It's not easy being Chuck. The character or the TV series. The character has to deal with constant threats to national security from evil spies and nefarious criminal organizations, while simultaneously trying to juggle his complicated romantic life and personal relationships -- and the show, well the show has to deal with the unfortunate realities of low ratings, frequent budget cuts, and the constant danger of NBC's very sharp and always looming axe. Continually on the verge of cancellation and repeatedly saved by last minute pickups and half season orders, the series has managed to survive thanks to a relatively small but loyal fan base. Despite the slashed funding and unenthusiastic renewals, throughout its first three seasons, 'Chuck' has remained an entertaining mixture of comedy, romance, and action. For the most part, season four continues in that same positive vein, with an enjoyable assortment of episodes. Unfortunately though, there is only so much backstage uncertainty a creative team can handle, and the show does suffer from a midseason lull and some rushed plot developments. While more uneven than its predecessors, 'Chuck: The Complete Fourth Season' still comes together when it counts.
The series focuses on Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), an awkward but well meaning twenty-something year old geek who lives in Burbank and loves sci-fi, comics, videogames, and electronics. Wow, I think I just literally described myself. In fact, come to think of it, this show is a lot like watching someone like me attempt to be a spy. Hmm, that might actually explain why the ratings are so low… but I digress. Despite our similarities, Chuck has one thing that I'll never have (well two, if you count Yvonne Strahovski). Downloaded directly into his brain is a top-secret government computer system that contains information on all the world's most dangerous terrorists, spies, assassins, and deadly weapons. Called the Intersect, the program allows Chuck to access useful data whenever he sees certain visual triggers, causing him to "flash." As the show has evolved there have been updates to the software, and now Chuck is also able to learn helpful physical skills when he's in danger, ranging from kung fu to weapons training, transforming the once bumbling computer nerd into a legitimately badass spy. Working directly for the CIA, he is part of a special task force that includes his gorgeous but deadly girlfriend, Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), and the gruff but lovable Casey (Adam Baldwin). Also joining the team in season four, is Chuck's best friend, Morgan (Josh Gomez). Morgan is a lot like Chuck, except that he's shorter, more awkward, and doesn't have an Intersect or beautiful spy girlfriend. He does have a beard though. Damn it, I was wrong. I'm not like Chuck at all... I'm Morgan!
In addition to the usual spy/action of the week adventures the show is known for, the main season long arc deals with Chuck's search for his long lost mother (Linda Hamilton) and the introduction of a new villain, the sinister arms dealer Alexei Volkoff (Timothy Dalton). Personal storylines continue from previous seasons as well, including preparations for the birth of Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and Devon's (Ryan McPartlin) first child, and a focus on Chuck and Sarah's continually escalating relationship. The "will-they-won't-they" angst of the spy couple's storyline effectively came to a conclusion mid-way through the third season, and while many shows lose some luster when their two leads finally get together, 'Chuck' actually benefits from the duo's official romance. Levi and Strahovski have great chemistry and watching them embark on missions as a couple actually breathes some new life into the series. The rest of the cast remains as likeable and entertaining as ever, and 'Chuck' newcomers, Hamilton and Dalton, are both fantastic in their guest roles.
While season four effectively continues the show's successful blend of comedy, drama, and action, there are a few notable shortcomings. Much like previous seasons, NBC initially ordered only thirteen episodes of the show before eventually deciding to up that number to twenty four. This leads to a noticeable break in the structure of the season, and results in a momentary creative lull after episode thirteen before new plots gain their footing. Unfortunately, even after finding its groove, the overall story of the later episodes feels rushed, and many installments feature some rather iffy logic and eye-rolling narrative shortcuts. One character's "gradual" turn to the dark side feels particularly forced. Also, the Bartowski family's numerous connections to the spy world start to get a bit ridiculous, and certain storylines become increasingly convoluted (most notably Volkoff's). In addition, supporting characters like Jeff (Scott Krinsky), Lester (Vik Sahay), and Big Mike (Mark Christopher Lawrence) continue to be marginalized. This is understandable, as the trio have become less relevant to the story as the show has progressed, but their subplots still feel tacked on and unnecessary (though "Jeffster!" is always worth a laugh or two). Budgetary restraints are also pretty glaring, and some poor green screen work, cheap sets, and blatant product placement for Subway, can all be distracting.
