A review of tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I vlog about listening skills...

"Where's the Chuck relationship neurosis? Where's the hand-wringing and the mishegoss?" -Morgan

"Chuck vs. the Cubic Z" was a familiar type of "Chuck" episode: a bottle show taking place almost entirely in and below the Buy More, with a spy world problem being paralleled by a nerd world one, and with the two worlds converging so that the nerds can help save the day. Previous episodes of this type like season two's "Chuck vs. the Santa Claus" and last year's "Chuck vs. the Beard" set a pretty high bar, and while "Cubic Z" was a solid episode, it didn't quite live up to those.

The idea of bringing back two members of the Team Bartowski rogues gallery - Hugo Panzer (from last season's "Chuck vs. First Class") as Chuck's opponent, Heather Chandler (from season two's "Chuck vs. the Cougars") as Sarah's - was a nice one, a little bit comic book, a little bit "Breakfast Club" in the way that the confined quarters let Heather do a number on Chuck and Sarah. The double-fight scene with Hugo and Heather each going down a different Castle chute was the show's second strong action sequence in as many episodes, and I enjoyed how they used Hugo to show the limits of the Intersect 2.0, in that Chuck Fu will only get you so far against a man who's so well-trained and built like a tank.

Where the disappointment came, I think, was from Nicole Richie. I've actually come to like her quite a bit in these two guest appearances - unsurprisingly, everyone grows more appealing the further they get from Paris Hilton - she was a perfectly-cast mean girl back in "Cougars," and Heather's history with Sarah made her the only possible old nemesis to bring in for this story. But the way Nicholas Wootton's script was constructed - with Heather wavering back and forth between someone taking pleasure in getting under the skin of her old rival and someone being sincere in her advice to both Sarah and Chuck - Heather needed to be played by someone who could offer a little more nuance than Richie's got at this point in her occasional acting career. She played every scene on the same note; not in a way that made Heather seem enigmatic during that long, strange night in Castle, but just in a way that made her flat and affect-less and just a device to cause some brief Chuck/Sarah tension.

On the other hand, that tension did lead to that lovely, lovely moment at the episode's climax with Big Mike's ring falling from the store to Castle at just the right instant. We knew it was coming, as the script, direction and editing kept bringing us back to the ring every few seconds. But the way Levi and Strahovski played it - not as some awkward, forced sitcom misunderstanding, but as some weird coincidence that made both of them realize that, wow, perhaps they might be ready for marriage sooner than later - was really nice, and sweet. And if I'm reading those expressions right, it appears to be setting us up for an arc that has the potential to create more conflict - Are there rules about spies getting married? How will Casey react to this? Will Ellie try to throw some ridiculous wedding that will make Sarah uncomfortable? - while at the same time providing more fan service for what everyone still assumes is the final season.(*)

(*) I do not want to get hopes up, by the way, but it should be noted that other than "The Event" (which was itself down quite a bit from Week 1 to Week 2) and "Law & Order: LA" (of which we only have a one-week sample), all of NBC's new hourlongs are already doing worse demo numbers than "Chuck" does with virtually no promotion. As we've known for a while, the "Chuck" audience is the "Chuck" audience, and given how much the budget has been slashed in recent years, it would not shock me if NBC decided a cheap, known quantity was useful to keep around, even if it took away real estate from shows with more upside. We still have a long way to get to that point - right now, the writers are breaking the final episodes of this 13-episode order without even knowing if they'll get a back 9 for this season - and there's definitely something to be said for going out while we're still going to miss you, but the way most of the new product on all the networks are doing, a "Chuck" season five seems like slightly less of a longshot than it did two weeks ago.

As for the nerd world side of this particular type of episode, I liked seeing Big Mike get a dramatic slo-mo entrance ala Hugo Panzer, and later enjoyed seeing him take out the bad guy with a cattle prod. In between, though, I like my Buy More shenanigans to be funnier if we're going to spend this much time on them. And I feel like we're taking Morgan a step backwards right now by focusing so much on his responsibilities to the store part of the job. Perhaps if they'd managed to incorporate the CIA staff more into the solution - Morgan, for instance, could have sent Greta or someone similarly competent and attractive to either calm the nerds or charm one of the game distributors out of more copies - but instead for this week it's just Morgan and Big Mike swapping the jobs they had last season. In fact, we don't see any spies working at the store other than our regular characters and this week's Greta. There's a lot of potential in the culture clash between the dorks and the spies, and in Morgan straddling those two worlds, and I'd like to see more of that soon.

Regardless of how long the show continues to run, it's going to have to do that dance that all veteran series face: continuing to do the things that viewers enjoyed (Chuck/Sarah flirtation, Jeffster antics) while spicing things up enough so that no one gets bored. The spy half of the episode was more successful at that than the nerd half.

Some other thoughts:

• While keeping in mind the usual No Spoilers rule around here, which extends to discussing the previews, do you figure Casey will be out of action for an episode or two so that we can see him hanging with Alex while Chuck and Sarah have to work without their safety net? Or will the Casey/Alex relationship continue to exist entirely off-screen?

• Three episodes may be too early to form a pattern on Greta usage, but so far the two women have just been there to look hot in a Nerd Herd skirt, while The Man Your Man Could Smell Like was allowed to be both hot and funny. I find this less problematic with Stacy Keibler this week than I did with Olivia Munn in the premiere, since we know Munn can, like Isaiah Mustafa, do both, whereas with Keibler, the hotness thing is largely what she's working with. Still, I'd like to see at least one female Greta do something funny before the season's out.  

• This week in "Chuck" music: "Beat the Devil's Tattoo" by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (a recurring theme involving the two prisoners), "Don't Shoot (I'm a Dead Man" by DEVO (Chuck, Sarah and Heather are trapped in the cell while Hugo goes to work in Castle), "Land of the Freak" by King Khan & the Shrines (the Buy More riot) and "In the Valley" by Chief (Morgan gives Big Mike his blessing, and the ring falls down into Castle).

• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: last week was surprisingly reference-light, but this week had a few, including but not limited to Chuck quoting the "Smells like victory" speech from "Apocalypse Now," Chuck talking about how "Die Hard" and "Aliens" had memorable scenes inside ventilation ducts, and Lester referencing both "Back to the Future" ("No, McFly!") and Gil Scott Heron ("This game launch will not be televised!").

• I've mentioned it before and I will mention it again and again and again: for a super-fancy high-tech secret CIA base, security at Castle kinda sucks.

• Chuck running his way up the Buy More cage to escape a Hugo submission hold? Excellent.

• I don't know how much crossover there is between "Chuck" and "Parks and Recreation" fans, but as soon as I saw the Roomba being used to clean up the mess from the riot, I immediately thought of the late, great DJ Roomba.

What did everybody else think?