GeekTV: Two Shows You
Ought To Be Watching
Blu-ray Disc & DVD reviews by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits
Chuck: The Complete First Season
2007-2008 (2008) - NBC/College Hill Pictures (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on November 11th, 2008
Also available on DVD
Chuck: The Complete Second Season
2008-2009 (2010) - NBC/College Hill Pictures (Warner Bros.)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on January 5th, 2010
Also available on DVD
Program Ratings (Season 1/2): B+/A
Video (Both - 1-20): 16
Audio (Both - 1-20): 8
Extras (Both): C+
How best to describe NBC's Chuck? Hmmm... Think of it as an action/spy dramedy. Imagine your best buddy - a videogame/comic-book aficionado and compu-techie extraordinaire - who got kicked out of college just before he would have graduated, and now works for the Geek Squad at a Best Buy store. Now imagine that, one day, he accidentally gets e-mailed the CIA's complete intelligence database in one massive subliminal message and, just by looking at it, he's absorbed it into his brain. In one fell swoop, he's become a walking/talking "vital" national asset, so the CIA assigns Jack Bauer and Sydney Bristow to protect him 24/7, and he proceeds to assist them in critical spy missions in the classic "fish-out-of-water" comic tradition. Meanwhile, his family and buddies at the Best Buy, where he still works as a cover, have no knowledge of any of this - they think he's just an underachieving geek. But of course, there's an enemy spy organization that's discovered who he really is, and they want to capture or kill him. Got all that?
Okay, now call the guy Chuck (played by Zach Levi, best known previously for a role on ABC's Less Than Perfect), change the Geek Squad and Best Buy to "Nerd Herd" and "Buy More," call the CIA database "The Intersect", and Jack and Sidney become Colonel John Casey (Adam Baldwin, of Firefly fame) and Agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski). Oh yeah... I should also mention that Casey thinks Chuck is a numbnuts, and Chuck and Sarah are slowly falling for each other. Mix in a dash of comedic action and a whole mess of pop culture/geek references, and you've got NBC's Chuck - one of most charming, savvy, good-natured and
consistently entertaining shows on television.
There are a number of different things that make Chuck work. First, the cast works together exceptionally well - you very quickly come to like these characters and want to root for them. Second, the show never bites off more than it can chew. Chuck doesn't try to be everything to everyone. Rather, it simply does what it does very well. Third, the writers and producers are damn near brilliant in the way they balance all the show's elements, including Chuck's would-be spy slapstick, the nefarious aims of the bad guys, Chuck's evolving relationship with Sarah, his funny/tense association with Casey, his friendships with goofy/geek sidekick Morgan, his sister Ellie and her "Captain Awesome" doctor fiancé (who fear that Chuck will never meet a girl and straighten out his life), and the over-the-top workplace silliness back at the Buy More with co-workers Jeff, Lester and Big Mike. Just when any one element could start to overwhelm the story, the show shifts focus to one of the others. Consequently, each episode features a nice mix of charm, comedy and action, with just a dash of aw-shucks romance. This is also important because it means that the show's success doesn't depend on any single element alone - they all work together beautifully. And while the laughs keep coming, the show doesn't quite fall into the category of camp or spoof, like - say - the classic Get Smart. Chuck takes its premise just seriously enough that you care about the characters and the plot, but not so seriously that you fail to get a few good belly laughs per episode. It's a smart yet difficult balancing act the show never fails to maintain. Finally, a stream of well-chosen guest stars keeps things lively, from Scott Bakula (as Chuck and Ellie's deadbeat dad), to Chevy Chase (as the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs-like leader of the bad guys), to the likes of Bruce Boxlightner, Christopher Lloyd, Mark Sheppard (ex-Battlestar), Vinnie Jones (ex-Snatch), Ken Davitian (ex-Borat) and many more.
Season One (13 episodes) introduces all the characters, and obviously follows Chuck as he struggles to cope with his new role as an unlikely spy team member, keep the secret from his family and friends, get through all kids of goofy/dangerous situations and deal with his feelings for Sarah. Season Two (22 episodes) adds more backstory and hilarity, as Chuck learns that he wasn't sent The Intersect by accident, his relationship with Sarah deepens... and more and more people start uncovering his big secret.
