In the first part of this interview, “Chuck” co-creator Josh Schwartz discussed the factors that lead to the NBC action-comedy’s renewal last spring and what changes fans can expect from the newly kung-fu-savvy Chuck Bartowski.
We pick up Part II talking about The Ring, Captain Awesome, what the future holds for Sarah and Chuck and what the third season of “Chuck” will be building to by Episode 19.
HitFix: Part of the evolution of the show has been the evolution of the kinds of storytelling you guys are doing. The first five episodes feel more arced than the ways previous seasons have begun. Would it be fair to say that this is a bigger story you’re jumping into, right from the beginning?
JS: Definitely. We are. Last year we had a tease of that, I think the show works best when there is a mission-of-the-week component to the show, but that every week is just building on the episode that’s come before it. Sometimes you’re reluctant to do that because you’re afraid of getting serialized too soon and isolating viewers, but we’re in Season Three now and we feel like we’ve really figured out the storytelling formula that works for that. With our shows, at the end of every episode you want to feel like the overall story of “Chuck,” the mythology of “Chuck,” has moved forward at the close of every episode and I think you’ll find that here. You can’t miss an episode.
HitFix: What does The Ring offer this season that goes beyond Fulcrum?
JS: It’s a bigger, more nefarious villain. It’s more insidious and it’s been in play longer than than our characters will recognize.
HitFix: Within that structure, is it sometimes hard to remember you have to service the Buy More characters?
JS: It’s not hard, because we love servicing those characters. The show is a very complicated show to do and we have unbelievable writers who are balancing all of these elements. We’ve gotta service the spy story of the week. We’ve got to service the larger mythology story, the Chuck-Sarah dynamic, Chuck and Casey, there’s the Buy More dynamic, there’s Chuck and his sister, there’s Ellie and Captain Awesome, there’s Chuck and Morgan’s dynamic, there’s Big Mike running the store. We really try to get a lot in every episode and sometimes it is a challenge, because we don’t want to feel like we’re arbitrarily going back to the Buy More, so we try to design the show in a way where even if Chuck can’t intersect, no pun intended, with the Buy More world in that episode, thematically, what he’s going through is similar to what, say, Morgan is going through. And then sometimes we have episodes where everything converges at the Buy More.
HitFix: Within those intersections, how much has it opened things up to have Captain Awesome know Chuck’s secret?
JS: That’s been a really fun story for us this year. One of the things we looked at too was — not to compare ourselves to any other shows, because we’re very much our own show — we looked at a show like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and, as they got into Season Three, how were they able to keep that show so entertaining and satisfying for fans and it’s by deepening and broadening the ensemble around the titular character. With “Chuck,” we have this great supporting cast and these characters we love and are invested in, so to be able to spend more time with Captain Awesome now and see this whole other side of him and put him into the spy world and all of a sudden Chuck is like Sarah to Captain Awesome’s Chuck. So that’s a fun dynamic to play and we’re always trying to find new ways of colliding our characters that will surprise you.
HitFix: I hate to tip-toe down this road, but when you think of the priorities that you guys have for the show, how high up is Chuck-Sarah as a love-match on your list?
JS: Oh, it’s very high. We always say Chuck and Ellie’s relationship is the soul of the show and that Chuck and Sarah is, in a lot of ways, the heart of the show. We’ve had episodes that we’ve looked at and we’ve said, “It’s pretty good, but there’s something that seems off” and then we’ll add a Chuck-Ellie scene and suddenly the show feels more complete in a way that might surprise people. But Chuck-Sarah is something we know that a lot of viewers are very invested in. We love watching them together. And at the same time we’re sensitive to how long can we keep them apart? We’ve brought in some obstacles for them, romantic obstacles, in the form of Brandon Routh and Kristin Kreuk. Those stories are going to be more complicated than they originally seem as just romantic obstacles. But at the same time, we don’t want to make people feel exhausted by will-they-or-won’t-they. So I’ll just promise that you will not feel that way. I won’t say how or why or when, but just that we get it and we’re gonna own it this year.
HitFix: Does it surprise you at all when you see just how invested some viewers are in that relationship? How for some people, that’s why they watch the show?
