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'Chuck' new season: Is it a 'Get Smart' knockoff?

THE SHOW "Chuck"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC/4 (then moves into its regular slot, Monday at 8 p.m.)

REASON TO WATCHSaved by fans and a deal with Subway, "Chuck" is back for a third season. But is this mission impossible?

WHAT IT'S ABOUTChuck Bartowksi (Zachary Levi) is no longer riding the Nerd Herd at Buy More but has moved on to bigger, better things - hopefully, a future with agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski). He has been transformed into Intersect 2 - the vast store of supersecret spy knowledge that was downloaded into his brain two seasons ago by a wayward college friend - and is training to become a spy. But "training" and "becoming" turn out to be separate matters.

Bartowski is - it seems - emotionally ill-equipped to become a spy, struggles with his pants (long story) and ultimately gets busted down. He loses the girl, the job, grows a beard, ends up on his sister's couch, and . . . a new season begins.

SPECIAL BONUSESNBC has been almost profligate in its love for this show - giving it good time periods, reasonable promotion and so many lives a cat would be envious. NBC's gone this far, and it's not giving up now. Special guest stars this season include Angie Harmon, Brandon Routh and Robert Patrick.

MY SAY "Chuck" is, was and always will be a big, lovable, charming blob - or shaggy dog, which this sinuous and silly tale is. But as the third season begins, doubts begin to creep in. Isn't this really - after all - just a cartoon?

Sunday's episode feels frantic, and predictable, and the old familiar will-he-get-Sarah-won't-he-get-Sarah is worked into flashbacks, flashforwards and maybe even a real-time story line. So, I decided to jump to the fifth episode - NBC, bless 'em, sent out a batch of shows - just to see if the same-old-same-old persisted. "Chuck," alas, has turned into "Get Smart."

BOTTOM LINE Would you believe "Chuck" is still charming? How about "fun"? Would you believe this is just a "cartoon"? Believe it all. But we've also been down this road before - 45 years before.

GRADE B

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