Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #16

Series Title: Chuck | Years: 2007-2012, NBC | Starring: Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Joshua Gomez, Ryan McPartlin, Sarah Lancaster, Adam Baldwin | Theme Music: Cake

Thirty-two-year-old Josh Schwartz, the creator of the canceled FOX-TV series The O.C., and the creator and current show-runner of the hit CW teen soap Gossip Girl, also created (with Chris Fedak) the action-comedy spy series Chuck.

While I like Gossip Girl the least of these three shows, it is a fact that teenagers aren’t angels. They drink, take drugs, have sex, and act just like young people trying to find their own place in the world. But The O.C.? When it was great, I loved it. It had a spectacular first season that was nearly as good as the comedy-drama Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), but was set in upscale Newport Beach, California. It was often hilarious and smart, and spoke frankly about what it’s like to be a teenager, when your hormones are raging and you might have interests that aren’t considered cool. Seth Cohen (played by Adam Brody) was a nerd icon for a reason, people. Josh Schwartz put so much story into The O.C.’s first season, that an average show would have taken three or four years to run it all out episodically. Beverly Hills, 90210 might have used many of the surprises in that series as season finale cliffhangers.

The O.C. would change things up while in the middle of a season, the pacing was intense, and it had a great cast. Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) came from a background that might have led him to jail had he not been adopted by the Cohens. But as the show progressed, it revealed a sensitive if angry young man who had the quiet ambition to be an architect. Seth Cohen was your typical nerd, but like Ryan he was a smart young man who rejected the shallowness of his ritzy surroundings. He loved anime and comics; he also loved Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), and it was a joy to watch their relationship develop over the series’ four years. Summer herself was your typical California rich girl, but actress Bilson and writer Schwartz brought to her character a really great heart and a sense of humor. Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) started off as a good character, too, but … well, there are reasons people celebrated at the end of season three. I could go on about how great the rest of the cast was, how the quality dipped in the second and third seasons as the show’s popularity grew and Schwartz got overwhelmed and Fox interfered …

But we’re here to talk about Chuck, aren’t we? You just have to know where Schwartz came from, and what he learned from the successes and failures of his first series.

In the Chuck pilot, Chuck Bartowsky (Levi) was seen climbing out his bedroom window to escape his birthday party full of women his doctor sister, Ellie (Lancaster), wanted him to meet. And on his wall was a poster of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the story of a regular guy who gets caught up in a world in which he has no idea how to survive. It’s a screwball classic and my favorite Hitchcock, and it fits Chuck perfectly as a metaphor.

Chuck is a regular guy, a tech repairman for Buy More’s Nerd Herd (a very close and clever version of Best Buy’s Geek Squad). He lives with his sister and her boyfriend, “Captain Awesome,” played by Ryan McPartlin. (Captain Awesome--another doctor, whose real name has been revealed only once so far, and then very quickly--seems to be, well, awesome at just about everything he does.) In other words, Chuck has no life. No life whatsoever. Although he was once a promising student at Stanford University, he got kicked out for cheating, and then his girlfriend was stolen away by his best friend. Chuck’s life hasn’t been the same since. Your classic underachiever, he excels juuuuuuuuust enough in the Nerd Herd to be mildly winning but still anonymous. The message: If you don’t have a lot, it doesn’t hurt as much if it’s taken away.

But then, much against Chuck Bartowsky’s will, he’s dragged into a world that combines equal measures of James Bond and 24.

At the beginning of the 2007 pilot for this series, we saw a good-looking young man fleeing for his life and using the French martial art parkour on his pursuers. It was a scene straight out of a Bond movie. Running into a clear white room, he found a computer and hacked into it. After locating the file he wanted, he e-mailed it to the first person he found on his contact list. As it turned out, the fleeing man was Chuck’s old Stanford roommate, now a “rogue” CIA operative. And the person to whom he sent that file?

Chuck, of course.

The morning after, our man Chuck opened up his e-mail folder and found a riddle from his former roommate concerning an old video game. By answering it, Chuck unlocked an entire server’s worth of sensitive information--formerly accessible only to the U.S. government. Suddenly, a flood of images crossed the screen, and Chuck blacked out from the overload of information he was seeing and that his brain was absorbing subliminally. Now, Chuck’s head is filled with all of the American government’s secrets. That transference didn’t make a ton of sense, and it was very science-fiction-y; but it was a cool idea, and Chuck has such a winking tone to it, that viewers are willing to accept its premise.

