Last night, I wrote that the latest episode of "Chuck" wasn't designed to be a cliffhanger leading into the Olympics, and that there weren't any jaw-dropping, earth-shattering developments that would have fans arguing and angsting for the three weeks until the next episode.
Nearly 300 comments - some of them thoughtful, some of them furious, some of them bizarre - later, all I can say is... whoops.
After the jump, some thoughts on the controversy and then a long conversation with "Chuck" co-creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak about their reaction to the reaction...
So, if you missed it, "Chuck vs. the Mask" ended with Chuck deciding to pursue a relationship with new Nerd Herd co-worker Hannah (guest star Kristin Kreuk), while Sarah responded by showing interest in new spy boss Shaw (guest star Brandon Routh).
Some fans liked the episode and had no problems with the current configuration of the love trapezoid. Some (like Mo Ryan, found some flaws in the episode, and/or don't really see why Chuck and Sarah have yet to hook up, but overall are happy with the season and content to wait for the new episodes in March.
Some, though, were outraged at this latest roadblock in the inevitable Chuck and Sarah pairing, and weren't shy about saying that Schwartz and Fedak had ruined the relationship - if not the series itself - with one going so far as to suggest that all fans boycott watching the show on TV until the ratings get so low that NBC would have to force Schwartz and Fedak to reconfigure the show more to their liking. (Not only is this futile, since, as Schwartz says below, they're already well into writing the season's last episode, but all it would do would be to get the show canceled.)
Now, "Chuck" has a very unique relationship with its fans, who helped save it from cancellation through the whole Subway campaign last spring, so it's understandable that some viewers might feel more proprietary of the show than they would of some other series that they just watched but didn't buy sandwiches for. But as Linda Holmes at NPR wrote, there's a danger in letting fans dictate where the story goes. Schwartz, Fedak and company could, indeed, be taking Chuck and Sarah, or the show in general, to a very bad place, but, "The most satisfying stories almost always involve one development that, when it happened, was not what fans would have voted for."
But because of that connection to the fans, Josh and Chris wanted to get on the phone with me to discuss some of the concerns about last night's show, even though, as Josh notes, "We don't feel we have to defend what we did." So here we go, and I want to remind you once again about the most important part of the commenting rules around here: Be respectful of other commenters. Do not mock, belittle or attack them. Talk about the show, not each other. Any commenter who can't stay calm and follow those guidelines will see their comments deleted, ASAP.
Did you guys expect anywhere near this kind of reaction to this episode?
JS: It was not unexpected that people who are into Chuck/Sarah - I refuse to use the word 'shippers,' but you can, I just want my objection to that term duly noted on the record - would be not thrilled with the development. The one thing that we didn't anticipate is that this would be the cliffhanger, and that there would be two more weeks required, three more weeks, until there was resolution to it.
So ordinarily, if this was just one episode with another coming next week, some people wouldn't be quite as upset?
JS: Exactly. Well, they might still be upset, but they'd only be upset for a week instead of three. Not that anything's going to be resolved next (episode), but it would still allow the story to continue.
Well, let's talk about that. I know you don't want to give away where the story's going, but what would you say to the people who feel betrayed, or just outraged, by what happened last night?
JS: We are further along in the story than they are.
CF: From our perspective, this is a necessary part of the season. It's like the middle chapters of a book. For the season to play out, we have to tell this story. Not only the romantic side of things, but also on the spy side of the story, feeding into the mythology of it all.
Some people have been wondering, before last night and after Sarah found out what Chuck said to her in the vault in "Chuck vs. the Three Words," why have they not gotten together? What, in your eyes, is the thing that has prevented that from happening?
JS: First of all, Sarah allowed herself to become vulnerable at the beginning of this season in terms of the Prague thing and was heartbroken by it. I think vulnerability is not something Sarah Walker does easily. Once she made herself emotionally available and was hurt, it's going to be that much harder to make herself available again.
