distance. Love rivals, secret fringe pockets of agents, and even plots involving the store employees come into play as well, making me wish that a full season had been shot.
Sarah in her work outfit!
For me, the show works because of the balance between the varied elements, not in spite of it, and the second season starts next month though how they will keep the momentum going will decide if it remains a favorite of the season. There is no doubt that the sexy Yvonne Strahovski and Sarah Lancaster played a big role in attracting fans but something science fiction fans have very publicly endorsed the show for was the numerous nods to pop culture references, this becoming a game of sorts for some (seeing how many insider jokes they could figure out, from character names and addresses to other movies/shows, to nomenclature used elsewhere, to obscure plot points). That a nerdy computer geek could hook up with the hotties doesn't hurt either but there is a darker side to the spy angle that gets played pretty often too. If Chuck is about to fall into enemy hands, the standing orders of his watchers (Walker and Casey) are to eliminate him despite whatever feelings they may have developed for the guy over time. Casey has to work at the store as a fellow slob and Sarah is stuck working next door at the hot dog franchise (in a great outfit that routinely shows her crotch almost as much as the camel toe swimsuits and dresses she dons for events). I look forward to seeing the second season but rated this one as worthy of at least a Recommended, noting it was far from great but it was a lot better than some of my friends suggested last year.
Casey and Sarah didn't always get along too well.
1) Pilot (September 24, 2007)
2) Chuck Versus the Helicopter (October 1, 2007)
3) Chuck Versus the Tango (October 8, 2007)
4) Chuck Versus the Wookie (October 15, 2007)
5) Chuck Versus the Sizzling Shrimp (October 22, 2007)
6) Chuck Versus the Sandworm (October 29, 2007)
7) Chuck Versus the Alma Mater (November 5, 2007)
8) Chuck Versus the Truth (November 12, 2007)
9) Chuck Versus the Imported Hard Salami (November 19, 2007)
10) Chuck Versus the Nemesis (November 26, 2007)
11) Chuck Versus the Crown Vic (December 3, 2007)
12) Chuck Versus the Undercover Lover (January 24, 2008)
13) Chuck Versus the Marlin (January 24, 2008)
The kind of humor one could expect at times.
Picture: Chuck: The Complete First Season was presented in an anamorphic widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 as it aired on NBC prime time broadcast television for the 2007-2008 season. The SD version of the series was presented in a MPEG-2 codec offering with a fair amount of light grain and video noise, some of the special effects looking on the low end at times (the video bitrate typically clocking in at around 4.5 Mbps). According to the IMDB, the show was shot on film and transferred to video (HDTV) but it looked better on DVD than it did when I originally watched a few episodes on the Sci-Fi Channel earlier this year (watching the show in order made it more fun, especially given how most of the characters start to develop over time). The fleshtones were accurate, the action sequences typically looking pretty good, and the night scenes looked much better on DVD. There was some edge enhancement and moiré but little artifacting observed in most episodes, I think the second disc of the four showing a couple instances if I recall correctly.
Chuck on Chuck as an extra.
Sound: The primary audio track was a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround English track with the secondary track being a 2.0 Dolby Digital Portuguese, both with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Thai. The primary track was presented using a 48 kHz sampling rate and an audio bitrate of 384 Kbps for those of you that count the numbers, the secondary track with the standardized 192 Kbps as a bitrate. The subtitles were in white text at the bottom of the screen, easy to read and accurately reflecting the spoken language (at least the English ones were). The rear speakers did not get much of a workout here, at least during most of the show, but the vocals were crisp and evenly balanced with some directionality and depth of field (headspace). The bass was not truly thunderous even during the explosions but it was fairly well handled, with the score mixed in to provide a sort of spy feel to them. The ambient sounds were minimal in most episodes too, not really pushing the envelope a whole lot for those of us with a surround sound set up.
Extras: Most of the extras were simply deleted scenes, not looking quite as polished as the main show but not half finished in production either. Almost all of them added some understanding of an event or character too, making them well worth checking out. Most of the extras were located on the last disc of the four disc set though, the longest being a 27 minute long feature called Chuck on Chuck where Levi, Gomez, and the creators commented on the show via a few scenes (explaining them as how they work in the show). They joked around, including some material about the writer's strike using a point/counter point as they tore into each other ever so slightly. Then came a gag reel lasting just over 7 minutes where the dialogue flubs were shown, more deleted scenes, and a gallery of web-originated content including a "Meet Jeff" feature, a feature called Morgan's Vlog where Gomez shined, and two sections of footage on Anna Wu where she showed her karate and sword skills briefly. There were some interesting casting reels of the crew and a feature called Chuck's World along with it, a short demo for Madden NFL 09 included for Xbox 360 fans. There was also a funny anti-piracy commercial at the beginning of the discs and a true double sided cover as well as a paper insert detailing information about the episodes.
Final Thoughts: Chuck: The Complete First Season showed a slacker named Chuck as the "intersect", a computer enhanced human that is always on the verge of being secreted away to a laboratory to keep government secrets safe, guarded by two rival agents as he learns to join them in solving crimes and plots to harm the world. It's all in good fun as lightweight entertainment, carried largely by the likeability of actor Zachary Levi and his chemistry with attractive Yvonne Strahovski as they bump heads with another agent (Adam Baldwin as John Casey) but also due to the secondary characters that complete the show. If you are a fan of spy shows and comedies, Chuck: The Complete First Season will have a lot to offer you and the second season promises to be even better so check it out.