The tone of the show shifts once again. This time we’ll get more comedy, more fun, less angst. Major themes being Chuck’s search for his mom, Volkoff I and Volkoff II, and Chuck and Sarah growing from couple to family.
After the jump we’ll discuss the fourth season of Chuck.
I’ve not been shy about calling this my favorite season of the show. But really that’s not such an easy judgement. I love four seasons of Chuck. And my favorite episode is in the one season I don’t really love. So really every season has something to commend it. Season Four does have a couple of knocks against it. To me the biggest is just that the budget cuts that have been in play since the start of Season Three are obvious. The production quality of the show is lower than it was in the first two seasons. Its hard for me to pinpoint exactly why; but its some combination of sets, costuming, cinematography, editing, stunts, fx, and script continuity/tightness. The show simply feels less polished. That really is a shame.
And as the show enters its fourth season it has undoubtedly lost some of the freshness that characterized the beginning. Chuck is no longer the fish out of water. He may still be a young agent compared to Casey and Sarah; but the spy world is less overwhelming and foreign to him. Chuck is still (mostly) a “good guy”, but he’s not so innocent. Morgan may take some of that complete novice mantel, but Morgan is not Chuck, and it just isn’t the same.
Another minor gripe, I wish the main villains of both arcs hadn’t been so deeply personal. Maybe one of them could be personal (gee, guess which), but to me the world seems a little smaller when it all seems to be about Chuck and the Bartowski family. I do want to repeat that this is a minor gripe. I think the show remained a ton of fun. But I think too many of the cases all tied back in to one story line.
But I really think where this season shines, it really becomes something extraordinary. So many shows follow a path of trying to ratchet up tension every season. I so often find this tiring. I prefer for past victories to matter, and carry over into the later seasons. And I think Chuck did this far better than most shows. This partly means Chuck’s professionalism; but of course it mostly means Chuck and Sarah. The show runner wisely allows the angst and tension to ebb away, and allow our main characters to enjoy a happy home life through most of the remaining series. There will be new drama, new tensions on occasion; but I find the overall mood of the show has gone from teasing something wonderful that was just out of reach, to being deeply and profoundly satisfying. And I can’t overstate that; Chuck in Season Four was, in many ways, the show I’d been waiting for since the start. And that made me very happy.
It may have something to do with the change in show runners; Season Four is when Chris Fedak went from second banana to the one calling the shots. Or maybe not, I don’t know. But its clear a decision was made to leave Chuck and Sarah in a happy place, to reduce the angst, and derive drama from other sources. I think this was brilliant and refreshing. So few shows have ever dared do something like this. Way back when this show started I thought it was something that could be different, that it could develop good characters and deliver a satisfying romance. After more than a few doubts the previous season, in Season Four they completely delivered what I was waiting and hoping for. I do still feel both main characters were diminished by their failings in Season Three. But I am mostly able to set that aside when watching Season Four, and enjoy where we’ve finally arrived.
I had a problem with the way the season started. Its a carry over of one of my least favorite parts of Season Three. Of course that’s Chuck keeping secrets from Sarah, again. But I was completely pleased with how quickly and decisively that was fixed in Anniversary. It was like Chris Fedak was reading this blog. Seriously. This had been a pretty major concern towards the end of the last season (really across the fandom, I was being silly about taking credit). It only could have been better if the episode had started with Chuck telling Sarah about his new mission to find mom, and Chuck and Sarah either quitting together, or working it as a side mission together. But at least by the end of the premier we’re back in a good place.
And happily, a good place is where most of the season will stay. I completely enjoyed the way Chuck and Sarah grew, and grew together. Of course from here on out growth will mostly be about Sarah. Chuck pretty consistently is always ready for that next step. Which leads to the most FUN this show will ever have with the role reversal that lays at its center. It has long been a part of the basic structure that Sarah was the knight in shining armor to Chuck’s damsel in distress. But I love how this was never overt. Chuck was clearly masculine, Sarah was very feminine. Yet Chuck embodied stereotypical female qualities; he was chatty, sensitive, relational and emotional. Opposed to Sarah as the strong silent type, who used actions to show her feelings, not words. Its always been there. But now, all season long, it will be pretty overtly funny. Chuck wants to work on communication skills, while Sarah is afraid of change. Chuck wants to talk about… everything. Sarah wants to elope, Chuck wants a big family wedding. Sarah worries about sharing feelings publicly, while Chuck writes pages and pages for his vows. This is such happy humor, that honors and celebrates the characters we love. To me, this is Chuck at its best.
There are several shorter arcs this season as opposed to the longer one of Season Three. I think this is a good move. Chuck works better for me in shorter stories. And it does mean when they try a less popular theme, like the Intersectless Arc, we get past it quickly. I think a couple of these arcs work very well, especially what I’ll call the “Frost Arc” of Aisle of Terror and First Fight. I thought this was just a dynamite introduction to Frost and Volkoff, although I did later miss Tuttle (!). And I love the finale arc of Agent X, Last Details and Cliffhanger. To me, this was almost a Season Two quality run of episodes. I know not all agree, and I’ll hear about it; but I thought the humor, action, excitement and romance were all delivered perfectly.
