Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Chuck" Season Four Retrospective Extravaganza! Fifth Season Begins this Friday Night!

Happy…er…Wednesday, Chucksters!  I know I promised this article for last Friday, but I decided to move it up to today as part of a mid-week launch of my Chuck – Season Five Reviews beginning this Friday evening (or I forgot to post it and am saving face with that lame excuse, take your pick).  Today I’m reposting my Chuck: Farewell Season 4 Extravaganza, a retrospective of the show’s previous season; tomorrow, I’ll be posting a memory about the show in a general sense, and my emotions heading into the final season of one of my favorite TV programs of all time.  And on Friday, of course, my review of the season premiere will go up shortly after the episode airs. 

Please enjoy, and come back for more “Chuck” tomorrow and Friday!  Article after the jump…

It’s strange to be here, on the verge of another season of NBC’s Chuck.  The little-show-that-could has been renewed for a final season, meaning that we’ll never again have to worry about how much more time the series will get or whether or not the show’s final episode will be satisfying.  The show will end on its own terms, it will have had five seasons, and as a whole, Chuck will end its time on television with a long and healthy life.

But today, we’re not looking to the future – we’re taking a look back at the whole of season 4, the show’s longest season to date (which I’ve been posting flashback reviews of here on the blog over the last twelve weeks).  Across these 24 episodes, the show took some big risks, sent the characters to bold new places both geographically and in their own development, and upped the stakes for Team Bartowski higher than ever before.  As such, not everything worked – this season had more noticeable flaws and rough-patches than any other season to date, partially a result of NBC’s frustrating move to order the back half of the season late in the game and partially due to questionable narrative decisions.  At the same time, the fourth season performed extraordinarily well in all of the most important places: it gave us plenty of great action and humor, the show’s best villain to date in Timothy Dalton’s Alexi Volkoff, and most importantly, constantly capitalized on how deep and nuanced these characters and their relationships have become in four years of storytelling.  No matter what, season 4 was always memorable and, even at its weakest, entertaining television.

Today, we’re reminiscing about the show’s penultimate season in preparation for Team Bartowski’s final adventures!  First, there’s a season report card, with brief thoughts on each of the season’s 24 episodes (and links to my flashback reviews of those hours); next, there’s a brief review of the season as a whole, and finally, a set of awards that look at which characters and moments resonated most strongly during the season.


Season Report Card: Mini-Reviews

Not the show’s absolute best premiere outing, but definitely one of its most promising; Anniversary kicked off the search for Mama Bartowski in grand fashion, gave the show a bigger, global playground for missions, and introduced the revamped CIA-owned Buy More and brand new Castle.  A very exciting start.  B+

One of the ultimate examples of Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski’s insane chemistry, Suitcase was a showcase for how wonderfully funny – and sweet – these two are together.  It was also an all-around exciting and moving hour, one of the show’s all-time best.  A+

A fun but somewhat underwhelming installment that harkened back to the show’s early days, where the Buy More would be the location for the action; this is one of Big Mike’s best hours of the series, and the spy-story, featuring the return of past villains Steve Austen and Nicole Ritchie, made incredible use of Castle.  B

In the farewell season 3 article last year, I gave Armand Assante the “award” for playing the season’s best guest star, President Alejandro Goya.  Goya’s return in this episode was just as memorable as his first appearance last season, if not more so, and also served as a highlight for Casey.  A

Speaking of Casey, this episode was all about our favorite NSA agent, and it’s another standout hour; we learned plenty about Casey’s interesting and hilarious A-Team themed past, and in the present, saw how hilarious and touching his friendship with Morgan can be.  A

Our proper introduction to Linda Hamilton as Mama Bartowski, this episode would have been classic had it not been for the haphazard inclusion of a subpar Halloween subplot that distracted from more pressing and engaging narrative issues.  B

The great Timothy Dalton makes his first appearance and Chuck as Sarah face one of their most poignant and – in the climactic shootout, at least – hilarious couple issues in one hell of an episode.  The set of twists at the end is probably the most effectively scary and intense Chuck has ever been.  A+

