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The Wastelands: What Happens after you Blow a Lifetime’s Opportunity?

Last spring, I had a conversation with my good friend Tom Unger about building community and making friends, one that took me several months to process. I was talking with him about how to make friends, and he said that, since he left Nebraska Wesleyan, most of the people who he really considered good friends were the people he knew in high school and in college, and that he found it harder after leaving school because the people you met then, you don’t spend a lot of time with them unless you worked with them. Tom’s words really rung true for me, and took me on a long journey back to my college days, a time that started with high expectations and ended with disappointment.

I went into college thought to myself, yes, this is the place where I will finally free myself from my over-bearing parents and the trapping small town I grew up in. Out of a bad moment, I spent a year at Concordia-St. Paul, feeling ostracized for my conservative, not-embracing contemporary worship position. Left there after a year, kept in touch with no one. Transferred to Concordia Wisconsin, had a group of friends for a while, then we had a falling out middle of my senior year, and I left distraught and embarrassed. Toward the end of my time there, I actually reveled in the fact that I was a loner and better than everyone else, but after I left and was truly alone, I realized that I’d lost a great opportunity, and began replacing it with things that didn’t matter, like video games, sport radio, and shopping, all the while listening to voices in my head that told me everything was fine.

What this really kept me from was dealing with the great disappointment of my pre-college expectations: I had expected in college to change everything about me. In the years that followed, I dreamed about myself being back in a college situation, each dream realer than all of my other dreams, as I tried to live in that unfulfilled reality. And after that conversation with Tom and realizing that I would never get those friendships like everyone else had. I mourned this inside as I began to realize it, amplified by the thought that I could have formed friendships like that if I went to seminary, and I wondered, where do I go from here?

Then, as I watching the ending of the show Chuck, with Chuck and Sarah on the beach, I thought to myself, what do I have to be scared of? Chuck was a show that I related to on a personal level: a talented, smart guy who between getting kicked out of Stanford and getting dumped, he lost his self-esteem and ended up in a dead-end job for several years. But then a situation presented itself, and he made the most of it, and ended up with the girl he loved.

But those thoughts are just that: prisons in-and-of themselves. I may never get those days back, but I have something even better now: a church family that I’m really involved, a Bible study I’m starting, my photographs on the wall at Noyes Art Gallery, fifty-seven twitter followers, and this blog. Okay, the twitter and the blog make me a true looser, but nonetheless: I’ve found that I don’t have to live for what I don’t have. I can give thanks to God, and make something out of what I do have.

World of Hurt: The Walking Dead as an Analogy for Depression, and a Recap of Nebraska

Last night, I stayed up way too late waiting for The Walking Dead (my current favorite TV show) to come online; I went to bed at 10:30, show still not online, but then woke up at four, only to find that the show had come onto one of the other sites and I had searched under the wrong terms.

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While I wasn’t a fan of the comic or the zombie genre before, I turned into the show because I love post-apocalyptic, serial drama. This season, the show has reminded me of what Lost was like before Lindelof and Cuse became stars of the show: a bunch of ordinary people, trying to survive in a world with few rules. Yes, some of the episodes this fall have been tedious and short on action, but remember this a young show that has budget constraints. 24 was very similarly slowly in its early years, and the show grew once it was syndicated. As long as the second half of the season has more action, I’m good with that.

Of course, every time I see them show what should be a huge group of zombies, I get the sense that it’s only a small group that looks big because of the camera angle, but hey, the show is great. I’m a frugal Nebraskan, so I appreciate anyone making the best of what they have.

I wonder how much HBO burns over that they could have had the show. Probably some; they have made their share of blunders since The Sopranos left in 2007, and it’s not as bad as canceling Deadwood and not getting the two movies based on the series. Certainly, NBC looks more blundersome when they let Desperate Housewives slide out there back door. Of course, HBO does have Game of Thrones now, so they likely the biggest disappointment in the matter belongs to Thomas Jane, who would have played Rick Grimes, had HBO ordered The Walking Dead to pilot.

