Chuck 4.13 Review (spoilers)

And that, right there, was everything that's great about Chuck.

Well, in the last ten minutes, at least.

Two weeks ago I said I thought Chuck had run its course and that it was time for me to accept that.  Last week I was so disappointed that I didn't even bother to write a review.  My expectations for this week, which had been promoted as the original season finale and which co-creator Josh Schwartz had said was the best episode of the year, were pretty low.

I disliked the proposal story.  I disliked the Sarah going bad story.  I really didn't see how the culmination of those two plots could, in any way, appeal to me.

I was wrong...more or less.



If I had one real problem with this episode, it was infiltration of Volkoff's ship.  Whenever they put Morgan in the field, I cringe.  There's no advantage to it and, in fact, only bad things can happen.  The idea that Chuck would take Morgan with him makes very little sense during a "season" in which the writers have constantly had characters do things that don't make sense for the sake of the plot.  I think Morgan is a great character, but they really need to stop doing this; it stretches the suspension of disbelief beyond its breaking point.

Thankfully, they limited the damage to believability done by the "Sarah has gone rogue" story.  I was relieved to see them quickly dispose of any notion that Chuck might actually be worried that Sarah was going bad.  As much as I dislike that story as it stands, it only would have been worse had we gotten scenes with Chuck wondering if Sarah had really switched sides.

Initially, I had a problem with the fact that Volkoff was able to untie himself so easily, but then I realized that this was also a part of Chuck's plan.  He needed to give Volkoff the upper hand to get certain words out of him.  That said, how long were his men going to wait for him outside?  I mean, he was knocked unconscious at one point.

Also, it's worth mentioning that Timothy Dalton has been fantastic this entire season.

The Last 10 Minutes

So why was the last ten minutes so great?  Well, allow me to break it down:

1) Chuck's Plan

There's nothing like a good reveal and it's even better when it ties together different aspects of the show.  And it's always great to see Chuck succeed at being a spy.  Honestly, I think this is part of the reason why this show can't bring in new viewers: Chuck pulling off this grand plan means a lot to those of us who have been with him from the beginning, but it would mean absolutely nothing to those new to the show.

Incorporating every member of his team in the plan and actually using Morgan in a way that's believable made it all but perfect.  Invoking his father was brilliant.

2) Jeffster

Sure, it could be argued that someone would have stopped them before security showed up.  And, sure, as always, there are more instruments in the song than they are actually playing, but who cares?  It's freaking Jeffster.  The song was great, although their reasons for performing it were even better.

But the absolute funniest moment was when Casey heard the music and knew who it was.  "Jeffster."  Classic.

3) Family

I have long maintained that the show's secret weapon is Ellie.  She is the heart of the show.  Without her, Chuck would be entertaining, but it wouldn't have the depth that it's capable of.  It makes me wish I had a sister.

It was also a nifty piece of symmetry to have the team rally around Chuck and then switch to having them rally around Ellie.  And the way they had the larger group break off into smaller groups was perfect.  We went from one large, extended family, to three smaller, just as important families.  It was just a fantastic bit of execution.

Tying the entire season with a bow in the shape of Chuck's father was exactly what this season has needed.

4) Emotion

I know the emphasis in the Chuck community lies in the very last scene, but I can't be the only one who got choked up when Mary Bartowski entered her daughter's hospital room.  Ellie's reaction is just so perfect it's giving me goosebumps just thinking about it.

Add to that Casey's grudging evolution as a father (and person) and, of course, the proposal, and the last few minutes of this week's Chuck had more emotion in it than the previous 12 episodes combined.

5) Balance

For the first time all season, Chuck achieved balance.  There has been so much emphasis placed on Sarah and Chuck that it has overwhelmed the show; it's become white noise, really, with no moment seeming any more important than any other.  The fact that we weren't beaten over the head with it all episode made the end all the more poignant.

In fact, if I have one real question about this episode, it's this: Would the ending have been better if we hadn't been bombarded with proposal talk all season long?  What if it had been introduced and went away?  Everyone watching the show was expecting this episode to end with a proposal, but imagine how great it would have been if we hadn't?  Would this past season have really lost anything?  Or would it maybe have been better, more balanced?

The only real flaws in this episode were a result of what had come before, so as it stands on its own, it's almost perfect.  Unfortunately, it doesn't stand on its own.

The Future

Really, the next 11 episodes of Chuck are a blank slate.  I would imagine that Mary Bartowski will be sent to D.C. to clear her name and report on her mission, so Linda Hamilton will be moved off screen, at least for a bit.  I would also expect to see her back periodically.

I really want Chuck to come clean to Ellie about being a spy again and I really want Ellie to tell him she already knew.

Obviously, we have a new baby and a wedding to plan, so I would imagine those two things will take up some screen time, although, again, I hope they try to maintain a better balance than they have so far.

I can't help but wonder if we'll see Volkoff again leading up to the season finale.  They brought Shaw back last year when they got a back order and they actually had to resurrect him.  Volkoff's just in jail.

I'm hoping this episode marks a turning point for Chuck.  I hope that the marriage and the baby will be handled a bit more smoothly than the proposal.  And I'm really hoping we get some spy related drama like we got in this episode.

Some more viewers would be nice, too.

Chuck 4.11 Review (spoilers)

I think it's time I finally read the writing on the wall: Chuck has seen better days.

For every moment that I enjoyed (Lester, the near proposal, the A plot itself), there was a moment that made me groan (the lack of logic in the ending, the proposal storyline, the lack of logic in the ending -- did I say that already?).  Sadly, this has become a pattern this season on Chuck, and one I don't see ending until the initial season order of 13 episodes has wrapped up.

Old School

There was something incredibly charming about the spy story in this episode, something that harkened back to early episodes of the show.  Perhaps it was the somewhat wacky, very simple premise: crazy CIA gadget needs to be retrieved and the team goes undercover to get it.  Perhaps it was Casey taking on a role as yet another person who has to serve Chuck (like a waiter or a bartender, etc.) or Sarah and Chuck posing as a couple on a romantic trip again (even though, this time, they're exactly that).  There was a certain purity to this story, like something out of season one.



The same could actually be said for the Buy More crowd.  It was good to see Big Mike get decent screen time and, really, as far as this episode goes you'd never know he was no longer in charge.  And, of course, there was Lester being Lester and another great performance by Jeffster.  It really was the most awkward five minutes on television.

And before I go ahead and start sounding like a jaded old man, I have to say that I really enjoyed the scenes leading up to Chuck's near proposal, particularly when he was working up to popping the question.  I love Chuck and Sarah and it was a really sweet moment to watch...

Killing Me

...but that doesn't take away from the fact that this proposal is killing the show.

On the surface, the fact that the issue of the two of them getting engaged has even been talked about at this point is a bit much.  The audience got to see them as a couple for 8 whole episodes before the issue came up.  That's not a whole lot of time.  It's so little time, in fact, that it's made this entire story seem forced.

I'm willing to let that slide, though.  I understand that they wanted to create some drama in Chuck and Sarah's relationship.  I also understand that they initially only had a 13 episode season.  It would have been far more organic had this proposal come up mid-way through the season, but, sadly, the people who run Chuck had no idea if they'd get more episodes.  They had to jump the gun, just as they had to give Ellie the fastest pregnancy in television history (baby Awesome is reported to be born in the next two weeks).  It's not a perfect world, so I accept that.

The problem is that this already forced storyline has taken over the show.  The third episode was called "Chuck vs. the Cubic Z" for crying out loud.  The ending to "Chuck vs. the Coup D'Etat" was incredibly heavy handed and cheesy solely for the purpose of connecting that storyline to Chuck and Sarah's relationship.  Chuck's perfect proposal plan and his attempts to propose come up again and again in episodes like "Chuck vs. the First Fight" and "Chuck vs. the Fear of Death," and even "Chuck vs. Phase Three."  And then, this week, we get another episode where the supposed B plot for the season takes over.

Even worse, it has no turned the A plot -- Chuck's mom and Volkoff -- into yet another vehicle for their proposal.  There is no logical reason for Volkoff to believe that Sarah has gone rogue.  None.  He would never even give her the chance to prove herself and even if she passed some kind of test, he still wouldn't let her join him.  She's Chuck's girlfriend.  We have seen that Volkoff runs an airtight operation, and now we're supposed to believe that he would do something as stupid as to believe that Sarah wants to join him.

But he has to do that for the sake of the proposal storyline.  He has to be stupid so there can be another complication that will drag this out even longer.  As of last night, the B plot has completely taken over so that no aspect of the show this season stands on its own; it's all about whether Chuck and Sarah get engaged.

Here's the problem (or another one, at least): I'm not a 13 year old girl.  In fact, I don't even think a 13 year old girl would find any real tension in this story.  What's the worst that can happen, they don't get engaged?  Really?  That possibility is supposed to create tension and drama?  It's supposed to keep the audience interested?

At this point, does anyone even care what happens to Frost?

There's no weight to this show anymore, and that's a shame.  Season one had its moments.  Season two was filled with so many twists and turns that it raised the bar for the show.  And even as sporadic in quality as season three was, there were still consequences, there were still things at risk.

