I interviewed “Chuck” co-creator and executive producer Josh Schwartz for the show’s Monday 3-D episode and this article here. Ultimately, though, the discussion of “Chuck Versus the Third Dimension” was only the tip of the conversational iceberg.
Following the structural inspiration of friend-and-colleague Maureen Ryan, I’ve assembled, in very-slightly-edited format, the rest of my Q&A with Schwartz. We cover some of what viewers can expect for the rest of this “Chuck” season, plus his hopes for the show’s future. I think it’s interesting stuff.
Obviously some of what we talked about constitutes spoilers, though I’m not sure how concrete the spoilers actually are. Like any good storyteller, Schwartz is usually pretty close to the vest with such things.
Follow through after the bump for the full interview…
So what are the big questions you feel you need to answer before the end of the second season?
What does Jeff look like shirtless? We’ve gotten inquiries about whether or not Anna’s a bisexual.
What is Fulcrum? Our SPECTRE evil organization, what are they up to? Will Chuck ever be able to have a normal life? On a personal front, will Chuck ever be able to find their dad, as he promised, for the big wedding that’s coming between Ellie and Awesome? I would say that a lot of it has to do with Fulcrum and the Intersect and the future of our nation’s national security.
After the events of the Christmas episode, Fulcrum knows something is up at the Buy More, right?
The heat is on, as the Pointer Sisters once famously said. Did they say that? Definitely the ante’s up as we go into the home stretch. As well as they’ve been able to keep Chuck’s identity secret from Fulcrum, certainly Fulcrum is now feeling the heat as well and you’re gonna see a real race to the finish line between these two organizations to sort of solve who the other one is at the risk of their own lives and security.
Chuck’s been mighty public as Agent Charles Carmichael. Surely that has to jeopardize the cover at a certain point?
They’ve been very good at being able to kill or detain anyone who might actually be able to really connect him back to the Buy More. There’s a SuperMax Prison out there that holds all of our bad guys.
Will that be Season Three?
It’s in the comic book, actually.
With the Chuck and Sarah relationship, how do you prevent the will-they/won’t-they aspect of things from becoming an albatross?
Yeah, that’s something we’re sensitive to. The good news for us, as writers about Chuck and Sarah, is that there are a lot of natural obstacles preventing them from being together despite their yearning. But it’s a balance and it’s definitely something we’re going to own, especially in the latter half of the season.
And how does the Ellie/Awesome wedding fit into things?
Let’s just say Awesome is implicated in a larger spy story that in order to create a cover could jeopardize the Ellie/Awesome wedding and never before has Chuck’s personal life and job been more in the crosshairs. Certainly the hunt for dad is also something that’s driven by the impending wedding.
Talk about finding the Buy More team this season. How much did you know about Jeff and Lester last season and how much are you still learning?
They’re just great comedic actors. Vik Sahay and Scott Krinsky are just so fun to watch and they’ve become this demented Laurel and Hardy team. For us it’s been really fun being able to explore their relationship and explore those characters in more detail. We knew they liked to go to Bennigans and that Jeff was probably an alcoholic, but to be able to do the Missile Command episode was an opportunity explore Jeff’s past and have some fun at his expense certainly, but also by the end have some sympathy for the guy. Dare I say, I believe we achieved some pathos on Jeff’s behalf. There’s a coming episode, next week’s episode, where you’ll get to see a little bit about what Lester hopes and dreams about.
As those characters become more popular, how Jeff-and-Lester-centric can an episode get?
They’re very good at complicating stories, creating trouble and driving B-stories. I will say that you’re headed for a major collision course between [Tony Hale’s] Emmett Milbarge and the rest of the Buy More staff, where we’ll really be able to take advantage of Tony Hale’s incredible comedic gifts.
And what has having Tony around this season done for the Buy More dynamic?
He’s a great antagonist and villain. He’s a great comedic talent. Everybody raises their game when Tony’s on screen and that kind of antagonistic force in the Buy More that Harry Tang provided last season, Tony provides us this season and it’s going to reach Shakespearean heights by the end of the year.
Sticking within the Buy More just for another second. Will Anna’s martial arts skills return?
Well, you’ve not seen the last of them.
This season has been very guest star-heavy, but it hasn’t been a “Will & Grace” “Look at us!” kind of thing. Everybody has fit in with the show. What kind of actor fits into the “Chuck” universe?
It has to be an actor who can get the tone of the show and can be funny. Sometimes you get actors you know are funny like John Larroquette or Gary Cole or Melinda Clarke. Sometimes it’s people we suspect have been funny because they’re funny in real life, like Nicole Richie. And sometimes we like to cast comedic actors and have them play different kinds of parts than you’ve seen them in before, like Andy Richter coming up and Jenny McCarthy, Chevy Chase. A coouple people, like Dominic Monaghan, were worried they’d never done straight comedy before and turned out to be really really funny.
