Thursday, April 30, 2009

Grey's Anatomy, "No Good at Saying Sorry (One More Chance)": Hug hug, bang bang

Spoilers for tonight's "Grey's Anatomy" coming up just as soon as I place a call to my psychic...

If last week's "Sweet Surrender" was a mixture of parts of "Grey's" I love (Bailey with the dying girl, George helping out Alex) and things that make my teeth grind (Izzie the manic wedding planner), "No Good at Saying Sorry (One More Chance)" was more a combination of elements that are intriguing but underfed and aspects of the show I grudgingly tolerate. Its lows weren't as low, but nor were its highs as high.

The strongest part of the hour, by far, was Hunt struggling to be around Cristina, and Cristina missing the point entirely until she confronted him on the way home. Sandra Oh and Kevin McKidd have been superb whenever called upon in this story arc, and they've gotten more to do lately, but their story here felt a little crowded by all that was going on around it.

Other than that, we had a lot of parent/child conflicts to deal with, as Izzie had to play mother to her own mom (Sharon Lawrence, now specializing in these cougar roles, but seemingly miscast as proud trailer trash), Callie struggled with being financially cut off by her dad, Lexxie welcomed Thatcher's apology while Meredith ignored it(*), Meredith grappled with the Chief over his paternal attitude towards her, and with her involvement in the case of the little girl who shot her abusive daddy 18 times to protect herself and her mommy.

(*) While I can see why Lexxie might be so grateful to have her dad back in her life, I was actually expecting her to be a lot more upset by the apology than Meredith. Thatcher walked out of her life at an early age, and Meredith could basically give a toss about the guy. But he's much closer to Lexxie, and therefore I thought perhaps she'd feel even more betrayed than Meredith. How it played out didn't feel wrong; just not what I assumed it would be.

Now, I know it's a staple of these kinds of shows for the patient's story to in some way parallel the doctor's, but it always bothers me when the doctor then projects his or her emotional needs onto the patient, and Meredith has a tendency to do this every two or three episodes. I liked that the Chief called her out for yelling at the mom, then got frustrated when he let her off the hook. One of the stories of this season has been Meredith starting to grow up and get past her drama queen roots, and I'd like to think she might be able to keep her emotions in check in situations like this. I get that if she actually did things by the book, there might not be enough conflict to tell a story on a dramatic TV series, but this is never my favorite kind of "Grey's" Story.

Beyond that, I found it weird to see Kellie Martin on a hospital show watching a trauma scene as the relative of a patient and not as a doctor (and/or not being stabbed by David Krumholtz). Work's work, and her stint on "ER" ended, what, nine years ago? (Wow. Time flies.) But I spent a lot of time feeling nostalgic about "ER" last month, and so now every time I see Martin I think about Lucy Knight.

Two episodes to go in the season. I'm hoping the show goes out on a high note.

What did everybody else think?
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When viral videos attack

Two bits of news from the world of streaming video:

• There was no "Better Off Ted" last night because of President Obama's press conference, and Veridian Dynamics wasn't happy about that.

• Disney is becoming an equity partner in Hulu, which means that once the deal closes, Hulu will be able to stream episodes of most ABC series, plus some ABC Family and Disney Channel shows, plus certain movies and shows from the Disney libraries. This pleases me, since other than image quality, Hulu's interface is much, much better than the one on Click here to read the full post

American Idol: When the going gets Huff

As happens whenever "American Idol" is up against an original "Lost," I left last night's "Idol" recapping duties to Vicki Hyman, so you can read her take on what went down, who went home, etc. What I want to talk about, after the jump, is the Huff...

The Huff is a time-honored "Idol" tradition going back to the infamous night in season three when Jennifer Hudson went home and Fantasia and La Toya were in the bottom three with her. Basically, at top 7 elimination night -- and occasionally on top 5 night -- the contestants are divided into two groups, with one left alone, told they're safe, and asked to choose which group he or she belongs with. The Huff is named for the first victim of this maneuver, gospel-singing, dip-dancing George Huff, who looked terrified and confused for about 18 hours before finally walking over to the three R&B divas -- only to be told, as the studio audience gasped, that he was standing with the wrong group.

The Huff proved so memorable that the producers have brought it back in one form or another every year since. In season four, the Huff was Bo Bice, who wisely recognized that the only way to win that game is not to play, and stood immobile between the two groups. In season five, the Huff was Taylor (the only Huff to date to eventually win the contest), who went towards one group, shook Chris Daughtry's hand, then moved over to the other, correct group. (Fans who were in the studio audience that night allege that Nigel Lythgoe told Taylor to do all this, which is why he looked so miserable, and why he shook Daughtry's hand to apologize for being part of these shenanigans.)

The Huff of season six was Melinda Doolittle, who took a page from the Bo plan and sat cross-legged at center stage. Season seven's Huff was Young David Archuleta, who looked even more terrified and confused than George Huff himself, then sat down on the stage, and then was joined by surrogate big brother David Cook.

The Huff didn't turn up at Top 7 this year (perhaps because the producers knew the judges might use the Save?), but it did last night, with Adam Lambert as the designated Huff. That makes sense: whether he actually wins or not, at this point he's so obviously the frontrunner that making him part of one of the groups to choose from would take all the suspense out of the game. Only this time, there was a twist: the Huff was not safe! (Cue more gasping from studio audience.) While Ryan was very careful to never identify Adam as being in the bottom two, he was definitely in the bottom three, since Danny and Allison were identified as the top two.

Now, being bottom three when there are only five contestants left really isn't that big a deal. Adam is more polarizing than many previous frontrunners, and he didn't have one of his most memorable performances on Tuesday. Fanbases get complacent sometimes. If anything, this is a very good thing for Adam, because his fans will now be motivated to vote like crazy and make sure he makes it to the top 2 and doesn't get knocked out early like Daughtry or Tamyra or Melinda.

Meanwhile, Matt's exit proved the ultimate pointlessness of using the Save on him. He didn't get voted through by the public in the semis, wound up in the bottom group several times, had to get Saved, and then went home before any of the people who were clearly better than him. All the Save did was prevent one of Anoop or Lil from getting an extra week on the show. It feels like the judges and producers were looking at the vote totals, knew there was no real danger of any of the favorites going home through top 5, and felt they had to use the Save on someone to justify its existence.

What did you think of the results show?
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Lost, "The Variable": Destiny is a fickle bitch

Spoilers for the 100th episode of "Lost" coming up just as soon as I pack a suitcase...
"I tried to avoid telling you this. I didn't think I could change things. But maybe I can." -Daniel Faraday
We've all of us -- fans watching at home, characters living on Craphole Island, writers crafting it all in Los Angeles -- spent a lot of the last few months discussing the idea of whether the past can be changed, or whether everyone's fate has already been set. And as Faraday -- the chief proponent within the series of the closed loop theory -- moved around the island during "The Variable," acting very much like a man who now believed he can change the past, I started to believe that he could. He could really stop The Incident, save the lives of all those on Oceanic 815, prevent Charlotte from ever returning, be the big damn hero man that I so wanted him to be.

But in the end, as he lay there in the middle of the Others' camp, dying from the bullet that his mother put in him, Dan acknowledged that he was wrong, that this was the plan of the island, of his mother, of destiny, and it always had been. His mother raised him(*) and guided him towards this moment, forever keeping him on a path where he'd wind up going to the island, and where he'd be in a position to be shot by her younger self.

(*) How old is Faraday supposed to be? The Eloise who shot him in 1977 looked to be roughly the same age as the Eloise who made him give up his piano playing, and young Dan seemed like a kid who'd always lived on the mainland. (And was also relatively unaffected by the time-sickness, as compared to Charlotte and Miles.) But Eloise still seemed to be living on the island at the time, and Jeremy Davies is almost 40, so... is he playing much younger at the same time Rebecca Mader was playing much older?

