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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

‘Chuck’ maintained high standards — and a low profile

NBC series about a spy-geek maintained high standards but low ratings

Jordin Althaus/NBC

From left: Yvonne Strahovski, Zachary Levi, and Adam Baldwin in NBC’s “Chuck,’’ which signs off tonight.

It’s checkout time at the Buy More.

After five seasons, several timeslot changes, two weddings, a baby, dozens of incidences of cheating death, and countless explosions, the NBC spy dramedy “Chuck’’ is signing off tonight with back-to-back episodes starting at 8.

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For reasons never completely clear based on its accessibility and sweet charm, “Chuck’’ was never a huge ratings hit.

CHUCK

Cast:
Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin, Joshua Gomez, Sarah Lancaster
Network:
NBC (Channel 7)
Show time:
Tonight at 8

While most folks with an average level of TV awareness could probably tell you what the basic premises of say “Dexter’’ or “Mad Men’’ are without actually having ever seen those shows, “Chuck’’ generated little of the kind of buzz that finds friends commanding each other at the water cooler to watch.

But those of us who did love the story of nerdy big box electronics store computer geek turned CIA superspy Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi), loved it fervently and unconditionally. So much so that when it looked like the show would be canceled after its second season, the fans launched a successful “save our show’’ campaign targeted at sponsor Subway.

The show’s writers and producers, led by co-creators Josh Schwartz (“The O.C.,’’ “Gossip Girl’’) and Chris Fedak, consistently rewarded that loyalty with a series that impressively walked a tonal tightrope between emotional drama, fast-paced action, and laugh-out-loud humor, rarely tipping into the maudlin or the pitch black, and only occasionally getting too shticky.

Schwartz and Fedak’s first stroke of luck was casting Levi in the title role. A self-confessed geek, Levi played Chuck’s growth from bumbling, neurotic, socially awkward IT genius to slightly less bumbling, neurotic, socially awkward covert operative with a pitch-perfect sense of angst and fake-it-till-you-make-it bravado.

Even as he was enticed by the life of a spy - which he was able to enter thanks to a supercomputer accidentally embedded in his brain - Chuck wrestled with the idea of home and family throughout the series. The creators grounded him in a world that he, and thus the viewers, could care about, and root for him to return to safety from his missions.

There was his actual family of sister Ellie (the luminous Sarah Lancaster) and brother-in-law Devon, a.k.a. “Captain Awesome’’ (the hunky and hilarious Ryan McPartlin). There was his “work’’ family, including misfit colleagues in the “Nerd Herd’’ at the Buy More, best bud Morgan (the irresistibly puppy dog eager Joshua Gomez) and the outlandishly lascivious, sometimes creepy, yet somehow likable Jeff (Scott Krinsky) and Lester (Vik Sahay). And then there was his family of necessity, spy handler-turned-wife Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and relentless cranky, monosyllabic agent Casey (Adam Baldwin).

Although the writing crew sometimes contorted itself to integrate the Buy More gang and Chuck’s family into the action - slowly alerting each to Chuck’s secret identity - by the last two seasons those contortions became less labored, bringing the family into the family business.

The writers then surrounded that core ensemble with layers of villains and love interests in consistently terrific, geektastic guest casting that simultaneously accomplished great character acting as well as winks at fans of the sci-fi films and TV shows, comic books, and action movies that preceded and inspired the show.

Small roles were filled by the likes of comic book legend Stan Lee and Luke Skywalker himself Mark Hamill. (“Star Wars’’ was a natural, and frequent, reference for Chuck and Morgan).

And larger recurring roles went to Scott Bakula of “Quantum Leap’’ and “Star Trek: Enterprise’’ and Linda Hamilton of “The Terminator’’ franchise - as Chuck and Ellie’s parents - Carrie-Anne Moss from “The Matrix,’’ Brandon Routh of the “Superman’’ reboot, and even one James Bond, Timothy Dalton, in what turned into a meaty, and ultimately touching role.

Tonight, with Sarah’s life hanging in the balance - and her memories possibly compromised - the entire crew will have to band together to save the day and one of their own again. We don’t know what happens, but we’re grateful to have been along for the mission.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

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