Not surprisingly, the feds send a couple of spies in pursuit of Chuck: CIA agent Sarah Walker (Strahovski) and NSA agent John Casey (veteran actor Baldwin, who plays the part to gruff and scary perfection--he could scare Jack Bauer). In the pilot, lovely blond Sarah conned Chuck into going on a date with her to see what he knows, and in the process of their exchange, government goons attacked, resulting in a really cool nightclub dance/fight scene, followed by a car chase in a Nerd Herd VW Bug. In the end, Sarah and Casey both decided that naïve Chuck can be used, since they can’t otherwise get the information out of his head without killing him. Casey takes a job as a Buy More salesman, while Sarah works at a hot dog joint in the same mall. Wackiness ensues as Sarah and Casey use whatever information Chuck flashes on (that’s how his brain works now--he sees a picture or a name and his brain latches onto related information) and go off to fight the bad guys. Poor Chuck is usually dragged along in some way.

While it never takes itself too seriously, there are some great quiet moments in this series, not limited to the portrayal of Chuck’s lonely life or the growing attraction between Chuck and Sarah. Actor Levi totally sells the emotional moments, as when his character pleads with Sarah to at least tell him her middle name, since he knows that “Sarah” is a cover, and he wants to know her a little better. And he’s a great physical comedian. Levi can do a really convincing pratfall, right up there with Dick Van Dyke, and his facial and vocal reactions to the craziness in his new life are wonderful. My favorite moment of the show thus far came when Chuck asked Captain Awesome to teach him how to tango, so he could go undercover at a high-class social event. At said engagement, he did indeed tango, but asked the woman to lead, because he’d only learned how to do the woman’s part of the dance. The ensuing tango made for a classic comic TV scene, as Chuck was embarrassed at having to follow, but totally committed to the tango so he wouldn’t blow his cover. (To see some of that scene for yourself, click here.)

A few critics have complained that Zachary Levi is too tall and good-looking to be a nerd. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s totally believable. Levi plays Chuck as a normal guy with pitifully few social skills, someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin. Chuck Bartowsky would rather be fixing a computer, or maybe looking at porn and playing video games with his best friend, Morgan Grimes (Joshua Gomez), than talking to a girl. After all, those other things can’t reject and hurt him. It’s a very tricky performance and especially painful, because you see that women could really go for Chuck--he just doesn’t know how to begin in that arena. I know a lot of guys just like Chuck. Heck, I was that guy once upon a time and still have to work at doing better.

Chuck is a great show, with a lot of heart, a keen intelligence both for pop culture (in the pilot, Chuck did the Vicki Vale riff from Prince’s Batman soundtrack), and clever plotting with a sharp sense of humor. The pacing, as in The O.C., is quick and snappy.

All I have left to talk about here is the show’s opening (embedded above). For my money, it’s the best and most original main title sequence I’ve seen in a long time that was not designed for a pay-cable TV series. It starts out with a shot of Chuck Bartowsky, then the camera zooms in on his Buy More badge. Unexpectedly, a stick figure with a briefcase pops out of that badge, one step ahead of gunfire. As that figure scurries onward (to the sound of a pop jazz theme--a chunk of “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” by the alternative-rock band Cake), the names and drawn faces of the Chuck cast flash by. The little stick figure is one hell of a survivor, by the way, riding a bullet spit out from a gun, evading a ninja, running from a helicopter, and of course climbing out of Chuck’s nose (those latter two acts both references again to North by Northwest). It works because it’s a tongue-in-cheek idea of the Bond universe invading the life of a normal guy, and the best Bond movie openings are always stylized and filled with dramatic action.

I can’t imagine a more perfect opening for Chuck. It’s screwball and stylish, but still conveys the show’s sense of danger. This series is a pop song of a drama, light-sounding but with hidden depths, so that’s why the band Cake is so perfect to supply the music. I love the show for the way it seamlessly mixes its super-spy drama premise with a lightning-speed pace and a comedic touch. While it winks at the audience, Chuck doesn’t skimp on emotional content or brains. It’s well worth your Monday nights at 8 p.m. Reward good entertainment by giving it your time.


bish8 said...

I've nmot watched this show yet, but I'm intrigued. Guess I'll have to pick up the first season on DVD this weekend and catch up before the new season starts.

Euro Crime said...

I love Chuck and I'm glad they seem to be keeping the 'buy more' setting. I was worried big changes were ahead. I haven't read much about the new series so could be wrong. Love the Awesome aka Devon character too. I thought he was really annoying to start with as well!