Kevin Smith, McG and James Burrows Get in the Pilot Seat
You’ve seen the promos all summer long. Now it’s here. It wants your eyeballs, your love, your dedication. It’s fall TV. So let’s get started with . . . the CW?
I’ve had a grudge against the CW ever since its deciders canceled my beloved Veronica Mars. (If I keep chanting “Movie! Movie! Movie!,” do you think one will materialize?) But they’ve done a good bit of fence mending by green-lightingReaper. It wouldn’t surprise me if this becomes the new show that most perks up my weary eyes when I realize there’s a fresh episode waiting for me after a long day . . . No, I don’t have a pet. Wait, yes I do. It’s called TiVo. And I don’t need to walk it.
In any case, the sinisterly grinning Ray Wise (Laura Palmer’s dad in Twin Peaks) as a well-tailored Satan is surely one of the fall season’s most thrilling pleasures, the kind of heavenly (sorry) casting that is sometimes all a series needs to indicate it’s being handcrafted by people you should trust. Then there’s the crunchy-delicious Buffy-meets-Bedazzled premise: Sam (Bret Harrison), a college-skipping slacker who still camps out with Mom and Dad and earns minimum wage at the local home-improvement emporium, discovers on his 21st birthday that his parents sold his soul to the devil. Now the Big Bad Guy has come to collect. (Try to forgive Mom and Pop — they were tricked. It was a bad situation. Mom is clearly distraught. They’re good people.)
Reaper’s devil, instead of materializing like a caped fiend trailing smoke, fire and a cackle, appears like an oily Fortune 500 power broker eagerly recruiting for the firm. (It’s about time Mr. Scratch started talking to TV characters after all the angel-touching in prime time.) It turns out that Sam — played by Harrison with an appealing “why me?” nervousness — never envisioned much of a future for himself to begin with. And when Satan lays out the deal, Sam assumes his servitude will involve murdering people.
“Wow, you’re a real pessimist,” the devil replies.
Sam’s actual duties involve acting as a skip tracer for hell, hunting down souls that have escaped and sending them back.
“That’s cool, right?” adds Satan with an almost fatherly (hmmm) pleading. He hilariously keeps talking of Sam’s “potential,” and that’s when you know that creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas have hit upon something wickedly truthful with their slacker/fantasy concept: that in our modern world of stunted ambition, the greatest job — your calling, you might say — all too often means working for the biggest creep. It’s something aimless-youth auteur Kevin Smith gets too, and he directs the pilot episode with his typically expert comic timing. But he also handles the dark action bits nicely. Because even though Reaper is generous with its humor, it’s not entirely wink-wink. There’s plenty of suspense to be wrung out of the danger of engaging with the underworld’s worst — although the Dirt Devil–as-weapon gag is priceless — not to mention the perils of angering the boss.
Of course, it helps when your labors involve your friends, so Sam recruits his quick-witted layabout best friend, Sock (the very funny Tyler Labine), who has deep envy for Sam’s demonic anointing; the reverend’s son Ben (Rick Gonzalez), who obviously takes it all a bit more seriously; and Sock’s paralegal ex-girlfriend, Josie (Valerie Rae Miller), whose proximity to criminal records takes care of the investigative needs of this Scooby gang. Plus, a show about the torturous turnaround of an aspiring loser wouldn’t be complete, naturally, without an unrequited love, and that position is filled by Sam’s cute, friendly store co-worker, Andi (Missy Peregrym).
Now let’s fiddle with the details. Keep Sam in a rut, but make him a Stanford-graduated brainiac. Keep the soul-crushing, big-box-store setting, but turn it into an appliance behemoth where he’s the computer expert. Keep the jokey best friend, but make him the lesser of two nerds rather than the snarky voice of reason. Keep the life-changing-responsibility idea, but instead of an evil overlord calling him up for treacherous community service, it’s our intelligence agencies (insert same-difference joke here), who need him to save the world. And keep the lovelorn stuff, but make the ideal woman a smokin’-hot spy with a talent for killing. Now Reaper is called Chuck in only a few simple moves!
Clearly, Chuck is NBC’s entry in the very particular genre of the 20-something nobody who gets a life, albeit a highly dangerous one. And it’s actually a kick to watch. Its joys are broader and self-consciously zanier than the CW series — the studio-blockbuster cousin to the indie-esque charms of Reaper. For one thing, executive producer/pilot director McG doesn’t think small for the small screen, so the first episode of Chuck includes a dazzlingly shot fight-and-escape sequence and a whiz-bang car chase. The former comes at the beginning, when a suave superspy uploads every government secret into his PDA as he fends off various assailants. He succumbs to a bullet, but not before e-mailing the encoded bundle in his dying moments to his old college buddy Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), a low-level computer-geek employee at an electronics mart. The car chase comes after Chuck opens the e-mail — which automatically transmits the country’s most sensitive information straight into his brain — and finds himself the target of gruff NSA agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin) and beautiful, lethally trained CIA operative Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski), who believes wooing the socially awkward Chuck is the best way to find out if this mysterious recipient of a rogue spy’s information transfer is a threat or a resource worth protecting.
Chuck is pure fish-out-of-water silliness, a what-if pop-up show in which the scrawny PC jockey cracking geek-wise in the headquarters scenes of any Jerry Bruckheimer action flick is suddenly the guy front and center on the poster. If creators Josh Schwartz (The O.C.) and Chris Fedak can keep their pocket-protector 007 notion from wearing out its welcome, it should work. The sweet-faced Levi doesn’t overdo the dork shtick, allowing us to see the openings through which a little derring-do will transform him, while Strahovski ably handles her strangely layered hottie mission: Look fiercely sexy wearing only underwear and knife holsters, flirt with Chuck in a manner that makes him feel safe, but also show that he’s beginning to grow on you. And sure, we’ll all be reminded that Schwartz also gave us the blossoming of goofball Seth Cohen into a cool-chick magnet, but isn’t this trend easier to take than the sitcom spurt from a few years back of slob blowhards who somehow ended up with babes for wives?
At least Strahovski’s Sarah is her own woman, a comic-book fantasy but a formidable presence. The pretty, affable blonde who moves across the hall from a pair of Poindexter physicists (Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons) on the new CBS half-hour comedy The Big Bang Theory is basically another sitcom ditz. She’s there to spark the show’s two equation-addled outcasts into emerging from their bookish cocoons, or is it just to brainstorm with their dicks? (You can practically hear the Beavis-y “heh heh” after saying the show’s title out loud.) It’s, uh, hard to tell what the creators had in mind for the role of Penny (Kaley Cuoco), whose main task is to stare blankly when mathematical jargon is dropped and pretend not to notice when the nerds ogle her, erasing yet another opportunity for an actress to be funny in prime time. If her character were sexy and batshit crazy, even that would be an improvement — something to wring a personality from. Hallowed sitcom director Jim Burrows (Cheers, Taxi, Will & Grace) steered the pilot, and while it’s got that professional Burrows sheen of unerrant joke delivery — especially from the talented Galecki, who can do this in his sleep — you have to assume the pile of scripts on his desk in this hurting age for the three-camera studio-audience format isn’t what it once was.
REAPER | The CW | Premieres Tues., Sept. 25, 9 p.m.
CHUCK | NBC | Premieres Mon., Sept. 24, 8 p.m.
THE BIG BANG THEORY | CBS | Premieres Mon., Sept. 24, 8:30 p.m.
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