“Chuck” returns to NBC on Sunday (Jan. 10) night at 9 p.m. after cheating death last spring in a manner that bordered on miraculous.
Never before had the power of $5 footlongs, Twitter and the blogosphere been so successfully combined to create that most ephemeral of pop culture qualities, “buzz.”
NBC responded to that buzz and to the small-but-dedicated “Chuck” fanbase by giving the spy action-comedy a 13-episode third season and then extended that order to 19 episodes in the winter. Not only will fans get to find out what happened to Chuck (Zachary Levi) after uploading a brand new Intersect into his brain, but they’ll get nearly a full season of capers with Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and Casey (Adam Baldwin), plus nearly a full season of Buy More hijinks.
In a sign of solidarity with the networking site that helped save the show, Josh Schwartz, who created “Chuck” with Chris Fedak, even joined Twitter this week, posting nostalgic pictures songs and stirring up excitement about the “Chuck” premiere.
HitFix caught up with @JoshSchwartz76 to talk about tweeting, but also to chat about the saving of “Chuck” and the exciting season to come. It was a long interview and splitting it into two parts just seemed logical.
The first part is almost entirely spoiler-free, recalling last spring and the current state of the show, plus discussing what Intersect 2.0 will mean for Chuck Bartowski. In the second part, posting tomorrow, there’s a little bit more talk about how this season will progress, with very minor spoilers.
HitFix: So let’s lead with the question on everybody’s mind: Why join Twitter and why do it now?
Josh Schwartz: You know, I don’t get to write with enough hashmarks in my life. I have this hashmark key on my keyboard and I never get to use it, so I was sad.
HitFix: Who told you that hashmarks were such a key part of the dialogue on Twitter?
JS: It’s been a learning process this past 24 hours, I have to say. I started off not knowing how to use any of it and now I’m posting songs and photos and getting in the swing of it.
HitFix: You’re picking up pretty quick. I know people who didn’t learn how to “reply” for months.
JS: I wish I could reply to everyone, really. They’ve been really nice and it’s been fun. I like hearing what people’s favorite songs were that were on “The O.C.”
HitFix: Probably the word “agenda” isn’t quite right, but do you have a goal for how you want to use Twitter?
JS: No. It’s a great way to be in touch with fans. I started off thinking that maybe I should do it as we got closer to the “Chuck” premiere and then it takes on a whole other life of its own.
HitFix: You figure this is a permanent lifestyle decision for you?
JS: Uh, I don’t think my wife is going to allow that.
HitFix: She’s had the chance to lay down groundrules?
JS: I came home last night and I was like, “Guess what? I joined Twitter!” And she went “Oh, God. I’ve lost you.”
HitFix: Tragic, really. So getting away from Twitter. If you go back in your mind to the limbo of last spring, does it feel like a depressing time or more of a roller coaster
JS: Oh, no. It was a roller coaster. Every week the numbers would come in and you can’t taste or touch or smell like one-tenth of a ratings point, but you feel it in your soul. You’re like, “If we can just hit this number, I think we’ll be safe” and then you’d go and you’d be one-tenth of a ratings point away from that and you then you were still on the bubble. It was a roller coaster, no doubt about it. We were incredibly proud of the episodes we made at the end of the year and we certainly felt like we did everything we could creatively in our power. And I do believe that NBC wanted to bring the show back. They’re fans of the show. They really enjoy the show. They love Zach and everybody in the cast. But we were going up against this extraordinary situation that five hours of primetime real estate for them were going away and so that created an even more intense roller coaster ride.
HitFix: Does it feel like there was a smoking gun that brought you back or like it was a variety of factors?
JS: Well, it’s always a number of factors. But certainly the fan/critic/blogger force, galvanization, call it what you will that came out on behalf of their show and ate their sandwiches and talked about the show, that just created… You know, we’ve been a show that’s lived a little bit, over the last couple years, under the radar to the mainstream press and because of the extraordinary fan outpouring and because of the ingenious plan that they came up with of using product integration and a sponsor to make their point, suddenly we had a larger narrative out there, where CNN’s talking about the show or the New York Times is writing about the show, mainstream press that had eluded us thus far. I think that really sent a message to NBC that this was a young-skewing show with a really passionate fanbase. Advertisers clearly liked working with us. And that counts for something. It’s not always just about the ratings, especially in today’s era.
HitFix: “Chuck” has always gotten a lot of press in certain circles, but as you say, it hasn’t been the kind of show that’s been able to, say, displace “Twilight” from the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Any theories on that?
JS: To be frank, it was an experience I’d never had before. “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” were not hurting for press at any point in their lives. I think part of it is a function that it’s a complicated show. It’s a mash-up of a lot of different genres. Our thought was always that there’s something for everybody, but other people go, “Oh, I don’t know if that’s for me.” It was hard to explain to people what the show was. It wasn’t a remake. It wasn’t a pre-sold title, it was a original show with its own tone and those kinds of shows take time, I think, to be nurtured and to grow. The barrier to entry for some people, when I talk about how it’s a mash-up of all of these sorts of genres, is exactly why people who like the show really like the show. So it’s this double-edged sword where the things that made people love the show was also the same elements there were perhaps kept a broader element from thinking it was a show for them.