But the more I reflect on The Walking Dead, the more I see an analogy that reflects a world I’ve lived in: the world of depression. The survivors are the depressed people, and the zombies are the world around them. So many themes fit that depressed motif: the sense of hopelessness, the feeling as if everyone is oppressing you, things only getting worse. Not that I know Robert Kirkman’s motivation, but the themes do arise in the work. Perhaps that’s what takes this horror parable and makes it so appealing to geeks and masses, is it is that world of rejection they live in every day.

But back to last night’s episode, named for the state of my residence: this episode was slow-starting, mainly because it had to deal with the revelations of Sophia’s death, plus Hershel’s family that had become walkers being shot. But it ended in a better place than it began, as Rick’s decision to take out the two Philly survivors will have consequences in the next episode, as well as Lori’s car crash. (The latter event seemed about as staged as Carl’s getting shot, but that can be remedied by a good payoff). While Dave was going for his gun, you can see Rick going down that dark road that Shane did when he killed Otis, although Shane’s path was certainly darker. The conflict with this other band of survivors (as seen in the trailer) should provide some good fodder for the remaining five episodes this season. Personally, I have been rather impatient for them to get to the prison (working theory since last summer was that they’d get there by season 2’s end), but now I can’t wait for these episodes. Best moment this week: Andrea delivering the final blow with a farm implement.

Final thought: the same thing that makes The Walking Dead great is what makes Chuck great. The show creates conflict between multiple characters on multiple levels, maintaining from beginning to end. Take Lori: even though she didn’t want Rick to leave, she feels the need to go after him herself, for the same reason he wanted to leave. Daryl is willing to look for Carol’s daughter, but won’t go after Rick. Rick kills Sophia, but then commends Hershel for holding out hope for the walkers. That’s great storytelling.

(Update: A follow-up)

Chuck’s Final Moments (Spoiler Alert): Poingnant or Arrogant?

Now that I’m a little further away from the Chuck finale, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the issues raised by show’s partially open ending. To recap: I was not completely put off by it, although I don’t think that the show had to do it. Judging by fan reaction on twitter and other blog comments, I would say that most fans don’t feel cheated, although hard-core Chuck fans are easy to please. I have seem some comments disowning the ending in the show and comparing it to Lost, but they are the minority. So the ending is generally acceptable.

In this post, I want to address two points: one, the growing number of open-endings in popular television and film, and whether or not an open-ending was appropriate for Chuck.

The Sopranos sparked high controversy with their cut-to-black, and Lost left many of their devoted fans with on the hook with their final scene, compounded by many aspects of their series finale. Inception, the best original movie I had seen in ten years, had to end with attention-grabbing moment. It is as if these writers and show creators have to sit off the side and say, “What ending is going to rile up the most people?”

Now, I don’t think that it necessarily wrong for some shows to end with unresolved issues. I never watched The Sopranos, but I have seen their ending scene several times. Judging the scene on its own, I think it’s great scene of drama, and if the point of the episode was to say, Tony Soprano will always be facing some challenge, the show accomplished that. 24 didn’t have to leave Jack Bauer in a place where he was safe with his family; he could go on the lamb because that was what he’d done throughout the series. And Lost…let’s just say if you were watching that show for answers, you were watching the wrong show. But I don’t know if that is the ending every show should go for. Most comedies and family shows probably give more closure to their emotional relationship, as Friends did with Ross and Rachel (although their reunion should have happened well before the series finale).

That is problem of the series finale: how do you leave fans wanting more, while completing the full story you set out to tell. In the era of twitter and long TV afterlives on cable and the internet, showrunners seem to gun harder than ever for the open-ending. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse even ended their hit show long before they had to because they wanted to control that moment so desperately. But do audiences need to left wanting that much more?

My conclusion: an open ending can be a great way to leave fans, for the right show. But misused, an open ending can really leave a show with yoke on its face.

So take Chuck for example. Should Chuck have an open ending, and should the open ending concern the show’s central relationship? Here’s the dilemma: Chuck is both an action show and a comedy and has as much in common with One Tree Hill as it does Prison Break. Of the fifty-four episodes in the first three seasons, half of them ended on some kind of significant action or emotional cliffhanger. So there isn’t any precedent in the show to say which way it should go. Although if I had to make a judgment, it might have been better to have an ended the show on an action cliffhanger (Chuck and Sarah on the run, sacrificing their freedom to protect their loved ones) then to have an emotional cliffhanger.