An underwhelming hour on every front; most importantly, Chuck’s “intersect-no-more” arc had already been done before, and this wasn’t a particularly fresh or entertaining spin on the material; even the inclusion of the great Summer Glau didn’t do much for the episode.  Months later, I’m wishing Glau had instead played Vivian Volkoff – that would have been phenomenal.  C
A fan-favorite hour that has grown on me with time, Phase Three is a showcase for Sarah, both as an incredibly powerful action heroine (“Giant Blonde She-Male!”), but also as an equally formidable force of love and compassion.  A–   

One of Dalton’s best episodes, Leftovers demonstrated the infinite complexities of Volkoff – he loves Chuck’s mom and wants to be part of her family, while still being evil – all while making me laugh until my sides hurt. A–

This entire episode was wisely devoted to Chuck popping the question to Sarah, and though a last minute twist stopped him from actually going through with it, the hour was filled with heartwarming material, and great work from the show’s leads.  “I didn’t fall in love with James Bond.  I fell in love with you.”  A–

As with season 3, season 4 was split into two halves, and the first thirteen hours tell one complete story arc; thus, Gobbler is all about raising the stakes for the (first) finale, and it does a hell of a job at that, all while further exemplifying the all-around wonderful human being that is Sarah Walker.  A–

Another classic Chuck finale, Push Mix gave us all the requisite action beats (the sequence on Volkoff’s ship), emotional moments (Chuck proposing to Sarah) and hilarity (Jeffster! singing “Push it!” while Ellie gives birth), while tying off the story in spectacular fashion.  I especially love how the hour hammers home the familial themes of the season, such as Chuck framing his intellectual victory over Volkoff through the eyes of his father, Steven, as payback for the years his mother lost to Volkoff.  A

The second half of the season begins with the return of fan-favorite season 2 guest star John Larquette as Roan Montgomery, and it’s no coincidence that his return makes for one of the funniest episodes of the season.  Some of the story felt a bit repetitive, especially with Chuck and Sarah, but the hilarity makes it easy to overlook.  B+

A flawless Chuck masterpiece, as creative, funny, and moving an episode as you’ll find, as well as one that demonstrates how much fun one-off stories can be, especially when they focus so well on the best the characters have to offer.  A+

This is an easy episode to dislike in retrospect; it introduced us to Vivian and hinted at the new secret room inside Castle, story threads that eventually fell apart.  Here at the beginning, however, this was all working fantastically well, as this is one of the season’s best hours.  The most powerful material comes from Morgan, as he decides to get his own place and he and Chuck reflect on their years of loyal friendship.  A

Now this is where Vivian becomes problematic.  Here, she’s the focus of the entire episode, and it’s clear the writing, as well as actress Lauren Cohen, don’t have a clear idea of how to make this character or story work.  It’s the weakest episode of Chuck since the second episode of the first season.  C

Not nearly as good as the season’s actual A-Team homage (Couch Lock), this is still an enjoyable, albeit occasionally frustrating, hour; we learn the secret behind the Greta operatives, and Chuck disarms a nuke with a juice box.  B

A cool idea that doesn’t totally work, the show’s spin on a bottle-episode murder mystery is far from memorable, but still somewhat enjoyable.  The biggest problem is how the episode more or less nullifies any significance of the brief “new-Intersects” story arc, which proved to be more of a brief distraction than anything substantive.  B–
Dalton returns as Volkoff, and the results on that front are, as expected, spectacular.  Dalton, in fact, stops the rest of the episode from falling apart at the seams, as we see how poorly Vivian’s development has been handled; meanwhile, Ellie’s adventures with her father’s laptop begin to get seriously grating.  B+

After weeks of mixed results, the show rebounds with a very strong hour that showcases the return of Gary Cole as Sarah’s father, Jack.  It’s another standout episode for Sarah, but everybody benefits from strong writing and direction.  A

