Strip away its secret agent plotlines, its misguided attempts to tug heart strings, and its absurd premise, and you’ll see exactly why I continue to tune in to NBC’s “Chuck” week after week. Beneath all the average-guy-turns-007 distractions is a cast of endearing characters that manages to make me laugh even when the show itself is having a hard time walking a straight line. The title character is a sweet and sociable loser, his love interest is a vulnerable romantic at heart, his agency contact is an entertaining source of rage and aggression, his best friend is a good-natured troublemaker who values loyalty above all else, and his co-workers are a ragtag bunch of eclectic misfits who can barely make a sale, much less accomplish advanced tasks. The show’s writers may not have hit their stride until its second season, but you have to admit they’ve always known how to make their fans smile.
Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) has a simple but unfulfilling life. He earns a paycheck as a member of the Nerd-Herd at a local electronics superstore called the Buy-More, spends his evenings videogaming with his long-time friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez), and lives with his sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and her boyfriend (Ryan McPartlin). However, when his former Stanford University roommate (Matthew Bomer) downloads a seemingly endless amount of CIA intelligence data into Chuck’s brain, the US government takes a particular interest in his day to day affairs. Agreeing to help the agency locate and identify undercover moles and dangerous assassins, Chuck is placed in the care of a gruff CIA lifer named John Casey (my “Firefly” BFF, Adam Baldwin) and a deadly agent named Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski). Together, the trio take down threats to the nation, all while helping Chuck maintain his cover as a regular guy.
Series creators Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz must have sold their souls to nab such a fantastic cast. Even when their scripts have a hard time navigating the show’s bumpy blend of comedy and drama, the actors provide a palpable sense of chemistry that allows the characters to feel more genuine than their bizarre circumstances would suggest. Levi’s wide-eyed stares and high-pitched panic solidifies the series’ everyman schtick, Gomez’s bumbling pursuits make his character a silly but loveable manchild, and Lancaster adds some much-needed heart to the mix. On the agency side of things, Strahovski treads a fine line but effectively keeps her character in check, while Baldwin chews scenery and makes gold out of everything he’s handed. Maybe I’m suffering from a residual fondness for his similarly-irritable portrayal of Jayne in the short-lived “Firefly” series, but I don’t care… the man’s hilarious. And I’d be remiss not to mention Scott Krinsky, Vik Sahay, Julia Ling, Mark Christopher Lawrence, and other notable character actors who portray the Buy-More alumni. Laughs abound from every direction.
As I already pointed out, the only time the series falls apart is when it focuses on its CIA subplots and inevitable action. Don’t get me wrong, these moments aren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m always tempted to fast-forward through the gunplay and fistfights to find out how Morgan’s going to fix his boss’s broken marlin trophy this time. For all of its attempts to woo an action crowd, the series is at its most successful when it sticks to character interactions, the awkward and embarrassing relationships that develop, and the various misadventures of the Buy-More staff. Thankfully, season two has been better, injecting more comedy into the action and spending more time with the supporting, non-CIA cast members.
The first season of “Chuck” is a fun but flawed introduction to a fantastic ensemble cast NBC has seen fit to support. If for no other reason than to jump on board the vastly improved second outing (currently airing at 8pm on Mondays), ‘Chuck: The Complete First Season’ is worth your time.
’Chuck: The Complete First Season’ features a fairly fugly 1080p/VC-1 transfer that completely fails to live up to its full potential. Swarming digital artifacts, fluctuating grain fields, and rampant mosquito noise plague every episode, dampening detail and leaving textures looking like muddled messes on more than one occasion. Don’t be fooled by the pristine interior shots that pop up from time to time or the show’s vivid palette -- such niceties only serve to highlight the presentation’s problems every time the picture falls by the wayside. Since the much-criticized HD broadcast suffered from very similar issues, I can say with some confidence that it’s a source issue rather than the result of some mysterious technical deficiency or encoding error. However, regardless of the culprit, it doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the worst high-def television presentations I’ve ever had to endure.
Does the release have any redeeming qualities? A few. Compared to the standard DVD, fine detail is noticeably sharper, colors are bolder, contrast is brighter, and black levels are deeper. Unfortunately, the aforementioned noise is also more prominent, skintones often look flushed and bronzed, whites are hotter, and shadow delineation is quite poor at times. All things considered, ‘Chuck’ is a high definition failure that will leave even the series’ most diehard supporters feeling disappointed and underwhelmed.
It’s tough to complain too much about Warner’s decision to dump yet another standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track onto ‘Chuck: The Complete First Season.’ After all, I doubt the series’ limited sound design would see a substantial bump in quality if it were presented with a lossless mix. Still, it’s a shame that even a successful show like ‘Chuck’ earns nothing more than a shoulder-shrug and a barebones audio track from the studio.
Ah well. Dialogue is crisp and well-prioritized, effects have been affably distributed throughout the soundfield, and low-end LFE support adds a bit of kick to the series’ gunshots and explosions. Dynamics are decidedly decent, treble tones are clear and stable, and the show’s light soundtrack makes a few notable appearances. Yet, aside from a few kinetic action sequences, the rear speakers are largely silent and generally fail to create a compelling or immersive sonic experience. Even when the Buy-More is packed with people, the store is one of the quietest crowded environments I’ve heard. Moreover, acoustics are flat, ambience is often non-existent, and directionality isn’t as convincing as I had hoped it would be. In the end, ‘Chuck’ sounds alright, but rarely captures the ear or draws the listener into its supposedly bustling universe.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Chuck: The Complete First Season’ features all of the supplemental material that is included on the series’ DVD release. Unfortunately, there’s very little content to be found and the scant extras that do appear are presented in standard definition.
’Chuck: The Complete First Season’ takes a few episodes to establish itself, but eventually hits a stride that has made its second season (currently airing on NBC) a bit of a blast. Alas, this Blu-ray edition is a bust. Terribly poor video quality, average Dolby Digital audio support, and a short list of special features make this release a resounding disappointment. Unless you’re a big fan of the series, rent this one and pick it up when it’s on sale.