Chuck: “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer”

Ugly Duckling

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer”

Written by Phil Klemmer

Directed by Norman Buckley

“You’re a steely-eyed missile man.” — Ed Harris as Gene Krantz, Apollo 13

Tonight, Chuck passed The Office to become my favorite comedy on TV. It’s hard to believe that I once nearly stopped watching this show. Since the beginning of the second season, each episode has been more delightful than the last. “Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer” is a classic, a gem, a rare treasure.

Big trouble at the Buy More–manager Big Mike introduces an efficiency expert sent from Corporate to assess the performance of the employees. Universally, the employees refer to Chuck as their mentor, their master, their leader. When Chuck arrives an hour late for work, the expert tries to interview him–only to be ditched when Chuck flashes on an international hitman entering the Buy More. Surprisingly, the thug is not after Chuck, or even John Casey; he’s after Jeff, of all people. Or as Chuck’s sister Ellie describes him, “Nerd Herd creepy serial killer Jeff”. It seems that 25 years ago, Jeff was the all-time champion player of the Atari video game, “Missile Command”. Unfortunately, winning $100 in quarters and a year’s supply of Slim Jims was the high point of his life, and now he slouches through his days at the Buy More, shooting amateur stalker video of Anna and drinking himself to sleep every night. Why is this bad guy after Jeff?

As it turns out, he’s not, exactly. What he’s really after are the missile control codes built into the final “kill screen” of the game by its inventor, Mr. Morimoto. Yes, the designer of a stealth missile satellite wrote the control code into his video game code. This is so absolutely believable I’m surprised it hasn’t actually happened yet. Talk about your ultimate Easter Egg! When Chuck and his fellow spies confront Mr. Morimoto, they are too late; the bad guys not only have the control code, they have rigged Mr. Morimoto’s personal console to explode. Which it does. The thugs now plan to deploy the missiles from space, starting World War III. This leaves General Beckman with only two options–shoot down the satellite and possibly have it land on Los Angeles, or have Chuck convince Jeff to play the game all the way to the end to get the control code.

In a stroke of genius, Chuck sets Jeff up as a comeback tournament champion. He finds Jeff’s “lucky” console at the local Gas-N-Sip, he persuades Anna to dress up as a hula dancer, and he finds one or two of Jeff’s old fans, now in middle age. The funniest part of the show, for me, was seeing the enthusiasm with which these graying men and women dropped everything they were doing, networked a few friends, and showed up in droves at the Buy More to relive the glory days of 1983. Jeff, however, is too intimidated to continue; telling Chuck that the secret to winning the game is that the Rush song “Tom Sawyer” is the mathematical equivalent of the last screen, he faints. Chuck, desperate for time, takes over for him, plays the game and wins. At the last second, he transmits the code to Sarah, who uploads it to the satellite moments before John Casey is preparing to fire a missile to shoot it down. The world is saved, Chuck is a hero, and Jeff is glad to remain the anonymous has-been he’s been perfecting for a quarter century.

That’s the bare bones, which are funny enough. But the details that flesh this story out are so finely and lovingly crafted, so integral to the humor, that singling them out is like dissecting a songbird. It’s almost sacrilege. Nevertheless, I must first say that the plot of this episode is a recycling of the 1980’s John Landis comedy, Spies Like Us. In that movie, Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd play two hapless geeks named Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Milbarge. It’s no coincidence that the efficiency expert hired by Buy More (Tony Hale,Samantha Who?) is named “Emmett Milbarge”. In the Landis movie, Chase and Ackroyd have to save the day when a nuclear missile is accidentally deployed, and only they can stop it. The Gas-N-Sip that was the scene of Jeff’s 1983 triumph is a callout to that iconic 80s movie, Say Anything. Rush. Did I mention Rush, for crying out loud? Even Scott Krinsky’s God-awful mullet wig in the 1983 flashback was dead-on. And that’s what makes this show so good, week after week–the details. It’s not just that they’re well-researched, they’re integrated into the show subtly. They sneak up on you.

The highlight of the episode was the fact that Chuck solved this one on his own, using his own skills as a gamer. This works on two levels–as another celebration of the Geek Triumphant, and as an in-joke reference to Zach Levi’s famous addiction to video games. This episode let Chuck win on his own merits, with no help from Casey or Sarah or even Jeff. Cheered on by appreciative fans, he wins the day and saves the world. I fully expect him to save the world next week using twelve-sided dice, an infrared pointer, and a  desktop USB missile launcher.

Not to forget the Buy Morons–Morgan has his own smoke machine? Worse, he was a roadie for Mamma Mia? For four summers? I was laughing so hard I missed his reply. Lester and Morgan bonding because Jeff and Chuck are buddying up? Disturbing, yet funny. Woe betide Jeff if Anna ever finds out about his homemade stalker video; I think that half-pint could take him down with one hand tied behind her. Finally, even I could appreciate the simultaneously hot and sexy, and hilariously over-the-top Top Model stride as Sarah Walker, dressed in the tiniest of skirts and the tightest of shirts, enters the headquarters of Atari to “fix their computers”. Brilliant.

Well written and directed, this is a stellar episode. The relationship between Sarah and Chuck, far from being neglected, was reinforced with little touches that say much without overwhelming: Sarah’s spirited defense of Chuck’s skills, his look over at her when she tells him to wish on a falling satellite. Chuck’s love of his family once again bubbles to the surface, and the dynamic between him and Ellie continues to warm this entire show. The writers even got out of a corner they’d painted themselves into, by conjuring up a Stanford diploma for Chuck. He can, if he wants, move on from the Buy More. It may have to happen some day, but for now, the constraints of this silly, wise, poignant, ironic and self-aware, even self-mocking show are like the “constraints” of a sonnet–they only serve to highlight the gem that results.

Overnight ratings for Chuck give it 6.48 million viewers, which according to TV Guide place it fourth in its timeslot.  Last week’s adjusted viewers were 6.87 million, so the show is down again. However, it’s still doing better than its second and third week, so maybe word of mouth is catching up. I am very sure that if more viewers had caught last night’s episode, they’d have been hooked for life.