Warner's Blu-ray releases feature the episodes in generally good HD video quality (1080p/1.78:1 aspect ratio). As is typical for Warner's TV releases, they occasionally look a bit too compressed, but the color, contrast and detail are still quite solid - certainly as good as (or slightly better than) the NBC HD broadcasts. The audio is standard Dolby Digital 5.1 - good DVD-quality soundtracks. Sadly, no lossless option is available, but these mixes still sound great and serve the episodes just fine.
In terms of extras, Season One offers about an hour's worth of material, including the Chuck on Chuck documentary, the Chuck's World casting featurette, 9 minutes of Declassified Scenes, a gag reel and a series of 4 webisode shorts that appeared on the official website. Season Two also boasts about an hour of material, including more deleted scenes, another gag reel, a pair of documentaries on the show's mythology (Truth, Spies and Regular Guys) and stunts (Dude in Distress), funny advice videos (A Real-Life Captain Awesome's Guide to Being Awesome and John Casey Presents: So You Want to Be a Deadly Spy?) and more online webisodes that double as Buy More employee training videos. All of the extras are standard-def but anamorphic, so the quality is decent. What you get is not a lot to be sure, but it's all good and amusing. I wish the discs included audio commentaries with the cast and crew, but that's about all you're really missing here. My only other quibble is a minor one: the Season Two episode Chuck Versus the Third Dimension is included here in 2D, but it was originally broadcast in "ColorCode 3D" after Super Bowl XLIII. It would have been nice if Warner had included the 3D version on BD as well as a bonus item, along with a couple pairs of red/green 3D glasses. Again, a minor quibble. [Editor's Note: Apparently, SOME copies of this title DID include the 3D episode and glasses, and Warner briefly ran an exchange program for those who got the earlier version. Unfortunately, the press was sent the sans 3D version, so that's what I've reviewed here. Copies with the 3D episode are indicated by a sticker on the front of the package.]
Look, I could go on all day about Chuck. I really love this show. In fact, it's somehow become my absolutely favorite, must-see hour of TV each week. It doesn't require a master class to follow the plot, the acting and writing never fail to entertain, and you're always guaranteed some damn good laughs. Bottom line: If you've ever played Missile Command or enjoyed an all-night drunken session of Guitar Hero, seen TRON or Dune, picked up an issue of Spider-Man, rocked out to Styx or Rush, swapped out your PC's video card or been to a Comic-Con convention, you owe it to yourself to check out this show. Pick up Season One, spin the first couple of episodes and I defy you not to get hooked. To quote Captain Awesome, Chuck is... well... AWESOME!
Glee: Season 1, Volume 1 - Road to Sectionals
2009 (2009) - Fox
Released on DVD on December 29th, 2009
Program Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/C+
Yeah, I know what you're thinking. "Hey Bill, look... I can totally go with you on Chuck, but Glee? Seriously?" Yes. Glee. Seriously.
Here's the deal: Last Spring, while I was still caught up in the glowing euphoria over the recently-aired finale of Battlestar Galactica, Fox previewed the pilot episode for Glee - a show that wasn't going to debut on their network until the Fall.
I had absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. But my wife, Sarah, loved it. She couldn't stop talking about it and arm twisting me to watch it with her. Heroically, I continued to resist. Jump ahead to last Summer, with not much on TV but reality crap and reruns - Sarah finally sees her opening. "Come on, just watch this show with me. Trust me." Turns out, she's DVR-ed the Glee pilot and starts it up. And I watch... and my eyebrows go up. About 5 minutes in, I turn to her and say, "Wow, there's a lot more going on here than I expected." And another 60 minutes or so (and a stunningly cheesy-good cover of Journey's Don't Stop Believing) later, I was pretty blown away.