And as he realized that, I began to think about the events that brought all of our characters to the island, and the ones that kept them there, or brought them back, and about how much of who they are, what they are and where they are has absolutely nothing to do with their conscious choices. Whether by fate, bad luck, the forces of the island or their own dysfunctional parents, our heroes (and some of our villains) were moved into position like pieces on a chess board, and always have been.

And I'm not sure how happy that realization makes me, even at the end of an enormously entertaining episode like "The Variable."

As I noted in discussing "Whatever Happened, Happened," the how and the why of events can be at least as compelling as the what -- that even if all the events in the past, present and future of the island are pre-ordained (in the real world, by Cuse and Lindelof; in the show's universe, by the island), seeing how the characters react to those events can be compelling. But if all our heroes are just pawns in a game they don't understand and can't control -- with the possible exception of Desmond, who survived being shot by Ben at the marina, and who has yet to re-insert himself into the main narrative -- then at some point "Lost" becomes a little less fun to watch.

Or maybe I'm just feeling slightly down, even after an episode I mostly loved, because I'm wondering -- as I did in "He's Our You" about the reason for the Ben/Sayid schism -- whether that's really all there is. Did Eloise really push Dan all his life to be a great physicist just so she could fulfill the course of history and shoot him in 1977? Yes, he's done a few important things since coming to the island -- most notably helping a younger Ellie (and an ageless Richard) deal with the radiation leak from Jughead -- but unless Eloise is a hardcore purity of the timestream nerd, surely she must have had a grander plan in mind when she set her only son on this course, no?

Did Dan maybe set something in motion that's bigger than we realize at this point? Is it possible that The Incident, and all that followed, wouldn't have happened if he hadn't come back and stirred up all this trouble with Dharma? Or is Dan, just like Charlotte after the end of "Jughead," not as dead as I'm assuming him to be?(**)

(**) This would be the point in the review where I remind you once again of the No Spoiler policy, and that includes discussing the previews for the next episode. I know the previews for the episode after "Jughead" showed a still-living Charlotte, but if Dan happens to be walking around in the ads for next week's episode, I wouldn't want to know it, and I know other people around here wouldn't, either.

Still, whatever comes next, and what the implications are about the larger scheme of the series, "The Variable" was a crackling hour, carried, as "Jughead" was, by Jeremy Davies' intense but vulnerable performance. If Faraday's dead, at least he went down fighting to undo his mistakes, and to save not only all the Oceanic 815 passengers, but Charlotte.

(Kate notes to Jack that it would be bizarre for the last few years of all their lives to be erased, and of course there's the fact that, if Oceanic 815 never crashes, Dan would never be in a position to meet Charlotte. But I'm sure he's happier with the idea of Charlotte alive but unknown to him than the end he already witnessed for her.)

Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz's script incorporated pieces of Faraday's story from throughout his run on the show, from the scene of him crying as he watched the fake crash footage in "Confirmed Dead," to his plan to use Jughead to prevent The Incident, to the idea (speculated about at least since "Jughead") that Widmore was his father. (This would make Dan into Penny's half-brother, and Desmond's brother-in-law.) I assumed we'd eventually see Dan fulfilling his pre-ordained role as the crazy-eyed man telling young Charlotte to never return to the island, but Davies still slayed me with the tenderness in his voice as he gave the speech he knew he had to, even as he hoped things would turn out differently this go-around.

(And good on either the writers or director Paul Edwards for choosing to pull back once it became clear that's what that scene was; it felt both unnecessary and almost a violation of the characters' privacy to show the rest.)

Davies has been such a great addition to the cast, and Faraday to the universe of the show, that I'll be sorry if this is it for them, whatever the larger implications may be. But he won't be the first great "Lost" character to die before his time, and with only a few episodes left in this penultimate season, he sure won't be the last.

Some other thoughts on "The Variable":

• Cuse and Lindelof have referred to "The Variable" as a sequel of sorts to "The Constant," so it made sense to feature Desmond and Penny, even if they only appeared at the beginning and end of the hour. Those two are awesome. I really have nothing else to say. But I hope the writers can find a way to bring Desmond back into the action without separating him from Penny and li'l Charlie.

• Here's how I know Sawyer's time as the all-wise leader is at an end: he's starting to get funny again. "Your mother is an Other?" was the line of the night. Though Hurley referring to 1954 as "Fonzie times" was a close second. ("Happy Days" was, in fact, originally set in 1954 1956. One of the first episodes had Richie and Fonzie on opposite sides of Eisenhower's re-election campaign.)

• Look, I'm as interested in seeing JJ Abrams' take on young Kirk and Spock as the next Trekkie, but letting the "Lost" logo morph into the star field for an extended "Star Trek" promo really ticked me off. "Lost" is a show about mood, and every bit of it -- the title sequence included -- is a part of creating that mood. And turning that sequence into product integration broke the mood, big-time.

• Along the lines of Daniel only causing things to happen that were always destined to happen, might he have set things in motion for Dr. Chang to send his wife and son off the island? I'm sure we haven't seen the last conversation between Chang and adult Miles on the subject.

• One bit of the past I would love to change: we know Radzinsky survived past the time of the Dharma purge, and I will wish somebody could just put a bullet in his brain 20 years ahead of schedule. So, so irritating. Intentionally so, I think, but still.

• Though "The Variable" wasn't designed as a special 100th episode of the series, it did manage to use more of the cast than has been the average this season, with everybody but fugitive Sayid and the gang on the island in 2007 present, and with all of them briefly hanging out together at LaFleur's cabin to make their plans. Now, togetherness isn't peachy for everybody -- check out how quickly Juliet gave Kate the sonic fence codes after she caught her man referring to her as "Freckles."

• What kind of outfit, even a relatively hippie-dippie one like the Dharma Initiative, gives a key to the gun cabinet to the custodial staff? Those guys deserved to be wiped out just for that.

That's it from me. In addition to the No Spoilers rule, let me remind you again to be courteous to your fellow commenters and make an effort to at least skim the previous comments to make sure you're not repeating some familiar insight like you're the first person it's occurred to. If a comment includes a phrase like, "I'm sorry that I don't have time to read all the other comments," it's going to be deleted. Period. Also, play nice with each other, as always.

What did everybody else think?
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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fringe, "Midnight": Spine-nibbling action

It's getting close to end of business day around here, and other work is piling up, so all I have time to say about last night's "Fringe" is that it was a fairly satisfying Monster of the Week episode with enough hints about the Pattern to not feel like it was entirely isolated. Also, John Noble was equally good with both the pathos (Walter discussing the soul) and the comedy (Walter extolling the virtues of Peek Freans and the Clapper in the same scene).

What did everybody else think? Click here to read the full post

NCIS, "Legend, Pt. 1": The man of one face

"NCIS" is, as I've said before, the show I watch the most while blogging about it the least. (In fact, going through the archives, I couldn't find a single actual episodic review, though I mentioned it in passing a bunch of times.) It's light, it's entertaining, it does the retro job it sets out to do, and I never have much of anything to say about it beyond that.

However, having watched the first half of the two-parter setting up the spin-off with Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J (just as "NCIS" itself spun off from a "JAG" two-parter), I have to again ask: Who thought it would be a good idea to build a weekly TV show around Chris O'Donnell? More importantly, who thought it would be a great idea to cast him as a brilliant chameleon of an undercover agent? Sure, he can fake a Russian accent if he absolutely has to, but he has two expressions at most and is as lacking in the charisma department as any actor I can think of who (briefly) was considered a bankable movie star. O'Donnell sucked most of the life out of the episode, and Louise Lombard sucked out whatever was left.

Did anybody else watch? Are you more optimistic than I am about the spin-off? Click here to read the full post

Reaper, "No Reaper Left Behind": To Hell and back?