What's at risk now?

In a Perfect World

In a perfect world, this storyline would go away, and perhaps it will.  Since the first 13 episodes were ordered together, maybe the proposal storyline will end with the 13th episode, and the next 11 episodes can move forward.

Now, as is my way when it comes to all things Chuck, I will share my wild speculation/borderline fan-ficquo.

I think that Frost should die and that it should seem like Chuck had something to do with it.  Volkoff would, of course, launch an all out assault on Chuck, which would include going after anyone that's close to him.  People would get hurt (anyone and everyone, from Sarah to Alex).  There would be no stopping Volkoff and his men.

And then Chuck is killed.  Big explosion, body that is ID'd as his, the whole bit.  And there would be massive mourning.  I picture a shot of Sarah crying in Chuck's bed -- it would be totally heart breaking.

Then, of course we see Chuck in some hidden location, video conferencing with Beckman.  She tells him she's made sure all of his records say he's dead.  They talk about the fact that, in order for everyone to be safe, Chuck needs to be gone, and how he is now going to go full on black ops in order to take down Volkoff...alone.  Beckman says she will expect to hear from him exactly 1 year later, but until then it will be complete silence.  And we'd get "it was an honor working with you," of course.

End season.  Cliffhanger?  Sure, but one that, in theory, could be left that way.

Then the next season would open with Chuck returning, and that would be a complete CF, as everyone would have moved on with their lives...or tried to.

Of course, there are variations.  It doesn't have to be a year, it could just be six months.  And Frost could actually stay alive for this.  She could simply betray Volkoff and then "die" with Chuck -- then the two of them would go underground, which would actually give the season some symmetry.  And, of course, next season we would see that Sarah and Casey have been trying to avenge Chuck...but perhaps someone kept beating them to the punch.

Again, think of how much tension would be in those last few episodes.  This kind of a storyline would probably require 3 episodes.  From the moment Frost dies on would be nonstop drama.  It would be heavy duty.  It would be gut wrenching.

It would seem like something is actually at risk again.

Avatar Review, and stuff about science fiction

My friend Tony commented that not seeing Avatar in 3D was a waste of time, and I'm inclined to agree with him.  Unfortunately, a) 3D makes my brain tingle (seriously) and b) I feel like any movie that's dependent upon special effects to be good, really isn't.  And that was certainly the case with Avatar.

The movie was 162 minutes long, which was roughly 142 minutes longer than it really needed to be.  Twenty minutes of an adventure in the alien forest would have been enough.

I won't talk about the story, as that's been beaten to death since the movie was originally released.  No, what Avatar made me think about was science fiction in general, and our efforts to tell science fiction stories in visual mediums.

Basically, the odds of an alien race looking anything like us (as in humans) are really, really small.  The sheer number of evolutionary coincidences that would have to happen to create a humanoid race would be astronomical.  In other words, the little green men wouldn't really be men at all.

Of course, visual storytelling has been hampered by its tools.  Star Trek had face paint and limited prosthetics to work with, so the fact that every alien race they encountered had two legs, two arms, two eyes, two ears, a nose, and a mouth wasn't their fault.  They did the best they could with what they had.

I won't fault Avatar for this, either, even though it was, in theory, the first science fiction movie that could actually move away from this rather ridiculous trope.  From a storytelling standpoint, making your characters humanoid means the audience will be able to connect with them, at least better than they'd connect with, say, a shapeless cloud of energy.

Avatar does lose points for the rest of Pandora's residents.  Every single life form on that planet was an analogue for something on Earth.  You saw the alien creature and you knew it was a bird, or a cat, or a horse.  Each creature matched up with something familiar when, again, the odds of such a thing happening are infinitesimal.  Even the fact that the planet had plant life just like Earth is ridiculous.

And, again, Avatar, with all of its vaunted special effects, is the first movie to come along that truly could have acknowledged all of this.  It could make special effects look real and, in turn, made the unnatural comprehensible.  But it didn't.

No, I didn't see Avatar in 3D, but I think creators actually dropped the ball on this great new technology, which is unfortunate.

Chuck 4.10 Review (spoilers)

I honestly never thought I'd ever say this, but: they were too subtle.

Last night's Chuck was enjoyable from start to finish.  It managed to walk that fine line between ridiculous and serious that the show often fails to navigate.  From stripper fight classes to a love sick weapons dealer, the show managed to make the comedic elements fit (more or less) into the dramatic narrative.

Sure, it was loaded with pop culture references (I'm kind of shocked that I've yet to see a review mention the "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" reference) and most of those references were either obvious ("Come with me if you want to live") or had been done before (albeit on a smaller scale), but the jokes still worked.

I was also amazed at how much ground they covered in a single hour.  It was a tightly packed episode, with the post-Thanksgiving dinner not coming until nearly 40 minutes in (including commercials).  I had expected a more traditional format in the Chuck and Josh Schwartz vein where the big gathering was either a part of the denouncement or set up for the episode.  But instead of going the more pedestrian route of having a big fight be the climax, it was the dinner that brought everything to a head.

So why am I complaining that they were too subtle?



Because they were.  Because the only real complaint that I or any of the number of reviewers online have had is that the return of the Intersect to Chuck's head was too easy and happened too soon.  But while the latter might be the case, I don't think the former is.

I think that Chuck getting the Intersect back -- and it apparently working fine -- overshadowed my initial response to what happened when Chuck first flashed again: it got blurry.  The camera zoomed in on him and got blurry, and effect we haven't seen before when Chuck flashes.

Also of note is the fact that Chuck willed himself to know kung-fu.  Up until now, the Intersect controlled when Chuck flashed depending upon the situation.  It would appear that Chuck now controls it, which is in keeping with what Ellie did to fix it -- the "memory problem" that Awesome mentioned.

The question, of course, is how this is going to impact the stories we get from here on out.  On one level, it will make Chuck a better spy, and potentially make his flashes less necessary: he will actually remember his abilities after he flashes, meaning he won't need to "get" kung-fu from the Intersect once he's already used it.  The potential problem there, however, is whether or not a human brain can know all the things that the Intersect does without putting that information back when it's done.  I would guess no.

Since they were so vague about the new Intersect, this also means that Frost's "Your father never wanted you to see this" is still in play.  I stand by my claim that there was more to Chuck's dad than we knew, and that perhaps his feelings about Chuck being a spy were a relatively new development.  Perhaps, after Chuck absorbed all that information when he was a little kid, Chuck's dad actually wanted Chuck to be a spy, only to change his mind as he learned more and more about his wife's activities.

Regardless, I don't believe the ending we got to this episode is as concrete as it seemed, and I would expect some interesting complications to arise from the Intersect 3.0.

I just can't believe I have to wait until January to find out what they are.

Chuck 4.8 Review (spoilers)

Well played, Chuck, well played.

I was expecting a self-contained episode.  I was expecting Chuck to figure out why he wasn't able to access the Intersect and to be back in form by the end of the hour.  But that's not at all what I got.  What I got was enjoyable and opened the doors for a lot of different paths for them to take going forward.

Picking Up the Pieces

The theoretical story I concocted for last season involved Chuck slowly going insane because of the Intersect, to the point where it was controlling his actions (he would eventually kill someone because of it, then completely shut down and end up in a coma).  They tapped into this a bit last season, but I always like it got the short end of the stick, that there was much more they could do with the mental implications of the Intersect.  Part of that, I assumed, was due to the fact that they introduced this angle during the extra 6 episodes NBC gave them last season, so most of what they covered then had to be brief.

It would appear that the writers were just as eager to dig into Chuck's head as I was.



I particularly liked how they tied this into Chuck's dependence on Sarah, as well as Sarah's view of Chuck as a spy.  While the details might be extraordinary, the issues themselves are very true to most relationships.  Even better is the fact that these problems stem from the very core of what Chuck and Sarah are looking for in each other.  Chuck has always relied on Sarah for strength, as she is a focused, together person, which Chuck has never really been.  On the other hand, Chuck has a relatively normal life, one that Sarah has always wanted, at least in theory.  Chuck being a spy undercuts that part of her attraction to him and, in many ways, it seems like she considers his actions to be more like playing a spy than actually being a spy.  Sarah holds on to this idea, as if the fact that's only playing keeps him from becoming something she doesn't want him to be.

So how do they fix this?  Clearly, Chuck has to stand on his own two feet, like Agent Rye said, and Sarah needs to accept that Chuck really is a spy, and that he's doing it for the right reasons.  But that's only how they fix their relationship.  How do they fix the Intersect?

About halfway through this episode I kind of mumbled my theory to my wife: Chuck has to save Sarah.  We have seen Sarah save Chuck repeatedly over the last four years and it looks like, from the preview for next week, that we are going to see Sarah do it again.  But I think the rock that Chuck needs to life will only be moved if he sees Sarah in real danger and has to act to save her.  He might have done it once before in Season Three, but he probably considers it something of a fluke, particularly compared to all the times she's saved him.

Also, there's something to be said for their emotional attachment making them better spies, a lesson that Chuck, at least, is trying to figure out.

