With a recent Emmy win, nearly eight million viewers per week and its own comic book, it’s hard to understand why “Chuck” has so far failed to achieve cult status. In comparison, creator Josh Schwartz’s other series, “Gossip Girl,” receives barely a third of “Chuck’s” ratings, yet garners 10 times the hype.
NBC’s “Chuck,” a charming blend of “The Office” comedy, “Alias” action and “Heroes” sci-fi, chronicles the misadventures of computer nerd Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi, “Less Than Perfect”) after he inadvertently downloads government secrets into his brain. What ensues, throughout the series, are seamless tonal shifts between Chuck’s personal life as a computer repairman and his weekly spy capers with CIA operatives Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Casey (Adam Baldwin).
At the onset of its second season, “Chuck” still manages to “save the world at $11 an hour” (a series tagline), yet writers have purposefully modified its format from weekly cases to seasonal story arcs. For returning fans, this serves as an innovative method to prevent “Chuck” from growing stale and provides insight into Chuck’s double life for those unfamiliar with the show’s multifaceted backstory.
The engaging second season premiere, which aired Monday, cemented the show’s place in NBC’s prime time lineup. The episode, though bursting with “Chuck’s” signature balance of action and comedy, wisely chose to focus on the romantic tension developing between Chuck and Sarah as they pose as a couple in order to maintain their cover. The chemistry between the characters is palpable and would seem ludicrous within the context of the show’s outlandish moments if not for the actors’ earnest performances. Chuck’s humorous and often successful efforts to woo Sarah while scaring away scores of armed rogue agents by quoting a video game would be completely ridiculous if attempted by a less capable actor.
The entire episode — in which Sarah and Casey recover stolen computer chips to create a model of the secrets in Chuck’s brain — stretches the realm of plausibility. Fortunately, the cast’s impeccable comedic timing elevates the dialogue, contributing to the show’s success as both an inventive addition to the spy-fi genre and a parody of it.
Scattered throughout the episode are scenes in which supposed espionage experts Sarah and Casey make vain attempts to assume undercover retail jobs. Such moments work on two levels: as relief from the high-speed pace of the show’s Emmy-winning stunts, as well as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on how out of touch the government is with society.
Schwartz’s work on the show is deliberate and often unconventional: He purposefully never puts a gun in Chuck’s hands, in order to ensure the character’s status as the everyman, the reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless. During the course of the episode, Chuck and friends partake in Twinkie-eating contests and mock cagefights in order to obtain a managerial position at work. It’s an undertaking that would fail in the hands of another cast and crew, but the “Chuck” team makes it work.
The producers’ acute attention to detail (every set, prop and costume has distinct flair), well-developed characters and endless imagination allow the show to reach unprecedented territory that similar geek-centric series such as “The Big Bang Theory,” “Heroes” and “Reaper” have yet to charter.
Does this ensure “Chuck” a place alongside these shows in weekly water-cooler conversations? Not necessarily, though if the premiere is any indication, “Chuck” is certainly heading in the right direction. Schwartz has the keen ability to retain the action and comedic elements that made it successful in the first place while simultaneously making entertaining efforts to broaden its appeal.
“Chuck” airs at 8 p.m. Mondays on NBC. It received three and a half stars out of four.