By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall
NBC, Mondays, 8/79/8 E/C
Written by Josh Schwartz & Chris Fedak
Directed by McGr
I shouldn’t like Chuck, the new Monday night series that NBC is calling an “action comedy”. It has every offensive stereotype ever launched against intellectuals: the geeky, socially backward misfit, the over-familiarity with videogames, the panic in the presence of a pretty girl, right down to the obligatory pocket protector. The only thing Chuck doesn’t have is a pair of glasses held together with adhesive tape. Yet there is something sweet, something innocent about the title character to this smartly executed, if naively conceived offering. Against my will, I found myself enjoying it.
Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi, “Less Than Perfect”) is a twentysomething “nerd” who supervises the “Nerd Herd” at “Buy More” electronics store for eleven bucks an hour. Pining over a girl his uber-cool roommate at Stanford took away from him years ago, he’s the classic slacker stuck in a dead-end job. He lives with his sister, Ellie (Sarah Lancaster, Everwood) and her perfect blond-Aryan boyfriend Devon, aka Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin, Living with Fran). Joshua Gomez (Without a Trace) is Chuck’s best friend, foil, and co-worker, Morgan–if possible, an even geekier geek. Chuck’s co-workers at Buy More are other nerds, including one Asian girl. Did I mention offensive stereotypes?
Alienated from his own birthday party, he’s mooning in his bedroom (decorated, naturally, in Late Freshman with a touch of Apple Store) when a surprise email pops up from the very same roommate who stole his girl. It’s not a birthday greeting–it’s a data dump. Surprise! The uber-cool ex-roomie is actually a spy, using Chuck to offload stolen data. Chuck is hypnotized as a flickering sequence of images running at just under seizure-inducing speed downloads into his brain. As we later discover, this library of pictures comprises the entire contents of a supercomputer combining the archives of the FBI, the CIA, and for all we know, MI5, the KGB and Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Since the original files are erased, this makes Chuck, unwittingly, the last repository of these secrets. Immediately, two secret agents are dispatched to a) find out if he copied the data to a backup and b) kill him. Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) is a lovely blonde killer CIA agent who finds Chuck appealing; NSA agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin, Firefly) does not. They trip over one another repeatedly in their pursuit of the oblivious Chuck, who keeps wondering why he suddenly understands phased deployment of traffic enforcement units and other arcane subjects.
This is a really silly plot. A real geek/nerd could tear it apart one-handed, blindfolded, in less time than it takes to say “Lara Croft”. It was an okay plot when it was William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic, less so when it was a 1995 movie starring Keanu Reeves; since then, even elementary school children have learned that you cannot download data into your brain. That’s what iPods are for. And even kindergartners know that you back up your data so it won’t get erased by spies.
Lucky for us, television is less about plot than it is about character, and here Chuck fares a lot better. Giving Chuck a pretty, affectionate sister warms his home life and makes him less of a loser. Adam Baldwin reminds us of the lost treasure that was Fireflywith some of his zingers (on being assigned to Los Angeles, he quips, “I was feeling a little pasty.”). Strahovski’s Sarah wrestles with her assignment — kill Chuck — when what she apparently wants to do is protect Chuck. And there is something about him that cries out for protection and comfort.
NBC knows a winner when it broadcasts one, and it’s clear that executive producer Josh Schwartz and executive producer-director McG are modelling Chuck Bartowski on “The Office”‘s Jim Halpert–tall, lanky guy with a mop of dark, unruly hair, dressed in boring, off-the-rack shirts and old-man ties, socially repressed but possessed of a killer sense of humor. Nothing surprising there–imitation is the sincerest form of Hollywood. The challenge lies in making Chuck a believable action hero, which he’s required to do from the mid-break onward. Levi saves Chuck from being a complete wimp/dork with his wide, innocent smile, his spot-on timing, his self-awareness. Chuck comes across as dazed rather than shy, and makes his soul-searching scene on a beach with Sarah Walker more believable. Scenes that could have been one long cliché, such as Chuck’s first date with Sarah, turn into something funny and revealing. Chuck makes Sarah laugh, and that makes him happy, and we see that, and it makes him a warm and sympathetic character. If this show succeeds, it will be because Zachary Levi sells this character to the audience.
Levi has plenty of support in this mission. The action sequences play like they’re choreographed by the Three Stooges. In one scene, Chuck and Morgan come home to find a ninja in his house, stealing his Powermac. When Morgan tries to attack the ninja, the two friends wind up in an absurd tangle that owes everything to precision timing. A clever dance/fight, a car chase in reverse, an acrobatic chase sequence which almost requires levitation–all the action bits are impeccably paced. Director McG (Supernatural) deftly manages not to undercut the tension while still portraying Chuck’s obliviousness, dawning understanding, and terror. When the story changes tone, from slapstick comedy to action/spy thriller, McG keeps the energy high and the pace sharp. Writers/creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak keep the dialogue snappy and fresh.
Like most pilots, there are rough patches, awkward expository moments, glitches. But I keep coming back to one scene, set on a rooftop, where Chuck must convince the two agents that they need him more than he needs them–and they should let him live. The balance of fear, anger, frustration, and whimsy in that scene lets me believe that this show has enough potential to find an audience. It won’t be hard, slotted in as it is before Heroes. A fun blend of absurd, flat-color sitcom gags, melodrama, and paranoid spy thriller,Chuck is a romp. If the writers can find the courage to play against the stereotypes they’ve front-loaded into this show, it can be a really original series.