Chuck Bartowski is a nerd. This is not an insult. It says so right there on his shirt, on the sign under which he stands all day and on the company car that he drives, all of which proudly declare the name of his tech support crew at the electronics superstore where he works: “Nerd Herd.”
If that weren’t enough, he can’t seem to figure out how to talk to the women that his sympathetic sister keeps pushing in his direction. It probably doesn’t help that his fingers have game-controller blisters and that he slips into quotes from “Batman” without thinking.
He’s also something of a rarity on television: a nerd who is the hero of his own story, as the main character in NBC’s upcoming fall drama “Chuck.” Sure, part of that is due to his having downloaded a mainframe’s worth of government secrets into his brain, resulting in him becoming a target of and reluctant operative for the country’s security and spy agencies. It’s a concept so geek-porny that it’s a wonder the nerds who write for television ever give us anything else.
But even with all of the secret-agent stuff, the fact remains that the lead character of “Chuck” is a brainy guy whose social skills leave something to be desired. And he’s not the only one this upcoming fall season. The CW’s “Reaper” follows almost the exact same template, with Mad Libs-style differences: Sam Oliver works in a Home Depot-like warehouse, can’t talk to women, and discovers on his 21st birthday that he’s been contracted to the devil to collect escaped souls. Meanwhile, over on CBS, “The Big Bang Theory” forgoes the saving-the-world aspect but ups the ante with not one, but two quantum physicists who, shockingly, can’t talk to women.
Nerds aren't new
Nerds on TV are not particularly novel. They’ve been a staple of the small screen since the beginning. Even though the character was already a dozen years old, “Adventures Of Superman” brought Clark Kent to television starting in 1951. And what was “mild-mannered reporter” if not code for “nerd”? The stereotype thrived in any number of genres, from sitcoms to action shows like “Riptide,” which tossed computer hacker Murray “Boz” Bozinsky into the middle of the sun, fun and moustaches of a mid-‘80s Los Angeles detective agency.
Still, nerds existed primarily as supporting characters, brought in for comic relief and perhaps as a way for the hero to save the day without getting all of that girl-repelling braininess all over him. That was the case even with shows like “Family Matters” (where the immortal Steve Urkel practically dominated) and “Head Of The Class” (which was populated with gifted, mostly awkward high schoolers), where the main characters were the Winslow family and unconventional teacher Mr. Moore.
“Head Of The Class” offered something new, though, possibly as a result of coming so close on the heels of John Hughes’ similarly themed “The Breakfast Club” the previous year: a sympathetic attitude. That’s been picked up sporadically ever since, reaching its apex in heartbreaking everydork Brian Krakow from “My So-Called Life” and the latter group of “Freaks and Geeks.”
Maybe that’s why, in recent years, nerds have been called upon to save the world more and more without being pushed into a locker afterwards. “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” featured Rupert Giles, who, despite his (literally) hell-raising youth, not only settled into a life as a school librarian but made research a crucial tool in fighting the forces of darkness. Edgar Stiles' prodigious computer skills helped Jack Bauer keep the world save from terrorism on “24.” (Ironically, he actually was pushed into a locker at the end, in a way.) Heck, even “Numb3rs” is about to begin its fourth season of mathematically-enhanced crime solving.
There’s a difference in the new wave, however, and it’s this: in new shows like “Chuck” and “Reaper,” the nerd is not just a hero, he’s the hero, the central dude around which everything pivots. That’s a key distinction, and one that demarginalizes the nerd as a character type. Television has tried this before, with little success. The title character of “Jake 2.0,” for example, was a government supercomputer expert who gained superhuman powers when he was infected with tiny robots. (Pretty nerdy, that.) But the show, while not without its charms, never quite found its footing and was quickly cancelled.
The new Nerd Herd is hoping to pocket-protect itself from a similar fate. Notice that every one of their hero nerds has another, far bigger nerd standing right next to him. Chuck’s a dork, it’s true. But, his show seems to say, at least he’s not as pathetic as friend and coworker Morgan, whose constant leering and aggressiveness serve as a repellent counterpoint to Chuck’s simple shyness and cluelessness.
It’s the same with “Reaper,” where the loud and boorish Burt “Sock” Wysocki makes his buddy Sam look pretty good by comparison. Sheldon and Leonard, the protagonists of “The Big Bang Theory,” have the hardest job, as each appears to be just as nerdy as the other. But they come prepared with a larger group of research-scientist buddies who will no doubt provide the necessary contrast. Nanobot-powered Jake Foley, on the other hand, was a geek alone, outnerding everyone else, and it hurt the show.
“Chuck,” “Reaper” and “The Big Bang Theory” come at a time when San Diego’s Comic-Con is starting to be viewed as one of the key events on the calendar of the entire entertainment industry, when shows like “Heroes” and movies like the “Spider-Man” series are among the most popular in the land and when video games have gone mainstream enough for Roger Ebert and Clive Barker to engage in a lively public debate about whether they can be considered art.
In this environment, maybe it’s not that surprising to see brainy, socially inept men start to grab the spotlight. Whether viewers will see more of it will depend in part on whether these shows survive long enough to capture an audience and make it to a second season. But for now, at least, it’s hip to be square.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.