‘Chuck’ turns up energy in third season

Television Critic

As it enters its third season, NBC’s “Chuck” is the little spy comedy that could, saved from cancellation by fan protest, Subway and the sheer force of creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak’s wills.

If only any episode of the actual show were as tense and intriguing as the struggle to keep it alive.

I say this with love, because I like “Chuck,” in no small part because it is one of a handful of shows I can watch with my children. In many ways “Chuck” is precisely the show many Americans say they want. A clever conceit -- Zachary Levi’s titular character is an underachiever suddenly turned into a reluctant super spy -- buoyed by sharp, funny writing and an able cast with an unapologetic PG rating. The violence is kung fu-light, sex is kept mostly in a state of hopeless longing, there is no swearing, no pathologies, nothing more un-PC than the mildly nationalistic tendencies of “real spy” John Casey (Adam Baldwin).

Even the bad guys play by the rules: holding people hostage instead of torturing them, monologue-ing long enough for Casey and the gorgeous Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) to set up their counter-attacks.

So why didn’t more people watch it?

Perhaps because after the initial hilarity of seeing a mild-mannered Nerd Herd member come to grips with the fact that he was now a secret weapon wore off, there wasn’t a whole lot of depth to “Chuck.” As appealing as Levi is, his character seemed more boy than man and any interior struggle or shock over his new reality -- the world really is a perilous and deceitful place -- was trumped almost immediately by his wearisome crush on Sarah.

Watching Chuck gloss over the fact that he now possessed every secret known to the U.S. government so he could obsess over a pretty blond was akin to watching Kim Basinger discover Batman in the Bat Cave and demand that they talk about their relationship. Love may conquer all, but occasionally there are more pressing concerns at hand.

Now, with its last-minute reprieve still fresh on everyone’s minds, “Chuck” and its creators have a lot to prove and though they have changed neither tone nor palette, they come out of the box fighting. Now an Intersect 2, Chuck possesses not only scads of intel on every known bad guy alive, he’s been programmed to do things like play guitar, sword fight and dance the rumba. None of which he knows, of course, until the need arises.

In the two-hour pilot, however, it seems that the implant has been a failure -- Chuck does not “flash” on command and so he’s booted from the CIA, returning, improbably, to the cheese-puff sloth of the perpetual slacker. Even the remaining members of the Nerd Herd (alas, Julia Ling’s Anna Wu seems to have suffered the cost-cutting ax) look good by comparison.

But his adoration for Sarah, whom he ditched for the upgrade, lingers on, and he rouses himself to prove to her that he can be the spy who loved her.

Although still riddled with far too many fond glances and loaded silences between the two, this season seems prepared to make the whole spy-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name thing a bit more interesting, with hints that there may be other love interests for Sarah and Chuck (hooray!).

Just so you’d know it’s serious, NBC sent out five episodes of Season 3, all of which are quite lively and fun. Although by no means deeper or darker than he was before, Levi’s Chuck now regularly transforms from St. Bernard-puppy adorableness to James Bond capability literally in the blink of an eye, which adds even more edge to the satiric nature of the show.

Even as the charm of the slacker dude wanes, the Nerd Herd remains endearingly ridiculous -- a “Fight Club” spoof at Buy More in an early episode is priceless -- while the villains (who this season include Armand Assante and Angie Harmon) perfectly navigate the line between actually menacing and “Austin Powers.”

Still, the over-arching tension -- can spies love? -- is disappointing. “Chuck” remains a primary-color show in a genre more accustomed to burnt siennas and charcoal. That is both its strength and weakness: Though each episode is entertaining, it’s difficult to care what happens because nothing much seems to be at stake. Still, amid all the shattered and haunted leading men on TV today, Chuck is a refreshingly simple guy. He just wants to do his job well and get the girl. Which may, in fact, be enough.

mary.mcnamara@latimes .com