In an unexpected but very cool move, NBC has given "Chuck" a full season order for season two based on their opinion of the first six episodes. (Initially, it only got a 13-episode order based on the weird strike-related nature of season one.) So even though the show's been off the air since January (it comes back on Sept. 29), and even though it'll have tougher competition than it did last year (including having to face Josh Schwartz's other show), and even though NBC doesn't own the show, they've just given the show a very public sign of support.
The back nine pickup has inspired me to finally finish transcribing the interview I did with Schwartz back at press tour. After the jump, Schwartz talks about the different media reaction to "Chuck" vs. "Gossip Girl," the lessons he learned from season one, his motivation for all the season two stunt casting (including Nicole Richie showing up as Sarah's high school nemesis), and more. There are some spoilers here, but for the most part, they're minor.
You've got the two shows. One of them, in total audience, is destroying the other one, albeit not head-to-head. Yet all the attention goes to the other one. Why do you think that is?
It's the type of show that it is. A show like "Gossip Girl," if you hit the target, is a show that is designed to hit the zeitgeist in a certain way. It becomes more than a television show. It's a lifestyle, it's fashion, it's New York as a character, it's the cast as tabloid fodder. It's a show that naturally, I've learned, attracts that kind of attention. No matter what, an action/spy/comedy hybrid isn't necessarily designed for the Us Weekly crowd. But I'm going down to Comic-Con this weekend and "Gossip Girl" will be verboten.
So by their nature, I think both shows are going to hit in a different way. That being said, I'm incredibly proud of "Gossip Girl" and the success that it's had and attention it's garnered, and I love the cast and the writers. It's fun. "Chuck" was more outside of the box even when I pitched it. I pitched it and people were like. "Why are you doing a show like this, and can you even do a show like this?" I'm fortunate to work with Chris Fedak on this, but to do more of a straight-ahead comedy -- which is where my instinct wanted to push "The OC" a lot of times, until that instinct and spirit was crushed -- but to do something that had more of the genre elements and had more of a procedural element, all that kind of stuff made it much more of a challenge, and therefore all the more satisfying for me when people seemed to enjoy it. The fact that we're back is very very gratifying.
I'm not going to ask you to pick between your children, but "Gossip Girl" is the CW's standard-bearer. It's holding up the network at this point.
I still think "Farmer Takes a Wife" is going to catch on...
Given that, you probably don't need to worry about "Gossip Girl," but with "Chuck," you're competing with yourself, you're competing with "Terminator," football, CBS comedies, etc. What are your expectations and what are their expectations for what you have to do?
Beat "Heroes." They keep telling me, "You've gotta beat 'Heroes!'" No, I don't think the competition is crazy-different from last year. I suppose "Terminator" versus "Prison Break," "Terminator" is a bigger show I guess. "Gossip Girl" versus the Monday night comedies on the CW is a change, but everything else is basically the same. It's hard. They say, "Your promotion's in Sunday night football," and I go, "Yeah, but we're on against Monday Night Football."
But I believe in the show. I watch these episodes, I go to the set, I go to these panels where Zach (Levi)'s there, and it just feels like a show that works. You know when a show is not working, and it feels like it works. I've gotten used to, now, people wanting to talk about "Gossip Girl," but I've gotten pleasantly surprised by people who go, "I watch every episode of 'Chuck,' I watch it with my daughter." And I go, "Really? Your teenage daughter watches it? Okay." I think there's an audience there for the show, I think the show has its heart in the right place, the characters are likable, and it's fun. We're there to be fun. We're there to entertain you.
You've said that "Chuck" needs more women and "Gossip Girl" needs more men, in terms of viewership. How do you do that, especially given that they're now in the timeslot together?
I do not run a network, so I don't know. If "Chuck" came out and did the same numbers as last year, or in the ballpark -- because everything was down last year and I think you'll see that again, as DVR penetration becomes more obvious -- I think we can run for a while.
During the strike, right after "American Gladiators" debuted, there were these stories published about how reality's success would make it difficult for scripted shows to find a way back on these networks. There was a quote like, "If I'm the producer of 'Chuck' and I'm seeing what 'Gladiators' did in that timeslot, I'd be worried."