Agent Rye

Rob Riggle was great.  It's not often a one episode guest star gives the show so much, but he was just fantastic.  He was just so sincere and enthusiastic about each decision.  Every time he came up with a way to up the stakes, I laughed.  Heck, his introduction alone was great, and a nice nod towards the fact that Chuck, even without the Intersect, has learned a few things (and has guts).

Operation: Geta Greta

Speaking of guest stars, Summer Glau took on the role of Greta during a week which saw easily the most substantially part of the rotating CIA agent.  Glau's come a long way since being a ballet dancer in an episode of Angel.  This was a good story for the Buy Morons and those of us who watched Firefly appreciated the tiny shout out the writers threw in (when Casey tells Greta he doesn't know what kind of crew she used to work with).

The Loose Ends

While this episode was sufficiently packed, Ellie and Awesome were noticeably absent.  I realize that a show like this can't have all the secondary characters in every episode, but given the events of the last episode, it's something of a hole.  What does Ellie know?  Does she think her mom is still in CIA custody?  Does she know she betrayed Chuck and blew up their old house?

I have a feeling we're not going to get any of those answers next week, but episode 4.10 is supposed to be a Thanksgiving episode...

What Will They Do?

Digging into Chuck's brain gives the writers a lot of room to play with.  I've ever heard it suggested by some that Chuck will get some kind of amnesia and/or forget who Sarah is.  I find all of that kind of a stretch, but it would be interesting to see a substantial change to Chuck.  Then again, we should be able to assume that we'll get a twist with this, if for not other reason than...

We still don't know his mom was talking about.

Remember, Frost used the device on Chuck and said "Your father never wanted you to see this."  Burying the Intersect isn't really something his father would have had a problem with, so it stands to reason that Frost did something else to Chuck, something that has become the metaphorical rock Rye was talking about.  But what is it?



We're 1/3 of the way through the season and things are starting to pick up -- it will be interesting to see if they've changed the structure of the season because of the additional episodes.

Chuck 4.7 Review (spoilers)

This week's Chuck was easily one of the best of the season, and laid out some great potential storylines for the newly expanded season.  I had one, non-show related complaint, though.

Hyperbole Gone Wrong

I follow Chuck co-creator Josh Schwartz on Twitter.  His lead up to this episode involved saying something along the lines of "the best episode of Chuck in two years."

You can probably imagine how excited I got at such a statement.  After all, the last two years would encompass the phenomenal finale to Season Two, and the episode before it, for that matter, perhaps two of the best episodes of Chuck in the show's relatively short history.  So I was expecting something of that magnitude.

I did not get it.



That's not to say I didn't really like the episode, it just didn't live up to the extreme hype.  Honestly, I really wish Schwartz hadn't made such a claim, as I think I would have enjoyed the episode more had I not had any expectations.

The Sound and the Fury

Perhaps the biggest problem in this episode wasn't story related, it was technical.  For whatever reason, the sound was messed up for a big portion of the episode.  Since my wife has more knowledge about these things, she was able to explain it to me.  Basically, they had to dub in the dialogue after the fact.  At some point they must have lost the original audio.  But it was painfully obvious that was the case.  Everyone sounded like they were talking in a cave and at various points their words came a split second before their mouths moved.

The sound problem completely kicked me out of the show.  It only became more noticeable when the sound returned to normal -- when Casey and Morgan entered the bank.  It was like my ears had just popped and I could hear everything clearly again.  I realize that on a weekly show, time is an issue, but I just couldn't get over how bad this was.

That Said...

It really was a good episode.  While Frost had come across as two dimensional last week, this week we started to get a feel for her character and, not surprisingly, she seemed more fleshed out.  Linda Hamilton can be disturbingly intense, but she did a fantastic job this week of taking even the smallest moments and loading them with meaning.  When she comes clean to Ellie, you know this means she's going to end up betraying her children.  You just know it, and you know it because you can tell that she's winning Ellie over.  But you also get a sense that this is a woman who knows how to tell a story, so while what she's saying might feel real, it makes you suspicious.

Every scene between Chuck and his mom was great.  The two established a rapport like nothing we've seen on this show and it made for great comedy.  Honestly, they are making great use of Frost so far and it seems like that will continue, given what happens in this episode.

This was another episode where I felt like they took a Morgan joke too far.  Dropping the ear piece into the glass of water was funny, but his bumbling in the bathroom was frustrating, particularly given that there was no reason for him to wash it off in the sink to begin with.  He'd dropped it in water; all he had to do was dry it off.

I also don't really buy that Casey's gung ho to take Morgan into a gun fight like that.  That's stretching things a bit far.

On the other hand, the writers handled our other couple extremely well.  I had concerns about how they were going to pick up after last week, but I shouldn't have worried.  The Chuck and Sarah fight played out nicely and wasn't as overblown as it easily could have been.  In fact, it ended up being less a fight and more both of them just feeling bad, which was nice.  The fight scene that marked the climax of their fight was also well done, a nice tip of the hat to how well they work together in the field as parallel to how they work off the field.

Really, it was the women of this show that had the best moments.  The scene when Sarah brings Frost to see Ellie was fantastic and it was great to see the three women in Chuck's life together like that, all coming at the situation from different angles, yet all sharing the same information.  In fact, kudos to the writers again for letting Ellie in on nearly everything.

Of course, it would be impossible to talk about the highlights of this episode without mention one Mr. Timothy Dalton.  He was brilliant.  I believed him as Tuttle and I believed him as Volkoff.  His appearance as Volkoff was appropriately triumphant.

If I have one problem with the final scenes it's that Chuck and Sarah let Frost roam the underground headquarters on her own.  That's just not something Sarah would have allowed and it was incredibly glaring.  There's a difference between showing Chuck she trusts him and being needless careless.

The Ending

So what happened at the end?  Do we really have to wait 2 weeks to find out, thanks to that d-bag W.?  Will we even find out then, or will this play out over many weeks?

I think it will play out over many weeks, yes.  And I'm going to throw out a few thoughts.

Frost says that what she shows Chuck is something his father never wanted him to see.  Since his father tried to help him get the Intersect out of his head, it would seem odd if that's what Frost did.  But maybe not...

A better theory, perhaps, is that Frost loaded him with all the secrets about his family, a theory that would hold with the letter Ellie got.  The implication at the end of this episode and in next week's episode is that Chuck is just too emotionally frazzled to get the Intersect to work, or perhaps he doesn't know how to trigger it with the new information in there.

Going with the first theory, however, would lead to Chuck's quest for an Intersect.  This would be interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that, on paper, Chuck's probably not the guy the CIA/NSA/whoever would want to have the Intersect.  That being the case, would they really help him find another one?  Or would they help him to acquire one so they could load the supercomputer into other agents?

And where would they even find one?  Under Ellie's seat in the Mustang, perhaps?  And, if that's the case, could Ellie be the one to ultimately determine what happens to it and her brother?  Imagine a scenario in which things are bad -- really bad, and only an Intersect loaded Chuck can save the day and there's Ellie, torn between her desire to keep her brother safe and helping him save the day.  In many ways, this would bring the initial storyline full circle, as Ellie would now have a role in her brother being the Intersect and would, in theory, have to come to terms with what he does.

Still, that's all based upon the assumption that Chuck's dad never wanted him to have the Intersect out of his head for fear he'd try to become an agent on his own, which seems like a stretch.  Then again, perhaps we haven't learned the last of Stephen J. Bartowski's secrets...

Chuck 4.6 Review (spoilers)

I suppose it should come as no surprise that a Halloween themed episode of Chuck would be so good.  What was surprising is how well they managed to balance each aspect of the show, even when they had such big guest stars and heavy plot points going on.  I find that a nice balance of spy stuff, Buy More stuff, and home life are what make the best Chuck episodes, and this one delivered on all fronts.

Litmus Test

I think it's probably clear that I'm fairly biased when it comes to this show, so it's hard for me to really look at it objectively when it comes to each episode.  I kind of use my wife's reactions as a litmus test for whether an episode appeals to those who don't come up with potential storylines in their head.

This was probably the first time all season that my wife laughed out loud at an episode of Chuck, or at least laughed out loud in a sustained way.  All because of "Otters!"

The Double Cross

This episode was loaded with ambiguity, yet the one clear double cross didn't come from Chuck's mom, but from his girlfriend.  I wasn't sold on this moment, but could be depending upon how it's handled in the next episode.



I think they need to make it clear that Sarah was at fault here or, more specifically, that she overreacted.  One of the points that was hammered home in the episode was how extraordinarily objective Chuck was, or at least realistic.  There really wasn't a lot of flying off the handle on Chuck's part.  Presented with the facts at hand after the set up went wrong, he admitted that his mom was one of the bad guys.  It didn't seem like Chuck would have a problem at least staying neutral if all the evidence was laid out before him.  The fact that Sarah was unwilling to even give him that chance, and instead resorted to a masked abduction, is an indication that she thinks he's far more emotional than he is -- or has been.

Then again, maybe it's what Sarah is hoping for, deep down inside.  She's still reacting as if he's the Chuck who felt overwhelmed by the spy world, not the Chuck who willingly took on the Intersect 2.0.