CF: And on the Chuck side of the coin, he's made the decision to be a hero, to be a spy, and that only further divides Sarah and Chuck. As we saw in the Manoosh episode last week, as Chuck becomes more of a spy, Sarah is asking the question, "Is this the guy that I fell for last season?"
JS: I know there's some question, "Why can she date Shaw and not Chuck?" She's still there to protect Chuck. The bodyguard component of that professional relationship remains intact. Shaw is an equal - her boss in fact - and the same issue of Sarah's feelings for Chuck compromising her ability to do the job in the most cold-blooded way possible remains.
CF: There's also the part, too, that Shaw and Sarah share so much in common. They're spies, they speak the same language, have gone through the same spy school. This is the type of guy that Sarah, in any other spy show, would fall in love with.
There's also been a lot of speculation about why she might have gone from being so annoyed with Shaw to being interested in him within this one episode. Some people suggested she went running for a rebound guy when she saw Chuck with Hannah, while others think she might be checking Shaw out because she doesn't fully trust him.
JS: We don't want to answer everything. Some of the fun of being an audience member, I hope, is projecting onto the scenes and reading between the lines. There's such pressure, anyway, on a network show to spell everything out and leave everything completely unambigious, and then that pressure is doubled by fans who want an answer and want it now. And, look, we have been saved by our fans. We will most likely need to be saved by our fans again. We are incredibly invested in and respectful of our fans and their response. We are receptive and read almost everything that's out there. This is a show that we're doing as much for us as we are for them. That being said, we still have to tell the story that we're going to tell.
CF: A lot of the questions that you're asking, we actually address, but we address in upcoming episodes.
Well, in terms of being receptive to the fans versus telling the story you want to tell, is there a danger in just giving the fans what they want?
JS: Absolutely. Having been raised in the slums of the teen drama - just kidding, it's not a slum, it's a beautiful part of the state - those kind of shows, they just exist on the relationships that people are invested in. It's what they drive on week in and week out. As you stated yesterday in your blog, Chuck and Sarah is but an element of our show. There's a lot of other storytelling imperatives that are driving how these episodes unfold. Chuck and Sarah is a critical element of the show - we have said before that it is the heart of the show, and we stand by that - but there are other factors that are driving the story here. Given time, I think you will see this is a story that's unfolding not just on a romantic plane. There's a lot of Chuck and Blair fans on the "Gossip Girl" sites who've heard that couple's in trouble and are up in arms in a similar way, and it's like, if people are only happy, there is no conflict, therefore there is no storytelling, or drama. We're not arbitrary about it, we don't do it to drive conflict, We're not just going, "How do we keep them apart?" Part of your job as a storyteller, part of the writer's jobs here on the show is to mine all of these characters for maximum conflict and drama. There is an overarching design to the season, these stories are more than just romantic stories, and people have to trust that the journey we are taking them on is one that is designed to give audiences both what they want and what they need.
CF: The other thing, Alan, is you know us, we've watched way too much television growing up. We're very familiar with all the will-they-won't-they romances out there. It's an equation that we're always constantly thinking about. We realize there's the pitfalls as well as the successes.
JS: And to whatever fan out there who thought the way to get the story back on track was to boycott the show, we're about ready to start writing the finale, which is 12 episodes later than the one last night. Look, we are in a dogfight for our survival once again, and it would be a shame if people reacted in a way that was scorched earth.
CF: Who closes the book after chapter seven? That's the thing.
Were there times during "The OC" where you were either aware of fans reacting negatively to a relationship story or even reacted in terms of how you wrote it going forward?
JS: All I can say is, this is not an OC situation. This has been planned. It's not that. There are factors driving the story that are not just about will-they-or-won't-they?
But you can understand, given what happened at the end of last season, how fans might feel more entitlement towards this show than most other shows out there.
JS: Absolutely, but people have to remember: we came up with a big, game-changing - I know you hate that term, it'll be your version of shipper - finale last year, that could have been, I think, more potentially alienating to the fans than, I think, an episode or two of more romantic angst. But we did that because we felt we knew these characters and the show and knew what we needed to do to keep the show evolving and moving forward and interesting and compelling and creatively fresh. The fans rode with us on that one, which was a really big buy, and I think they've been very satisfied with how that's played out this year, and we ask for their patience here again. If the trade-off of having fans be this invested in the fate of your show is this reaction the morning after, I would take it every single time. Personally, I love it.