Except I am the producer of "Chuck" and I waited to see how "Gladiators" did against repeat competition a month and a half later, and I'm slightly more comfortable. For me.
Going over the first season, what do you feel worked? What did you learn about the show?
I felt like the show found its tone really early, which was good. For me, the episodes where the mission of the week reflected on Chuck in either a very personal way, thematically or in terms of the storyline, we had success, versus episodes where he just had a Mission of the Week that he flashed on. So this year, the mission storylines are much more designed to either be part of this larger story, which definitely incorporates Chuck, and the hunt for the Cipher, which we called, in early drafts of the script, our Flux Capacitor. It's the final piece to complete the Intersect.
Or they're more emotional stories, like Sarah going back to her high school reunion. Or we do our "King of Kong" homage, where there are command codes hidden in the kill screen of Missile Command, so we have to find the one guy who kicked ass at Missile Command 20 years ago, and it turns out that's Jeff from the Buy More. And it becomes about Chuck and Jeff, who are perennial underachievers, and Chuck inspiring Jeff to reach back and be what he was. Hopefully, every episode comes back in that way.
Also the Jill episodes (with Jordana Brewster as Chuck's college girlfriend) are going to be really emotional. The show is really emotional this year. It's really romantic -- which I know is something not all guys want to hear, but I promise that Yvonne (Strahovski) is in enough skimpy attire to balance that out, if you're worried about us getting soft. We come out and own the love story right out of the gate, and there's a scene at the end of the third episode with Zach and Yvonne where I get choked up watching it.
Let's talk about Yvonne's attire. Everybody loved the Wienerlicious uniform.
So why get rid of it?
I think you'll be happy. We wanted to change the set-up a little bit, and we started talking about other stores like Pink Berry, and so she wound up at the Orange Orange -- or, as we call it, the Double-O -- and her costume is adorable. You will be fine with it. And the CIA has sort of taken over this particular space.
What does the new setting allow you to do?
It feels more contemporary, it's sleeker, and behind the freezer door, there's another world.
With this show, you've always had to balance comedy and drama and action. Do you feel you have a better handle on it now?
I think you know, if you're doing a spy story now, okay, that's a good story, but what's the "Chuck" version of that story? What's going to separate it from an episode of "MacGyver," or "Miami Vice" or "My Own Worst Enemy"?
It's always a high-wire act, but when you have a guy like Zach at the center of your show, he can do so many things at once. He can be scared and funny in that moment, so you're getting a lot of comedy with the real tension. He solves a lot of tonal issues for us. He just gets the show completely.
The big advantage of a second season is you really understand the rhythms of your cast, and you start writing to their strengths. Lester becomes assistant manager for a few episodes at the start of the season, and the power quickly goes to his head -- he's incredibly abusive. But knowing Vic (Sahay) and knowing his range and what he can do, knowing Ryan McPartlin and the nuances of Captain Awesome -- and at some point this season you will meet the Awesomes -- being able to deepen those characters, I do think we have a better handle on what the show is.
We know when we're watching an episode now when it feels like we've veered off and we're just another show. the one thing above all that we're striving for with "Chuck" is that it doesn't feel like another show.
Are you satisfied with the quality of the fight scenes?
At times. Hey, we got nominated for an Emmy. Some were great, some were like we're making a show for TV and we have 8 days to make an episode. But we've upped the ante this year, there's some great action and stunts, our stunt coordinator is fantastic, and that's something we wanted to spend some time on, make the fights fancier and the explosions more fiery. Yvonne's got a kick-ass martial arts showdown with Michael Clarke Duncan.
I was talking to Yvonne at the (NBC press tour) party last night, and Michael Clarke Duncan is to her as she is to Nicole Richie.
But Nicole Richie has weapons in her favor. She literally has the plumbing from the shower. It's cool. She looks good. I think it's going to surprise people. She was better than I thought she would be. It started as a shameless ratings ploy and evolved into something that was legitimately good.
You've obviously had the experience with Paris (Hilton, who guest-starred on "The O.C.").
I did. That was less successful. I would put my money on Nicole.
Do you think people still care about Nicole?
