Tuned In

Geek Chorus

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NBC Photo: Mitch Haddad; Robert Voets/CBS; NBC Photo: David Moir

Why did Monday become nerd night on network TV? Maybe it’s because it’s far enough away from Sci Fi Channel’s Friday night programming block; maybe it’s because viewers need a refuge of programming with more testosterone than Monday Night Football yet less estrogen than Dancing with the Stars; maybe it’s because everyone knows Saturday is Xbox night. Mostly, though, it’s because of the success of Heroes (which is back tonight—sorry, no advance-screener preview), and tonight three shows try to jump on the Hiro-worship bandwagon in their own way.

NBC’s spy comedy Chuck is the first and most appealing. The title character (Zachary Levi) is a tech consultant with the “Nerd Herd” in a big-box store who becomes a government spy in the most implausible and nerdly way imaginable: he receives an encoded e-mail from a long-lost college pal that implants a supercomputer’s worth of classified info in his brain. He’s immediately set upon by NSA agent Casey (Firefly’s Adam Baldwin) and sexy CIA spook Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), who squabble over the assets in his noggin and end up making uneasy partners in shepherding him into the world of undercover operations.

The first three episodes are a great, and utterly unbelievable, time. The implausibility of the plot is easy enough to shake off, since the breezy, pop-culture riffing scripts (the show comes from The O.C.’s Josh Schwartz) neither take themselves seriously nor expect you to. The show only needs to be plausible within its own logic, and here it trips up occasionally, partly because Levi–although he’s adorable and has outstanding timing and delivery–is the nerd equivalent of the hot-chick-in-glasses-and-a-bun: take him out of a tie and short sleeves and he’s a total stud, which makes it harder to accept him as the dweeb the show needs him to be.

That’s generally a problem, though, only in the show’s “serious” action sequences. When the spy scenes run too long, the show drags, because Chuck clearly has no real dramatic stakes. It’s no Alias, not that anyone wants it to be. I hope Chuck strikes the right balance, because when it’s funny, it’s very funny. It’s tough for Hollywood writers to do nerd humor that seems like it’s of geek culture, rather than looking down on it, but the show respects Chuck’s nerditude, and there are some spot-on bits, like the fact that the Mac experts in the Nerd Herd are insufferable prima donnas: “We are I.T. artists!” (I say this as a hardcore Mac user, so relax, please.) But I don’t know whether that will be enough to bring me back week after week without a compelling running story. Chuck may become my next Scrubs–one of those shows that I watch occasionally, enjoy so much I wonder why I don’t watch it more often, then promptly forget its existence for another few months.

Chuck Lorre’s new CBS sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, is much more of the laughing-at as opposed to the laughing-with school of nerd humor. A pair of socially-awkward math-wizard Poindexters, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) are thrown into a tizzy when a hot chick, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), moves in across the hall. Repeat gag for 22 minutes; repeat again until May. I’m always prejudiced toward seeing Roseanne alums succeed, but as happy as I am to see Galecki back on screen, the show is as obvious and stereotypical as the names “Leonard” and “Sheldon.” (As for the title, there’s no apparent explanation, except that [1] it’s something smart people know about and [2] you can then put up ads with a hot chick and the word “bang” in it.) That said, it’s Chuck Lorre and a CBS sitcom, so this one will probably be around until the universe collapses on itself.

NBC’s other new Heroes bookend, Journeyman, isn’t so much a show about geeks as apparently imagined for them, given the timeslot and vaguely sci-fi premise. A modern-day news reporter, Dan Vasser (Rome’s Kevin McKidd), finds himself uncontrollablly traveling back and forth through time, from his current life as a married man to the 1980s, where he finds himself solving problems that have repercussions in the present, and becomes involved again with his long-lost fiancee. Or something like that. I’m not entirely sure, because the only question that engaged me as I watched this turgid, derivative pilot was: is it pronounced JOURneyman or JourneyMAN–and if the latter, why isn’t it two words?

Otherwise, the only relevant time travel going on here is to the days of mediocre shows like Quantum Leap; today, TV-watching geeks and those who love them have far better options. You’d be better off playing Xbox after Heroes instead.