Chuck: “Chuck vs. The Alma Mater”

One Remote to Rule Them All

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Stegall


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. The Alma Mater”

Written by Anna Cofell Sanders

Directed by Patrick Norris

Chuck finally broke its own mold with this episode, which relies more on Chuck’s personal memory than his artificially installed “Intersect” memory to drive the show. When a Stanford professor calls for help from the CIA, Casey and Sarah try to persuade Chuck to return with them to Stanford, the site of his humiliation, to rescue the professor from an assassin. Chuck initially refuses, but finally relents when he realizes that only his knowledge of the habits of his old roommate and nemesis, Bryce Larkin (Matthew Bomer,Traveler), can solve the mystery. By happy coincidence, Chuck’s sister Ellie and the always awesome Captain Awesome are going to Stanford for the Big Game, so there’s no need for lame excuses for Chuck to leave town. The A-story continues with the Professor’s murder, the revelation that he was a CIA recruiter, and the final reveal on why Bryce Larkin got Chuck thrown out of his beloved Stanford. Along the way, we see Morgan lead a rebellion against the tyrannical new Assistant Manager at Buy More, and some interesting developments among the Nerd Herd.

Chuck’s backstory at Stanford gave us some insight into Chuck. In the flashbacks to his college career, we see a happy, confident Chuck, as outgoing and friendly as a puppy, as he meets his soon-to-be best friend Bryce. It’s heartbreaking to see how devastated he is when Professor Fleming (Scott Allen Smith, Veronica Mars) accuses him of cheating and throws him out of school; his whole face mirrors the shattering of his world. (And how cute is it that a CIA spy is named Fleming?) The Chuck we see today is still a fairly happy guy, but there’s an element of defeat, of wistfulness in him, that comes to the surface now and then. This episode showed the origins of that taint of melancholy. I’m glad the writers finally got around to showing us this background; it’s long overdue.

If the Chuck story is not as funny as it normally is, it’s more than matched by the B-story. Newly crowned Assistant Manager Harry Tang (C.S. Lee, Dexter) comes down hard on his minions, with outrageous new lunch schedules and codes of conduct for the break room.

Chuck: No fornicating? People were getting freaky in the break room?
Morgan: No, but I like to think I had the option.

The breaking point arrives when the staff’s favorite pastime is threatened. During a lull in customer sales, Morgan goes up against Lester (Vik Sahay, This is Wonderland) in a TV contest. Remote controls in hand, they slam through as many channels as possible, identifying the shows in the shortest possible time. It’s not only a cute homage to Chuck’s own “flashes,” it’s a comic pastiche of pop culture tropes. It’s cut short when Harry arrives bearing the One Remote, a master device that controls, and locks, the entire monitor bank, shutting down the game. Morgan then makes it his mission, for the rest of the episode, to recapture control of the control and restore a modicum of independence to the Herd. Anna (Julia Ling, ER) seduces Harry, Lester betrays the Fellowship, and Morgan must endure a tortuous stint in Customer Service before the balance of power is restored. Morgan is the guerrilla leader of the group, a leader in the making held back only by his own insecurities. Some day he will find his inner Sauron and rule a dark world.

I have resigned myself to the fact that Chuck is going to wet himself every week (so to speak), howling in terror as violence erupts around him. At first, I thought he had actually grown a pair in this episode. He cracks wise, huddled under a desk as Sarah and Casey exchange gunfire with a horde of assassins in a classroom. He adroitly summons help from the CIA’s junior varsity squad (students who have been recruited into the CIA), using a computer and a Blackberry. But when the crossbow-toting Icelandic assassin (no, I am not making this up) arrives and threatens to kill him, Chuck dissolves into blubbering panic. I know he’s not supposed to be a “field agent,” but this is beyond funny. It borders on laughing at the handicapped. I have to say, a hero who cringes when someone pops a light bulb doesn’t sound like the ideal lead-in for Heroes, but network programming is one of the dark arts anyway.

Other characters are developing nicely, however. I continue to love the entire Nerd Herd, especially Lester (you fink!) and Anna. Captain Awesome almost deserves his own show. Casey is not quite as funny as he has been, but he’s still more than the one-dimensional thug he could be in lesser hands. And Ellie is still the greatest sister in prime time.

Sprinkled with even more fantasy and genre references than last week, Chuck continues to tap into the smart, funny vibe of the nerd world with savvy and panache. Chuck has improved considerably over its second episode, and continues to do well every week. Monday night’s episode garnered some of its highest ratings yet, a 4.6 rating/7 share. It’s still coming in third behind Dancing with the Stars and How I Met Your Mother, but it’s improving. All of this will be a moot point soon, however; Chuck‘s showrunner, Josh Schwartz, is on the WGA picket line this week, meaning no episodes will be shot for awhile. If NBC shuts down production of the show, which is likely, we may not see any more Chuck after November 26. That’s too bad, ’cause I like the guy, but if that’s what it takes to get the writers a square deal, that’s what it takes. Good luck, Chuck.