If that is the case and they play it like that next week, it could be really great.  We've already seen Chuck come up with a plan last week that was advanced for a spy of his experience.  Technically speaking, the Intersect 2.0 is supposed to turn its host into the ultimate spy...a better spy than Sarah.  That would create an interesting dynamic between the two of them as Chuck continues to get better and better.

If they are going that way with this season, they've done a nice job of setting it up.  In the premiere we see Chuck successfully infiltrate Volkoff Industries where Sarah and Casey fail -- and then he proceeds to beat up a bunch of armed men in the span of a few seconds.  In fact, the quest for his mom could turn Chuck into the spy he was meant to be, or at least the spy the Intersect was supposed to be in.

And perhaps Sarah knows this, which is why she wants to keep some semblance of control over the situation.  Deep down inside, she has to be worried about it.  Even Casey must know, perhaps evidenced by his seeming adoption of Morgan as his new apprentice.  Casey doesn't have anything to teach Chuck anymore, and whether the big guy admits it or not, he enjoyed it.  Enter the fearless Bearded One, who also happens to be dating Casey's daughter, and who can fill the pupil void that Chuck left.

The Missing Scene

The double cross wasn't the real cliffhanger of this episode; that was the final scene when Chuck tells Ellie that their mom isn't going to show because she's a spy.  And then Chuck fans everywhere tried to figure out what happened after that (which I'm sure we'll find out next week).

So how much does Chuck tell Ellie?  How does he explain how he knew their mom was a spy?  If he comes completely clean, does she get mad at him or accept that he went back on his word for a good reason?  Does he explain that their mom could be a double/triple/quadruple agent?  And that she's currently being held by the CIA?  And does she, in turn, tell Awesome all this?  I can't wait to find out.

25%

How crazy is it to think that we've only reached the 25% mark of this season, when just a week ago I wondered if we had hit the midpoint of the show's last year?  Thanks to Chuck's hardcore following, the show has managed to hold steady in the ratings while everything else on TV (it is insane how bad it's gotten) has watched their number plummet each week.  Chuck now sits right around the middle of the pack for NBC, and between the fact that it's less expensive to produce than other hour long shows and it has an advertising deal with a major company (I do, indeed, love Subway), it could be the most cost efficient show on NBC, bringing in the highest return.  While holding steady might be enough, if we could just crack the 2.0 threshold in ratings for the rest of the year, I think Chuck might even have a decent shot at getting a 5th season, which is something I never expected to write.

Chuck Should Go Rogue (and a brief 4.5 review)

Chuck vs. The Couch Lock

I don't actually have much to say about this episode.  It was easily the best of the self-contained episodes we've gotten so far.  I realize that's probably odd coming from someone who just criticized the show for having a ridiculous climax, but I didn't really have a problem with how this episode played out.  I think it's the simple fact that Morgan is, when it comes to the spy world, comedic relief, makes the ridiculous situations play out better simply because they're expected.  I suppose there's also the fact that the threat in this episode was never played up to be overly grave in any way, as it was just three guys who wanted to steal some gold, as opposed to the coup of a nation with nuclear weapons.

It's always interesting to see Chuck react to the fact that he's becoming desensitized to his life as a spy.  Yes, using Casey as bait wasn't really a big deal, given that Casey probably would have suggested it on his own had he thought of it, but the fact that Chuck took initiative (and, in Beckman's eyes, it was completely selfless initiative) and came up with a plan on his own is a nice nod to his evolution as a spy.  Besides, it's also nice to see Chuck in control, although I have some thoughts on that later.

Of course the big moment in the episode came with the phone call we'd all been waiting for.  The earlier confirmation that Chuck's mom is not such a good person was handled well and, of course, puts Chuck into a particularly Chuck-like bind: believe the worst of his mom based upon the facts, or believe the best of her and walk in blindly.  I'm guessing he'll pick an option in the middle while leaning towards the latter, because he is Chuck, after all.  And if his father left for valid reasons, then his mom could have, too, right?

The Future

I said up above that it's nice to Chuck in control.  I think they should do the exact opposite with the rest of the 24 episode season.

I want Chuck to go rogue.

Now, it's pretty clear that this would be an easy story to put together.  Chuck finds out his mother is a bad guy, she says she's taking off but, after seeing Chuck in action, would love to have him be a part of her organization, Chuck agrees thinking, in that completely naive way that Chuck does, that he can convince her over time to see the light.  And, of course, everyone would be against this idea -- or better yet, some or all of them would have no idea it was a plan at all.

Because, really, it's Chuck's idealism that ultimately gets him into trouble, but it's also what gives this show the angst that we all love.

Oh, yeah, and they should bring Jill back.

We haven't seen Jill since Chuck let her go towards the end of season two.  She couldn't go back to the Ring (or Fulcrum, as that branch was called) and she was still wanted by the U.S. government.  But if the Ring recruited her, it was because she had talent, talent that would eventually draw the attention of other organizations like, say, the one Chuck's mom leads.

Imagine that: Chuck "goes rogue" and when the smoke clears and he's with his mom at whatever base that can't be discovered, she says "let me introduce you to one of my top agents" and BAM!  There's Jill.  End scene, end act, end episode.

So now we have Chuck, in over his head and pretending to be one of the bad guys, working alongside Jill, his ex, the woman who broke his heart, the last woman he loved before Sarah.  Suddenly there's not just a professional divide between Chuck and Sarah, but an emotional one as well -- and it's almost entirely organic (unlike the Shaw business last season).

You know, I can just imagine Ellie and Awesome desperately trying to get Sarah and Casey to let them be more involved in the search for Chuck and the lines that blur even more because of his absence.  Gah! Imagine the episode where it becomes official that Chuck is gone, when Beckman has named him a wanted man.  Imagine it ending with Sarah lying in the bed that, until recently, they shared together, looking longingly at a picture of Chuck.

See?  This is why this show means so much to me.  It's not just because I enjoy watching, but because it makes me want to write for it.  I just love it that much.

So if anyone knows Josh Schwartz, tell him to give me a call.  I'll work for free.

Chuck 4.4 Review (spoilers)

I really, really enjoyed 3/4 of this episode.  It brought the funny in a way that has been missing so far this season.  The fact that I managed to skip doing a review for 4.3 should pretty much tell you what I thought of it; it could have been the first episode of Chuck during which I didn't let out a single chuckle.  But 4.4 made up for that, and would have been the first truly great episode of the season if not for a really, really awful climax.

Heavy Cheese

As crazy as I am about this show, I know that Chuck isn't real.  But there are, at the very least, levels of ridiculousness on this show.  The simple fact that none of the spies just kill people, instead choosing to capture Chuck and his team, should be a good indication that "realness" is not a priority.  This isn't the Bourne movies.

But there are times when Chuck pushes the boundaries well past the acceptable level of whimsy.  It pushes so far past, that it turns into grade A American cheese.  And that's what the climax of this episode was: cheesy. It was painfully cheesy.  Even worse, it was heavy handed cheese.  Sarah and Chuck need to talk about their relationship -- what a coincidence, so does the former dictator of a fictional country and his supposedly communist wife!  Hey, the only way to fix this is by having Chuck walk in and get everyone to talk about their feelings.  The fact that we didn't get a shot of Casey going "ugh" at some point in that scene just underscored how awful it was.

I'm fine with some ridiculousness now and again.  But it was just too far gone in this episode, and far too fabricated and forced for the sake of the other plot line.

Old Is New Again

I think it's safe to say that this episode was anything but new viewer friendly.  Granted, this isn't a great thing for a show that's in need of new viewers (more on that later), but the Costa Gravas set up from last season pays off nicely in this episode.  A lot of the humor stems from Casey's past as the Angel of Death and it almost always works, but it obviously wouldn't for someone brand new to the show.

And, yeah, I think the Generalisimo is funny.  I can't help it. "In Costa Gravas, we revolution, but then we party."

From the get go I thought this was going to be a good one.  Chuck/Sarah, Awesome/Ellie double dates are almost always entertaining, and a vacation in which Awesome would be recognized as a hero was even better.  That statue was priceless.  And it's always entertaining to see Chuck and Sarah on a mission together these days -- I really can't get enough of that.  I know I sound like a broken record, but I really love their dynamic. Chuck's "no, I didn't flash, really, I just want to be on vacation with you" bit was actually pretty nice and worked well on me.  I like that Chuck can still be a reluctant spy from time to time.

Speaking of dynamics between two people, the Morgan/Casey show continues to get better and better.  They did a really nice job with it last season and so far I really like the way they're handling the Morgan/Alex relationship.  The scene at Casey's place was really entertaining -- the advice from Big Mike was just as good, too.  Honestly, Morgan's creating a nice little reality of his own on the show which I'm really enjoying, although I realize some of that is to the detriment of screen time for Jeffster.

The coup was obvious, of course, but the nuclear angle was a good one.  It was also great to see Chuck engage in some spy action in front of Ellie -- it's something they never really addressed after last season.  It's also something I've wondered about everyone on the show: how much do they all know?  We know that Morgan has the full story, but do Awesome and Ellie know about the Intersect in Chuck's head?  Do they know how he became a spy?  That Jill is/was a Fulcrum/Ring agent?  That Bryce Larkin wasn't really a bad guy after all?  I know it would most likely make for bad TV, but I would love an entire episode in which Chuck just explains everything to the others.

