Viewers love to second-guess network decisions and one suggestion I've heard most often recently is that popular USA Network shows really belong on NBC. It's an understandable impulse: The shows on USA have gained cultural currency; the shows on NBC largely have not.
So how do we explain NBC's "Chuck," the most USA Network-like show on NBC's schedule that has been in danger of cancellation the past two seasons?
Similar to all the USA shows, "Chuck" offers light, escapist fare that mixes spy drama with character comedy and a dash of romance in the relationship between average guy-spy Chuck (Zachary Levi) and CIA agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski).
At the end of last season, Chuck got an upgrade after the Intersect 2.0 was downloaded into his brain, giving him assorted super-spy powers needed in high-risk situations, including Kung Fu. As the third season begins tonight with back-to-back episodes (9-11 p.m., WPXI) before moving to its regular Monday night time slot (8 p.m. tomorrow), six months have passed since the season finale and the "Chuck" writers conspire to thwart Chuck's relationship with Sarah once again.
Starring: Zachary Levi.
The writers create a road block that strains plausibility in the interest of upholding the TV trope of UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension). Plot contrivances aside, the new season of "Chuck" gets off to a decent start as friendships rekindle (Chuck and best friend Morgan become roommates) and new parties get involved in subterfuge.
Of five episodes sent for review, the best are episodes three through five, which gives Chuck's brother-in-law, Devon (Ryan McPartlin), more to do now that he knows Chuck's secret.
These episodes also introduce some welcome new elements, including a new boss for Team Chuck, the mysterious Daniel Shaw (Brandon Routh, "Superman Returns").
A possible new love interest for Chuck (Kristin Kreuk, far less annoying than she was on "Smallville") shows up in the Jan. 25 episode.
"This season it's very much like we're building a hero," said executive producer Chris Fedak in a teleconference with reporters last month. "It's been fun especially with Chuck's new abilities to take him one step at a time through the stuff that in a movie you would jump past."
But Chuck remains, essentially Chuck, a well-meaning guy who's prone to making mistakes.
"The things that make Chuck such a great guy are the very things that make him fallible as a spy," Fedak said. "How does he reconcile those two things? How does he hold onto his humanity but grow as a spy?"
And how does the show grow its ratings? Last year a campaign to save the show involved fans buying Subway sandwiches after the chain was featured on the show in product placement. (Subway returns as a sponsor this year, but no characters will be working at a Subway shop.)
"The TV landscape has changed so much," Fedak said. "The difference between what makes a hit show and what makes a show on the bubble is such a thin line now."
Fingers crossed that "Chuck" emerges on the surviving side of that keep/cancel divide.
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at email@example.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. First Published January 10, 2010 5:00 AM