Chuck Bartowski works for a huge electronics store in Los Angeles, Buy More, but is still annoyed at being framed for a misdemeanour he didn't commit which led to him getting thrown out of Stanford University several years earlier. Bryce Larkin, Chuck's former best friend and the guy who framed him, sends Chuck a mysterious email which causes him to pass out. When he wakes up, he discovers that he has downloaded the Intersect - the entire American secret database on international criminals, terrorists and other restricted subjects - into his brain. With the Intersect itself destroyed and Larkin dead, this means that the CIA and NSA need Chuck to help them defend American interests. Thus, he is forced into a double life of maintaining his working life at the Buy More whilst also helping CIA agent Sarah Walker and NSA agent John Casey fight international crime using his subliminal knowledge.
Right from the start, Chuck puts its colours on the mast: this is going to be a show where the idea is to watch it and enjoy yourself, with even the vaguest hint of realism thrown out of the door. In an age where American network shows are being ignored in favour of 'edgy' cable series, it's a relief to find a show that is just so much damn fun.
Chuck works on a number of levels. The casting is excellent, with Zachary Levi making for an appealing protagonist, balancing geekiness with likability and a growing ability to cope with the crazy situations he's been thrown into. The ridiculously attractive Yvonne Strahovski makes for a great straight-woman as Sarah, who pulls off the 'coldly professional CIA agent' character well but then develops the role to become more conflicted in her loyalties as the season progresses. The mighty Adam Baldwin - Jayne from Firefly - is also great as Casey, whose first instinct in any situation is extreme violence. The supporting cast, notably Chuck's family and his fellow workers at the Buy More, are also well-cast and entertaining.
The show also has a great deal of geek-cred. One episode hinges on Chuck and his best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez) being able to carry off their Halloween trick of dressing up as a sandworm from the Dune books, whilst in another Chuck reminisces on bonding with an ex-girlfriend over playing EverQuest. Another episode uses (classic 1980s text adventure) Zork references as a plot point. References range from the pretty obvious to the fairly obscure, and catching them is fun in itself.
The series follows the now-traditional structure of having a season-spanning arc mixed up with lots of stand-alone episodes. The arc is actually fairly slight (there are hints that the NSA are building the Intersect 2.0 and indicating that once it is ready, Chuck will be expendable) but there are some ongoing character arcs and developments from episode to episode that work quite well. One character point - that Morgan has a huge crush on Chuck's sister - is actually a bit stalker-ish in the first couple of episodes due to the writers overegging it, but they sensibly pull it back and then dispose of it after giving Morgan another girlfriend later on, resolving the issue before it becomes too much of a problem.
The individual episode storylines are mostly enjoyable, particularly the season finale in which the entire Buy More is cleared out after listening devices are discovered and the characters have to discover the fate of the store manager's stuffed fish. Something that is slightly problematic is that the somewhat mundane storylines at the Buy More or involving Chuck's family are often more enjoyable than the spy stuff, which is often formulaic (though always watchable). There are problems that ideas are reused a few too many times (particularly with Casey getting into trouble with a beautiful female agent which goes a bit wrong, which happens twice within a few episodes), but overall the series carries its stories off with aplomb. The show may actually have been helped by the first season being cut short by the 2007-08 Writer's Strike, allowing the producers to end the season early before too many more story points were revisited and prepare themselves for the second season.
The first season of Chuck (****) is very entertaining, amusing and nicely geeky, with genuine wit and charm overcoming its more formulaic and cliched elements. The show balances humour and drama quite well, and the overall package is highly enjoyable. The season is available now on DVD in the UK and USA.