Spoilers for last night's "Reaper" coming up just as soon as I steam some spinach...
"You are an ass!" -Sally
"I am the dark lord of asses!" -The Devil
"No Reaper Left Behind" was the best episode of the season, by a long stretch. Now, when you're dealing with a show as congenitally sloppy and yet likable as "Reaper," that can seem like damning with faint praise, but this one doesn't feel like it needed to be graded on a curve.

Ray Wise as on fire as the lovestruck, stalking, completely arrogant Devil, prattling on about his "deep commitment to self-love" and knowing that Sam would be honorable enough to fess up about who really bought the steamer.

Just as funny were both Rick Gonzalez and Tyler Labine in the Ben/Sock/Nina subplot, both in their attempts to act normal while Nina was ripping apart Ben's car to the sounds of Cher's "Believe," and especially in the scene where a contrite Nina came to the Work Bench, with Ben unable to not stare at her with a goofy grin through the window, and Sock literally typing "OMG" on the keyboard while he said it to Nina. Those two make a fine comedy team, and if "Reaper" is already doomed, I hope Gonzalez can wind up on Labine's new show.

Meanwhile, a proactive Sam is a more interesting Sam (just as the "Chuck" writers discovered about Chuck) and the idea of Sam's dad going to Hell to find Alan was a great dramatic beat for a show that usually doesn't know how to handle serious emotion.

Four episodes left, possibly ever. I hope they have more ones like this coming up.

What did everybody else think?
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Rescue Me, "Jimmy": Pictures don't lie

As I've mentioned before, I watched this season's first five "Rescue Me" episodes several months ago without taking extensive notes, so I'm going to offer up some very brief thoughts until a few weeks from now, when we get to the episodes I've seen more recently. Spoilers coming up just as soon as I pay a bribe...

Now here's where things started to get interesting for me with this season.

The arrival of Genevieve and the re-examination of 9/11 has led to some good moments in the last few episodes. But it wasn't until Tommy saw Jimmy in the DVD footage -- after the first tower fell, which is where and when Tommy has always believed Jimmy died -- that I really felt like "Rescue Me" was back.

Tommy's inability to cope with Jimmy's death was always the core conflict of the show -- the deaths of his brother, his father and even his son simply don't matter as much, because the series is about the emotional costs of being a firefighter -- and Tommy discovering that the death didn't happen the way he thought it did brings the show back to that core.

Along the way, "Jimmy" provided the first good Sheila scene in forever when her therapist (previously a buffoon) explained how she projects her anger about Jimmy onto Tommy(*), as well as a great fight between Tommy and Lou where Lou pointed out -- as this season already has, repeatedly -- that 9/11 wasn't Tommy Gavin's own personal tragedy.

(*) As with the fight in last week's episode (which I never got around to reviewing) between Mike and Franco over Franco's conspiracy theories, it's remarkable how much more interesting the comic relief characters on this show become once the writers start to take them seriously.

I still want to be rid of both the bar subplot and Black Shawn's relationship with Colleen, but the rest of the show -- including Lou's hilariously disgusting apartment, and another memorably weird rescue, with the car sinking into the street -- is really clicking right now.

What did everybody else think?
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Cupid, "The Tommy Brown Affair": The mediocre escape

Quick spoilers for last night's "Cupid" coming up just as soon as I do the moonwalk...

I could go on for a while about all of the things wrong with this episode (starting with the way that neither guest star was believable as either suave jewel thief or hardened parole officer), and with the series in general (too much emphasis on the guests over Trevor/Claire, too much exposition, too much music), but what's the point? The show's doomed. It won't be back next season. ABC's just running out the string with it at this point, and depending on how the ratings were last night, I wouldn't be stunned to see the show get pulled for the rest of sweeps. (The best thing it has going for it is that "The Unusuals" also did badly when placed here, so maybe ABC thinks the timeslot's damaged goods till next season.) At this point, picking apart all of the remake's flaws feels like beating a dying horse.

That said, I do want to note that Bobby Cannavale continues to be really engaging as Trevor, and that he and Sarah Paulson have absolutely zero chemistry together -- and that, more than any of the problems with the structure of each episode, is why the show doesn't work.

"The Tommy Brown Affair" was the first episode since the pilot to give us a real concentrated dose of the two leads together, and unfortunately there's no there there -- no romantic spark, no comic spark, no sense that these two are a good team on any level. So where Paula Marshall and Paulson are playing basically the same character, with the same take on their most eccentric patient, Marshall's Claire came across as enjoying the give and take even when Trevor was being irritating, where Paulson's Claire just seems annoyed with him, all the time. And that's no fun.

I'm going to play out the string along with the show, out of nostalgia for the original(*), and out of hope that we might get some decent banter between now and the end of the run. But given how great the original show was, it's frustrating that the remake is so obviously deserving of its short-lived fate.

(*) Speaking of nostalgia, as several readers pointed out to me last week, Claire's assistant Josie is played by Anna Chlumsky, most famous as the underage lead from "My Girl," but who also appeared in "Meat Market," one of the funniest episodes of the original series.

What did everybody else think?
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

American Idol, Top 5: The gang sing Frank, Sammy and Dean (sort of)

Some thoughts on Rat Pack night on "American Idol" coming up, but first, I have to once again complain about how lazy and padded, if not outright bumbling, the production of the show has been this season. On most seasons of "Idol," the top 5 show features each contestant singing two songs. This time, they only sang one, and yet the show still ran a couple of minutes past 9 p.m. There's just no excuse for that. None.

Who knew I would miss Nigel Lythgoe this much?


Kris Allen, "The Way You Look Tonight": Kris sings one of the only songs of the night that I strongly associate with one of Frank, Sammy or Dean, and more than anyone else on the night, he understands that these songs are more about phrasing and storytelling than they are about vocal gymnastics. It's a clean, pure vocal, and this guy's become a pleasure to listen to.

Allison Iraheta, "Someone to Watch Over Me": I should note that, while the "American Idol" band is usually a mess, this orchestral version sounded pretty terrific. As did Allison, for that matter. She sang it straight, didn't try to turn it into a Heart song, and while there was some belting at the end, it felt like a part of the song. Great voice.

Matt Giraud, "My Funny Valentine": Where a couple of contestants (Allison and Danny) tonight were singing songs that Kat McPhee kind of butchered in season 5, Matt took on a song that Melinda Doolittle owned in season 6. He throws in his usual assortment of annoying, unnecessary runs (and is oddly criticized for it by run-loving Randy and Kara) and just when you think he's going to follow Jamie Foxx's advice to sing the final note with his full voice, he piles some falsetto trilling on top of that. Why did we bother saving him again?

Danny Gokey, "Come Rain or Come Shine": Danny can sing. This has never been a question. The issue with him is can he be a contemporary artist, and can he develop a stage presence beyond the karaoke moves he has now. Rat Pack Night isn't exactly the evening to resolve those issues, though Danny does seem to be getting more confidence on stage of late. A good vocal, as usual, though I thought he added too much unnecessary mustard and relish at the end.

Adam Lambert, "Feeling Good": Half the fun of Adam Lambert has been wondering what song he might pick, and then what bizarre thing he might do with the arrangement. In picking the inevitable in "Feeling Good," he takes away the first part of the game, and in doing half of it in an identical style (down to the dramatic blue lighting) to his "Mad World" from a few weeks ago, he mostly takes away the second. He's still likely going to win, but the artifice and insincerity of his performances becomes more obvious when he's predictable like this.

Best of the night: Kris Allen. And to think that I ranked him dead last at the start of the finals in terms of chance to win. Adam's still running away with things at the moment, and Danny's still the likely second-place finisher, but Kris looks like he's going to at least make things interesting on Top 3 Night.

In danger: If Matt -- who has technically been saved by the judges twice now -- doesn't go home, then the voters have fallen asleep on the job. I could see a scenario where Allison goes home, but she shouldn't, as she was my second-favorite of the night after Kris.

What did everybody else think?
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House, "House Divided": The case of the strawberry stripper

Quick spoilers for last night's "House" coming up just as soon as I set a corpse on fire...