Glee's plot is deceptively simple. Matthew Morrison plays Will Schuester, a low-paid high school Spanish teacher at William McKinley High School, charged with restoring the school's Glee Club to its former glory. His rival is one Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, of Best in Show and 40-Year-Old Virgin fame), the cut-throat coach of the school's award-winning "Cheerios" cheerleading squad. In order to revive the Glee Club, Will needs money from the school's limited activity budget, and Sue's not willing to give up one dime of her Cheerios' share. Their animosity quickly explodes into a campy, no-holds-barred war to see which team can win more awards and become the most popular with the students. Will ultimately hopes to lead his Glee Club to a sectionals win... while Sue, of course, hopes to crush Will and his Glee Club into the beaten and whimpering mass of losers she's sure they are. Caught in the crossfire are those same students, including young diva-in-training Rachel (played by Lea Michele, whose amazing voice has her well on the way to becoming the next Barbara Streisand or Kristin Chenoweth), football QB Fynn (who secretly loves singing in the shower) and Fynn's Cheerios-leading girlfriend Quinn (also a founding member of the chastity club... only not so much with the actual chastity), along with several other insecure teens of every stripe.
A lot of the early criticism of Glee centered around the fact that the characters seem more like caricatures, that all the music sounds like it's been run through AutoTune software, and that the whole thing feels like some weird High School Musical clone for pre-teens. And then you actually WATCH a few episodes... and you realize that the first two things are deliberate. The characters DO start two-dimensional and the music DOES sound glossy... so you don't realize the show's depth until it smacks you on the nose. You'll be watching and you're mildly amused, and suddenly the plot and characters twist and you're unexpected blown away. And then it shifts back to glossy again and you realize that this show is both fast on its feet AND pretty deftly working you over. The effect is rather like the result of one of your drinking buddies daring you to step into a boxing ring with a cutsie Girl Scout. And after a few minutes of smiling at you through her braces and dancing around your lumbering ass, she clocks you with a roundhouse right and then clotheslines you as she giggles all the while, and you realize that the joke's on you: She's really a future Olympic champion and she's got your number, brother.
Let me tell you, anyone who says this show is a High School Musical clone has never seen either Glee or High School Musical. You know what it reminds me of? You remember that ever-so-delightfully twisted Reese Witherspoon/Matthew Broderick high school film, Election? By Alexander Payne - the same guy who later directed About Schmidt and Sideways? Yeah, Glee's a bit like that, combined with a dash of Christopher Guest-style humor, and with all your favorite pop songs mixed in for good measure. The show was created by Ryan Murphy, who wrote the screenplay for Running with Scissors and later created the FX series Nip/Tuck. It is, I am somewhat surprised to admit, pretty damn brilliant. Needless to say, the criticism of Glee evaporated fairly quickly as the first 13 episodes played out. The show recently won a Golden Globe for Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy and, oh by the way, a Peabody too. And you'd better believe it deserves them.
Glee is, thus far, only available on DVD. My suspicion is that a full-season Blu-ray release will follow once Season One, Volume Two completes is broadcast run on Fox, which begins this coming Tuesday night (4/13 - check your local listings). The video is anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and of decent quality - about average for TV DVD product. Color and contrast are fair, though not as good as they'd be in high-def. The show's audio is obviously of particular importance, and it sounds great in well-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1. Dialogue is clear and the song sounds plenty fine. The extras are a bit fluffy, but manage to be mildly amusing: There are a few casting videos, a trio of behind-the-scenes featurettes, a music video, several cast member "fact" videos and a set of Video Diaries recorded by the cast members while on Fox's promotional tour for the show. The best of the extras is a funny/awkward faux Welcome to McKinley High orientation video hosted by actor Iqbal Theba as Principal Figgins.
Glee is smart, funny, ever-so-subversive... and insidiously entertaining. If you've ever sung the lyrics to a classic 80s song in the shower, and you can recall that feeling of how oh-so important everything seemed when you were back in high school, you'll find something to like here. Jane Lynch alone is worth the price of admission - she plays the show's villainess with a comic, almost moustache-twirling gusto. And to the degree that there's a message, it's that all those things that made you feel different and alone as a kid, turn out to be strengths later in life. Not bad. As I mentioned earlier, Glee returns to TV next Tuesday, and I suspect that - if you give it a chance - you'll be surprised to discover that you enjoy it as much as I do.