But there is a reason to think that the emotional issue was resolved enough. Doug Liman said in his commentary on Mr. and Mrs. Smith that, for him, the moment he realizes that the Smiths will stay together forever is when the couple is hiding beneath a sewer vent from their pursuers and discussing their options for leaving, about ten minutes from the actual end of the movie. All that is really done in those ten minutes is John and Jane learning how to work together. Take that and look at Chuck’s ending: Chuck comes to the beach and tells Sarah he will put her ahead of himself. And Sarah does the hard things for her, which is to accept Chuck’s help. When I see that ending, that to me is the moment that I believe that Chuck and Sarah are never going to split up, and whatever challenges, amnesia, bullets, super-enemies, they will stay together and have each other’s back.

But would it really have been that hard for Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak to shot another five seconds, where Chuck and Sarah pull away from their kiss and she says, “I remember”? How can withholding that information help the viewer? They’d spent a whole hour being sentimental, why not five more seconds? While sometimes brevity is a gift, but in this spot, aren’t Schwartz and Fedak being a bit condescending.

Looking back on the fourth season finale, I would have been happier if the show had ended there. Outside of outrage from the diehard Chucksters who would have demanded closure, really there was no reason for the show to come back. The major arcs that had been set-up in the shows beginning had come to fruition: Chuck and Sarah had married, Chuck and Ellie found out about why their family had fallen apart and made peace with both of their parents. Chuck had gotten his opportunity and was now starting his own private spy business with the people he cared about. Other than Morgan getting the intersect (which turned out to be a flat arc in and of itself), there was nothing new for the show to address. That would have been a fun final moment with less controversy than the final moment we did get, all the more reason that showrunners shouldn’t be allowed to say when their shows end.

But this ranting is futile, and there is no solid conclusion about whether or not Chuck and Sarah’s kiss was the right ending for the show. Ultimately, my writing is giving Schwartz and Fedak what they want: debate about their show.

Here’s how I will choose to remember the final moment of Chuck: in the pilot, there was a chaotic case of boy meets girl. The arc of Chuck and Sarah in the pilot were two people who were thrust together who had to figure out a way to work together, in life and death situations. At the end of the show, Chuck and Sarah needed that bond they had forged more than ever, to keep their relationship together. At least what we saw was them moving toward that future, and that is enough for me to say that the show stayed true enough to its tone. When I watched the kiss again, I looked at very closely to see if Sarah initiated any contact with Chuck, and toward the end, I think she did reciprocate a little bit. That in and of it itself is hopeful. And as I said in my previous post (where you can find the video of the show’s ending), when the screen cut to black with the show logo, I didn’t want it to end. Like that.

The Chuck Finale (Spoiler Alert): Rivers, Roads, and Learning to Trust Again

I still watch a lot of Chuck clips on YouTube, and more than anything else, I find myself focusing on the clips that are about the relationship between Chuck and Sarah, who have chemistry on so many levels. Sarah protects Chuck; Chuck offers Sarah family she hasn’t known before. Sarah teaches Chuck how to protect himself and stand up for himself; Chuck teaches about how to led a normal life outside of the spy world.

What makes the final scene of Chuck fulfilling was that it didn’t end at the moment that Sarah got all her memories back; it ended at the moment where she trusted Chuck again to help her.

As I write this, it has been roughly less than an hour since those final poignant moments aired, and I’m still trying to judge Chuck‘s final episode. On the one hand, I was very pleased with the way the two hours started-Amnesiac Sarah, now turned by Quinn, had been sent into her house with Chuck, in order to acquire the intersect glasses with their data. The situation recreated the same kind of great tension you had in the first and second season, where characters knew secrets the others different and trusted each other at different levels, and you really didn’t know what Sarah was going to do.

