Broadcast Date: 5 November 2007
Director: Patrick Norris
Writer: Anne Cofell Saunders
Cast: Adam Baldwin, Joshua Gomez, Sarah Lancaster, Zachary Levi, and Yvonne Strahovski
Bryce: “It’s 1999. The next millennium belongs to the geek.”
Meet Dr Flemming. He’s a college professor doubling as a CIA recruiter. Four years ago, he destroyed Chuck’s future by accusing the A student of academic misconduct and expelling him from Stanford. Now his life is in danger, and the only person who can save him, or at least his precious government secrets, is our favourite Nerd Herder, who still carries the scars of this ordeal like they were open wounds. Want some salt on those? Flemming has a CIA file on Chuck.
As the male equivalent to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Chuck packs a lot of laughs and metaphors, but the series thus far has lacked one essential ingredient: emotional pull. I remember watching the first six seasons and a half of Whedon’s show and getting all bent out of shape over the Scooby Gang’s trials and tribulations. Perhaps because they’re dealing with a male protagonist, and guys on TV (as well as in real life) don’t show vulnerability in quite the same way, the writers of Chuck have kept things considerably lighter.
That is, until “Chuck versus the Alma Mater”, in which our hero returns to Stanford and faces his past at last. The episode’s got all the usual trappings, like the geek references (this week’s theme: The Lord of the Rings), hilarious Buy More B-plot (Morgan and Tang fighting over “the one remote that controls them all”), and sweet family moments (Awesome turning into a total jock dork at the mere mention of college football). At its core, though, lies real anguish, that of a man who had all his dreams taken away in one fell swoop and since stopped believing life had good things to offer.
We were privy to this before, of course, but seeing our hero have a healthy good time in 2003 makes his hurt today more palpable to me. It also emphasises the subtlety of Zachary Levi’s performance throughout the series. He usually plays Chuck as a big ball of insecurities, but the character seems so content and well adjusted in the flashbacks, goofing around in the library, then talking about computers and meeting girls. Stanford was his home, and Bryce’s frame-up robbed it from him.
We got new information too, the kind that changes everything. Bryce, it turns out, betrayed his friend to spare him the soul-sucking life of a spy. Now, that’s a brilliant twist. Not only does the notion play into Sarah’s own arc and themes, but, emotionally, it puts Chuck in an impossible situation. Can you imagine how he must feel about having spent nearly half a decade hating a man who loved him dearly? And it’s not like the revelation makes his post-Stanford years stink any less. In terms of irony, that’s like someone taking your child and saying you don’t get to mourn.
Chuck versus My Friends’ TV Habits (He Won)
“Chuck versus the Alma Mater” is the episode that convinced me to pester my friends until they all watched the series. I have one of those every couple of years. In 2000, it was Gilmore Girls; in 2003, Wonderfalls (for the entire four weeks that Fox aired it); and in November 2007, I started lobbying for Chuck. What amazes me is the video of Bryce arguing with Flemming still gets to me today. I got a little choked up as I was jotting down his speech: “Chuck’s a good person. He’s got too much heart for this kind of work […] He won’t survive!”
It’s happening again. I better move on quick…
Bits and Pieces
- I realise my calling the Buy More subplot hilarious might have seemed a tad inconsistent, given my previous criticism regarding the Buy More work ethic. The difference this week is Harry Tang, who really is pushing the pendulum too far on the other side. He’s such a great antagonist, threatening in a complete nincompoop sort of way.
- The Zork reference in the final flashback was a nice bit of continuity, though I doubt one would have to read up on C++ to program the text-based game. According to the pilot, Chuck and Bryce made their version for the TRS-80, which was primarily tied to BASIC and machine language.
- Chuck calling the CIA recruits reminded me of the slayer activations in the Buffy finale, you know, minus the self-indulgence.
The “stay in the car” running joke was in full force this week, and we got plenty of snarky gems from Casey:
Chuck: “You stole my ID?”
Casey: “I borrowed it to reactivate it. Sorry I couldn’t wipe that idiot grin on your face with Photoshop.”
Flemming: “Didn’t they train you?”
Chuck: “I mostly just stay in the car.”
Sarah: “Look maybe you should just stay here.”
Chuck: “Yeah, ‘cause that always works out well.”
Chuck: “Do you think this would be a good time for me to be waiting in the car?”
Harry: “I’m going to be the one who breaks you, Grimes. You know why? Because you’re soft, like pudding.”
I love Harry Tang’s mixed metaphors.
Casey: “You want to save the environment, huh? Take a shower, hippie.”
Morgan: “So thought Frodo Bagggins, my friend. So thought Frodo Baggins.”
Anna: “Trust me. You don’t want to know.”
Lester: “I do want to know.”
Morgan: “You guys want to know? How about you?”
This was a game changer, people.