Chuck (NBC, Mondays at 8 p.m. ET) stands, not disagreeably, as a hybrid of spy spoof and romantic comedy—a homeland-security action caper. The credits list McG (the embarrassingly named director of the Charlie’s Angels flicks) as one of the executive producers, so let’s warily praise him for the escapist fizz of Chuck’s action sequences. While we’re at it, let us suppose that co-creator Josh Schwartz, previously responsible for the generation-defining froth of The O.C., brought his talent for young-adult melodrama to bear in making Chuck feisty and zeitgeist-y. Their new show has both the nerve to link up twentysomething malaise and 21st-century terror-angst and the good nature to make the proposition look endearing.
The protagonist, Chuck Bartowski, holds down two jobs, one in retail, the other in espionage. Though the 9-to-5 gig finds Chuck clocking in at a superstore called Buy More, the back story insists that he’s made of nobler stuff than pop culture’s usual service-industry slackers. A few years earlier, Chuck left Stanford without a degree, the guiltless fall guy in a cheating scandal perpetrated by a friend who, for good measure, also swiped the love of his life. In the pilot, the old chum, having leveraged an entry-level job at the Central Intelligence Agency into a lucrative sideline as a double agent, had occasion to download a lurid trove of state secrets straight into Chuck’s frontal lobe.
A glance at a relevant bit of data—a stolen Impressionist masterpiece, say, or a jagged scar on the supple neck of an arms dealer—now triggers seizures of recognition in the lad, and the camera pulls in on one of Chuck’s hazel peepers as visions of international intrigue whiz across his mind’s eye. Thus, while his colleagues troop through a workplace comedy indebted to the rhythms of The Office, Chuck maladroitly dashes about in the company of the two government agents dispatched to baby-sit him. The NSA sends John Casey, played by Adam Baldwin as a buzz-cut slab of machismo. His job is to scowl like the butch older brother in an ‘80s teen comedy; Chuck’s is to make him grudgingly proud.
Meanwhile, the kid’s CIA handler is one Sarah Walker, a sunny blonde who poses as his new girlfriend and, no less importantly, disguises herself as another strip-mall drone, a waitress at a gourmet frankfurter joint dubbed Weinerlicious. The cover enables the actress in the part, Yvonne Strahovski, to glide about the screen in a modestly flirty approximation of Bavarian peasant garb, her hair pulled back in glowing pigtails. The preteen extras who scurry into Weinerlicious to gawk at Sarah are surrogates for the kids admiring her from their living room and also for their dads, who can give her a gander without feeling like dirty old men. Wholesome treat that the show is, it requires its female stars to project nothing more salacious than self-assured pep and healthy prettiness.
Chuck, as played by Zachary Levi, is himself an experimental sort of lead character. Check out the cute neuroses, the tousled air of disaffection, the indie-rock soundtrack: This is a post-Zach Braff action hero, a hunky version of Sensitive Guy. Jack Bauer bits of wish fulfillment have their uses, and so does Chuck, a Get Smart for a 24 world.