Thursday, June 18, 2009
Back when Chuck premiered in 2007, I repeatedly confused it for the CW series Reaper, even though I watched neither. Having now watched several episodes of that series as well as the first season of this one, I can understand my confusion: both are about shiftless 20-somethings in dead-end jobs – they even both work in generic department stores – who suddenly have incredible abilities thrust upon them and find themselves forced into extraordinary lives filled with heroic deeds.
Also like Reaper (based on my limited experience with each series) is its formulaic structure: Chuck is a spy comedy, so every episode entails an assignment that invariably goes wrong, providing a fun mix of laughs and action. Yet the quality of its writing and a superb cast make the show an engaging, if occasionally rote, series that gives us what seems nearly impossible these days: light-hearted comedy that’s genuinely funny.
The titular Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) works at an electronics store as an expert in the Nerd Herd (a clear rip-off of the Geek Squad) and lives with his sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and her boyfriend Devon (Ryan McPartlin), whom he dubs “Captain Awesome.” Both are doctors, which only adds to Chuck’s insecurity. When he’s not at work, he plays video games with buddy Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez). Chuck is so socially awkward that the very first thing we see him do is attempt to sneak out of his own birthday party.
We discover that Chuck used to attend Stanford until his roommate, Bryce Larkin, stole his girlfriend and ended up getting him kicked out. Chuck mentions to a disinterested guest – a friend of Ellie’s –that Bryce is an accountant now. We then see Bryce downloading something called the Intersect before being chased by NSA agents. Major John Casey (Adam Baldwin), traps him on a roof, but Bryce emails the information to his old roommate before he dies. When Chuck opens it, images flash rapidly on-screen for hours, and Chuck passes out when they finally cease. Chuck assumes it was all a bad dream, until certain visual cues spark visions of government secrets.
Soon, the CIA and NSA, who shared information via the Intersect come looking for their classified documents. The NSA sends Casey, while the CIA dispatches Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski), only for both to discover that Chuck's computer crashed, which means the only surviving "copy" of the Intersect is located in the put-upon nerd's head. The intelligence agencies need Chuck alive until they can set up another Intersect. Casey gets a job at the Buy More and an apartment across from Chuck's, while Sarah poses as Chuck's girlfriend (much to his alternating chagrin and delight).
The pilot was directed by McG, who also serves as executive producer, and the show actually looks like he made it even when other directors take over. Wait, where are you going?! Don't let that frighten you; show creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak use the middle-aged man-child's style for intentional comedy. Nearly every episode features Sarah, who fleshes out her cover by working at a local hot dog joint, in melee combat that highlights the faux-Germanic lederhosen/short skirts her undercover job forces her to wear. When Buy More manager "Big Mike" flies out of his office in a rage to find and berate Morgan, the film momentarily cuts to slo-motion for absolutely no reason, and the result is gloriously absurd.
The dialogue not only plays into this elaborate action parody but reveals the writers to be just as nerdy as the lead; each episode features spoken and visual nods to Bond films, Lost, Big Trouble in Little China, Star Wars. There's even an entire episode devoted to ripping off Casablanca (with an espionage twist, of course). Much of the dialogue in the action scenes, particularly in the early episodes, is intentionally over-expository, spitting out chunks of plot all at once while maintaining its fast-paced wit.
The scripts are taut, but they require just the right voices to pull them off convincingly; fortunately, Chuck has a cast of mostly unknowns so well-suited to their roles you'd swear Joss Whedon helped them sort out the auditions. Baldwin is certainly playing to type, but he gets to have some fun with the image; where Firefly took Animal Mother and The Bodyguard and let him be funny, Chuck allows him be funny while warping the molding pan a bit. Strahovski balances professionalism and sentiment nicely, while Lancaster, Gomez and McPartlin are fantastic supporting players. But the biggest revelation is Levi himself: firmly channeling a young Tom Hanks, Levi has a a childlike innocence and unassailable comic timing. In a show that points out the stiffness and absurdity of the spy genre, Levi brings the nuance necessary to make it an engaging series and not simply a mildly interesting parody (the other actors bring extra dimensions to their characters as well).
The season hits a bit of a rut in the middle of the season when the standalone plots start running together, but the formation of a concrete arc -- which introduces the evil espionage ring Fulcrum as a long-term foe -- in the final stretch finishes the season with a bang. We also learn a bit of backstory for some of these characters, including Bryce's ties to Sarah and why he got his buddy kicked out of Stanford in the first place. They're not massively rewarding character moments, but they make the show more interesting and let us explore these people a bit more.
While far from perfect, Chuck's blend of physical comedy, sharp wit, funny-but-well-made action and a heaping slab of winking self-deprecation makes it one of the most instantly entertaining programs on T.V., and (along with How I Met Your Mother) proof that, in the age of the narrative, arc-based series, a good old fashioned sitcom can still work magnificently.