Climax notwithstanding, I also really liked the structure of this episode.  I liked that the first half felt like an episode on its own, and how Sarah and Chuck were tasked to return to Costa Gravas.  It's nice to be reminded on the show that Team Bartowski also happens to be the top spy team the CIA and NSA have.  And this episode was a good example of why that is, given that Chuck flashed on the weapons system, Casey gave them intel, Sarah snapped off the pictures, etc.  It was good to see the team working like an actual spy team, which is perhaps another reason why the climax didn't work for me.

And, of course, we finally got the Chuck/Ellie scene that I'd been waiting for.  While not as clear as I was hoping it would be, at least it set things in motion.  At least Chuck admitted he was looking for their mother, so he can claim his CIA work is completely related to that, which, of course, it isn't.  I did find it strange that, when Ellie suggested there was no reason their mother could give to justify leaving, Chuck didn't point out that their father had left them and his reasons were pretty darn good.



Season of Previews

If nothing else, this season has had damn fine previews.  I was really excited for 4.3 based on the preview, but was ultimately let down.  I was really excited for 4.4 by the preview, and was more or less happy with it.  Yet again I'm excited for another episode by a preview.  Next week looks like it will be a lot of fun.

Chuck 4.2 Review (spoilers)

Before I get into talking about my favorite television show, let's take a cold, hard, dose of reality, shall we?  The odds of Chuck continuing beyond this season are very, very slim; there aren't many shows currently on network television that get lower ratings than Chuck.  So consider every episode we get to be something of a final countdown, although I think the show is in a good place and on a good overall storyline to come to a satisfying conclusion.

The only real solution I could see is NBC moving the show to Friday nights with the hope that its very loyal fan base follows.  On Friday nights, Chuck gets god like numbers.  But I don't know if a) NBC would even bother with that (although there's going to be an opening soon, I believe) and b) if all of Chuck's 6 million-ish viewers would make the move.  Not all of them would have to, of course, given the ratings wasteland that is Friday nights.

Anyway, just something to keep in mind as we go through the season.  As much as I loved the second season finale (perhaps one of my favorite episodes of Chuck ever), I really, really hope Schwartz and Fedak don't throw caution to the wind again and give us a cliffhanger.

Am I Watching the Wrong Josh Schwartz Show?

Truly, I was expecting at least one Gossip Girl joke in an episode of Chuck that spent so much time at runway shows.  If any happened, I missed them, and if they didn't, I'm a little disappointed;  The OC joke was one of the best in Chuck's brief history.

As a self contained episode, there isn't much to say.  I get a little worried when the show stretches the limits of disbelief like, for example, with the "tranq gloves."  While I know Chuck live in an exaggerated world, it works best when that exaggeration is played for laughs.  And perhaps that was the intention of the "tranq gloves," when Chuck gets into his fight with Lou Ferrigno, but it fell flat for me.

And while I appreciated the tension created by Sarah and Chuck facing off against a fashion model/spy, Karolina Kurkova isn't much of an actress, and there were moments when that was painfully obvious.  It might not have been as noticeable on other shows, but the main cast always brings the acting thunder.

Window Dressing

None of the above really mattered, aside from the banter between Chuck and Sarah and what was, I believe, their first official mission together (sans Casey) since becoming a couple (yes, I know, there was that one last season with the older spy couple, but they were still on shaky ground then).  I said it before and I'll say it again, the chemistry between these two is so great that even the weakest of storylines is enjoyable.  You can put them into any situation and gold will come out of it.

Chuck and Sarah weren't the couple of the hour, of course: that honor went to Jeff and Lester.  I had wondered how they were going to bring those two back and this was a decent was to do it.  I'm not sure how they're going to handle the fact that they're exposing so many civilians to a CIA base, though.  Granted, they're fairly dumb civilians, but someone's going to realize something is up.  I do hate to see Beckman go, but hopefully she'll stay in the area.

The Search For Mom

If it hadn't been for the preview we got at the end of last week's episode, I'd probably be really mad about the "hiding being an agent from Ellie" bit.  The fact that I do know that it will end, though, has me rather loving it.  Why?  Because it seems like the conversation that will finally get Chuck to reveal the truth to Ellie will actually be instigated by her.

This is actually a pretty wonderful way to tackle the story, particularly when paralleled with Chuck finding their dad.  The simple fact that Chuck did find their father is only going to give fuel to Ellie's fire, but at the same time she has to know that Chuck only found their dad because he was a spy, and that only a spy could find their mom.  It's a great dilemma to place Ellie in, that she wants to keep her family safe, yet still wants her mom back as she's about to become a mother herself.

I Love It When Chuck Looks Like A Bad Ass

Next week looks like it's going to be a good one.  Obviously, it's going to be cool to see someone come after Chuck for taking them down.  But I also like the way they're playing the Chuck/Sarah situation.  It's not entirely serious, nor is it meant to be.  The preview makes it look like Chuck had no intention of ending up on a knee with a ring in his hand, yet, of course, he finds himself in that situation.  It's fun to watch.  After all, Chuck has spent most of his life being Joe Average, a guy who figured he'd end up getting married and having kids some day.  Sarah, on the other hand...not so much.  As long as they continue to play this particular issue for laughs (albeit awkward ones), I'm on board.  I just hope they don't amp it up too quickly.

All in all a decent episode of Chuck, if not a great one.  I have a feeling next week will be the first "that was fantastic" episode of this short season.

Chuck 4.1 Review (spoilers)

"Why would she?"

I have become convinced that creators of shows should either a) write all the episodes (ala Aaron Sorkin) or b) not write any episodes.  The initial basis for this opinion came from Battlestar Galactica, a show with a staff full of great writers, many of whom, I have to imagine, had to have found fault with creator Ron Moore's script for the series finale.  Working under that assumption, then, it's an easy trip to figure that none of said great writers said anything to Moore about the awfulness of what he'd written or, if they did, they were shot down, as Moore was one of their bosses, after all.

I like to think that the writing room on a TV show is less dictatorial than that, so I choose to think that the great writers on the staff simply choose not to say anything at all, for fear of insulting the guy who pays them.

This leads me to last night's season premier of Chuck, written by co-creator Chris Fedak and featuring the second most painful contrivance in Chuck history.

On two separate occasions in last night's episode, Chuck states that he isn't telling Sarah about his quest for his mother because she would try to stop him.

This would be the same Sarah that spent much of three years being a spy with him, and at least six weeks of last season embracing his role as a spy.  This is the same Sarah that involves him in dangerous activities for things that mean much less to Chuck than his family.  This is the same Sarah who loves Chuck and is no longer afraid to say it.

So, in the writers' room, when that script was read and Chuck said (for the first of two times) that Sarah would try to stop him, the question someone (ANYONE) would have asked is: "Why would she?"

Because she wouldn't.  No, she would help him.  There wouldn't even be hesitation on her part.  In fact, the only way to prevent Sarah from jumping right in to help would be by, say, manufacturing a horrible excuse that was out of character for pretty much everyone.

Now, sure, you could chalk it up to Chuck being stupid when he made such an assumption about Sarah.  And while that's really flimsy in and of itself, it's also taken off the table when Sarah actually agrees with Chuck that she would have tried to stop him.

Again, "Why would she?"

Because it served the plot.  And I hate inorganic elements that are forced into a story for the sake of servicing plot.  It's always obvious and it's always jarring and it makes the show seem bad and, even worse, the writers either willfully ignorant or of the belief that their audience is stupid.

Deja Vu

Name the Chuck premiere: Chuck is out of the spy game, the team is broken up, and Chuck and Morgan no longer work at the Buy More.  But, by the end of the episode, Chuck is back in, the team is back together, and Chuck and Morgan are back to work at the Buy More.

Last night's episode?  No, that was the season three premiere.  And, as I said last season, it is a Josh Schwartz trope, something he began with The OC.  Each premiere becomes a throwaway episode because it establishes a status quo that it completely flips by the end of the episode, when it could have just started off that way.  And while this season's premiere didn't include the horror that was the train station scene played over and over again, it still felt like a wasted opportunity to do more.

For a show that is surely on its last 13 episodes, treading water for an episode really hurts.  Even worse, I can't imagine last night's frantic pace did much in the way of attracting new viewers, something even more painful considering how much press the show following Chuck got.

Not All Bad

I know it seems like I'm being harsh, but I really care about this show and I want it to be around for a long time.  I also tend to see the flaws in it because they stick out like a sore thumb.  They stick out like a sore thumb because they're surrounded by gold (how about that for mixing similes).  Even the worst episode of Chuck is still better than almost everything else on television.

What did I love?  I loved the scenes in Moscow.  Cliche as it might have been, everything from Chuck's "death" on was great.  Sarah's reaction was great.  Casey's reaction was great.  Chuck being a bad ass is always great.  Even better, was Casey's reaction when they knew Chuck was alive, the way he was almost bragging about Chuck's bad assery.  That was all great.