Some of the new characters introduced were uneven. I would consider Alexei Volkoff the best villain of the series, bar none. Brilliant, demented, hilarious. Chuck at its very best. Frost was up and down. The portrayal was strong and I love her in that first arc. But when we got to Gobbler and Push Mix they tried too hard to rationalize her 20 year mission and make her a tragic heroic figure. I think it would have worked better if she had to earn a redemption from the inside out. Admittedly that may be too much for an action-comedy, but something still needed some tweaking! Vivian was a weak character. I think we needed to see a little more of that Volkoff loopiness in her. Or something. She went from sweet but confused to full out vengeful and twisted with too little provocation. The character seemed to be missing something.
We also saw the return of several popular characters from past seasons. Premier Goya, Roan Montgomery, Carina Miller and Jack Burton being the real stand outs. Every one of those characters enriches the show, or makes it a lot funnier.
Chuck showed great skill and resourcefulness as an agent. His greatest personal growth of the season came at the end of Anniversary. But he faced and overcame significant challenges during the season. In no particular order; reclaiming his mom, proving his worth without the Intersect, defeating Alexei Volkoff, royally screwing up an asset, and going to heroic lengths to rescue Sarah.
Sarah grew in dramatic fashion. I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed watching her come to grips with her changing desires and priorities. Sarah at the start of the season is much she was at the end of Season Two, she knows she wants Chuck by her side but has given little thought to what it means for her future. But by the end of the season she’s ready and happy to start a new life without even the baggage of her old career. She will grow some more in Season Five, but the most major growth is done by the end of Season Four.
Casey will mostly continue as he left off. The big news here is trying to become a dad to the daughter he never knew. This is not a major story, but it is well done and Casey has come a long way. Casey and Morgan continue to be partnered with entertaining results. Morgan is often well used, occasionally over used, for comic effect. Occasionally, I think Morgan is over used as a “voice of wisdom”. I get that one of his functions is as Chuck’s confidante and sounding board, but sometimes Morgan’s “growth” seems extreme to the point of being a wholly different character from Season One. His romantic pairing with Casey’s daughter adds a perfect twist to things. And it amuses me that Morgan does so well with a younger woman, who is still far more mature than he.
Ellie and Devon are a bit of problem this season. Well, Ellie is. Its like they didn’t quite know what to do with her after learning Chuck’s secrets the season before. So they reset. Fortunately this won’t do the emotional damage to show and characters that the Season Three relationship reset did. But it still felt pointless and silly. Although I did find it very funny, in the laughing at them not with them sense of the word, that when Ellie did “learn the truth” that she wasn’t phased at all. It sort of put the exclamation point on the pointlessness of this story element.
The minor characters remained minor characters. Big Mike and the Buy Morons had several fun moments. Jeffster had one very funny performance in Push Mix.
I think the Buy More (yes, I’m discussing the Buy More under characters!) has become a little awkward. It is still often funny. And I think as a branding issue it needs to stay in the show, in some capacity. Really, Buy More and Chuck are pretty solidly linked in the minds of so many viewers, especially casual viewers, I can see where it would be very hard to just get rid of. But it obviously plays little part in Chuck’s life any more. And it often felt like the show runner just didn’t know quite what to do with the setting. There were a couple of attempts at linking it with the “A” plot more closely (Cubic Z, Muuurder). But I think it needed either more, or less. Again, this is not a huge issue to me. But it is noticeable after having been such a big part of the show, and Chuck’s life, in the beginning.
Season Four is more like the first two seasons in that their isn’t a single episode that I dislike. The Strong, Average, Weak terms I use are relative to Chuck. Which means “Average” is still better than most of what’s on television, and even “Weak” has more good moments than bad.
- STRONG: Suitcase, Coup D’Etat, Couch Lock, Aisle of Terror, First Fight, Phase Three, Balcony, Push Mix, Seduction Impossible, Wedding Planner, Last Details, Cliffhanger. That’s a lot of strong episodes! Phase Three and Wedding Planner stand out to me as the real best of the best.
- AVERAGE: Anniversary, Cubic Z, Fear of Death, CAT Squad, Masquerade, First Bank of Evil, A Team, Muuurder, Family Volkoff, Agent X. Anniversary has moved up a notch after the latest re-watch, it may start weak, but it finishes strong, so I’ll give it an average. A couple of these are teetering on the edge of weak. But in the end, I can easily re-watch every episode on this list.
- WEAK: Leftovers, Gobbler. Like turkey indeed.
So an interesting list. I think Season Four most needs to be compared to Season Two, and the results are interesting to me. Season Two actually had more “strong” episodes, but not by much (13 of 22, compared to 12 of 24 for S4). Big difference in the other categories though. S2 had only 5 average episodes compared to S4’s 10. And several of S2’s average episodes were bordering on strong; while more of S4’s average episodes were bordering on weak. However, S4 only had the two episodes I call weak, compared to 4 for S2.
And that’s all a bunch of made up mumbo jumbo… What I think it means to me is; both seasons are very strong overall. But S2 runs more hot/cold, with more very good and not so good episodes. While S4 is more solid, with fewer really terrific episodes, but fewer missteps too.
I’ll continue to call S4 my favorite though. Obviously not on account of the number of “strong” episodes, but because the Chuck and Sarah story is exactly the story I most wanted to see. Add in the best villain of the series, and the sort of light comic adventure tone that I always like most and this season just can’t be beat.
Next week we’ll get the final season. The ups and downs will be a little more extreme!