Review by KC Carlson
Chuck is one of the best current shows on TV that you are not watching.
For those of you who ARE watching Chuck, you probably already know that Chuck: The Complete Second Season is now available on DVD, including all 22 episodes, plus the 3-D episode in both standard and 3-D formats. (Two pairs of 3-D glasses are enclosed.) There are also numerous Special Features, including featurettes on the mythology of the show and of its intensive stuntwork, a hysterical mock-training film (“So You Want To Be a Deadly Spy?” presented by John Casey), dozens of scenes cut from the episodes, lots of stuff that previously appeared on the Chuck website and an actually funny gag reel. You also probably know that the new season of Chuck began this past Sunday, January 10, with a special presentation of two episodes, followed by a third episode the following night, returning the series to its regular Monday at 8 PM (EST) timeslot.
If you already know all this, you can go. The rest of you — stick around for Chuck 101.
The Early Season Struggles
But before we get to why you should be watching Chuck, here’s a couple of reasons why you probably haven’t been watching. It’s on the most competitive night of TV (Monday) in one of the most contested timeslots. So you might not have heard of Chuck because you were watching House. Or Dancing With the Stars. Or How I Met Your Mother/The Big Bang Theory (in its old timeslot). Or maybe even Gossip Girl. The stellar decline of Heroes (which airs after Chuck on NBC) probably hasn’t helped it much either. Further, the first season of Chuck was brutally hurt by the 2007-2008 writers’ strike, when the show disappeared from the airwaves after 13 episodes and never got the chance to return after the strike was settled, like most other shows. Because the show has suffered in the ratings due to this stiff competition, the show has unfortunately been in “Save Chuck” mode since the middle of the second season. In fact, at the time that the last episode of the second season was airing, NBC had not publicly announced whether or not Chuck would continue to air.
Because of the limited number of slots for scripted shows after NBC’s decision to air Jay Leno five days a week, there was little room on the Fall 2009 schedule, so Chuck was renewed for a third season — barely, and only for a half-season of shows (13 episodes) — but wouldn’t be scheduled until spring of 2010. When NBC’s big Leno gamble had a bigger disastrous effect on the rest of NBC’s schedule than anticipated, Chuck found itself in an unusual place — it was one of the few NBC shows that still had positive buzz, despite the fact that it wasn’t currently on the air. NBC quickly accelerated Chuck‘s premiere date and added six additional episodes. Considering what’s been going on with NBC and Leno over the past few days and NBC suddenly having to fill five more hours of prime time after the Olympics, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chuck got the call for the full 22. (Yay.)
One of the big reasons that Chuck is still on the air is that Subway became a major sponsor of the show. And that means that there’s the occasional product placement on the show. So if you hate that sort of thing (I usually do), you need to suck it up and live with it. The good news is that Chuck‘s writers have learned to incorporate this fairly well into the storylines, kind of poking fun at the whole thing by overplaying it. There have been several ridiculous super slo-mo shots of Buy More employees lovingly chowing down Subway subs (and in one memorable instance, during a food eating contest, just barely keeping it down). Luckily, Subway’s in on the joke and has a good sense of humor about it all. I was half-expecting Sarah to be fake-working at a Subway this third season as her cover, in keeping with her succession of other food-service employment. Or was that too obvious?
This new season, Morgan, Ellie, and Awesome are starring in a series of ads for Honda. The ads, so far shown once per episode, offer a running subplot of the trio heading for the Olympics in a new Honda, bonding through music and stopping to see odd monuments (The Monument to the Lost Curler?). They’re quirky fun and don’t affect the rest of the show, so why not?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The big question is…
What is Chuck?
Chuck, the TV show, is one of those great rare shows that defy easy classification. Technically, I believe Chuck is referred to as an action/comedy program. Which it is. However, it is also a spy thriller, workplace sitcom, mystery, light romantic comedy, a tech/gadget/sci-fi show, caper adventure, slacker comedy, small-screen buddy picture, and who knows what else. It’s probably the biggest genre chop suey since Firefly, another great underrated show which shares a couple of elements with Chuck (more later).
