(Premieres tonight on NBC, 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT)
Ever since Friends, NBC has been the television leader in really good-looking, really unfunny comedies. Whether it's Caroline In The City, The Single Guy, Just Shoot Me, Scrubs, My Name Is Earl or any number of short-lived comedies forever relegated to the TV dustbin–any love out there for Good Morning Miami?–unfunny NBC comedies are distinguished by their brightly sunny look, attractive casts, top-notch production values, and big, black, gaping holes where the laughs are supposed to be. (I'm tempted to leave My Name Is Earl off the list because it's amusing enough, but it's never really made me laugh outside my own head. It's inside-your-head funny, where your brain recognizes that comedy is indeed being perpetrated but it's not eliciting a physical response.) Chuck, an awkwardly executed comedy-spy thriller from O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, might be joining the list soon unless things pick up considerably from the flat, flopsweat-drenched pilot.
If you have had the privilege of being beaten over the head repeatedly by NBC fall season promos, you already know Chuck is about a nerdy-but-still-kinda-hunky slacker making $11 an hour working for The Nerd Herd–a Geek Squad-like IT group in a Best Buy-like store called Buy More–who ends up having a bunch of government secrets downloaded into his brain, making him an unlikely target of top secret spooks. As the adorably Braffian Chuck, Zachary Levi is likeable but unconvincing playing a loser who hasn't had a girlfriend in five years. Now that we are in the post-Knocked Up/Super Bad era, when average-looking characters are actually played by average-looking actors, simply putting a good-looking dude in a rumpled shirt and calling him a gamer isn't going to fly anymore. When Levi is introduced to CIA agent Yvonne Strzechowski, a foxy Katherine Heigl look-alike whose attempts to neutralize Chuck involve going out to dinner and engaging in cute-talk about music, they actually look like a real couple you might see at Starbucks chuckling over lattes before piling into the VW and heading out to a Decemberists concert.
I never was an O.C. watcher, so all I know about Schwartz has been gleaned from magazine profiles where he's heralded as a TV wunderkind with a knack for engaging characters and snappy dialogue. Based on the Chuck pilot, which Schwartz wrote with co-creator Chris Fedak, I wonder whether Schwartz's cutesy dialogue sounds better coming out of the mouths of 20something actors pretending to be in high school rather than 20something actors pretending to be 20something geeks. Levi's punchlines aim squarely for "awws!" rather than guffaws. ("What's your five-year plan?" "I'm still trying to pick out a font.") Character-wise, the sketching is pretty lazy, with Levi and his lovably scruffy buddy Joshua Gomez blandly recreating Judd Apatow's loser heroes without any of the authentic details, and Strzechowski and badass NSA agent Adam Baldwin–one of the few bright spots–running through the standard X-Files/24 paces.
It's possible the characters will be fleshed out more in future episodes. Because of Chuck's high concept premise, a lot of exposition had to be crammed into the pilot. (Though it's never really explained how an email can download government secrets into your brain.) The biggest problem facing Chuck is resolving the inherent conflict between its flashy explosions 'n' car chases side and clever, curly-haired quippin' side. It's possible to mix action and comedy effectively, but only when one takes obvious precedence over the other. Bruce Willis can toss off a one-liner after blowing somebody's head off, and Eddie Murphy can kick some ass after some hilarious banana-in-the-tailpipe hijinks, but you can't be funny and action-packed in equal doses. Chuck's opening sequence cutting between a high-voltage shootout and Levi's unsuccessful attempts to pick up girls at his birthday party managed to short-circuit both the intensity of the action and the sensitivity of the comedy, and the show pretty much flat-lined from there. If that troublesome clash can't be resolved, Chuck will be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lea Thompson, Jonathan Silverman, and Laura San Giacomo in NBC's handsomely unfunny hall of fame.
--Chuck has a North By Northwest poster hanging in his room. Who signed Josh Schwartz up for NetFlix?
--This show gets docked 10 points for including a scene where somebody sits on the beach staring soulfully at the ocean while a Shins song plays on the soundtrack.
--The Chuck pilot references a Serbian porn star named Irene Demova who is not a real Serbian porn star. But if you go to irenedemova.com, you will be kindly directed to website where you can find real live porn stars.