Returning to the main story arc, the writers course-correct by more or less dropping Vivian out of the picture and deepening the mythology; we learn that Papa Bartowski and Alexi Volkoff used to be friends, and that Steven’s original Intersect program turned innocent Hartley Winterbottom into Alexi.  Great stuff all around, but it’s the material between Chuck and Ellie that really shines.  A–

Vivian is brought back here, but only to set up bigger and better events for the finale; the writers even do an admirable job making her threatening, even if her motivations can never be entirely credible.  Before leaving Sarah’s life in danger during the excellent cliffhanger, though, Morgan nearly walks away with the episode thanks to his (hilarious) bravery in infiltrating Vivian’s weapon auction.  B+

The best episode of Chuck since the season 2 finale, and possibly the second-best ever, Cliffhanger has everything we’ve come to love about the show and more.  It could easily serve as a fantastic series finale, but as the title implies, I don’t think anyone is complaining that we’re getting more Chuck.  I can’t wait to see Morgan as the new Intersect.  A+

Season 4 in Review:

I’d forgotten how much I loved the first half of this season before I began thumbing through old reviews in preparation for this article.  Season 4.1 has only one weak episode in the bunch, and the only major storytelling mishap lies in the brief “Intersect no-more” arc.  Other than that, this half of the season is Chuck firing on all cylinders, making tremendous use of its characters and capitalizing on the many narrative and comedic opportunities that come from three seasons of development.  It’s a tight, fantastic piece of storytelling that doesn’t have any elements out of line; Team Bartowski’s battle with Alexi Volkoff all comes down to a struggle to find and maintain family, and family is indeed built throughout the season.  Casey gets to know his daughter, Chuck and Sarah get engaged, Ellie and Awesome have a baby, Chuck finds his long-lost mother, and Volkoff comes over for Thanksgiving dinner.  Thematically, Chuck has rarely been stronger, and I absolutely love how much the message of the story informs the rising action.  It’s simply phenomenal, and though this arc doesn’t quite match up to season 2, I’d rank it on par with the show’s other 13-episode arc, season 3.1.

The second half of season four, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess.  It starts out strong, with a couple of great standalone adventures, and the introduction to Vivian and the new story arc is actually excellent.  From there, though, it’s clear that the writers don’t know quite where to go with this story.  They don’t spend enough time giving Vivian motivation, and then leave her plot thread hanging for a pointless two-episode arc about potential new Intersects that goes absolutely nowhere.  After this, she comes back in as a full-fledged villain, leaving everybody scratching their heads looking for the missing piece between “confused about life” to “dastardly evildoer.”  Four episodes suffer from these issues, one of the longest dry-spells in Chuck history, before the show rebounds with Wedding Planner.  The Vivian problem couldn’t entirely be erased at this point, but the writers do figure out how to make the most of what they have, and the last four episodes are great – the finale, especially, makes up for many of the flaws in season 4.2.  But those flaws are there, and they do suck a lot of the life out of season 4.2.

Still, it’s hard for me to complain too much, because when I say dry-spell, I’m talking about a set of episodes for which rock-bottom is a C.  A C is not a horrible grade, just a mediocre one.  Throughout this season – indeed, throughout the entire series – Chuck has never fallen below a C.  I grade shows based on what I think those shows are capable of, with the highest grade representing the best the series can do, and an F representing the absolute worst.  Chuck has never totally fumbled the ball.  There still isn’t a truly bad episode in this series.  Even when the story arc is a mess, the show has enough going for it that even the weakest episodes are still enjoyable on some level.  They’re weak in comparison to better hours, but in comparison to other TV shows that really can fall down to an F on their own scale, Chuck’s worst episodes are still lots of fun. 

Season 4.2 didn’t live up to the promise of the season’s first half, and while the show occasionally began to show signs of age, it’s nothing worth complaining too heavily about.  Chuck is still capable of doing its best, and that’s what matters.  Season 4 may not have been as good as the last two years (it’s still a step up from season 1), but that hardly matters when the show is still so enjoyable week to week.  Like episodes, I grade seasons based on the best Chuck can do, and despite the flaws, season 4 again left Chuck in A-grade territory.