On the face of it, Chuck Bartowski is a typical 20-something directionless slacker who works at the local Buy More consumer electronics store (a broad parody of Best Buy) as a computer tech for the store’s Nerd Herd (read: Geek Squad). His best friend, Morgan Grimes, also works at the store, and he makes Chuck look like a driven super-genius by comparison. Chuck lives with his sister Ellie and her boyfriend (now husband) Devon Woodcomb, an overachieving, athletic, frat boy type (but likable), who reacts to most everything by saying “That’s awesome!” which gives him his nickname of “Captain Awesome” or simply “Awesome”. Actually, both Ellie and Devon are pretty awesome — they’re both successful doctors and are pretty far along on their life-path with each other. (They marry in the Season 2 finale.) Both are tolerant of Chuck’s lethargy but are constantly, but gently, encouraging Chuck to improve both his professional and romantic prospects.
Let Us Tell You About the Pilot
In the pilot, we learn why Chuck is what he is. Five years earlier, Chuck was at Stanford University on a fast-track program to becoming a major player in the computer industry, as well as having a loving and sweet girlfriend, Jill Roberts, who was working on her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering. It all fell apart when Chuck was accused of cheating on a test and expelled from Stanford. He later learns that his friend and roommate Bryce Larkin had been the one to accuse him of cheating, leading to his expulsion. Jill then breaks up with him, telling Chuck that she has started seeing Larkin. Crushed, Chuck goes home, moves in with Ellie, gets a dead-end job, and effectively shuts down any forward momentum in his life.
Thus, Chuck finds it unusual to receive an email from Bryce Larkin five years later, enticing Chuck to read it with an obscure reference from Zork, an early interactive computer game they used to play in college. Instead of a message, the email begins downloading thousands and thousands of images directly into Chuck’s brain in a matter of seconds. Overwhelmed by the input, Chuck passes out, comically falling backwards to the floor — one of the series’ recurring gags. When he awakes, he realizes something is wrong, as he suddenly starts “remembering” things he shouldn’t know — like police accident reports and info about Army generals.
While we’re watching the establishment of Chuck the slacker, we’re also watching cutaways of a mysterious, extremely athletic super-spy, stealing information from a singular computer (laughingly, the original all-in-one Apple Macintosh) which is set up in an otherwise eerily empty room. We see the spy attempting to escape, running a gauntlet of enemy spies in some amazing action sequences. (Have I mentioned that the outstanding pilot was directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels), who is also an executive producer of the show?) Just as it looks like the spy is about to complete his mission and escape, he is gunned down by Major John Casey, an NSA agent who has encountered him before. Just before the spy dies, he manages to send off the information he stole through an email from his PDA. And thus we discover that the mysterious spy is, in fact, Chuck’s former roommate, Bryce Larkin.
Despite appearances, this is not the last we see of Bryce Larkin, who becomes sort of a human McGuffin for the first two seasons, popping up in flashback sequences and other places with alarming, but always surprising, regularity. First-time viewers need to be aware that anything Larkin-related is a major key to understanding Chuck’s background, and he is one of the major characters on the show, despite not being a regular character. And, uh… being dead and all.
Meanwhile, Chuck manages to recover from the massive information dump into his head (which if you watch carefully, you’ll see takes all night — that’s a BIG file!), although he later discovers that he seems to be remembering things that he can’t possibly know. But he doesn’t get much time to dwell on this, as he is almost immediately approached at the Buy More by a beautiful young woman named Sarah. She needs her phone fixed and also begins flirting with him. Won over while watching Chuck imaginatively help a distraught little girl whose father screwed up videotaping her dance recital, Sarah amazingly gives Chuck her phone number.
Before Chuck can call her, he heads home for the evening, only to discover that his apartment is being robbed by a thief, dressed head-to-toe in black and specifically attempting to steal Chuck’s computer. Both Chuck and Morgan attempt to subdue the thief, who pretty quickly — and comically — dispatches both of them. But the computer is destroyed, and the thief escapes. Later, the viewer (but not Chuck) discovers that the thief is actually Sarah in disguise, who works as an agent for the CIA.
