Love at first sight it certainly wasn’t. SFX was slow to fall for the charms of Chuck, the US show about computer nerd who becomes an unwitting spy. Our first review of the show‘s pilot lumped it in with a review of Reaper. The next issue, it was deemed worthy of brief round-up reviews only. But by that time, we had slowly come to realise that Chuck was, in fact, rapidly improving into one of the most enjoyable new shows out there. By issue 166 it had been fast-tracked for promotion to the Spoiler Zone premier league, with full-column reviews.
So, rather than republish all those early reviews here in separate posts, this is a compilation of those eight episode reviews – a period when an also ran show managed to win over a bunch of cynical hacks (and no, not just because Yvonne Strechowski suddenly started wearing a really short skirt from episode two onwards). It's interesting to watch our attitude change issue by issue…
1.01 "Pilot" 3/5
Why lump these shows together in one review? They couldn’t be more different, could they? One’s a techno thriller about a guy who accidentally downloads a secret government database into his head (Chuck). The other’s about a guy who’s recruited by the devil to send escaped inmates back to Hell (that’ll be Reaper).
The similarities, however, are so acute, you may have trouble remembering which one you’re watching. It’s all down to the treatment. Y’see, they’re both:
• Slacker comedies, with...
• nerdy leads who...
• inherit special powers,
• a geeky comedy sidekick friend, who happens to...
• work in warehouse-like shops, and...
• can’t believe that there’s an attractive girl actually talking to them.
• But most of all, conceptually, they’re both as unoriginal as a Westlife single.
In most ways, Reaper wins out, but only just. The humour is sharper (Kevin Smith directs and there’s a definite Clerks vibe) and the comedy sidekick (played by the tubby guy from Invasion) is funnier (actually, make that “is funny”). On the downside it’s all too happy to resort to predictable devices, especially Ray Wise’s interpretation of the Devil (Italian? Food loving? Suave? Yeah, seen that before.)
Chuck (from the OC stable) benefits from Adam Baldwin doing his usual schtick (glare, growl, confused frown – but we love him for it), the sexy Yvonne Strechowski as a tongue-in-cheek Sydney Bristow and a hint that there might be some real drama on offer amongst all the japes in future episodes. Like Reaper’s pilot, Chuck’s is an enjoyable piece of hokum (just not quite as much) but you wonder if the joke might wear thin very soon.
Episodes 2 - 5
After a humdrum pilot Chuck kicks into gear with a series of smart, slick, sassy episodes. Having Walker and Casey go undercover in the retail park where Chuck works is a stroke of genius (Casey’s CIA-style treatment of a shoplifter is hilarious) and the only main downers are that Zachary Levi (Chuck) seems incapable of closing his mouth and comedy sidekick Morgan can be just plain irritating.
“Chuck Versus the Helicopter” (1.02, 3.5/5 ) is a great little episode full of double crosses as Walker and Casey lock horns trying to prove who has Chuck’s best interests at heart. Sure, the old “You’ve played videogames so you can pilot a helicopter” is a gag so old it could draw a pension, but otherwise the episode is a enjoyable blast.
Chuck has to identify a mysterious terrorist in “Chuck Versus The Tango” (1.03, 3.5/5 ) who he uncovers about five minutes after the audience has worked it out. But it’s a solid episode, with the spy antics seamlessly interwoven with Chuck’s more mundane life in the store, as he attempts to become assistant manager.
A duplicitous old workmate of Walker’s, Karina, joins the gang for a mission in “Chuck Versus the Wookie” (1.04, 3/5 ) which boasts some great girl-on-girl fight scenes and laugh-out-loud scenes of Casey in bondage. It’s a decent enough piece of fluff but Chuck doubting Walker again so soon after “Helicopter” is a mistake, and the will they/won’t they? Walker/Chuck relationship is being handled with an alarming lack of originality.
There’s an Eastern flavour to “Chuck Versus the Sizzling Shrimp” (1.05, 4/5 ) in which Chuck helps a Chinese agent defect. A tightly-plotted, hugely fun episode in which the spot-on gags and inventive actions are balanced by some touching personal moments.
Episodes 6 - 8
That’s right. You’re seeing stars ( or you would do if we could get the star ratings to work in this format – tech-challenged online ed ). Loads of ’em. Chuck has rapidly developed from just another so-so pilot into one of the most inventive and constantly entertaining shows currently on US TV. It even has a proper, decent title sequence – though the bit where the stick man comes out of Chuck’s nose is slightly disturbing.
“Chuck Versus the Sandworm” (1.06, 4.5/5 ) is a cracking episode, finally convincing you that this show has heart as well as stunts and one-liners. The main plot – Chuck has to deal with a dodgy computer geek – is great fun in itself (especially a gag involving a water pistol) but it’s the supporting stories that really lift this instalment, from Morgan getting grooming advice from Ellie’s boyfriend (“there comes a time when a man must tuck”) to Harry Tang’s attempts to get the Buy More staff into the Halloween spirit and Casey’s somewhat creepy hi-tech peeping tom sessions. Best of all, the show is now wearing its geek credentials on its sleeve – the panto-sandworm costume is a stroke of genius.
It‘s back to college in “Chuck Versus the Alma Mater” (1.07, 4/5 ) in which Chuck learns that his old roommate-turned-spy perhaps wasn’t the traitor he thought he was. Again, the outlandish action is balanced by some genuinely touching moments, and there are loads of twists to keep you paying attention.
The formula is shaken up a bit in “Chuck Versus the Truth” (1.08, 4.5/5 ) with Chuck realising that pretend-dating Sarah is scuppering his chances of real relationship. In a TV landscape full of will-they/won’t-they relationships this one at least has a unique angle. This episode also manages to take an old comedy chestnut – the truth serum – and produce a few gags that actually sound fresh. Chuck may not be groundbreaking TV but it seems determined to push its limits as far as they’ll go, and enjoying itself as it does so.
You can start reading full reviews of the remaining episodes here .