Between the devil and the CIA: two comedies
In a universe in which nothing is really ever created or destroyed, there are only so many stories to tell; you can switch the atoms around, but most everything will look like something you’ve seen before.
This week sees the premiere of two series so structurally alike they might have been created from the same “Mad Libs” page. Both “Chuck,” which premieres tonight on NBC, and “Reaper,” which comes Tuesday on the CW, concern a young underachiever working in a big-box store who through extraordinary circumstances finds himself personally transformed and thrown into a life of danger and intrigue. In each, there is a wacky, bearded, slacker-y sidekick and a woman of great beauty and intelligence whom our late-blooming, awkward (but, we can see, attractive) hero suspects is out of his league. Each is a romantic comedy of self-actualization, with fight scenes.
Usually such similitude is a cue to discuss the lack of imagination in the TV business, but the fact is both these shows are really fine and funny -- different enough in tone for each to seem original, yet appealing to the same pleasure centers in the brain. Their DNA shows common traces of “Spider-Man” (geek empowered by extra-natural forces) and Hitchcock (regular guy swept up in extraordinary drama), but also of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges.
In “Chuck,” Zachary Levi (“Less Than Perfect”) plays the title character, who has risen in life so far as to lead the troubleshooting Nerd Herd at an electronics store called Buy More. One fine day he receives an e-mail from an old pal that via some impossible science and keen special effects implants the entire combined contents of the national intelligence services supercomputers into his brain, making him into a walking super-supercomputer. Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Casey (Adam Baldwin, still the gold standard in lantern-jawed creepiness) play mutually distrustful agents of the CIA and NSA who are assigned to watch over Chuck and direct his newfound power. Strahovski manages to be soft enough for us to regard her as a potential girl for Chuck, yet tough enough to sell the spy stuff -- she’s Eva Marie Saint to his Cary Grant, Jean Arthur to his Jimmy Stewart. Joshua Gomez is the wacky, bearded sidekick.
The pilot is an especially persuasive hour of action-adventure, but subsequent lower-budget episodes preserve the esprit and suspense. It is a comedy, of course, which means that it can do the bulk of its work with words.
Chuck: “So in this plan, I basically do nothing.”
Chuck: “Let’s do this.”
Co-creator Josh Schwartz was also responsible for “The O.C.” and this season’s “Gossip Girl.” A more acute critic than I might be able to discern the aesthetic kinship.
“Reaper” creators Michele Fazeka and Tara Butters worked together on “The X-Files” and “Ed,” and in tone and premise their new show falls somewhere in between. Here, the store is called the Work Bench, and our hero is Sam (Bret Harrison, “The Loop”). An ordinary lost soul who quit college after a month because it made him “sleepy,” he learns on his 21st birthday that, before he was born, his parents sold his soul to the Devil.
I won’t explain the mechanics of this, but it’s arranged in such a way as to keep his folks sympathetic -- and it helps that the Devil (Ray Wise, from “Twin Peaks” and “24"), when he suddenly appears in the back seat of Sam’s car, seems like not such a bad guy himself, more mentor than menace. (“Are you carjacking me?” “For this? If it was an Escalade -- maybe.”) He is full of what might be called devilish good humor, calls Sam “Kiddo” and “Sammy,” and will be the unexpected agent of Sam’s maturity. He wears a nice suit and enjoys chicken fried steak.
The question of whether it’s even possible, theologically, to be damned by proxy is briefly raised -- the writers want you to know they’ve thought of it too -- and tabled. Perhaps they’ll return to it, but as the show will not last a lifetime, or even Sam’s lifetime, they can also pretty much let it alone.
For the present, in a premise that nearly replicates that of the 1998 Peter Horton series “Brimstone,” Sam is set to work retrieving souls escaped from Hell, whose gates have become penetrable “with the overcrowding and so forth.” Sam will be “like a bounty hunter -- that’s cool, right?”
Missy Peregrym (“Heroes”) is the so-far-just-a-friend potential love interest, Tyler Labine makes a most excellent wacky bearded sidekick, and Rick Gonzalez and Valarie Rae Miller round out the Scooby Gang. Auteur of slackerdom Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) directed the pilot, which maintains a nice fairy tale tone even as it stresses the banality of the infernal. (Sam drops his first recaptured soul off at the DMV -- anyplace that seems like Hell on Earth, the Devil tells him, is.)
Space Age comedy
Awkward young men also form the core of “Big Bang Theory,” which begins tonight on CBS -- with “Back to You,” one of only two new three-camera comedies this season. Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons play a pair of socially inept Caltech physicists who get a perky blond new neighbor in the person of waitress Kaley Cuoco.
Co-creator Chuck Lorre’s previous strange-bedfellows comedies include “2 1/2 Men” and “Dharma & Greg,” and that the leads are named Sheldon and Leonard, after the producer of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” is a clue to this one’s mainstream ambitions. It’s just the same joke endlessly repeated -- the everyday translated into geek-speak, and the obscure and difficult treated as if it were common knowledge (“It’s just some quantum mechanics with a little string theory doodling around the edges”). It’s not a bad joke -- it’s like calling a swimming pool “a cement pond,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” got 274 episodes out of that -- but these are perilous times for sitcoms, and Lorre & Co. may want to think up another.
Meanwhile, there’s some good work being done here; I especially liked Simon Helberg as a mop-topped would-be geek Lothario and young old-pro Cuoco (“8 Simple Rules . . . for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and, like, a million other things), who shapes her part into something human, not just a head full of air.
When, where: 9 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, the CW
Rating: TV-PG DLV (may be unsuitable for young childen with advisories for strong dialogue, coarse language and violence)
When, where: 8 to 9 tonight, NBC
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
‘The Big Bang Theory’
When, where: 8:30 to 9 tonight, CBS
Rating: TV-14 DL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue)