TV Review: 'Chuck'
NBC's comedic spy thriller just wants to have fun
You could do a heck of a lot worse than "Chuck," an affable, exceptionally fun new series that debuts at 8 p.m. ET Monday (Sept. 24) on NBC.
Created by Josh Schwartz (of "The O.C." fame) and Chris Fedak, "Chuck" hits all the familiar bases of the spy genre: There are secret identities, double agents and not-entirely-plausible technology at every turn. But at its center is the unlikeliest of heroes: Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), a college dropout who works in tech support at a big-box retailer and the kind of guy who, when asked what he wants to do with his life, says, "I'm working on my five-year plan. Just trying to pick a font."
It's sort of like "Alias," only with Marshall as the lead character and Sydney in a supporting role.
We meet our hero as he's trying to sneak out of his own birthday party, thrown for him by his well-meaning but slightly overbearing sister (Sarah Lancaster, "What About Brian"). At the same time, his old college roommate is on the run after downloading a huge database of government secrets. Just before he dies, he e-mails the whole shebang -- to Chuck, who opens the e-mail and sees a blur of images that burn every last bit of data into his brain.
Enter CIA agent Sarah Walker (Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski), the Sydney to Chuck's Marshall. She's sent to track down the database and get it safely back to Washington, unaware that it's not on a hard drive but in Chuck's head. Complications, as they always do, ensue, as she persuades him to ask her out and, wouldn't you know, discovers she actually kind of likes her target. It's a good thing, too, because a National Security Agency operative (geek icon Adam Baldwin, "Serenity") with far colder blood is also on Chuck's trail.
The premiere benefits greatly from the direction of McG (I know, it sounds strange to say that, but bear with me), who keeps a nice balance between action scenes -- there's a pretty fine car chase involving Chuck's tiny company car -- and the comedic elements in Schwartz and Fedak's script. McG also tones down some of his stylistic flourishes, setting a template for the series that feels reachable on a weekly basis.
Levi, whose most prominent previous role was in ABC's middling sitcom "Less Than Perfect," steps up to his first series lead with aplomb. Chuck may be a bit of an underachiever, but as played with self-mocking charm by Levi, you can't help but like the guy. He also shows fine chemistry with Strahovski -- neither one is quite sure what to make of their new working relationship -- and Joshua Gomez, who plays Chuck's close friend and co-worker at a Buy More store. Baldwin is his reliable gruff/funny self, and Lancaster, whose character is a little underwritten at first, makes the most of her moments as the sister who just wants Chuck to make more of himself, and possibly move out of her apartment.
As the show goes on, the question will be how well Schwartz and Fedak are able to bend the tropes of the spy thriller to their purpose without going for the most obvious jokes. Early signs are encouraging: NBC sent out three episodes, and they get better as they go along, with Chuck and Sarah getting to know one another and the parallels between his everyday job and his secret life coming into sharper focus.
Schwartz and Fedak don't appear to be after anything too profound with "Chuck" -- and that's more than OK. They've instead made a prime example of escapist TV, in the best sense of the word.