Last week, I complained that the return of Amber just made me sad that the "House" writers made the wrong call on dumping her and keeping any of the other three. But in "House Divided," all I could do was enjoy how well Hugh Laurie and Anne Dudek play off each other. As Liz Friedman & Matthew V. Lewis's script made it clear early on that Amber wasn't a heavenly apparition, but just a weird manifestation of House's sleep-deprived brain, Dudek even got to have a blast more or less playing House. In a way, it reminded me of the short but glorious tenure of Scooter, the older not-quite-a-doctor who got cut for thinking too much like House; while House might not want someone like that on his team, it's fun to watch as a viewer.

While the rest of the cast seems to have already moved on from Kutner's suicide, I thought "House Divided" had a nice balance of comedy and drama, not only with Amber turning out to be a far crueler imaginary playmate than House expected, but in the way they intercut one of the better-drawn patients in a while with the shenanigans involving Chase's bachelor party, with Chase embracing it and Wilson trying to run from it (without his pants).

I've complained a lot lately about "House," but I enjoyed this one.

What did everybody else think?
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HIMYM, "The Three Days Rule": OMG. FWIW, ROTFL.

Spoilers for last night's "How I Met Your Mother" coming up just as soon as I tell my sister Lisa that I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda...

After last night's mega-epic "Chuck" finale, I was reluctant to watch any other television, worrying that everything else would suffer badly in comparison. Eventually, I put on "HIMYM," and while it didn't feature anything to remotely compare to Sam Kinison and an Indian lesbian performing "Mr. Roboto," it was still a very funny episode -- albeit one that, as my friend Rich points out, didn't quite know how to end.

As I've mentioned, the season finale was shot in advance so Alyson Hannigan could be in it before she and Cobie Smulders got too big, and so the show feels like it's in treading-water mode between now and when the finale airs. I'm not expecting anything particularly earth-shaking on any story arc fronts, just good jokes, which "The Three Days Rule" provided, early and often.

Barney's explanation of how Jesus invented the Three Days Rule (which CBS has kindly posted in its entirety to YouTube) was as hilarious as it was blasphemous, elevated, as always, by the boyish enthusiasm of Neil Patrick Harris, and then by the look of delight on Cobie Smulders' face as Barney kept going, and going, and going...

When we found out that Barney and Marshall were texting Ted as Holli-with-an-i, I started to worry that this would be a repeat of "Old King Clancy" where those two came up with some lamely convoluted scheme to trick Ted for his own good. But the combination of good intentions and malicious glee (Barney: "Or..."), coupled with the arrival of the always-delightful Kevin Michael Richardson(*) as poetry-quoting Barry White soundalike Stan, made it a vast improvement on the earlier take on this kind of story. Barney and Marshall's continuing subconscious desire to have text-sex with Ted was especially well-played by NPH and Jason Segel.

(*) Quoting Fienberg's Twitter feed: "I'd welcome Kevin Michael Richardson as a "How I Met Your Mother" cast regular. And not just for a little diversity."

Again, I don't think the ending was that great, and I also needed Robin to point out that Ted's "naked lady noise" sounds exactly like Butt-Head's laugh, but beyond that, good stuff.

What did everybody else think?
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Good news/bad news for 'Scrubs'

In a fashion sadly, amusingly reminiscent of the show's entire run on NBC, the penultimate episode of "Scrubs" this season is being bumped this Wednesday (along with the "Better Off Ted" season finale) by President Obama's latest primetime press conference. Both that "Scrubs" episode and the "Ted" finale will now air a week from tonight at 8, the night before the "Scrubs" season finale.

And, yes, there now appears to be a decent chance that it will just be a season finale and not a series finale. The Hollywood Reporter says ABC and Bill Lawrence are seriously discussing how to make a ninth season work, and that tracks with what I've heard in the last couple of days. Thoughts on this coming up after the jump...

Zach Braff's definitely going to be gone (though he might come back on occasion), and none of the other actors have contracts, with some of them (including Donald Faison, John C. McGinley, Neil Flynn and even Eliza Coupe, who I'm assuming would be one of the main characters of any "Scrubs: the Next Generation"-type series) already cast in other pilots that at the moment would have first position, contractually. But most pilots don't get picked up, and I imagine there's some combination of old and new castmembers (and producers, since Bill will theoretically be busy with his own pilot, "Cougar Town") that could be assembled to make it work.

So here's my question, which I've been asking on occasion in my "Scrubs" episode reviews this season: do you want the show to continue? While this season has benefited from a back-to-basics approach, it's also benefited (as other comedies like "Cheers" and "Frasier" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" did) from the production team's knowledge that the end was in sight, and their desire to use up all their best ideas while they still could. As good as some of the new interns have been -- with Coupe's surly Denise at the head of that class -- I wonder if the same energy level will be there a year from now.

On the other hand, if it means there's a chance of more Turk dancing, or more Cox rants, or more of Denise threatening to punch old men... well, I'm sure willing to give it a shot.

What do you think? More "Scrubs" a good idea, or would diminishing returns set in again?
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Monday, April 27, 2009

In Treatment: Week four in review

As usual, I'm going to review all five of this week's "In Treatment" episodes together, giving a general overview of the week, followed by brief thoughts on each patient. Spoilers coming up just as soon as I get some pastries...

This is the midway point of season two (which is seven weeks compared to season one's nine), and so we see many barriers broken. Mia and Oliver both find themselves dining in Paul's kitchen, though only one of them is invited. Paul takes April to chemo (finally!). Walter shows up dressed casually, his career ruined. And the fifth episode is the first of the series to mostly break with the usual format, featuring three vignettes instead of one -- though all three are, in the series' usual style, two-character pieces. (Even Paul with his dad is a two-hander of sorts.)

And as various social and procedural barriers are broken, Paul and Gina start breaking through to their patients. Paul gets Mia to start thinking seriously about her relationship with her father. He gets April to put off her mother and finally place herself first in her own life. He starts talking to Bess as a person and not just Oliver's mother. And Gina finally gets Paul to go see his father, just this side of too late.

Amazing performances from everybody this week. Only three weeks to go. It seems to be going by awfully fast with this scheduling, doesn't it?

"That's pretty good. I thought I was just sleeping around." -Mia
Mia's been trying to push past Paul's own professional barriers throughout the season, but here it's not about entitlement, or about trying to justify the scenario she's built up in her head where Paul is the man responsible for her abortion. Instead, just like Alex hooking up with Laura last season, this is Mia trying to send a warning to Paul that she's in a real crisis and needs his full attention. And unlike a year ago -- perhaps because of a year ago -- Paul notices this time, and calls her on it.

And we get some more insight into Mia's self-destructiveness and how her relationship with her dad plays into that. He didn't molest her, apparently, but he held her emotionally closer than a father should, and it's messed her up.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Mia story this week is what Paul says to Gina in the fifth episode: that, under different circumstances, if Mia could deal with her issues, she's the kind of woman he'd be interested in. That tracks with his attraction to the similarly-difficult Laura, and with the rapport he shows with her in the moments when she's not being an enormous pain in the rear. Where Paul's great with kids (even a young adult like April), there's often a greater tension between him and his grown-up patients, but there are moments when he and Mia are remarkably at ease with each other, and not just because they go so far back together.

I don't expect, or even want, Paul to wind up dating her -- he makes that clear to Gina, and I don't think he or the writers are foolish enough to go down that road twice in such rapid succession -- but I'm wondering what the ethical rules are here. Is he forbidden from ever seeing her romantically? I would think so -- he has so much power over her as her therapist that there's just too much possibility for abuse, for him to subtly mold her into someone who'd be attracted to him -- but I don't know, and I know we have some people with serious therapy experience (from either side of the couch) in the audience who might want to weigh in on this. It seems like a Paul/Mia relationship, down the road, would be much healthier than Paul/Laura, but it still seems inappropriate.

