Secret-agent meh

NBC’s Chuck is a concept in search of a show
By RYAN STEWART  |  October 21, 2008

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UNREALIZED: The idea of the super-nerd as superspy is always good, but Chuck isn’t much more than an idea.

Almost a year after the Writers Guild went on strike, the TV schedule is still screwed up. Writers couldn’t write pilots for the new TV season, and so the networks had fewer new programs to choose from. Which means that many of last year’s new shows that otherwise might not have survived to season two now get a second chance. Like Chuck (Mondays at 9 pm), which has already snagged a full-season order from NBC. That’s good news in theory, but Chuck remains a fun concept in search of a show to match it.

The title character (Zachary Levi) is a nerd in the throes of post-college malaise. He works at the help desk in a big-box electronics store, where, after a series of bizarre events, he winds up with a collection of government secrets beamed directly into his brain, Matrix-style. That makes him an asset to the CIA and the NSA, which use his brain to aid them in matters of national security. Chuck has two federal agents protecting him: John Casey (Adam Baldwin), the type of guy who winks at a photo of Ronald Reagan during target practice, and easy-on-the-eyes Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), who’s attracted to Chuck — except they can’t go out if she’s assigned to him. As for those secrets, Chuck’s only way to access them is to see something that triggers the data, which come to him in flashes reminiscent of the visual flourishes in Requiem for a Dream. So he has to do a lot of field work. Season two thus far has centered on a MacGuffin device that also contains all the intelligence found in Chuck’s cranium — if they can find it, he can have his old life back.

The idea of the super-nerd as superspy is a great one (as Get Smart proved), but Chuck remains more potential than actual. Part of the problem is with Chuck himself: he’s not a total dweeb, just an ordinary nice guy who happens to know a lot about computers. It doesn’t help that Levi looks like a cross between John Krasinski and Adam Brody (Chuck and The O.C. were both created by Josh Schwartz.). Conventional Hollywood wisdom would probably hold that a show focused on Chuck’s definitively dorkier best friend, Morgan (Joshua Gomez), wouldn’t work, but it could be an interesting experiment.

And then, though Chuck is programmed as a comic-action hybrid, it doesn’t do either particularly well. From the first two episodes of season two, I can recall two good laughs. In episode one, Chuck chides Agent Casey for a Schwarzenegger-esque quip after driving through the front of a Chinese restaurant: “What, did you think about how you were going to say that on the way over?” In episode two, a character consults Morgan for romantic advice; we later see him use a Klondike bar as a tool of seduction. Otherwise, the jokes feel overworked and forgettable. And the action sequences are both rote and low-budget, heavy on quick cuts, light on actual threat. Here’s one suggestion: introduce a villain who poses real danger to Chuck but is also compelling to watch. The show isn’t a total wash — there’s some fine work from the supporting cast. But it has some work to do before we can say it’s made a big season-two creative leap. At least it will have the opportunity to do so.

  Topics: Television , Ronald Reagan, John Krasinski, Central Intelligence Agency,  More more >
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