Review by KC Carlson
Is there any other deserving show that’s been knocked around by television more than Chuck?
Sometimes it’s hard to separate Chuck (the show) from Chuck (the oft-complicated real-world struggles to keep the show on the air — many of which I previously detailed in my second season review). So it’s actually nice to report that Chuck (currently my #1 must-see TV show now that Lost is gone), while still somewhat ratings-challenged, is actually entering into its fourth season on NBC on a groundswell of strength. The presumption is that it’s now the NBC Monday night “anchor” show (despite the always tough timeslot competition), by being one of the few shows to survive in the wake of last season’s whole Leno-O’Brian mess. It’s also NBC’s only returning show on Monday night, and they’re hoping it’s a strong lead-in for the much ballyhooed (and cleverly titled) event show, The Event. (Jeez, why not just call it “Hey! Over Here! Stuff blowing up!”)
But more about Chuck Season 4 later. We’re here to take a look at Chuck Season 3, just out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Bros. The Blu-Ray version of the show features all 19 episodes of Season 3, plus a passel of Special Features on four shiny discs. Apparently, the same material is spread over five discs for the DVD package.
While a lot of current TV shows save all their good stuff for the Season Premiere and Season Finale, Chuck very much bucks this trend by having several must-see, game-changing episodes throughout the season. The unique structure of the series (part espionage thriller, part workplace sitcom, part modern romance, part slacker buddy comedy) means that even when there’s an infrequent slow or info-dump episode, there is always something else of note going on elsewhere in the plot (i.e. even when things turn deadly serious, you can almost always count on one of the Buy-Morons to do something outrageous). This is especially true in Season 3, a season that, by circumstance, is actually kind of a two-part season. The 13th episode (“Chuck Versus the Other Guy”) was the original Season Finale, until the show was picked up for an additional six episodes. (See what I mean about knowing too much behind-the-scenes stuff!)
This is a Chuck season like no other, as it is a non-stop rollercoaster of incredible action (now with Chuck fully in the middle due to an Intersect upgrade), romantic entanglements (that tested the patience of many internet fans), as well as some truly outrageous Buy More antics. It wasn’t all fun and games, either, as the season was bookended by a pair of brutal character deaths, which brought home just how deadly serious the stakes are for our favorite characters.
Chuck and Sarah, Heart of the Series
This is also the season that Zachary Levi fully inhabits the role of Chuck Bartowski/Charles Charmichel, as the once goofy slacker/loser Chuck has to finally step up and take control of his life, realizing that he is responsible for the lives and emotions of others. Initially, he thinks that means becoming a “real” spy and adventure junkie, but he quickly discovers that life is actually a lot more complicated than that, especially when it comes to winning (and keeping) the affections of the love of his life, Sarah Walker (played by Yvonne Strahovski). Sarah has a boat-load of trust issues and other deep-seated emotional problems which she overcompensates for by becoming the the most competent female CIA agent ever (except when the writers occasionally forget this, and have her too easily knocked out or captured for Chuck to rescue).
In classic storybook fashion, Chuck and Sarah fell in love the moment they laid eyes on each other (in Season 1), but their emotional backgrounds and a plethora of professional obstacles have meant a very rocky journey for both of them — complicated to the the ends of rationality by some of the events in this season. Chuck and Sarah, along with the bond between Chuck and his sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), is the emotional heart of the show.
The Other Cast Bonds
Chuck’s other major emotional tie is his best friend (since the age of six) and co-worker Morgan Grimes (craftily played by Joshua Gomez). Morgan is not only a uber-slacker but has emotionally (and physically) attached himself to the Bartowski family, not unlike a barnacle. His unrequited romance with Ellie is one of the series’ high points in the early seasons. It has evolved into something quite touching over the series, as both of them bond over the fact that Chuck is now obviously keeping secrets that no longer include them. In fact, early in Season 3, things become so strained between Morgan and Chuck that Morgan (secretly pulling his life together to become the Assistant Manager at Buy More) actually “fires” Chuck as his best friend, and they become estranged for a period as Chuck is focusing on other things (becoming a “real” spy, fixing things with Sarah).
It’s actually charming (and revealing) that when Morgan accidentally learns the truth about Chuck’s double life halfway through the third season, he immediately forgets the built-up resentment and locks into “this is SO cool” mode, eventually becoming an important member of the spy team, mostly by pure force-of-will. Despite the main focus of Chuck and Sarah, Morgan’s journey through Season 3 is actually the one to watch for — especially when he successfully shuts down his previously emotionally abusive girlfriend, Anna Woo (the guesting Julia Ling).