"What if I come with you to the hospital?" -Paul
"Would you?" -April
"Yes." -Paul
"Now?" -April
"Yes. Right now." -Paul
Thank. God.

Again, on the subject of ethical boundaries, I spent so much of this episode -- really, so much of the last two or three -- wondering where exactly the line is for Paul in this situation. He even admits to Gina, "I know it was wrong" to take April there, and I can see the reasons why under ordinary circumstances -- if April can't bring herself to go on her own, then Paul's just a crutch creating another emotional problem for her -- but these are desperate times when ordinary standards can't, or shouldn't, apply. April was slowly killing herself, and isn't Paul obligated to keep his patients from doing that?

The rest of this episode, in which Paul realizes April is doing this in part to avoid being stuck as Daniel's caretaker, was also incredible, but those last two minutes... damn. That's the strength of this show, and these performers, writers and directors: four weeks in, less than two hours total of this story, and I felt enormous relief at seeing Paul take the steps he took, and seeing April follow him to the doctor.

"The moment they saw Oliver, it's like their daughter disappeared." -Bess
It's interesting that so much of this episode featured Bess solo without Oliver -- just as several of the Jake/Amy episodes featured one but not the other -- because the more we see of this story, the more obvious it becomes that there isn't a damn thing wrong with Oliver. He's in a terrible circumstance, and he's shutting down because of it, but the patients Paul needs to fix are Bess and Luke. Improve the situation -- improve how Bess and Luke behave with each other, and with Oliver -- and maybe Oliver will be bullied and deal with the other angst of a kid that age, but overall, he'd be fine.

While the stakes here aren't as high as with April, in some ways Paul inviting Oliver into the kitchen for a sandwich was just as satisfying as Paul taking April to chemo. The kid needs to be rescued, and if Paul is maybe setting up a dangerous situation where Oliver invests too much in Paul as a surrogate father, at least for that moment, Oliver was happy. (And he was eating.)

"Let's face it: death is just the final acknowledgment. The show's over." -Walter
Well, at least Walter's aware he has problems now.

Of course, he's primarily focusing on his external problems -- loss of a job, the ongoing public humiliation, the strained relationship with his daughter -- and only vaguely aware of all the inner torment that was really causing the sleeplessness that originally brought him to Paul's office.

Like Mia, and April and even starving Oliver, Walter seems perilously close to giving up on everything. And he's old enough and stubborn enough and powerful enough -- or, rather, has lost enough power -- that I don't know how Paul is going to stop him.

Tammy/Gina/Paul's dad
"We both know what it's like not to be there at the end. It's something you don't get over -- ever." -Gina
As with the April episode, I'm tempted just to dwell on the last couple of minutes, with Paul talking to his dying father and saying "Dad" over and over again, his voice getting weaker each time. (I defy the people who mocked Gabriel Byrne's Golden Globe win to watch that scene and still say he doesn't deserve awards for this performance. I'm not saying Jon Hamm isn't brilliant; just that Byrne is, too.)

But the rest of the episode was great, too, from all the time cuts in the deposition to how quickly the bloom went off the rose in Paul and Tammy's relationship, to the way Gina slowly but surely got Paul to do the one thing he had to, while he still could, in the same way that Paul went to save April.

Now, just as Paul taking April to chemo once isn't going to cure her emotional problems (let alone her physical ones), Paul going to see his father isn't going to fix all his family issues. But it's a big moment for him. What comes next?

What did everybody else think?
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Chuck: "Chuck vs. the Ring": Greatest American hero?

Extremely long spoilers for the "Chuck" season finale coming up just as soon as I get my backup hosiery from the car...
"Sometimes, I think you have super powers." -Ellie
"Yeah, I wish." -Chuck

"If, in two weeks, that is the last episode of the show to ever air, it will be one of the least satisfying finales of all time." -Josh Schwartz, 4/20/09
Far be it from me to disagree with the almighty Schwartz, but I have a hard time attaching the phrase "least satisfying" in any context related to "Chuck vs. the Ring."

I will be beyond frustrated if NBC doesn't renew the show a week from today, and I sure as hell want to see how (of if) Schwartz and Chris Fedak (who had a lot to say about the finale and the season in our interview) can maintain the series' brilliant comic tone now that Chuck appears to have superpowers. But if this should unfortunately be the last episode of "Chuck" ever -- and I hope enough people did their part, followed Zachary Levi's lead and went to Subway tonight -- then dammit, they went down swinging with the best episode of "Chuck" to date, even better than last week's stupendous "Chuck vs. the Colonel."

I'll get to Chuck's "Matrix" moment (and has it really been 10 years since Keanu Reeves said "I know kung fu"?) in a bit, but I feel like any discussion of "Chuck vs. the Ring" has to start -- has to -- with "Mr. Roboto."

When I wrote my open letter to NBC, I focused more on the business reasons than creative ones, because arguing purely for quality rarely has an effect. ("Friday Night Lights," great show though it is, simply wouldn't be on the air without the DirecTV deal subsidizing much of its cost.) So now, as I write my last "Chuck" review of the season -- and, hopefully, not ever -- I want discuss the reasons why I love "Chuck," and the "Mr. Roboto" sequence neatly encapsulates all of them.

There are deeper shows on TV, more complex shows, shows with tighter plot logic, possibly even better comedies -- though I find that last statement hard to believe after an episode that featured a line like "Why are you letting Sam Kinison and an Indian lesbian wreck your wedding?" -- but none features as much pure, concentrated fun as "Chuck." It's overflowing with joy, as if Schwartz, Fedak and company (in this case, Allison Adler, who co-wrote the finale with Fedak) repeatedly ask themselves, "What else can we put into this scene that's awesome?"

The "Mr. Roboto"/wedding shoot-out sequence features so much concentrated awesome that it might be illegal in certain states, summing up "Chuck" while at the same time exceeding anything the show has done before. I know I just did a list of all the wonderful things in last week's episode, but these are all wonderful things in the same scene, so please indulge me. It combined:

• The macabre '80s prog rock of Jeffster! (and the horrified gasp of the wedding audience as they get their first look at the duo makes me laugh every time), and Jeff invoking Marty McFly as he tells the wedding orchestra to "watch me for the changes";

• Chevy Chase at his absolute smuggest, telling Chuck, "Just think: that terrible pun is the last thing you'll ever hear";

• Sarah trying to find a weapon in the stack of wedding gifts (And the only conceivable way the scene could have been any better was if Sarah couldn't find the knives and had to kick ass with some other stereotypical wedding present. If Casey could fight with a radiator last week, surely Sarah could have found a creative use for a juicer or a salad shooter.);

• Morgan telling Awesome "Listen to me: if you hit me, know that it only teaches me to hit," followed by Awesome's complete change of mood upon realizing he can help Chuck with a spy mission;

• More Jeffster!, including Jeff singing into a vocoder and Lester dancing the robot;

• Casey and his commando team descending through the skylight and shooting up the entire reception hall, and Casey delivering one more cheesey kiss-off line;

• Chuck's most girlish screams yet as he watched the ice sculpture shatter;

• Scott Bakula punching Chevy's lights out (southpaw!) and relishing the moment;

• Bryce entering the reception hall as the soundtrack shifts to an orchestral version of "Mr. Roboto" that, like the use of Jeffster!/Toto's "Africa" over Morgan and Anna's kiss in "Chuck vs. the Best Friend," stripped away the song's corny reputation and made it sound really cool;

• Jeffster! playing so loudly that none of the wedding guests could hear the shootout;

• Ellie (the only truly normal character left) doing yoga to avoid dealing with what's being done to her wedding; and...

• Jeffster! setting off Roman candles inside the church.

Frankly, it's all I can do just to keep from watching the sequence for the 50th time so I can finish writing the review. DVR technology may cease to exist, and I'm still going to have this episode saved at Keep Until I Delete status just so I can watch it whenever I'm having a bad day.