The second sexting scene.  By my count, there were four, which was probably one too many.  The initial introduction of the idea was funny, because Chuck and Morgan are almost always funny together.  The second time it comes up -- this time between Chuck and Sarah -- was comedy gold.  The third time, when Sarah decides to snap some pics, was probably more fanservice than anything else.  The last time, in Moscow, was a bit much, mostly because it went on for so long.  It was mildly amusing at first, but seemed forced as it went on.  Also, just how talented are Sarah's toes?  And what are the odds an iPhone gets reception in that place?

Chuck and Sarah were great.  While I loved the "will they/won't they" dymaic of the first two seasons (and loathed in in the third season), it was clear from the last six episodes of last season that they can really work as a couple.  Their relationship actually adds to the show without taking anything away.  It's a testament to the characters that the show hasn't lost anything with the end of that romantic tension, and a testament to the show that it doesn't need that to survive.

Linda Hamilton is going to be great as Chuck's, particularly since we really don't know which end of the spy spectrum she's going to fall on.  If nothing else, we know she's not afraid to kill people, but then again, neither is Sarah.  It sets up a nice dynamic, as Chuck's dad was a computer nerd who married a spy, and Chuck is a computer nerd who's dating one.  I can't imagine that Chuck's reunion with his mom is going to be nearly as happy as the one with his father was.

The new Buy More is fantastic, even without the Buy Morons, although I'm looking forward to seeing how they fit in.  Only good things can come from having more General Beckman on the show and her scenes with Chuck were great.  I'm looking forward to more of that.

The Best For Last

This will sound bad, but the best part of last night's premiere was the ending...or what came after the ending, rather.  The preview for this season was fantastic and hinted at what appeared to be some great stories.  I am thrilled that Chuck is going to tell Ellie what's going on.  I can understand why he didn't tell her in this episode, but I was going to be really annoyed if we returned to Chuck lying to his sister again.  And, as I mentioned, Chuck's mom doesn't seem to be so nice.

So, yeah, not great, but good enough for now, particularly since it looks like it's only going to get better.

Album Review: Minus the Bear, "Omni"

Minus the Bear make me think of college.  This is odd in that they were not around when I was in college.  But their music makes me think of a band I would have obsessed over when I was in school (being older and more mature now, I only slightly obsess over them).  Then there's Jake Snider's lyrics, which more often than not have to do with hanging out with your friends, drinking, and overly dramatized sex.  If that's not college, I don't know what is.

I wasn't thrilled with Minus the Bear's last album, "Planet of Ice."  There seemed to be something missing on that album, or rather there was something there that I'd heard before.  I love this band, but at a certain point it's time to move forward, to expand beyond what you're used to doing.  The saving grace of that record, for me, was "Lotus," a nearly nine minute epic that saw the band begin to drift into acid rock/classic rock areas for the first time.

I was more impressed with the releases Minus the Bear put out between "Planet of Ice" and "Omni."  The first was "Acoustics," which, as you might expect, was a collection of songs done in the "Unplugged" vein.  This showed me that while I might not have liked "Planet of Ice," the songwriting was still there -- the production just needed to change, to evolve.

And evolve it did, with the next release, the single for "Omni," "Into the Mirror," with the b-side "Broken China."  If "Acoustics" had begun to get me excited for the new album, the "Into the Mirror" single finished the job.  No other band could make such an off putting keyboard part not only work, but work well.  I honestly didn't see their future moving in the keyboard heavy direction, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense, since it fit with the hints of acid rock heard on "Planet of Ice."

It's clear from the first track on "Omni," "My Time," that Minus the Bear aren't afraid to give this whole keyboard thing a shot.  While the jerky rhythms and finger tapping of Snider and Dave Knudson's duel guitar attack are still there, they're now swirling around Alex Rose's more prominent keyboard parts.  It's a fine balance, and thankfully one Minus the Bear knows how to maintain.  Rose never forces his parts where they don't belong, and often chooses to simply provide texture in the background, like on stand outs "Hold Me Down" and "The Thief."

If Minus the Bear does make the mistake of overdoing experimentation, it comes not with keyboard parts, but with guitar effects.  "Summer Angel" is a wonderful song, but the warbly flange effect on the lead guitar line is distracting.  Minus the Bear's dueling guitars don't need effects because they are just that good; leave the manufactured sounds to the keyboards.

"Omni" does lose steam towards the end.  "Animal Backwards" is filler and "Fooled By The Night" doesn't have enough hooks to warrant being a seven minute song.  But the finish doesn't detract for the overall quality of this album, particularly in comparison to Minus the Bear's last effort.  If "My Time," "The Thief," and "Into the Mirror" are an indication of things to come, I can't wait for the follow-up.

Album Review: The New Pornographers, "Together"

From the first few notes of "Together," you know that The New Pornographers are back to form.

The New Pornographers' last album, "Challengers," was something of a disappointment.  It felt pedestrian, a strange word to associate with a band like this.  It was The New Pornographers A-B-C's.  Perhaps it was a subconscious affliction as a result of the masterful "Twin Cinemas."  Whatever the reason, "Challengers" came across as uninspired and not the least bit challenging.

The same can't be said for "Together."  This is everything you love about The New Pornographers: the great melodies, the intertwining vocals, the quirky lyrics, and dynamic instrumentation.  This is a band that will record anything, no matter how strange, if they think it sounds good.  They are shameless servants to rhythm and melody.

The first track, "Moves," kicks the album off perfectly, with a string/guitar combination that is strangely wonderful.  At various moments, you'll hear what sounds like a cello drowning out the guitar, only to then hear the guitar drowning out that supposed cello.  And at a certain point they throw some keyboard and piano in there for good measure.  Truly remarkable, this pastiche of instruments never drown out the vocal lines, yet only serve to lift them up.

There's also a cohesion to "Together" (appropriately enough) that was lacking on their last album.  The aforementioned cello carries us into "Crash Years," the first song on the album to feature Neko Case as the main vocalist.  Case has an avid following and I always wonder how The New Pornographers manage to maintain a balance between her vocals and those of Carl Newman, Kathryn Calder, and Dan Bejar.  It would seem tempting, on some level, to place the focus on Case, given her popularity, but if The New Pornographers are doing that, it's not obvious, as the songs feel completely organic.

If "Together" ever feels less than together, it's the growing distinction between the Newman penned songs and those by Bejar.  Aside from the obvious vocal difference, Bejar's songs tend to be more pop oriented, almost like they're actively wishing for a simpler time.  Bejar's tracks, "Silver Jenny Dollar," "If You Can't See My Mirrors," and "Daughters of Sorrow," are spread throughout this album, but in a way that makes their positioning seem premeditated by their creator, not their tone, as a way of making sure his songs are scattered equally from beginning to end.

"Up In the Dark" is perhaps my favorite song on "Together," with it's choppy acoustic rhythm guitar and twangy lead guitar that lead to a driving chorus featuring "What's love?" over and over again (I'll give you a hint: it turns up in the dark).  The dueling vocals between Newman and Case remind me of everything that's great about The New Pornographers.

The slower numbers, like the aforementioned "Daughters of Sorrow," "Valkyrie In the Roller Disco," and the fantastic "We End Up Together," show The New Pornographers at the top of their game.  I've never been sold on their less energetic tunes; there was always something missing, something that prevented them from working for me on a purely sentimental level.  That isn't he case here, just another indication of how great this record is.

I was nearly convinced that The New Pornographers' well had run dry after "Challengers."  I'm happy to see that I was jumping the gun, and that the water on "Together" runs deep.

Album Review: Band of Horses, "Infinite Arms"

I didn't want to like Band of Horses.

My then-girlfriend-now-wife introduced them to me by way of the song "Funeral."  I thought it was nice enough, but reminded me of the The Shins a bit too much, so I decided they were unworthy of my precious musical time.  Besides, my then-girlfriend-now-wife had discovered them, and I had a tendency to make all new music mine, so I wanted to let her have this one.

She didn't really care.

I heard a few more songs by Band of Horses and soon they no longer sounded like The Shins to me.  Their simplicity appealed to me.  "Is There A Ghost" has a chorus that consists of two chords!  There was just something so endearing about their music.

"Infinite Arms" pushes and pulls Band of Horses, sometimes taking them forward, sometimes reeling them back, neither approach a complete success, yet neither a complete failure, either.  It's easy to see why, as Brian Bridwell's band has undergone multiple line-up changes since he started it.  So while it might be trite to say, there's basis beyond the music for why this feels like a band in transition.  But they manage to push through their growing pains while still producing a pretty great record.

"Infinite Arms" opens with "Factory," a concentrated dose of everything to love about Band of Horses.  The song could be off any of their records, and could probably work nicely in a mash-up of their previous work.  The second track is "Compliments," and this is when the first hints of greatness come through.  Aside from Bridwell's alternatingly abstract and specific lyrics, there's the fantastic bass line that runs through the chorus.  This song sticks with you from first listen.