What was disappointing about blank slate-Sarah that there were only two hours to play with all that tension. Someone else had written this on another blog-part of the problem with Chuck over the past year and a half was that there were story-lines that had the potential to go two or three episodes or even longer, and got resolved in an episode. Episode nine of season four, for example, where Sarah goes on a mission to rescue Chuck, and finds him by the end of the hour, when it could have thrown in another obstacle or two. It is especially disappointing here, where Chuck and Sarah spend half the season wondering whether or not they want to be spies, that this story could have carried them much longer.

But I digress. The first hour, it actually did tell a good story, in a good situation. But there were certain things that I didn’t buy-one, that after Casey gave her the disc with her video logs, that Sarah would just walk away from a Chuck that was trying to help her, and even more so, that Chuck didn’t fight for her at that moment. One of my personal complaints about Chuck since Chuck and Sarah have gotten together, the producers have almost been afraid to create real, authentic conflict in their relationship. Even the episode entitled “Chuck vs. the First Fight” really didn’t feel like a fight. Now, in the final episode, they created a really good conflict for Chuck and Sarah, and they completely blew it.

The second hour, while pretty good, did suffer a little bit from too much nostalgia. The Mexican restaurant, the Winnerlicious, the mocking of the huge sponsorship deal with Subway-it did get to be a bit much, but that is what a series finale is allowed to. Each of the characters got a sentimental sendoff-the Awesomes to better jobs, Jeff and Lester to a record deal, Morgan and Alex moving ahead with their future, Casey off to find Gertrude. As the hour wore on, I kept thinking to myself, there is more to this arc of Sarah getting her memory back. But maybe that was what I was supposed to think all along.

Now, to the last mission and the last moments. I was wrong on one count in my predictions for the ending of Chuck-the scene with the intersect glasses didn’t snap Chuck out of a freeze that had begun when he opened the intersect e-mail, revealing that all the event of the show had been a dream. But it was classic Chuck-having to make a choice for the country, or a choice for someone you loved. Ultimately, Chuck choose to save Beckman and the concert hall, rather than to try to get Sarah’s memories back, which was the right choice.

I thought that Chuck would take Sarah to the beach right after the car crash in the first hour (which I tweeted out, then someone tweeted back at me that they would go to the dream house. He was right.) But eventually, Chuck found Sarah on that beach, where some of the final moments of the pilot happened. It was the place where Chuck originally began to grow, and where he helped Sarah start to grow again.

So, now for the half of the ending I got right: Josh Schwartz and Chuck Fedak did have to have an open ending to their show, although it wasn’t quite the complete undoing. We leave them, Sarah not quite having consciously remember everything for herself, but heading there I think. We shouldn’t leave the ending of Chuck thinking to ourselves, “Did Sarah get her memories back?” We should leave it saying, “Even if Sarah doesn’t get her memories back, Chuck will be there for here.” After the show, I watched again the moment where Chuck and Sarah hook up for the first time, and it still holds true. I think it will.

It harkens back to the pilot-when the show began, Chuck was an underachieving guy who got thrust into an impossible situation and started to make something of it and believe he could do better than he was doing at the time. It ended with him helping the woman who’d been sent to help him. Full circle-for a guy who didn’t have a five-year plan in the beginning, it was a good five years.

Side notes: The revealing thing about the Chuck fans on twitter was that they did seem quite passive about the show. Granted the tweets were mostly all positive, but there were not a lot of tweets about specific things in the show. For example, when Ellie crashed the car with her and Sarah in it, no one really seemed to acknowledge. Even with an ending that was sure to cause at least some stir among fans, no one was tweeting “you have to give Sarah her memories back! #goodbyechuck”. Proof that the show is ready to retire, if it is not generating real passion.

Detail problem: When Sarah tells Chuck to kiss her, the line should have been “Shut up and kiss me” (the line at the end of the episode where Chuck and Sarah finally hooked up), not simply “kiss me”. Also, I felt like there wasn’t a lot of pop music in the two hours, disappointing given that Chuck used pop music as well as any show I’ve ever watched. Jeff and Lester did sing an awful song I can’t recall, and the final montage featuring “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart really did ring true. It was the perfect song to say good bye to Chuck on.

That leads me to one final point: as much as I complained that Chuck was over the hill this year, when the screen faded to black, I really did want more. That right there is the sign of greatness.