But here's the thing: if "Chuck" was just a collection of in-jokes and '80s references, then... well, then it'd be "Family Guy." And while "Family Guy" has its place, what makes "Chuck" so special -- what suddenly has this storm of bloggers and Tweeters and sandwich aficionados doing all they can to help it get a third season -- is that there's a fundamental warmth and humanity underneath the jokes about "Back to the Future" and "Tron," and then cool action and high stakes piled on top. It's a cast of appealing characters played by very good actors, and so the laughs feel more satisfying, the action cooler, then if it were all just a big joke.

When Chuck thanks Casey for "saving my life once a week," it's a hilarious meta gag, but works even better because we just saw the two of them strut side-by-side, like partners, through the Buy More to tender their resignations to "fuh-laming heterosexual" Millbarge. Chuck's terror during the wedding reception shootout is funnier because we know he's not just scared for his life, but upset about his spy life ruining his sister's wedding. Casey and his team planning Ellie's do-over wedding with military precision ("No, no! That clashes with the bunting!") works not just because they're such obvious macho men, but because of the amount of time the show has devoted to showing how vigorously Casey attacks any assignment.

Similarly, "Chuck" gets a pass from me on a lot of things that drive me nuts when other shows do it, partly because the show and its characters are so likable, but also because the execution in and around those things tends to be so good. Most series drive me nuts with how they drag out the Will They Or Won't They? sexual tension between the two leads. But the chemistry between Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski is so palpable that these big teases the last two episodes (the condom IOU coitus interruptus last week, Papa Bartowski interrupting Sarah's "I want..." with news of Bryce's abduction) somehow only make me happier. Like, if the actors are this good when they aren't getting together, and the timing on the near-misses so elegant, that I have no doubt their eventual coupling(*) will be even better.(**)

(*) From here until the end of the review, I'm going to avoid the obvious "assuming there's a third season" disclaimer, both because it's understood and I don't want to face the idea of a world without "Chuck" right this moment.

(**) And for the people who think that resolved sexual tension equals creative death, I have four words: Jim. Pam. "The Office."

Similarly, where I might be deeply concerned with another show that ended on this kind of cliffhanger, Schwartz and Fedak have enough credit banked that I'm going to assume they know what they're doing in fundamentally altering the main character in this way.

As Fedak talks about in our interview, Chuck the kung fu fighter is the exact thing that he and Schwartz always insisted they weren't going to do. But then Schwartz suggested it in a brainstorming, and they realized it had real possibilities. As I point out to Fedak, a whole lot of the show's appeal is in seeing a relatively average guy, who doesn't know how to fight or hold a gun or any of the other things that are second nature to Casey and Sarah, still find a way to save the day through his knowledge of "Call of Duty" or Eastern European porno computer viruses. If Chuck has that, and the Orion wrist-cuff, and all the powers contained inside this new Intersect, well... doesn't that take all that fun stuff away? When I asked Fedak about this, he said:
No. It doesn't take away. I'm going to answer your question rather cryptically. I'll say that the show is not going to lose its sense of humor.
Note that he also ducks my question about "The Greatest American Hero," where the main character had all these super powers that were incredibly unreliable. Sure, Chuck may be all Neo-meets-Bruce-Lee-meets-Bruce-Leroy in that one moment where he's facing off against Casey's traitorous team member and the other guys from the Ring, but who's to say it'll work that well every time?

I'm disappointed that we may wind up skipping over the whole "Chuck learns how to be a spy" idea, which there was a lot of potential mileage in, but I also can see them getting as much out of this idea, while still letting "Chuck" be "Chuck." As Fedak also promisingly notes:
He's not suddenly going to become Jack Bauer.
And thank God for that. But, frankly, if there isn't good news from NBC next Monday, I may have to go all "TELL ME WHERE MY SHOW IS!!!!" on somebody. Because this show is too smart, too entertaining, too damned happy to say goodbye to.

Some other thoughts:

• Rest in peace, Bryce Larkin. Matthew Bomer's USA series got picked up, so he likely wouldn't be available much for a season three. Beyond that, though, it felt like time for Bryce to leave the picture. Whatever complications are created by Chuck becoming the Intersect 3.0, Sarah has committed to Chuck as her guy, and Chuck now appears to have all of Bryce's moves and then some. And after being written as a more abrasive rival to Chuck back in "Chuck vs. the Break-Up," Bryce gets every inch the hero's death, selflessly offering himself up to Roark to save Ellie and the other wedding guests, and later revealing that he knew Chuck's dad was Orion and specifically destroyed Chuck's college career (keeping him from being recruited into the CIA) at Orion's request.

• Rest in peace, Ted Roark. I doubt Chevy Chase was going to be in this long-term, but they made brilliant use of him in these last two episodes (particularly in his recreation of Cyrus' speech from "The Warriors", but also here with the disgust in his voice as he told one of his agents to stop chewing gum) before killing him off -- and more or less killing off Fulcrum in the process. Now we have a much larger organization -- "the Ring" -- to contend with, which Fedak says "has a very specific goal" that's different from whatever it was that Fulcrum was doing.

• Rest in peace, Buy More? Fedak isn't willing to let go of it yet, but now Morgan, Chuck and Casey have all quit, Tony Hale's in a pilot (Fox's "Cop House") that's probable for a pick-up, and Chuck doesn't appear to need as much protecting as he used to. I'm sure the show will find a way to justify the continued use of it -- the CIA did build a multi-million dollar base underneath the place, after all -- and I certainly wouldn't want to lose Jeff and Lester, but it does feel like time.

• Even by Josh Schwartz/Alex Patsavas show standards, the music in the finale was incredible, so much so that I want to point all the tunes out. "Mr. Roboto" you know, and they played The Cure's "Friday, I'm In Love" at the start of the reception in the apartment building courtyard. The others: "Now We Can See" by The Thermals (Chuck and Casey stride through the Buy More on their way to quitting), "Looking at the Sun" by Gramcery Arms (Chuck getting ready for the wedding, and then Chuck walking away from Sarah), "Christmas TV" by Slow Club (the montage of the beach wedding and Roark's death), and "3 Rounds and a Sound" by Blind Pilot (Chuck and Sarah dance at the reception). Most of this review has been written with those songs (and the rest of the latest Thermals album) on heavy iPod rotation.

• And speaking of music, composer Tim Jones was also on the top of his game, not only with the orchestral "Mr. Roboto," but with the superhero movie-style music playing throughout the final act, which nicely set up the moment when Chuck discovered his powers.

• Also doing some of their best work of the series: director Robert Duncan McNeill, keeping a tight handle on the comedy and the action and even the quieter moments like Chuck apologizing to Ellie; visual effects chief Dan Curry, who made the new Intersect room look several million times cooler than the one from the pilot; stunt co-ordinator Merritt Yohnka, who made Zachary Levi look plausibly like a martial arts master despite no formal training; and editor Matt Barber, who helped cut it all together so that everybody else's work (particularly the fight stuff) looked that much better.

• Even outside of the "saving my life at least once a week" line, Adam Baldwin made Chuck and Casey's apparent farewell scene sing with the look of confusion and rage on his face when Chuck finally forced a hug on him.

• It doesn't look like we'll be seeing Orion again anytime soon. Scott Bakula did a nice job of shifting back into the crazy man pose -- which turns out to not be that much of a pose -- upon Stephen realizing that the danger to his son and himself is far from over.

• Do they teach female agents how to properly rip up a bridesmaid's dress to optimize it for combat? Because Sarah made a pretty clean break with the hem, didn't she? It reminded me a little of the custom ballgown Carey Lowell had as the Bond Girl in "Licence to Kill," though on that one the skirt was designed to detach.