There are a few moments on "Infinite Arms" when Band of Horses pushes the limits of believable earnestness.  They start to wander into the "my woman left me and my dog is dead" territory, both lyrically and musically.  "Laredo" is a good example of this, but it's outdone by "Blue Beard," which doesn't seem to be able to decide if it's a country music song or an AM gold 70's hit.  Note to songwriters: rolling the dice is never a good image.  Never.

"On My Way Back Home" takes us back to classic, "Funeral" style Band of Horses.  It's a great song that builds nicely all the way through.  Going back home, while totally cliche, makes for a much better story than, say, rolling the dice.

There are two songs that deserve special note on "Infinite Arms."  The first is "Dilly," an absolutely fantastic song featuring a Strokes-esque guitar line and a borderline disgustingly sweet vocal line.  I say "borderline," because Bridwell manages to walk that line without going over the top, and the song is unforgettable because of it.

Then there's "Older," far more in the folk vein than most of the other songs on the record, and sung by Ryan Monroe, with backing vocals by Bridwell.  Is this an indication that this iteration of Band of Horses might stick together for a while?

"Infinite Arms" is a great addition to the Band of Horses catalog.  I'm looking forward to seeing where this album takes them.

Album Review: Nada Surf, "if I had a hi-fi"

No, not a typing mistake, that's how they titled it.  It's very e.e. cummings of them, although I don't know why the "I" gets capitalized when the rest doesn't.  Seems self-important to me.

Honestly, Nada Surf could have just told me this was a new album and I would have believed them, at least until I heard the cover of Depheche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," but even then I probably would have considered it a one off.  Aside from "The Anger of Laffitte," a rather obscure Spoon song, I don't know any of the songs on this album of covers.  Points to Nada Surf, though, for doing their fellow song writers a service, because now I'm determined to go find the original versions of all of these tracks.

This should be no surprise, given my documented love of covers.

I do have to wonder, though, given that "Enjoy the Silence" is the most well known of all these songs, why Nada Surf decided to make Bill Fox's "Electrocution" the single.  Everyone knows that cover songs get regular air play on whichever MTV still shows music videos (just ask Alien Ant Farm).  It's been long enough, too, that I can't imagine many people seeing that theoretical video and saying "hey, didn't those guys sing 'Popular?'"

They are, in fact, the band that sang "Popular," and they're a damn good band who have put out their fair share of damn good albums.  "IIHAH-F" is no different (not only is it impossible to start a sentence with, it's also impossible to abbreviate).  While I might not be able to easily distinguish between the original and the Nada Surf version (only because I haven't heard most of these originals), a good song is a good song.

Stand outs so far include the aforementioned "Enjoy the Silence" and "Electrocution," as well as the oh-so Nada Surf sounding "Love Goes On," originally performed by the Go Betweens.  The Moody Blues' epic "Question" feels like multiple songs crammed together, but ultimately works on its own.  Mercomina's "Evolution" gives us yet more indications that Nada Surf will be experimenting with orchestration in the future, something I couldn't be happier about.

For the band's standpoint, it's the willingness to add keyboards and strings to these songs that will have the most long term impact.  The band has on sparsely expanded beyond their power trio trappings, but IIHAH-F at least suggests that experimentation on their originals is on the horizon.

Album Review: Spoon, "Transference"

I love Spoon in theory.

Like Pavlov's dog, when I hear a new Spoon album is coming out, I get excited. And just like Pavlov's dog, I should know better. It's not that "Transference" or any other Spoon albums are bad, because nothing could be further from the truth; they're all perfectly enjoyable. It's just that I always assume a new Spoon record is going to be better than it is.

In my defense, part of this is due to Spoon's undeniable ability to produce a single with a crazy hook. If it weren't for "I Turn My Camera On," they were probably still be, to me, that band that people always talk about but that I never bothered to check out.

I'm far from innocent, though. As with most people who are obsessive about music, I'm constantly on the look out for my new favorite band. So when I did hear "I Turn My Camera On," I dove into the world of Spoon like Scrooge McDuck into money. My expectations were high, perhaps unfairly so.

Again, going into "Transference," I had high hopes. The only song I'd heard was "Got Nuffin," which, with it's driving rhythm and devil may care lyrics instantly won me over. But I should have known better.

They find it periodically, but as whole, there's something missing on Spoon's albums. There's a disconnect from urgency and emotion to craft and production. It remains me of the complaints we'd hear when CDs were first becoming popular. Vinyl enthusiasts pointed out that the sound on records had more range, while the sound on a compact disc was compressed; the extremes were eliminated. That's the impression I get when listening to a Spoon album.

None of this is to say that "Transference" doesn't have some strong songs. "Is Love Forever?" is the kind of jolting, danceable track that Spoon has nearly perfected over the course of their career. In fact, it's track like this -- "Writing In Reverse," for example -- that keep Spoon alive. It's their bread and butter; it's what keeps them interesting. "Got Nuffin" and "Trouble Comes Running" are both catchy and driving, but neither seem to expand beyond their trappings, which is fine for a song or two, but encompasses the state of the entire album -- of Spoon's entire catalog.

In many ways, it seems like Spoon is playing it safe. There's no sense of danger or experimentation. Their music is great, it just feels very paint by numbers. And perhaps that's enough for them, and enough for their legion of fans. At the very least, they're going to have one killer "Best of" album someday.

Comic Book Review: Batman and Robin #13

Batman and Robin #13

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Frazer Irving

Published by DC Comics

I know just enough.

I won’t pretend to know everything that’s going on in Batman and Robin #13. I’m not sure I’d believe anyone who said that they conclusively know everything laid out in these pages. But I know enough to understand the basics of what’s going on, and I know enough to know that I want to know more. It’s a rare commodity in a comic book these days to tell a story and leave your reader wanting more, but Grant Morrison has been doing that with Batman for years now.

If and when they repackage Morrison’s run on the various Bat-books as multiple Absolute collections, I can only hope they include a #0 volume containing Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, because that’s where the story begins. Many people are probably confused by Morrison’s depiction of the Joker in Batman and Robin #13, but it’s in keeping with the view of the character Morrison laid out in Arkham Asylum. I’m thrilled to see that come to fruition.

Morrison also continues to show that he understands the difference between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, and does so without being heavy handed. At no point do we get an issue filled with “this is what Bruce was like, this is what Dick is like.” Morrison gives us their differences in smaller ways, like how Dick calls Commissioner Gordon by his title as opposed to “Jim,” or how Gordon tells him that the members of Gotham PD like Dick better than Bruce. Both moments ring true to the characters, and indicate that the title of this series might not be a reference to Dick and Damien, but to Bruce and Dick.

Frazer Irving is a fantastic artist and well suited for a book of stark contrasts. His Joker harkens back to Bob Kane’s original depiction. Here, he looks like someone who could really exist, deformed, yes, but not exaggerated to the point of being absurd.

On one hand, I don’t want this series to ever end. I really enjoy reading about Dick Grayson and Damien Wayne. I love the dynamic that Morrison has set up. But on the other hand, I can’t wait until it reaches its conclusion, just so I can go back and read it from the beginning. I can only imagine all the wonderful new moments and fantastic revelations I’ll pick up on when I can read the story as a whole.

I can remember the last time I was ever so eager to go back and read my back issues. Oh, wait, yes, I can: it was the last time a Grant Morrison written Batman title was released.

(Originally published at www.comicbulletins.com)

Album Review: The Stills, "Oceans Will Rise"

I can see some people pointing to this as a step back towards the sound of "Logic Will Break Your Heart," at least on certain tracks. I can see some people being happy that it doesn't sound MORE like "Logic Will Break Your Heart." Personally, I loved both "Logic" and "Without Feathers."

And while "Oceans Will Rise" sounds almost like an amalgam of sounds from those two albums, rest assured that it stands on its own.

Stand outs, to me, include:

"Snow In California" might have been a better choice to open the album and sounds like it could have been a b-side to "Logic."

"Snakecharming the Masses" is a fantastic song and shows some really inspired songwriting. There's nothing really easy about the progression in this song, yet it still feels natural. They seem to avoid what's expected, though.

"Being Here" is the first single, I believe, and it's easy to see why. Actually, THIS was probably a more obvious first track, but hindsight being 20/20 I think it might have given a false impression of the record. It's a good, catchy tune.

"Everything I Build" is the first definitively somber song on the album and it's a winner. That's actually probably the most distinct part about this record -- the mellow tunes. They're all very good.

"Eastern Europe" is insanely listen-able. In parts it reminds me of the Foo Fighters, in fact. It's just a catchy pop song. It's strut worthy.

"Hands On Fire" is perhaps my favorite song on the album at the moment. It's mellow and catchy and has a good groove.

"Dinosaurs" is yet another mellow song and maintains the quality. That's not to say that these mellow songs move. They do. But they all have a fairly somber tone more fully realized than earlier releases.

"Rooibos/Palm Wine Drinkard" feels more like a "Without Feathers" tune but, really, it's just a rockin' song.

All in all, good stuff.

The Lost Finale (spoilers)

Lost was a show that drove me nuts. For every moment I loved about Lost, there was another moment I couldn't stand. The bad moments drove me insane, because I really wanted to like the show, I really wanted it to be good all the time.