The next day, Sarah returns to the Buy More and tells Chuck that her phone is obviously still broken “because I didn’t get a call from you.” (Awww…) Smitten, Chuck immediately agrees to a date, where the two discover some mutual chemistry. Little do they know that they are being followed by an NSA hit team led by Major John Casey. Sarah spots the team and, trying to protect Chuck, leads the NSA team on a high-speed chase through downtown L.A., putting one of the Nerd Herd cars through its paces (another recurring motif).
Eventually, Sarah, Chuck, and Casey end up on the roof of a high-rise (yet another Chuck trope), with guns pointed at each other and nobody trusting each other and Chuck with no idea what is going on. This is the main premise of the show. In a huge info dump of dialog, we learn:
* The thing that was dumped in Chuck’s head is called the Intersect, a massive database used to identify threats to the government.
* The rest of the Intersect technology has been destroyed (by Bryce Larkin) and the only remaining copy of it is in Chuck’s head.
* Chuck inadvertently accesses the Intersect when he encounters something that is already in the database (terrorists, criminals, evil scientists, people working for rival organizations, etc.). He will then “flash” on the subject, and suddenly his head will be filled with information about it.
* Once he realizes all this, Chuck puts together all the info he learned during his previous flashes, and realizes that there’s a bomb about to go off at a nearby hotel conference.
The trio rushes to the hotel, where Chuck uses his computer expertise (along with a bit of geek intel that he learned earlier in the episode while at the Buy More) to diffuse the situation and disable the bomb. Which, of course, indicates that Chuck can not only be an important asset (which becomes his government nickname) to the government agencies, but also that his connections to home and family make him more of a well-rounded personality than either of his two new handlers: Sarah and Casey, who must learn to get along despite working for rival government agencies.
But there’s one last secret revealed in the closing moments of the show: Sarah and Bryce Larkin shared an intimate relationship up until the moment that he died.
Key Facts and Future Episodes
A couple of things to remember: Chuck’s Intersect flashes aren’t always consistent, rendering it more of a plot device (the real McGuffin) than an actual, reliable thing thing. Oddly, Chuck never flashes on either Sarah or Casey, so he never learns that Sarah and Bryce were a couple until the writers want us to. And to date, after being told that once the Intersect has either been duplicated or removed from his head, he will be free to go, Chuck never learns that Casey has been given an order from his superiors to kill Chuck (and most likely Sarah, as well) once Chuck’s Intersect is no longer needed. Interestingly, two major characters introduced at the end of Season Two are also agents who have a relationship with the Intersect, but are also never subjects of flashes by Chuck.
In episode two, more show mythology is introduced as Casey is revealed as the Buy More’s latest employee, which is his cover for watching over Chuck. Casey moves into an apartment in the same complex where Chuck, Ellie, and Awesome live, and Casey has their apartment (and specifically Chuck’s bedroom) bugged. Sarah, meanwhile, continues her cover as Chuck’s new girlfriend, and it is revealed that she is now “working” at the nearby Weinerlicious hot dog shop, which puts her in a ridiculous serving costume during “work hours”. Their cover as a fake couple is also a centerpiece of the show, as Chuck wears his true feelings on his sleeve and longs for a “real” relationship with Sarah. Sarah, however, is mostly in denial of her true feelings, always choosing duty over an actual relationship, although the viewer can tell she harbors true feelings for Chuck as well. (You can see it in her eyes in their first meeting, when Chuck is helping the little girl at the Buy More.) Sarah is further conflicted over the recent death of Bryce, as well as obviously wanting to protect the innocent Chuck from becoming hardened (or dead) in her deadly world of espionage.
This, of course, sets up the ongoing romantic dance (will they get together or won’t they?) that winds throughout the series, being alternately charming or infuriating (or both!) to the viewer. (The studio provided a review copy.)