CF: I'm in a state of anxiety.
JS: I think it's great. It means people are invested. It's exciting. It was more of a cliffhanger than we intended.
Getting back to what you were saying before about the Intersect 2.0, there were some people who were surprised there hasn't been more kung fu from Chuck and more growth, while other people think he's evolved too quickly, and is darker and not the guy he was in the first couple of years. How do you maintain that balance of letting the character evolve without taking him too far away from the guy people liked in the first place?
JS: Quite frankly, I think that's what we're doing. For people to feel like there should be more, and people who feel like there's not enough, I think that means we're probably somewhere in the middle. As Chris said, in chapter seven of book three of the Chuck saga, that's kind of where you want to be. If we were doing a show where three seasons later, Chuck was still sitting in the car, and was still as scared as he was in day one, and him and Sarah had never progressed, and therefore never could regress from their progression - a lot more frustration.
CF: From our perspective, working on the season finale now, we have super-epic things that are coming up in the show, and we've decided you really have to test the bounds of the show. We have to take the content and take it to its limit. So there's incredibly emotional, game-changing, huge moments coming up. We're excited by that. So the notion of someone closing the book before you get to the best part is crazy.
JS: The end of this season is going to be as revolutionary to the concept of the show, if not moreso, than last year was.
The ratings this week were a bit down from previous weeks. Do you think it was just CBS getting a bump the day after the Super Bowl?
JS: I don't attribute it to any one thing. Barring this week, it's been a pretty consistent number. Certainly, CBS had a lot of NFL momentum, people are still sampling, we're against Bachelor and House. A lot of tough shows.
Well, you're going to be off the air for a few weeks. Any concern about the numbers dropping when you come back?
JS: Sure. Every time you go off for a couple of weeks, you've gotta self-start again when you come back. We always knew coming back in January would be great for us, but it also meant other things would be premiering. NBC's been incredibly supportive of the show in getting us launched, but I would not expect to see a lot of promotion for us during the Olympics.
Moreso than any other episode this season, last night was very light on the supporting cast because of the budget stuff you've been dealing with. In terms of the way you've been portioning it out, as the season moves along, are we going to have more of a full roster going forward?
JS: Part of the reason why we're rationing the way we are in certain episodes like last night is so that we can have everybody down the line. We've had budget cuts. Hopefully you haven't really seen it on screen in terms of the production values of the show, but it does affect the number of actors we can use in the number of episodes, and we want to bring in new actors as well, and all that is coming from the same honeypot.
Initially, you were only going to have 13 episodes, and you wrote accordingly. One of the comments, even from people who weren't necessarily upset by the Sarah/Shaw thing, is that it came pretty quickly. In a 22-episode season, or even if you'd known going in it would be 19 episodes, is that something you would have let percolate a little longer, or did you want the symmetry of the two of them getting together in the same episode as Chuck and Hannah?
JS: The symmetry was always designed. Are things happening in the first 13 episodes in a slightly more accelerated way than they would if we'd know we'd have 19? Probably. But that's good for the audience. No stalling going on here. No filler.
CF: Our perspective is to always tell more story, to accelerate it and tell more. And I think so much of last night was that Shaw saved Sarah's life. That's another component to the Shaw/Sarah relationship.
I asked Josh before if there's anything he would want to tell the fans to hold them over the next few weeks. Chris, is there anything you would want to tell them?
CF: For Josh and I, we do appreciate our fans so much. Getting on the phone with you is about that direct communication.
JS: We don't feel we have to defend what we did. We wouldn't take it back, we wouldn't change anything. This is just to merely help explain to people over the hiatus what our seasonal vision is.
CF: What's important for us is, don't close the book yet. We've got some amazing stuff coming up.
JS: And if you thought the end of season 2 was crazy...
Alan Sepinwall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org