Growth is a big theme in season four of 'Chuck' and indeed many of the characters face some very important decisions and potential milestones. Not just a spy show, the writers present a fairly well rounded examination of the often precarious transitional period that leads into adulthood (as heightened by a constant threat of death and destruction, of course). While uneven plotting has always been an issue throughout the series, the show thankfully continues to succeed where it counts, and all of the major events are handled well. Every year has been a struggle for 'Chuck,' but it seems that won't be a problem anymore. The upcoming fifth season of the series will be its last, with a thirteen episode order set to premiere on October 28th. While I'm sad to see the show go, I'm glad the writers are getting the opportunity to send it off properly. The season four finale sets up an interesting new twist, and I know I'll be tuning in on the 28th to find out what happens next.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. presents 'Chuck: The Complete Fourth Season' on four BD-50 discs housed in a standard case that comes packaged in a cardboard slipcase. After some logos and warnings, the discs transitions to a standard menu. All twenty four episodes are spread out over the four discs. A helpful insert is also included in the package with details on each episode and the various special features.
The show is provided with a series of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Previous seasons of the show haven't been known for their strong video quality, but while certainly uneven and at a times problematic, season four looks pretty decent.
The show is primarily shot on 16mm and several of the issues with the transfers can be attributed to the source. There are a few specks here and there (or more than a few on some episodes) and grain levels fluctuate throughout, sometimes appearing light and unobtrusive, and other times looking quite heavy. While this is a natural result of the shooting methods, the scene by scene inconsistency of the grain structure can be a little distracting. Noise, faint smearing, and rare instances of minor compression artifacts are also periodically visible, but are not excessively bothersome. Colors are often pleasingly vibrant with good pop, but can also look a little over or under saturated and unnatural. The show favors a high contrast style which works well, and while blacks are deep and mostly consistent, there is some crush with shadow detail. Overall clarity is good, but fine details aren't as strong as many shows shot on 35mm or HD, and despite the often vibrant colors and high contrast there is a lack of depth to the image.
Season four of 'Chuck' looks OK but rarely impressive. Uneven in appearance, some shots and episodes are much more appealing than others. Budgetary restrictions also don't help, and as mentioned in the review, poor chroma key and CG work is painfully obvious throughout. Still, this is an improvement over the show's broadcast appearance, and with the exception of some slight artifacting, is about as good as the series can look.
'Chuck' fans rejoice! For the first time, Warner Bros. has provided a lossless presentation for the show, giving each episode an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track with optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles. While I don't have the previous seasons to compare, this seems to be a sizable and very welcomed improvement.
Dialogue is mostly clean and full, though there is some very minor crackle and background noise in a few locations. Directionality and surround use are both solid, with the show's indie soundtrack and thumping original score coming through with nice separation and fidelity. Atmospheric effects and ambiance make their way across the soundstage when appropriate, and action scenes are actually quite lively with good rear activity. Chuck's various "flashes" present some cool design work, with the entire soundfield bustling with activity. Some imaging is a little unnatural, however, with a few surround effects lacking finesse. Bass can be powerful, with nice kick in the music and action, especially when guns start to blaze. Dynamic range is also pleasing, and there are no major signs of distortion, even when a particularly ear piercing weapon is used toward the end of the season which ventures into the highest of the high frequencies with no problems.
Though the show's video presentation still leaves a bit to be desired, for its fourth season Warner Bros. seems to have actually addressed fans' complaints, and these lossless tracks are quite nice. While there are stretches of episodes that tend to be front heavy, as a whole, these mixes are exciting and lively.
Warner Bros. has put together a decent collection of supplements, including deleted scenes, featurettes, and a Blu-ray exclusive video commentary track. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and optional English and Spanish subtitles.
'Chuck: The Complete Fourth Season' is a solid outing for the entertaining series. While certain plotlines get a little convoluted and contrived, the characters remain as likeable and engaging as ever. Video quality for the show is decent but uneven. Thankfully, the now lossless audio is lively and exciting. Supplements are a bit of a mixed bag, but the video commentary is cool. Though season four's episodes aren't as strong as season three's, this set's improved technical presentation should please fans, and even those new to the series might want to take a look.