And now it's over, gone in a really long, heavily commercialized flash. I really liked the finale and, ultimately, liked the show more often than not.

Dan Brown Syndrome

These days, mainstream storytelling is ruled by the likes of Dan Brown, James Cameron, and Brian Bendis. Characters are vehicles to service plot, and plot is manipulated to create suspense. Stories are no longer organic and the strings of the great and powerful Oz are always present. These are the days of high concepts and no character.
Unfortunately, Lost had to play this game. It followed the formula of ridiculous, obvious, and often time unnecessary cliffhangers at the end of every episodes, and sometimes at the end of every act. It loaded itself up with plot twists and complications in an effort to keep those millions of viewers coming back, often times to the detriment of its characters, of things like logical and natural dialogue.
But, thankfully, the show was able to do multiple things at once. Yes, it indulged in melodrama and mystery, but while no one was looking, it snuck in something more: heart. While some chose to focus on Easter eggs and mysteries, others longed for the day when Sun and Jin would be reunited, when Claire would get to see Aaron, or when Desmond would finally return to Penny.
And all the while, Lost made mainstream television audiences think it was okay to watch a show about mysticism, spirits, and time travel.
Speaking of which...

Suck It, Nerds

You could probably hear the collective cheer of nerds all over the world when the final season of Lost premiered. After dining on a steady diet of time travel, we were now given that delicacy known as the alternate timeline. At long last, all of our non-nerdy friends were turning to us with questions and we, after a lifetime of comic books and sci-fi novels, had the answers. The bomb had gone off, of course, and had split time in two, one continuing on with the story at hand, one in a world where the plane never crashed.
But such a move would have placed Lost in a corner, would have defined it as more sci-fi than anything else.
We noticed the problems, of course. The pasts of the characters in each timeline didn't always match up exactly. And then, in the finale, Sun and Jin remember the island...and they remember things that happened after the bomb supposedly went off.
We were wrong.
This wasn't science fiction, it was metaphysics -- it was metafiction.
Because the alternate timeline wasn't an alternate timeline at all, it was purgatory. Yes, the idea that the island was purgatory had been floated around since the show started, and had been dismissed. The island was real. In fact, in the finale, the island was the only thing that was real; it was the other storyline that wasn't.
As if to underscore that the last six years really happened, we were given the imaginary story everyone was worried about, but we were given it as a separate entity all together.

The Unhappy Happy Ending

It's that separate entity, that apparent purgatory, that made the finale work. Why? Because it wasn't really the ending, even if it really happened.
How do you support the claim that the purgatory storyline really happened? How do you support the claim that it didn't? Regardless of where you stand, it happens in the afterlife, so the reality is that it's not the climax, it's the coda.
To a certain extent, the coda obscures the climax, but there's a reason why the final scene is Jack dying -- because that's real, that's the reality. In the end, none of these characters got happy endings, and only a few of them even have the potential of happy endings. But, really, how good can the future be for the six people who actually escaped?

What Questions?

It would be impossible to talk about the end of Lost and not mention the fact that they left a lot of questions unanswered. And on this point I'm going to give them credit for their continued complications and plot twists. The show created so many questions that none of them became central to the show. No single question led to an answer that would solve the show. No single question was brought up every single episode until it took control of the show. Rather intelligently, the writers flooded the show with twists and turns until the twists and turns no longer mattered. Would answers be nice? Sure, but none of them determined the fate of the show -- none of them determined the direction of the show which is why, personally, didn't feel like I was cheated out of everything.

I'm looking forward to watching the show again. The middle seasons feel even less essential to me than they did when I watched them, but in the end it was all about create texture for what was to come. And the fact that they were able to do that on network television is just amazing -- and I doubt we'll see anything like it for a long time.

Chuck 3.11 Review (spoilers)

I love Chuck. It's the show I look forward to the most every week. It has the blend of comedy, drama, and even some action that I like in my TV shows. Even at its worst, there are elements of every episode that I enjoy, which means I have a hard time imaging what it would take for me to stop watching the show all together...

...other than cancellation, of course.

And Chuck is, once again, running the risk of that. This most recent episode dropped it down to a 1.9/5 (people smarter than I can explain that, I just know that it's not good). Chuck had been dropping slowly up until the Olympics, but managed to jump up again when it returned, only to plummet very quickly. On the plus side, all ratings are down, so many are pointing to Spring Break as the source of the drop.

Still, I have a feeling that Chuck will be late renewal as a mid-season replacement for 11 episodes, and that's only because NBC is a god awful network.

So why is this happening? Why are so many people bailing on Chuck? And how was this episode emblematic of what's happening?

Allow me to explain it in two points:

1) There's no forward momentum.

By this point in the season last year, Chuck had some semblance of an bigger storyline. We'd already dug into Chuck's past and met Jill in a multi-episode story that had real impact on Chuck, and on the show as a whole. It also set the seeds for what was to come during the course of the season. For that matter, we'd also seen the return of Brice, yet another character who would return later in the season. All of this went to establishing the season, while also suggesting that we needed to stay alert, because anything could happen. Chuck -- and the audience -- had no idea who they could trust and who was connected to the spy world.

So far this season, we've had no real multi-episode story lines, aside from a cliffhanger that lead to the Awesome-centric episode. We've also been given absolutely no sense of urgency. Sarah and Chuck's will they/won't they story line has never been the focus of the show and never should be. We shouldn't keep watching for that; it should be an added bonus. But a show that had so many twists and turns last year has had surprisingly few of them this year. Chuck and Sarah breaking up isn't a plot twist given their history. Morgan finding out? Entertaining, yes, but it does nothing to create a sense of urgency -- neither does Casey losing his job.

What's particularly frustrating about this is that they've danced around a main storyline: how the new Intersect works. But they've danced around it so much that they've managed to water it down. Last week, they introduced an experimental drug that kills emotions which would, in theory, be the ultimate weapon for Chuck. But as quickly as it was introduced, it's been forgotten, not unlike Chuck's near murder of a Ring agent.

For as much as Chuck talks about wanting to be a spy, he's either been completely dense about it or they're cutting important scenes. It's been made clear to him on multiple occasions what the criteria is for him to be a spy, yet every week he seems to be surprised by it. From the start of the season, he knew that controlling his emotions to access the Intersect was job 1 for being a spy, yet we've never seen him agonize over this or even make decisions about it. We're TOLD it plenty, but we never SEE it.

Even more frustrating is the fact that Chuck continually claims he wants to be a spy, but he never explains how he can rationalize that. For a man who is so concerned about his sister, he never flinches when there's talk about sending him to Rome to assume a new identity so he can be a spy. How does he justify that?

I understand that they want it to seem like Chuck has changed, but he's still Chuck. At the very least, we should see the battle between who he is and what he's becoming, and it would be nice to see the part the new Intersect is playing amplified. That would unify the season and create some sense of suspense. I want to go into each week wondering what is going to happen in that head of Chuck's, but I don't, because I've never been given a reason to believe he'll act any differently than he normally does.

For a show about spies, there's been very little intrigue. I don't feel like the stakes are raised from week to week. I don't feel like there's any real drama.

2) Shaw.

I've noticed that most fans of this show kind of hate Shaw. My problem with that is that I think the character -- or at least the idea of him -- is entirely necessary for the show at this juncture. He is, in fact, essential.

Chuck has a desire to be a real spy and Shaw isn't just a real spy, but an expert on the Ring. He can push Chuck in ways that Sarah and Casey can't. He's also completely shut off and unemotional. He's all business, which is what Chuck is trying to be. Shaw, more so even than Bryce, should have gotten the Intersect.

But all the things that make Shaw a great addition also make him a horrible addition when they decided to create some kind of strange romantic connection between him and Sarah. While I appreciate the idea that Sarah, hurt by Chuck, would look to his polar opposite for comfort, she's also spent all season trying to make sure that Chuck doesn't become Shaw.

In the trailer for next week's episode, Sarah asks Chuck why he's going to go after Shaw by himself. He responds by saying "because I know how much he means to you." To which I responded: "How?"

We have been told fairly regularly over the course of this season that Sarah has feelings for Shaw, yet we never, ever see it. In fact, most of the time we see Shaw doing pretty shitty things to Sarah, like using her to set up Chuck's Red Test. There is absolutely no chemistry between Sarah and Shaw and, to be perfectly honest, there shouldn't be. Shaw, as a character, shouldn't be engaged in any kind of romantic entanglements, least of all with Sarah. Yet for some reason the writers decided it was a good idea, when it continually fails week after week.

Shaw has become to Chuck what Oliver was to the OC, and that's a shame because that didn't need to happen.

I am hoping to god that the upcoming episode squashes the Shaw/Sarah proposed relationship, and I'm even going so far as to hope that it's revealed that it never really existed to begin with, but was a wall that Sarah fabricated to keep Chuck at bay. That's an explanation that makes sense across the board and would actually save the characters and the storyline.

Let's hope for better ratings this week.

As critical as I might be about some of the things that have gone on this season, I still think Chuck is a great show, and I also think it still has a great deal of potential. I'm just desperate to see it live up to it.