• Seriously, go watch that "Last Dragon" clip, particularly from about the 5 minute mark, and compare it to right before Chuck decides to activate the Intersect. Something tells me Fedak and/or Adler and/or the entire "Chuck" staff recently had a viewing of it. Yet another reason to cheer for a third season: because at this rate of the show's plundering of '80s movies that were on HBO every five minutes, you know the "Just One of the Guys" pastiche is inevitable.

Okay, so that's "Chuck vs. the Ring," more or less.

Right now, I'm not sure what to think about the show's future. I'm impressed by the passion and the thoughtfulness of the Save Chuck campaigners, and I've let myself be sucked into it, in a way I didn't think I could anymore.

This is my 13th season as a professional TV critic. The very first pilot I ever watched on the job was CBS' "EZ Streets." It blew me away. It was essentially canceled after two episodes aired. I learned an early, painful lesson: this job will break your heart if you let it. I gave in and got hurt a few more times in those early years, but by the time "Freaks and Geeks" rolled around, I had trained myself to spot the heartbreakers early, and to create enough professional distance so that, when the inevitable cancellation came, I could shrug and say, "Well, I'm glad I got to see as much of it as I did."

With "Chuck," though, I'm having a hard time doing that. Even in this splintered TV universe, even in that suicidal timeslot, it just doesn't make sense to me that "Chuck" hasn't done better than it has, and that it's future should be so precarious at this point. "Chuck" should be a hit. Maybe it could still be a hit. But in today's narrowcasting landscape, at Ben Silverman's NBC (where product integration seems at least as important as ratings), maybe that doesn't matter. It was a good show in its first season. It's become quite a bit more than that this year. And these last few episodes have taken the series into new creative stratosphere.

Distance be damned, I'm not ready to say goodbye to "Chuck" yet. I wrote the open letter. I took my family to Subway tonight. I'm going to keep a good thought between now and next Monday. And if I hear anything concrete before then, I'll let you know. And until then, I imagine I'm going to be watching the "Mr. Roboto" scene a lot.

So, go read the Fedak interview, and then let me know: what did everybody else think?
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Chuck: Chris Fedak vs. the finale

As promised, I spoke with "Chuck" co-creator Chris Fedak about the developments in the "Chuck" season two finale, "Chuck vs. the Ring" (you can read my review of it here). After the jump, Fedak discusses -- and, in many cases, tries to avoid discussing -- the implications of the final scene, the musical talent (or lack thereof) of Jeffster!, the whereabouts of Vincent from Fulcrum, and more.

What exactly does that final scene mean in terms of what Chuck can do now?

The first thing I should say is Schwartz has sent over a Warner Bros. security expert to my house. So if I say anything that might spoil season three, I think he's authorized to take me out. He looks like former KGB.

The final scene is a launching pad for season three. It's something that we've kind of teased, ever so slightly earlier in the season. It gets back to what you asked me the last time we talked about the Feistel code, the scene (in "Chuck vs. the Dream Job") where Chuck's dad asks him to look at the computer screen, the idea is that his dad knows inside the Intersect is the ability to decipher a code. That was our first subtle hint that maybe the Intersect didn't just store information, but it could provide abilities. In our final scene, with the new Intersect update is that there's now abilities stored inside.

So he knows kung fu now. Can you tell me what else?

I can't tell you what else. The security expert from Warner Bros. is putting a silencer on the gun right now.

So let me ask you this: the Intersect was supposed to go into Bryce, who we know from past experience already knows kung, fu, knows parkour, etc. Why would he necessarily need to be given Neo's kung fu skills?

I think that the new Intersect skills are even more advanced than the classically learned-skills that Bryce had.

How long had you been thinking about doing this? Where did the idea come from that, at the end of season two, you'd turn Chuck into a bad-ass?

The idea started early on by being the idea we said we weren't going to do. When we were pitching the studio and network, we were very clear that Chuck would not have powers, would not have abilities, that the Intersect would only give him information that would be vital to the mission, but wouldn't give him critical skills for the mission. We were working on stories, on pitches, it was always a given inside the room that Chuck would not have abilities. I think it was Josh, when we were describing where we wanted to go in the season, and we knew the last scene would be Chuck re-uploading the Intersect, and he asked, "What happens if he does have abilities? What if we do the kung fu scene that we've always said we wouldn't do?" It was a great question to ask. It got us all thinking about the great possibilities for the third season of the show.

Well, that brings me to my next question. Let me play Devil's advocate: you went into the series knowing that a lot of the appeal of the show is seeing this ordinary guy struggle to be a spy without any real training, he doesn't know how to fight, how to use a gun, he doesn't know spycraft, and he's just a nerd who has this intelligence in his head, saving the world because he's good at Missile Command or whatever. Does giving him these abilities take away from the appeal of the show?

No. It doesn't take away. I'm going to answer your question rather cryptically. I'll say that the show is not going to lose its sense of humor.

One of the things I wondered about is, are the abilities going to be reliable, or will this be like "Greatest American Hero" where he can only do things some of the time?

I'm sorry. The Warner Bros. security expert is looking rather frightening at the moment. You'll have to wait for season three on that.

Well, then the other question is, if Chuck knows kung fu, and he has the Intersect, and he also has the Orion wrist cuff, which we know can do a lot of cool things on its own, at what point does he still need Casey and Sarah?

Oh, I think he absolutely needs Casey and Sarah. He's not suddenly going to become Jack Bauer.

Does Zachary Levi have any martial arts training, or was that all stuntwork?

We had really no idea how much Zach would be able to do for the final kung fu sequence. We're asking ourselves, "Should we have a stunt guy do the whole thing or could Zach be in for a little bit?" A few days before we got to the fight scene, we were working on the finale script and we got a call to come down to the set to see what Zach and Merritt Yohnka and his stunt crew had choreographed. So I showed up on the stage, and Zach started the stunt sequence, and he was amazing. So much of it is Zach, it's unbelievable. He's just an incredibly gifted physical actor. He can do the comedy, he's a gifted comedian, but he can also do the action as well.

As I was watching it, I was getting excited for season three, because there's now so much more stuff we can do. I ran back to the writers' room, and said, "Guys, he's great."

YouTube has some video of a feature "Access Hollywood" did during the first season, and there's this B-roll of Zach and Yvonne trading fan kicks at each other's heads.

It's the weirdest thing in the world. I was there when he was doing that. When you're the producer of a television show, and you're watching your incredibly attractive female lead and male lead kicking at each other's face, just missing each other's nose by a few inches, I was like, "What are you guys trying to do? Give me a heart attack?" But watching Zach do kung fu was like going back to the pilot. I knew Yvonne had a dance background, but I had no idea if she could dance like we needed her to in the scene where she's dancing and fighting the other guys. And when she first did it, I went, "Wow."

What can you tell me about the Ring? Is that, in fact, its name?

I think it goes by many names. It's cryptically known as the Ring. If you think about Fulcrum as a subsidiary, a franchise of the Ring, that it's a larger organization.

So what is it that introducing the Ring does for the show that Fulcrum wasn't. Why did you feel the need to introduce a larger evil organization?

(Long pause) I'll say this: the Ring has different goals than Fulcrum.

But wasn't Fulcrum already pretty vague in its goals? One of the advantages and disadvantages of Fulcrum is that we didn't really know what they were about, so you could do anything with them.

Thinking about season three, it was important that the Ring have a very specific goal. And that plays out in season three.

The last time we talked, you said you had most of season three already mapped out. Obviously, you're reluctant to give away too much, but let me ask you one of the more obvious questions: Chuck has quit the Buy More, Casey has quit the Buy More, Morgan has quit the Buy More. We love the Buy More, Jeffster and Big Mike are still there, you still have that set, but how do you keep using it as a part of the show at this point?

Unfortunately, I think you'll just have to wait and see season three.

Couldn't you just convert it to a Benihana set?

We look forward to building the Benihana set.

At any point did you consider something with more closure, or would that have made things too easy for NBC?

This was our finale. We knew it from the beginning of the season that this is what we were working to. This was the coolest ending we could imagine. This was the one we had to write.