Since Chuck and Sarah are now partnered professionally and romantically, Morgan has inadvertently developed a new partnership of his own — with John Casey, the tough guy with the heart of gold on the show, played with finesse by Adam Baldwin. It appears that Morgan and Casey are entering into one of the great mismatched partnerships of all time, not unlike Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (or at least Mel Gibson and Danny Glover). This will be complicated by the the fact that in Season 3, Casey (and we) discover that he has a daughter that he never knew about (due to complications from his spy life and establishment of a new identity, important character “origins” now being fleshed out). Casey’s daughter Alex is Morgan’s age, and Morgan seems to be attracted to her. Casey, the overprotective dad (who can kill people with a grimace and a grunt), discovers that Morgan has her phone number late in Season 3 (and witnesses his flirting with her at a get-together), so expect this to be followed up in the upcoming Season 4.
Great Guest Stars
Guest stars have always been a big part of Chuck’s popularity, and the show tends to showcase them as excellently cast, with well-written roles. Season 3 features two prominent guest characters in extended roles — amusingly played by actors attached to the Superman mythos. Brandon Routh (Superman in Superman Returns) plays Daniel Shaw in 12 episodes (one of them either uncredited, or not at all, as Shaw is prominently featured but his face is never clearly shown). Shaw is introduced as an expert on The Ring (the seaon’s evil espionage cartel and Big Bad). When he becomes the new chief of “Team Bartowski”, it causes all sorts of conflict with all the characters, especially when he enters into a romantic relationship with Sarah.
Chuck has his own romantic distraction in Hannah, charmingly played by Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang in Smallville) in four episodes. Hannah is a recently-fired young woman whom Chuck meets on a plane on the way to Paris. They hit it off, he offers her a job at the Best Buy, and she shows up there a few days later. Initially, Chuck is attracted to her because her life seems so simple and unencumbered compared to his own double life, but he ultimately breaks up with her (and cruelly, at a dinner where he is to meet her parents) when he realizes that it would hurt her more to keep lying to her about his life as a spy.
Other notable guests in Season 3 include Angie Harmon, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Dietrich Bader (all as evil Ring agents), Christopher Lloyd, the returning Armand Assante, and Scott Bakula (as Chuck and Ellie’s dad and inventor of the Intersect). My favorite guests of the season were the always great Fred Willard and Swoosie Kurtz as a too-long-married (and kinda boozy) spy couple. Chuck and Sarah are assigned to observe them in the field as some kind of twisted object lesson about what happens to relationships in “espionage land”.
Season 3 Special Features
Special features on the set include “Chuck-Fu and Dim Sum”, a 22-minute documentary about Season 3, featuring the cast, crew, and guests, as well as showing the gang at last year’s San Diego Comic Con. Then there’s “The Jeffster Revolution”, a 11-minute up-close-and-too-personal mockumentary look at the Buy More’s resident house band, staring the one-two freakshow punch of Jeff and Lester. Plus, the actually funny six-minute gag reel makes you feel how much fun this show really is to make. Scattered throughout the set (alongside the specific episodes) are “Declassified Scenes” (aka: scenes cut from the episodes) for 12 of the episodes, ranging from a few seconds to a couple minutes each.
About the Blu-Ray transfer: I’m still new to the Blu-Ray thing, but it’s not good when the picture is excessively grainy or there are red “halos” around the characters in a few scenes, right? Is this a Blu-Ray thing or a bad transfer thing? One thing I know for sure is annoying — the menus for the individual episodes work horizontally and the menus for the “Declassified Scenes” work vertically. How about picking one or the other and being consistent?
These small caveats aside, Chuck Season 3 is great fun, containing enough wonderful (or surprising) moments that you’ll want to watch over and over again. Unfortunately, there is not much current TV you can say that about. Rewatching Season 3 was also an especially fine warm-up/preview for Chuck Season 4!
Chuck’s Future: Season 4
Chuck Season 4 begins Monday, September 20 (tonight!). Despite retiring as a spy from the CIA/NSA at the end of Season 3, it’s a pretty safe bet that Chuck’s not entirely done with the spy game — not with the mystery of his long-missing mother (another great guest star choice in Linda Hamilton), and the secrets behind the return of the recently blown-up-real-good Buy More store coming up. (That may or may not have something to do with Olivia Munn.) You can check out a bunch of sneak previews here.
Chuck “shippers” will be happy to know that Chuck and Sarah will be a couple all season, although there may be be some new romantic entanglements/complications in store elsewhere in the cast. Returning guest stars will include Nicole Richie and Armand Assante, and new faces will include Timothy Dalton, Dolph Lundgren, Harry Dean Stanton, Lou Ferringo, and Eric Roberts. Chuck also seems to be a home for former WWE talent with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin returning this season and Stacy Kiebler making her Chuck debut in episode 3. So where’s Mick Foley? I could really dig seeing the Intersect accidentally downloaded into Mr. Socko.
(The studio provided a review copy.)