Season 4 Rating: A–

Season 4 Year-End Awards!

Season 4 MVP: TIE between Sarah Walker and Alexi Volkoff

Last year, Morgan Grimes won this award with ease, and while Morgan wasn’t any less fun this year, two characters emerged as being even more compelling.  Most obviously is Timothy Dalton’s Alexi Volkoff.  Casting an actor of Dalton’s caliber was a huge coup for the show, and it paid off astoundingly well.  Volkoff is the best villain the show has ever had, and he made the season better every time he showed up.  Volkoff could be incredibly frightening and gut-bustlingly hilarious, often in the same scene, and he added a truly palpable feeling of gravitas to the season.  Certainly, season 4 will most strongly be remembered for Dalton’s contributions.  But fans shouldn’t overlook how important Yvonne Strahovski was to the show this year – I’d argue she contributed just as much, if not more, as Dalton. 

Sarah has always been one of the show’s best characters, with Strahovski doing the majority of the emotional heavy lifting throughout the series.  She shined throughout the first two seasons, in both poignant and ass-kicking moments.  Season 3 more or less defanged Sarah, taking her out of the action far too often.  Here, the writers rectified this problem, making Sarah more proactive and badass than ever before.  The results were always awesome.  At the same time, they tapped into Sarah’s softer side, and Strahovski’s performance had me either smiling giddily or tearing up time and time again.  I’d argue that no regular Chuck cast member has ever had this much strong material in one season.

Best Guest Star: Timothy Dalton as Alexi Volkoff

Well…duh…it kind of goes without saying, given that he won the last award, but Dalton was certainly this year’s best guest performer.  In fact, I’d say he’s easily the best guest star this show has ever had, and Chuck is a show known for fantastic guest casting.  By fitting in so perfectly with the show’s established tone and elevating the material along the way, Dalton raised the bar not just for guests on this show, but guests across all television.

Funniest Moment: Volkoff Comes to Dinner

Chuck Versus the Leftovers will always be remembered for the hilariously deranged sequence in which Alexi Volkoff demands to come over for Thanksgiving leftovers, just to prove to Mary Bartowski that he could be a good part of the family.  It’s completely insane, and more than a little bit frightening, but it’s also one of the funniest scenes Chuck has ever produced.  No one but Dalton could take such a crazy and creepy concept and actually make it this amusing.

Most Moving Moment: Morgan Moves Out

I was inclined to give this one to Chuck and Sarah’s practice wedding vows in the finale, but to be honest, I was even more moved by Chuck and Morgan’s vows of friendship from Chuck Versus the Masquerade.  The moment brought me to tears when Chuck and Morgan have to decide what to do with their Han Solo and Chewbacca toys, and at the end of their conversation, give each other a little high-five with the action figures.  Nothing involving action figures should be so incredibly powerful, but this show – and the great team of Zachary Levi and Joshua Gomez – found a way to perfectly summarize a friendship through the frame of beloved childhood memories.

Best Episode: Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger

Again, this one is a no-brainer.  Cliffhanger is second only to Chuck Versus the Ring as the best episode of the series, and in many ways, it’s just as satisfying as the legendary season 2 closer.  Filled with incredible moments of affirmation, Cliffhanger is the ultimate realization of four years of character development, showcasing how far each member of the ensemble has come since the beginning.  Chuck and Sarah especially shared some incredible moments together, and I’d argue that Mr. Bartowski has never been as heroic or endearing as he is here.   


--Tomorrow, Thursday October 27th, I will be posting a retrospective about the amazing life Chuck has had on NBC over the past few years.
--In two days, on Friday October 28th, Chuck will premiere its fifth and final season on NBC, and I’ll be there with a review shortly after the premiere airs at 7:00 PM (Mountain Time)

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