Who surprised you?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by everybody. I have a great casting director in Patrick Rush and the writers, we always talk about not wanting to go to that place of feeling like we’re sacrificing the show for stunt casting, so we always start with the character first and then try to find the actor who would fit that role. But everybody’s come in and played something we haven’t seen them play before. John Larroquette, we were really thrilled with how he brought Rowan Montgomery to life. Jordana Brewster brought a real soulfulness and sweetness to her portrayal of Jill, to the point where you were really bummed when you found out she was bad. Nicole Richie was great. Gary Cole was great. Scott Bakula, thus far, has been terrific and just reminds you every day of why that guy has always been a great actor. I’m forgetting a lot of people, I’m sure, but everyone we’ve had on the show this year has been terrific. And the football players have have been really good, which was a huge surprise. Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis were both hilarious.
Who do you want to have back?
We’d love to have everybody back. We’d love to have Rowan Montgomery back and Sarah’s dad back and Jordana Brewster may be returning. The door is open.
Following up, how do Jill and Bryce factor into the rest of the season?
Uh… I can’t really say, except to say that you may possibly see them again.
This season has felt like a checklist of things y’all find cool in the writers’ room. Is it liberating to be able to say, “Heck, let’s build an episode around a Rush song?’ and then to be able to do it?
Absolutely. We were children of the ’80s on this show and we’re fulfilling all of our dreams, working with actors we’ve always admired. I mean Chevy Chase for us is like, one of the fundamental actors in the Chuck DNA. We talk about ‘Fletch’ and ‘Spies Like Us’ all the time, so to be able to work with him is this great honor. To be able to reference all of those things that we love, the kinds of movies we loved growing up, music we loved — Huey Lewis has obviously played a very important role in the show this year — has been tremendous fun. We have more fun making this this show than I think anybody does making anything.
With your finale on April 13, does that mean you’re rushing a bit?
We were always supposed to end then. Even before we premiered this fall, our 22 episode schedule laid out that we would be done in April, because we wanted to be able to run as many original episodes in a row as we could through the spring and even doing that we still had to go off the air for six weeks to get to April.
Are you looking at the ratings as much this season? Or have you stopped looking?
I will never stop looking! Last year looking at the ratings was really encouraging. Before the strike, we were neck-and-neck with the CBS comedies. We were doing pretty well. Obviously the strike impacted us. It impacted a lot of shows. We’ve been fortunate that we weren’t quite as intensely impacted as some other shows unfortunately were. That coupled with having to be the lead-up show is a challenge and obviously the time period couldn’t be more crowded. It’s kind of incredible. But we feel like we have a loyal audience that stuck with us. The number we started with in the fall, we basically ended with. We actually grew. We actually finished in December with more viewers than we had in September, so that was bucking a fair amount of trends and I’m just hoping that we can hold onto the audience that we had in the fall given this increased competition.
How’d you react when you heard “House” was now also moving Monday nights?
I drove to the train tracks and considered laying down on them. I was very depressed. I didn’t understand why Kevin Reilly would do that to us. He developed the show. But, you know, it made sense from their perspective and Preston Beckman at FOX has always made scheduling moves to hurt my feelings, whether I’m on FOX or not.
Staying on reactions, how did you react to the Jay Leno news?
Again, it makes a lot of sense for them, but having five less hours that they need to program makes it more competitive for “Chuck,” but that’s live in TV, man. Nobody said it was going to be easy. But I remain optimistic.
So when NBC executives are in their smoke-filled rooms in May, what would you hope they consider when they look at “Chuck”?
I have to say that NBC’s incredibly supportive of the show creatively, and I think they understand the difficulty of the time period and the fact that we do alright given the competition. I think they really believe in the show creatively. I think it’s a very broad appeal show and has the ability to draw in a lot of different kinds of audience. I’m always stunned at how varied people are who watch the show in terms of age, gender, the whole rigamarole, so I think we just need a little bit of daylight that we could catch on.
Do you think that networks are beginning to have different expectations now than they may have two or three years ago?
Look, it’s very hard to make a good show and I think this is a show that really found its creative footing and we’re only more and more excited about what’s to come in the future. I think we speak very successfully to a specific audience even though we have the ability to speak to broader audience. I think if you look at iTunes, if you look at the DVR numbers, there’s a real audience for this show. Given the time slot competition, people have to find it sometimes via different avenues, but overall I think our cast is incredible and the concept and tone of the show are something that can appeal to a wider audience. For the networks, making a good show, a show that has a loyal audience, is important, especially as things get more and more fragmented.
The “Lost” guys have gone on and on about how liberated they became when they knew an end date. As a storyteller, would you want to know when the end was going to be?
It’s obviously helpful creatively to know that. “Chuck” is a very different show from “Lost,” so I don’t actually want to know when it’s going to end, because I want to believe it will go on forever.
Sure, but would you want the ability to wrap things up neatly?
Yes. Of course. You want to be able to deliver the most satisfying conclusion to your story that you can. There will be nothing in this season’s finale indicating that we think it’s over. It will resolve some things, but it will also kick the show off and up into a whole new level and set the table for what will be a well exciting, surprising Season Three.
So you aren’t going to go all “Jericho” and instigate fans to tear down the NBC offices?
No, we just wanted to come up with the best possible ending. This is an ending for this season that we’ve had planned for a really long time. That said, if it inspires a riot, God Bless America.