The new, flipped premise of the tricky third season of Chuck is laid out in the premiere episode: ''For the past two years, we've protected Chuck from the world,'' says the grim, televised General. ''Now we have to protect the world from Chuck.''
Altering the essential nature of your central character is courting disaster. People watch series television because they become invested in the familiar traits of the hero, whether it's the grouchiness of House or the cool-dude sarcasm of Lost's Hurley. What if the fans don't like it when Zachary Levi's Chuck Bartowski pulls a complete 180, going from nerd to superspy? If the first few episodes of the beloved cult series are to be trusted, Chuck will survive with its fan base intact and the dream of its producers and NBC with a chance of increasing its audience. That's because a Chuck who can now download skills such as martial arts and swordsmanship from his Intersect brain embed is still, essentially, the same Chuck we've come to love. But he's also just that much more confident, that much more aware of what he's capable of being, making him that much more appealing to folks tired of buying into the idea that nerds get the pretty girl and always come out on top in dangerous situations.
In the two-hour Jan. 10 season premiere, we see that Chuck's unresolved relationship with Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) becomes even more fraught now that they’re frequently fighting side by side as equals. And some of the worries fans have expressed on EW.com, such as what will happen to the lovably goofy Buy More characters if Chuck turns into a globe-trotting adventurer, will be allayed by the new episodes. Again and again, the writers find clever ways to bring the action back to the store, and Joshua Gomez’s Morgan in particular gets some juicy subplots as both an employee and a love-smitten goofball.
Hovering over everything is the Ring, the über-Fulcrum organization that now brings us villains portrayed by the likes of ''Stone Cold'' Steve Austin. And without giving anything away, let me say that I think you're going to be in nerd heaven when you see how cleverly two super guest stars, Smallville's Kristin Kreuk and Superman Brandon Routh, are folded into the Chuck universe as new, intriguing characters. The show remains lightweight and occasionally just silly, but it’s also a comedy that's truly tense, a drama with a mythology that rarely gets bogged down. And in Zachary Levi, Chuck has a hero who just keeps on giving: good emotion, good action, good laughs. B+