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Zachary Levi brings slacker geek chic to NBC's 'Chuck'

Every day, all day, we're stalked by puffarazzi, the aggressive hype-bots who shout superlatives in our ears and bully us into drooling anticipation of this movie and that TV show. No surprise, then, that by the time the actual product arrives - in this case, NBC's "Chuck" - you might already be tired of it. Furthermore, that product will rarely be as amazing as "they" say it is.

"Chuck," which reaches your TV tonight at 8 on Channel 7 after a summer of hard sell and critical ardor, is a likable new series and not the next "Lost" or even "Heroes." Created by Josh Schwartz of "The O.C." and Chris Fedak, it's a light action fantasy that blends the low-key quirk of "Ed" with the kitschy spy intrigue of "Alias." It's good, not great, and tonight's strong pilot gives way next week to a noticeably less stellar hour of CIA-NSA wrangling, helicopter high jinks, and an in-joke reference to Oceanic Flight 815 of "Lost" that's inserted to generate fan-kid buzz.

Basically, "Chuck" takes a socially awkward guy and drops him into the high-octane realm of car chases and ninja battles that he's known only through video games. Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) is a techie in the computer-fixing Nerd Herd at Buy More, a Best Buy-like store, but when he accidentally downloads top secret NSA and CIA intelligence into his brain, he becomes an object of interest to nefarious villains far and wide. And so Chuck is fretted over, and competed for, by tough-guy NSA agent John Casey (Adam Baldwin) and deadly CIA beauty Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strzechowski). Agent Casey goes undercover as a Buy More employee, and Sarah takes a job at the hot-dog chain next door.

Outside of this secret spy world, Chuck has an ordinary life as nobody special. His best friend, Morgan, is also on the Nerd Herd, and actor Joshua Gomez does a nice job of making Morgan's hyperactive awkwardness amusing. He brings a geeky, wacky edge to the show that Schwartz and Fedak ought to push even harder, to keep "Chuck" from any of the tedious spy-plot twistiness that ultimately undid "Alias." Chuck lives with his protective sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and her boyfriend, who is known as Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin) because 1) he says "awesome" a lot, and 2) he is awesome. Like Morgan, Captain Awesome is one of the show's comedy assets.

There is, of course, an impossible romantic situation on "Chuck." Every series about a single guy such as "What About Brian" and "Ed" has one. Chuck and Sarah pretend to date, to explain their connection to Chuck's friends, but Chuck is truly smitten with Sarah. And she may be attracted to Chuck, but since she's a duplicitous and ruthless killer who can take a bad guy down with the toss of a knife, well, it's hard to know for sure. As Sarah, Strzechowski is hard to warm up to, and she doesn't seem entirely at home with the comedy. But she's certainly convincing as a fighting machine.

The success of "Chuck" belongs mostly to Levi, who brings an appealingly unassuming tone to all of his scenes, both comic and action-based. Levi spent years on the sitcom "Less Than Perfect" as a snippy, ambitious office worker, but he will be almost unrecognizable to those who remember him from that show. After seeing him on "Chuck," it's hard to imagine him playing anything other than slacker mellowness and reluctant heroism. Levi certainly owes some of his portrayal to John Krasinski from "The Office," who can signify an entire inner life with a closed mouth and a nod of the head.

It's hard to predict whether "Chuck" will help NBC toward its goal of owning Monday nights. I suspect the show will start off with ratings momentum, and then rise or fall depending on whether the creators can keep the lifestyle comedy distinctive - the Buy More material is promising - and not get bogged down in hokey action dramatics. The puffarazzi can certainly get people in the door, but only the writers, producers, and actors can keep them in their seats.

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Chuck

Starring: Zachary Levi, Adam Baldwin, Sarah Lancaster, Joshua Gomez, Yvonne Strzechowski

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 8-9

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