The concept is as old as Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” — ordinary guy sucked into fantastic web of intrigue — and has been updated as recently as UPN’s short-lived “Jake 2.0,” where a nerd also found himself suddenly tech-enhanced. Banish the inevitable comparisons, however, and “Chuck” possesses modest charm, impressive stunt work and another mildly appealing reluctant hero. NBC has wisely positioned the show adjacent to “Heroes,” where this slick but shallow hour should have a chance at downloading an audience, given that the staunchest competition is the older, more-female-skewing “Dancing With the Stars.”
“Chuck” opens with an action sequence like they used to make ’em, but that’s a prelude to the main event, in which a cornered agent dispatches what ol’ Hitch liked to call a MacGuffin (in this case, mega-bytes of military secrets) to a long-forgotten not-quite-friend: Chuck (Zachary Levi), an underachiever who works at the local Nerd Herd, a tech support venue staffed by the socially challenged.
Chuck is again rocked when he meets Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), a beautiful blond who, it turns out, is a super-spy desperately trying to save him from forces that would acquire his newly downloaded knowledge. (The pilot misses no opportunity to strip Strahovski down to her underwear, which given the target audience, probably isn’t a bad strategy.)
Created by “The OC’s” Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak, “Chuck” also exhibits the trademark stamp of exec producer/director McG’s films in its frenetic pacing — here wedded to an underdog Everyman instead of, say, “Charlie’s Angels.” In the broad strokes, it’s similar to CW’s “Reaper,” with a bit less slacker chic to it.
Levi is likable enough in his shellshocked response, Strahovski looks great as what amounts to a latter-day Emma Peel, and Adam Baldwin adds solid support as a tough-as-nails government operative who doesn’t relish allowing this marshmallow Walter Mitty-type into his secret little world.
Still, there’s room for skepticism as to whether the series can maintain such a brisk level of action on an episodic basis (and budget) — having frontloaded the pilot, as is so often the case, with an assortment of elaborate chases. On the plus side, the second and third episodes exhibit some of the same breezy tone and generous portions of action — including a kick-ass fight sequence — as well as hints of a darker quality that could add welcome texture to the ongoing story.
“Chuck” won’t need huge numbers to look like a hit for NBC, though the network is taking a risk sandwiching “Heroes” between two freshmen dramas (the other being “Journeyman”) and hoping its first-season glow rubs off on them. With a little luck, “Chuck” (and to some extent NBC’s other newbie “Bionic Woman”) could fill an escapist void left since “Alias'” demise, albeit here with tongue pressed more firmly in cheek.
Of course, if the series can’t sustain that formula then it’s merely “Jake 3.0,” in which case, prepare to hit “Delete.”