NBC is treating the return of “Chuck” as if it’s a prestige pay-cable drama, sending out five episodes to herald Sunday’s two-hour preview. That’s a bit much, frankly, for a show that possesses a breezy charm but mostly rehashes the old Danny Kaye formula of ordinary, awkward guy thrust into fantastic, dangerous world — in this case, as a reluctant super-spy. The marginally rated series received a stay of execution, but given the difficulty of attracting those not already invested in its future, the best chance of continued survival likely relies on the network’s diminished expectations.
The much-ballyhooed twist in the new season is that Chuck Bartkowski (the likable Zachary Levi) — the computer nerd who downloaded tons of top-secret information into his brain — can now take advantage of that storehouse of knowledge by “flashing,” becoming a kung-fu wizard, fencing master, etc., and kicking butt. Think Kaye snapping his fingers and becoming the world’s greatest swordsman in “The Court Jester.”
Unfortunately, these newfound skills haven’t resolved his relationship with dreamgirl/spy-extraordinaire Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), complicating his desire to become a useful addition to their clandestine government program. Moreover, his feelings for Sarah risk short-circuiting access to his hard-wired fighting abilities.
Chuck” is peppered with all kinds of nifty little moments. In the second hour, for example, there’s an amusing reference to “The Godfather,” and a scene where Sarah and another spy accessorize (they start out in their underwear, an asset the show leeringly employs) with hidden guns and knives. Another hour weaves in a “Fight Club” motif, of all things.
Adam Baldwin is consistently entertaining as the hard-bitten military man who mostly views Chuck with benign contempt, and there’s plenty of clever guest casting in this salvo of episodes — including “Superman Returns'” Brandon Routh.
Get Smart” did the whole spy spoof thing first and better, though “Chuck” certainly does it well enough. Still, the whole Chuck-Sarah relationship has been played from so many angles as to have grown a bit tedious — how many longing looks can two characters exchange? — and the actual capers are generally pretty slim. Despite a semi-serialized riff involving a shadowy organization, the stakes never feel particularly steep.
While our hero customarily triumphs, unless the show can download a few more fans, “Chuck” could be fighting a losing battle — one that might leave the show as just another “flash” in the pan.