Is Vincent alive or dead?

Vincent is dead. But when you're dead in the "Chuck" universe, there's a tendency to not be dead.

And he had more of a tendency to not be dead than anyone else.

When we cast Arnold Vosloo in the part, with "The Mummy," it was Jeremiah Chechnik's idea, he directed the episode, "Chuck vs. the Predator." Arnold's very sophisticated, and it was really fun for us to make him more and more sickly as the (season) went by. It became a joke: how can we hurt Arnold this week? So I think he's dead right now. He was inside the drive-in when the F-16's dropped their bombs.

He's dead, but don't hold me to it.

Are we done with Fulcrum? Have me moved past Fulcrum now?

I can't say.

How did you guys decide Captain Awesome would be the one to find out? Are there specific stories you have in mind for that, or was it just that you thought he'd be funnier to be in the loop than, say, Lester?

The reason we chose Captain Awesome is because, of all the people in the "Chuck" universe, he's the one who thinks he has it all figured out. That type of certitude, especially with the way Ryan plays the part, it's so much fun to throw him a curveball. We really enjoyed the idea, of all the people you could tell, whose world would be rocked the most? And who would respond the best, who would have Chuck's back the most? It would be Captain Awesome.

One of my favorite scenes from last week's episode was Captain Awesome losing it in front of Ellie because he couldn't deal with the secret.

Was it your idea of Allison (Adler)'s to use "Mr. Roboto"?

We kind of got it in our head. Back when we first started working on the show, my wife is a big "Roboto" fan, and if you listen to the lyrics, it almost sounds like it could be the Chuck story in a way. Allison and I were listening to different song options, we were trying to come up with something big and ludicrous and operatic. And then this being a Josh Schwartz show, you have to go through the man, and he kind of got into it.

Well, when you do a scene like this, particularly where you have characters performing the song, how far in advance do you have to get the legal clearance? Like, if Toto had refused to license "Africa" the last time Jeffster! appeared, would you have been in trouble?

It's a big huge process, and you have to start early. I think in the original script, we had "November Rain" in there, and we couldn't clear it. Then we started thinking about other, going new, a modern contemporary band, or did we want to go back to the 80s where we live, and Styx was just out there. I love me some Styx. We thought about "Come Sail Away," but "Mr. Roboto" seemed so perfect.

Are Jeffster! supposed to be getting better? Because it actually doesn't sound bad, and that's even before the Styx version comes in.

There's three different versions of the song. There's the Jeff and Lester version, then our composer Tim Jones in to add score, when Bryce comes into the reception hall, it's Tim's score playing an orchestral "Mr. Roboto," and when the paratroopers fly through the window above, that's the actual Styx music kicking in.

Jeff and Lester are not the best performers in the world, Jeffster's not the best wedding band in the world, but they've got enthusiasm. Since they are technically proficient, I thought this song was perfect for them, because they rock when they have a vocoder.

What were some of your favorite things that you got to do this season?

The season was amazing. When it comes to the physical production of the show, our team has done an incredible job. In the "Chuck vs. the Gravitron" episode, we shot in a real moving Gravitron. I was inside with our camera operator and Zach and the guest character. The different fights that we've done: the car fight in "Chuck vs. the Best Friend" is just stupendous, and the F-16s blowing up the Fulcrum presentation was huge.

There's my geek excitement for certain filmic parts of the show, but there's also the people I got to work with this year. Everyone who came onto the show was wonderful, and our cast is fantastic. It was a dream: I got to work with Chevy Chase, Scott Bakula, Bruce Boxleitner, Morgan Fairchild, everyone was in our finale. And we have a great production team, the people who make this crazy show possible, from our stunt coordinator, Merritt Yohnka, our special effects team, the entire crew. The most exciting part of the process was telling a big story over 22 episodes. That's something that you rarely get the chance to do. Working with the staff and Josh was the biggest change. When you start on a season, you're working on episode 1 and it's impossible to imagine you're going to get to it all.

Well, speaking of geek excitement, are there moments where you're thinking, "Man, I got Chevy Chase to do Cyrus' big speech from 'The Warriors' on my show!"

Absolutely. There's nothing quite like it. You're sitting on set, talking with Chevy Chase, about to blow up a wedding reception, and you're feeling pretty good. This is awesome.

I know you said last time you didn't have any regrets about this season, but were there any stories you wanted to tell in this context that didn't work out in one way or another?

There's a number. When you're in the "Chuck" writers room, you've got board after board of different notions, half the idea don't make it into the episode. There's always a board with all these raw ideas. From my perspective, I look at them as the stories we haven't gotten to. There are some that have been up there for quite some time, but I always think of them as ideas we just haven't figure out where to use yet.

But were there any that you now can't tell because Chuck has super powers?

None comes to mind.

So what are you hearing right now from NBC?

We had a good meeting with NBC and Warner Bros., and everybody's very positive. We're still in the same holding pattern. There's no ETA.

So if, unfortunately, NBC decides not to renew and this is the ending, what do you want the audience to take away from the show?

I love endings that imply further adventures. If this is the end, and God forbid that it is, our fans should know that Chuck and Sarah and Casey are off saving the world. They're amazing and thye're a great team, and hopefully we're going to get to see that.

And how would you react to knowing this was the last episode?

It would be gut-wrenching for our entire writing staff, and our cast as well. We've all fallen in love with these characters. You probably feel that from the show that we write. It's hard to imagine not having more experiences and more fun, taking those characters out into the world and telling their story.

Knowing that there's a chance the show might not continue, in hindsight are you happy with the pace at which you moved the Chuck/Sarah relationship?

Absolutely. Especially for season two, it was imperative to the show that Sarah's job is to protect Chuck. If they have an emotional relationship, she's not as good at her job. So keeping them apart and having that tension was organic to the show.

That then leads me to the inevitable follow-up: Sarah was able to have a relationship with Bryce, Chuck now appears to be perfectly capable of taking care of himself and much more of an equal to the other two. Are the obstacles no longer there?

Sepinwall, you're not gonna get that out of me. Unfortunately I'm just going to say you're going to have to watch season three.

God, I hope I can.

God, I hope you can, too.

Alan Sepinwall can be reached at
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Reader mail: Saving 'Chuck,' actor/producers, and more

Technical difficulties prevented the posting of today's reader mailbag column until a couple of minutes ago, but it's up now if you want the address of Angela Bromstad at NBC, or to see video of Zachary Levi taking a bunch of British "Chuck" fans to Subway (I'm on my way there this evening), or to hear my take on where "West Wing" went wrong. Click here to read the full post

Thank her for being a friend

I was away from the computer for most of the weekend, so by the time I was in a position to write anything about the death of Bea Arthur, it felt like the moment had passed. Fortunately, plenty of other TV pundit types provided their own thoughtful takes, including my friend Joe Adalian, who just started up his own blog at TVWeek. Joe offers up five lessons modern TV could learn from Arthur, and I give a particular amen to this one:
2. Broadcasters are making a big mistake not developing shows starring older people. Yes, "The Golden Girls" represented a hard-to-replicate chemistry of amazing actresses and sharp writers (including, of course, Marc Cherry). But the show's huge popularity when first on NBC, and its continued cult following today, indicate younger audiences judge shows by the content of their scripts, not the age of their actors.

With comedies still struggling on the networks, broadcasters need to start coming up with concepts that aren't on the air. Old folks on comedies don't exist in primetime, even, amazingly, on CBS. I'm with James Poniewozik over at Tuned In: Bring on the geezers!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: "Friends," as popular as it was, and as good as it could be at times, really wrecked the sitcom because it convinced every programmer that they had to fill their comedies with young and attractive people, regardless of whether they were funny.

UPDATE: I should also point you to Linda Holmes' piece at NPR about that brief period in the mid-late '80s when sitcoms were full of "broads" like Bea Arthur. Click here to read the full post