JS: Hey man, I started in teen soaps. I’m very used to people getting overwhelmingly invested in seeing certain couples stay together or not be together. So, “No.” And I love that. It’s great that people are so invested in that love story. That was our goal and our hope and Yvonne is terrific and helps makes the world always feel credible. The way she looks at Chuck is the way you want the audience to look at Chuck. You can see the way she looks at him. She loves him. How can the audience not love him. That’s great for us. I also know that we’ll never be able to 100 percent please everybody in how we handle that storyline.
HitFix: But given the show’s potentially finite lifespan can you let yourselves go “Well, we have to let Chuck and Sarah get to a certain point by a certain time just in case we don’t go any further”? Can that steer the speed of certain storytelling points?
JS: We don’t really try to let it dictate what we would try to do. We did an end of season last year that certainly could have been incredibly unsatisfying if we didn’t come back. I don’t think we pull any punches because of that.
HitFix: Backtracking quickly, were there any corners that had to be cut this season under the agreement that brought you guys back? Other than losing Julia Ling, of course?
JS: Yeah. We lost Julia, which was really sad for us. And not everybody’s in every episode to the same extent. Most of the strain of making those financial cuts, I think the crew rose to the challenge of absorbing that, of having to sometimes make the show in less time than we might have in the past. But I actually feel very confident that no one watching the show will be able to feel that money off the screen. I think we still deliver the same amount of show, in fact more. If anything, we’ve gotten even more ambitious about some of our fight stuff. We made a concerted effort that nobody would be able to feel that the show has lost anything.
HitFix: Your ratings seem to have been spectacular when you weren’t on the air, hence NBC picking up addition episodes. What did they tell you earned that vote of confidence?
JS: You know? I’m not entirely sure. I got a call one day saying we were getting picked up for more episodes. It was a surprise to all of us. I can only imagine that they saw the show and felt really good about the materials and they wanted to bring the show on earlier and, in order to accommodate that, we’d need more episodes to get through the end of the season.
HitFix: So how will that have changed the arcing of the season? I know 13 was going to be a big one, so what does that mean for that last six?
JS: It means that it’s a tease of what would be Season Four. It’s a mini-arc in and of itself. We got the news before we’d broken those last two episodes and we’d always left the door open for the possibility that we would get more episodes. So the writers were very, very careful about that. It just means that 13 is a huge, crazy huge, episode and then we had to top that.
HitFix: Well 13 might be big, but viewers know 14 is coming, so it can’t work the same way as a cliffhanger. Do you know how you’re planning on leaving things at 19?
JS: Oh yeah. I want to say that as big as 13 is, we’re going to top it with 19.
HitFix: Have you followed NBC’s fall ratings at all to see what the terrain looks like?
JS: No! One of the nice things about not being on the air was not having to follow ratings, outside of making sure that “Gossip Girl” was still delivering its core audience of women 18-34. I’m just now trying to follow that.
HitFix: And you’ve been shocked to discover maybe it wasn’t such a good fall for NBC?
JS: You can lead me anywhere you want, but I’m not saying anything.
HitFix: Then going at that question a different way, do you have a sense of what expectations might be this year and how they might be different from what they were last year?
JS: I would not presume to know what the expectation is for the show. I hope we can come back and deliver, at the very least, our core audience from last year. I hope everybody who watched the show last year watches it this year.
HitFix: When you look at the boxoffice worldwide for “Avatar” do you ever think that “Chuck” probably whet the public’s appetite for 3-D and that Cameron probably owes you a few bucks?
JS: I do, although I look at the fact that James Cameron had four years to make “Avatar” and we had eight days to make “Chuck 3-D.”
HitFix: I think Cameron’s piggy-backing off your work.
JS: Cameron’s a huge “Chuck” fan.
HitFix: Is he?
JS: Oh, I have no idea. Unless he tweets me to tell me that.
HitFix: So with “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl” and the assortment of new pilots you’re developing, how does your schedule work on any given day?
JS: My given days change, very much day-to-day. I have “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl,” which are running great, with great writing staffs and great producers. With Stephanie [Savage] at the helm of “Gossip Girl” and Chris at the helm of “Chuck,” they’re both going great. I’ve got some pilot stuff and some feature stuff, so it’s all busy, but it’s fun and I’m fortunate that I work with great people on these shows. Someone just wrote on Twitter “A question that’s been plaguing my mind forever: Why would you kill off Marissa.” Was that you?
“Chuck” returns to NBC on Sunday, January 10 at 9 p.m.