I do. I think people actually really like her now, because I think they see, and it was a side we saw, someone who's really responsible, a grown-up now, and has come out the other side of that. I hear a lot from people like, 'I really like her now.' People feel like she's the one who really made it through and is grounded. She brought her baby to the set, she showed up every day, she knew her stuff, she was prepared. It was a very satisfying run.
Who does John Larroquette play?
Larroquette is Roan Montgomery, former spy and seducer of women, who is now a complete drunk living in Palm Springs. They need him to teach Chuck how to seduce Sasha Banacek, the black widow, played by Melinda Clarke. Roan is the last man who is known to have seduced Sasha. He's really funny. It's like our "My Favorite Year" episode. He and Zach are great together.
What kind of stuff do you have planned for Casey?
We have a really good run for Casey. (Adam) Baldwin is just awesome. He's just great. He shows up and does more with a grunt than most people do with a monologue. I think this storyline of "You must kill Chuck," you get to see a slightly more human side. And he gets really into selling. He becomes determined to be a great salesman at the Buy More. He really wants to move some Beast Masters.
You have a built-in expository excuse for the missions that Chuck is out on service calls all the time, but how do you justify Casey and Sarah constantly bolting away from these cover jobs?
Well, Sarah we can justify (now) because it's a front. And her (old) manager was never going to step to her. Casey, just nobody questions. I think there's a sense of relief when he's not on the floor. He brings intensity.
The reaction to Morgan waxed and waned a lot in season one.
I think this year, we've dialed him in just right. You'll get the right percentage of Morgan. First of all, he's got a new haircut. You can see his face, he's very expressive, very likable in that cut. Part of the reason Morgan bumped for people was he was always getting in Chuck's way, he was the thing always jeopardizing Chuck and it became, "Why is Chuck friends with him?" And now he's definitely much more Chuck's, you know, buddy. I think his relationship with Anna has really grounded him.
Do you plan to deal with the reality of Casey having to maintain this tedious cover identity for months or years on end?
I think it's on his face every time you see him. All of that really comes into focus in the first episode, it's all about the Intersect being near completion, it's time to get the Intersect out of Chuck's head and him back to his normal life. What it means for Sarah is she doesn't have to protect him. For Casey, it means he can go back to flying F-14s in Afghanistan and all the other things he really enjoys doing. All of that is in the forefront.
What did you learn about Yvonne in season one?
Yvonne can kind of do anything. First of all, she's a very physical actress. She's got a dance sequence with Bryce Larkin in the third episode that's mind-boggling. She's incredibly physical, but she's so sweet and so good with the emotional stuff, she has this scene at the end of the third episode that's just heart-breaking, so she can shift between bad-ass Sydney Bristow spy and this sweet girl who pines for a real life. So we'll write more to that.
Can she be funny? Does she even need to be, given all the other people on the show?
She is funny. It's not necessarily what's asked of her character, but she has some moments where there's this real sense of fun about her.
So obviously Bryce is coming back, even though the way you wrote him out suggested he would never come back.
Yeah, but they always need him, especially since s--t's getting real. He comes in the third episode, and (Matthew) Bomer's just great. He brings this movie star charisma to the role that constantly pisses Chuck off. He's back. We're putting it all out there early.
Will he be in the Jordana Brewster episodes?
Stunt casting has killed many a show but it can also be a boon. What's your approach to it, why are you doing it, how do you feel it's going to work here?
Where it set off for me was we had an episode last year where Kevin Weisman from "Alias" was a villain, as the evil poisoner. And people really responded to that villain and him being in the show. We don't get a lot of time with the villains, and it gave people a real pop, even if he wasn't necessarily the most nuanced bad guy we ever had on the show. So, for me, it was like, if we can get someone who's great and fun and right for the role and pops in that part, why not? I don't think we're abusing it, or doing it just to do it. But if you're going to have a bad guy hanging Chuck out of a building, why not have it be Michael Clarke Duncan, and the visual that provides and the screen presence he brings? The part of Roan Montgomery was written as a big guest star part. I think it's in ways that are organic to the way the show is constructed, with the Villains of the Week. I will still shamelessly write a part for (Steven) Seagal, even if it has nothing to do with the show. Even Michael Strahan's cameo, it's like a real part. I don't think you'll ever see someone on the show just to be on the show.