Way to Go, 'Chuck'!

Do you spy a hit? Zachary Levi (with Yvonne Strahovski) has the title role of a geeky schmo at a big-box store who's drawn in the world of espionage.
Do you spy a hit? Zachary Levi (with Yvonne Strahovski) has the title role of a geeky schmo at a big-box store who's drawn in the world of espionage. (By Dean Hendler -- Nbc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007

"Chuck" is Chuck-full of elements already available in wretched excess (the only kind of excess TV knows) in prime time. There's the stereotypical wacky slacker, and lots of tongue-in-cheek, high-tech derring-do, which, if you're not in a playful mood, will come off as derring-don't.

But the show, premiering tonight on NBC, also has a happily palpable likability going for it, a lot of that courtesy of Zachary Levi, who plays the unlikely and in fact unwilling hero. Chuck Bartowski is a suburban schlemiel whose passive existence as supervisor of the Nerd Herd at the local Buy More is shattered one day by a portentous piece of e-mail from Chuck's old Stanford roommate Bryce Larkin (Matthew Bomer).

Larkin is some sort of secret agent involved in rooftop chases, spectacular explosions and the like. He works in a room whose walls, floor and ceiling are all papered with changing images, like the inside of a big brain. That e-mail, sent in feverish desperation, is going to plunge poor unprepared Chuck into that same kind of world, and predictably but amusingly, he's one fish who quickly begins to miss his water, lukewarm though it may have been.

As a hapless and helpless victim of circumstance, Chuck is a distant relation to Roger Thornhill, the advertising-man hero of Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," whose life goes haywire when he's mistaken for a secret agent named George Kaplan. Producer and series creator Josh Schwartz has in fact decorated the series pilot with many a Hitchcock reference, including a rooftop chase as in "Vertigo," the prevention of a political assassination as in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and that Hitchcock favorite, the icy blonde -- in this case Yvonne Strahovski as one of the prides of the CIA.

The e-note somehow implanted a dizzy gallery of information in Chuck's head, and he finds he's being pursued and besieged with annoying and yet exhilarating frequency. This interferes with, but does not replace, such Nerd Herd duties as placating a cute little ballerina whose daddy forgot to load the camcorder with which he thought he recorded his daughter's dance recital. Obviously, that guy's in Big Trouble, too.

Details of mall life in modern America are wittily observed and make a cleverly incongruous background for Chuck's narrow escapes, mad dashes and clumsy attempts at swashbuckling. But he's no dope; if he were, he'd lose our sympathy soon enough. Behind that pocket protector, he's playful as a puppy.

To steal from the title of a great old Chuck Jones cartoon, this isn't just "Chuck" but "Chuck Amok," and if the premise and execution remind you of teen-aimed movies with similar setups and characters, at least it should remind you of the good ones, not the lame-o's. "Chuck" cheerfully brightens up NBC's Monday night of video fantastique and does it in a pretty magnifique way.

'The Big Bang Theory'

Writer-producer Chuck Lorre named the nerdy heroes of his new sitcom Sheldon and Leonard, apparently in homage to Sheldon Leonard, the versatile writer, director and actor who played gangsterly types in such films as "Guys and Dolls" and "It's a Wonderful Life" (he was the bartender) and produced such classic TV shows as Andy Griffith's and Dick Van Dyke's. Leonard, who died in 1997 at the age of 89, would probably appreciate the tribute, because "Big Bang" is the funniest new sitcom of the season.

Laugh-packed though the series pilot (tonight on CBS) is, the show also suffers from a kind of conceptual claustrophobia that could limit its appeal and its life span. Although the funky-clunky pairing of the two characters and the actors who play them is deft, the universe they inhabit is awfully narrow. It would be gratifying and certainly entertaining to see Lorre prove that theory wrong in the weeks and maybe months ahead.

Jim Parsons plays Sheldon, the spindly one, and Johnny Galecki plays Leonard, the stubby one. They share an apartment as well as a fondness for "Star Trek" and quantum mechanics, and they don't finish each other's sentences so much as supply each other's punch lines. They are proud to announce they have "a combined IQ of 360" and though Sheldon can lay claim to 212 friends on MySpace, Leonard points out that he has never met any of them.

Sheldon: "That's the beauty of it!"

Into their Laurel-and-Hardy lives comes a tattered princess, the equivalent perhaps of the nutty heiress in old '30s comedies: Kaley Cuoco as Penny, a shapely flake who moves into Apartment 413, next to the nerds', upon ending an affair with a big bruiser across town, an oaf who kept her TV set. That little detail is the catalyst for what passes for a plot on the premiere: Sheldon and Leonard, understandably smitten to the point of digressing from their daily routines, go to Penny's former apartment to retrieve the TV.

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