Update 1/28/12: Chuck‘s final moments, courtesy of youtube

Chuck Reminder: A Final Thought

Hey, to all of you who read and enjoyed my Chuck post, just a reminder to check back in after the finale for my thoughts on this blog. If you enjoy the running commentary, follow me on twitter (@DerekJohnson05, link on the side bar), and I’ll be putting out my thoughts as it airs, as well as monitoring the chatter.

In case you haven’t seen it, tvline.com has a series of three articles, which you will find under that link. Most intriguing news Lost‘s Mark Pellegrino, who played an anonymous Fulcrum agent in season two, will be guest starring. Guess Christ Fedak landed a huge break when Damon Lindelof cast him on his show. Frankly, I’m more inclined to believe my theory that the show will end with a what-the-blank moment. But in just under four hours, we’ll all know. Happy watching!

Chuck Series Finale: Will Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak try to be Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse?

I have been a fan of NBC’s Chuck since it began a little  over four years ago. Granted, it has declined in quality, but that was because the show choose to take big risks . The season 2 cliffhanger was probably one of the best two or three TV cliffhangers in the last couple of years, even though it essentially eliminated the series’ best dynamic: a normal guy who was being chased by assassins and relied on shaky alliances with his two handlers, all the while keeping his spy activities secret from his family. Yes, the show has had good episodes the past two seasons and I look forward to seeing its ending, but I’m not among the fans who were clamoring for a back nine this season. Let’s let Chuck retire in peace, remembering that the show almost didn’t get picked up after the season two cliffhanger.

But after watching the promo for the series finale, I wondered to myself: will Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak get greedy and go for a St. ElsewhereNewhartLost style ending that leaves fans going, huh? Example: Chuck and Sarah holding the intersect glasses that say “Activating” in the promo for series finale. Say Chuck puts those glasses and wakes up in a room, where we find out that the entire series was a dream sequence that started when Chuck opened Bryce’s e-mail in the pilot.

My best evidence for this? Watch the series finale promo, where NBC talks about viewers having theories and seeing how the series ends. In the fourth season finale, evil agent Clyde Decker told Chuck (in grandiose Lost-like speak) that all of this stuff had happened to him for a reason,

While everyone who’s seen it has a strong opinion on Lost‘s  ending,  I would say that this isn’t the right way for Chuck to end. Chuck has never been a show where the mythology, while an asset, has never been as much of the center of the show, the way Lost‘s mythology was its center, or the way 24 was centered on its season-to-season terrorist crisis. Chuck was, and is, a show that start with an underachieving guy who was thrust into dramatic situations and had to figure out how to use the talents he had to protect his country and the people around him. I do think that the snow globe St. Elsewhere ending has its place and can work, but Chuck isn’t that show.  Chuck needs an ending that leaves Chuck and Sarah on a beach somewhere.

What do I think will happen? Well, if I have to guess now, my theory is, in the last minutes of the show, there will be some kind of twists that is driven by mythology, although it may not be as radical as I have suggested. Schwartz and Fedak are geek fan-boys, and like most TV writers are jealous of Lost, a show where comic geeks basically got a blank check for six seasons. I don’t think I will disown the show for such an ending, although I did think that Lost would end up being my favorite TV show of all time and I disowned that show at the end of its penultimate season. Most likely, if there is a dramatic twist, I’ll see it the way I saw the ending of Inception: it was one of the greatest, most original big budget movies I had seen in ten years, but Christopher Nolan turned into an attention whore in the last twenty seconds of it.

Whatever the case, at 9 P.M. Central Time, I will look forward to monitoring the twitter chatter once the series final moments have aired. Expect a twitter report here.

Another loose end from the Chuck rumor mill: there are people speculating that a major, with-the-show-since-the-pilot character will die in the two hour series finale, and I have to guess, I would say it’s Casey (based in part on the shot of him in the plane in the promo). I don’t think Chuck would have to kill off one of the regulars: they haven’t killed a series regular in nearly five years, and the only major death in the show has been Chuck’s father. But, like a major bomb of an ending, I would be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt to see how it’s done.

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