HitFix: You mentioned the sandwiches earlier. Quite a bit deal was made of Subway’s involvement in the renewal process, with NBC putting out a press release and everything, but the five episodes I’ve seen are Subway-free. What ended up happening there?
JS: Subway was very vocal on behalf of the show and they actually made calls on the show’s behalf while the negotiations were going on. But a lot of what people expected the integration to be was sort of hypothetical, people were just assuming things. As you’ll watch the full season, you’ll see that the Subway integration was as much as it was last year. They’re not in those first five episodes because we hadn’t figured out the deal yet or the integrations, but where we land is in a place very similar to last year.
HitFix: You guys are shooting Episode 13 now, right?
JS: We’re about to. We’re not shooting 13 yet, because the crew is on hiatus.
HitFix: But you’re still in this situation where you guys have all of these episodes in the can nobody’s seen anything. How has it been making those episodes in a vacuum?
JS: It’s not an unusual place for us. Last year, because of the writers strike, we were off the air from essentially December through September, so that was about nine months and we started back early, because I wanted to get the crew back as soon as possible. So we had so many episodes before we had so many episodes in the can before we ever came back last year and we were very lucky that NBC really liked what they had seen and they gave us a full-season order before we had even aired. It was a very similar situation to last year, where I think we had 11 or 12 episodes in the can.
HitFix: At this point, in this condition, is “Chuck” a show that’s geared towards the fans it already has, or do you think it’s still a show that can welcome new viewers?
JS: First priority is always to make the people who have stuck with the show and been so passionate about the show for the last several years, to make them feel happy and excited and to keep them on their toes and invested, 100 percent. If, along the way, through word of mouth, if people are hearing about, like, “What’s this show that people eat sandwiches to save?” however they hear about it — their friends tell them about it, NBC’s been really supportive in terms of the promotional campaign this year — if along the way we can pick up some new viewers? That would be amazing. We really view the show as a broad-appeal show. It’s designed to be fun and escapist entertainment. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It’s romantic. There are are attractive women. There are big explosions. There are ’80s references up the wazoo. We don’t view it as a show that’s too obtuse for people to come join. I don’t think the mythology bogs down. Certainly giving him this new set of powers this year makes the show feel that much bigger, that much more bigger, more visceral, more visual and that much more dynamic and exciting.
HitFix: What was the point last season at which you knew that Intersect 2.0 was going into Chuck’s head?
JS: That was something we had planned to do right from the beginning. That was always our plan.
HitFix: And what was NBC’s reaction?
JS: They were excited by it. They saw it as an organic way to evolve the show, but also hopefully a way to broaden the show and make it that much more exciting. We have a great gift in our cast and in Zach. The guy is so gifted as an actor and a comedian. We had no idea if it would work, him doing kung-fu or Chuck-fu, if people would go for that. But then when we saw the footage of the finale, it was beyond our wildest expectations, so this year is really about, “Alright, Zach. You’re good at the Chuck-fu. How good are you at the flamenco guitar? Or ballroom dancing? Or sword-fighting? Or nunchucks?” And at every juncture, he’s risen to the challenge.
HitFix: And how confident can Chuck actually get before he loses his charm or his innocence? Were there worries about how much you could change Chuck?
JS: Now that I’ve joined Twitter, I’m more aware that there was some concern that the show would change in some fundamental way because he has all of these new powers, but that was never a concern for us, because that was never our intention. His fundamental Chuck-ness was always going to remain. In fact, if anything, the discrepancy between who he is when he’s flashing and who he is when he’s not is more heightened than ever. The new Intersect was designed to go into somebody like a Bryce Larkin, like a cold-blooded spy. Instead, it went into this guy who’s neurotic and certainly far from emotionless. His very Chuck-ness is actually part of the story this year. I don’t think that any of the elements that got you watching before have changed. I think, if anything, the show is funnier and more exciting and, if anything, Chuck is actually more endearing now than ever before. I think it’s nice to see him gain confidence and I think people really responded to that as part of the arc of last year. Very often in television shows, it’s one step forward and two steps back and the premise you set out, the character you introduce remains the character ad infinitum. A lot of very successful television shows have run this way for years and years and year. Because we’re a restless group here and because, I think, it’s more satisfying for fans if you can see evolution in your character, if you’re going on a journey with that character, without fundamentally losing what makes the show the show. I hope that’s what we’ve done here. And also, quite frankly, a little bit by nature of our year-to-year life-span expectancy, we’ve tried to up the ante and really go for it at every turn, to keep people excited and keep people invested as a way of also keeping the show on the air. We ended last season saying “To be continued” and at the 11th hour, I called [Chris] Fedak and I was like, “Should we pull that? Are we going to look like schmucks if we don’t come back?” But we figured that even if we didn’t come back, the adventures of Chuck Bartowski would live on in people’s imaginations. So, and that was a very long-winded way of answering your question, I think the show still remains the same show and hopefully it’s very gratifying for people to see evolution in the characters they’ve invested in.
Coming up tomorrow: What’s coming up with Captain Awesome? How will Season Three end? And, because we know you want it, plenty of talk about Sarah and Chuck…
Remember that “Chuck” returns to NBC on Sunday, Jan. 10 at 9 p.m.