Thursday, August 28, 2008

Chuck: Josh Schwartz interview

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.

I agree.

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.


Anonymous said...

That seemed like a very honest and accurate look at the ups and downs of the first season.

I'm not sure if he likes the 3rd episode of this new season though...if only he'd give us a sign.

Anonymous said...

I never called Chuck one of my favorite shows, but I always looked forward to it, and I'm surprised how excited I am that it's coming back. So I think I can safely say it's one of my very favorite shows. Really jazzed about the full season order. Looking forward to Monday nights.

Anonymous said...

Yay! More for Adam Baldwin! Without him, the show would have practically no gravitas or structure and it would get way too loopy and goofy. He's genius.

Anonymous said...

Chuck is awesome. My entire family watches it. When we can't watch it together, we call each other afterwards, and we'll keep most of them on the TiVo for at least a week.

Gossip Girl is fantastic too, so it's a shame they're running against each other. And against SCC, which I liked. Gossip Girl and Chuck win the TiVo slots, but it is too bad there is so much fun TV on Mondays! Spread the love!

Anonymous said...

Having only recently discovered Firefly, I am now thoroughly excited to see Adam Baldwin return. As a screen presence, he generates a lot of good will.

Anonymous said...

haven't finished reading yet. Don't care about gossip girl. me and my friend Kay (who doesn't watch prime time network tv, but her neice ran into Zach and... um.. Joshua? at a Boston bar last summer and they told her they were on Chuck, so...) we're female, as well as my former boss Wendy (who I will miss) and we all love Chuck (of course we are all over 40 as well... so perhaps we don't count)

my big question - is Chuck up against House? between last spring's relocation of both House and Boston Legal, schedules have become so close to irrelevant that last week I rebooted my DVR in the middle of Grey's Anatomy. thankfully a rerun that i didn't need a clearer copy of (not so this... tonight)

Speaking of which, I think there's a fairly important point to be made in the DVR/ratings conversation:
People will get to their DVR'ed shows faster if they are partcipating in online (or real life) conversation groups (be they mailing lists or blog comments like this and Grey's Writers (okay, that's not a "conversation" actually) about them.
It's "I have to get to my shows so I can stop worrying about being spoilered in an email header" or "I have to skip this part of Alan's three show post cause I've only watched Grey's and Scrubs, but noot ER."
So the watercooler effect... it's somewhat possible for networks to use that (even if a live chat with Bill Lawrence can't keep me from Grey's season premiere) to get the *fans* and possibly some of the "viewers" to watch closer to real time.

btw, sad that verfication took so long. Aaron is already overwhelmed (and Facebook's captcha ate my post - twice. I gave up)
still it's nice to be able to read some of his posts. till someone argues with him.

Anonymous said...

off topic newsflash for Alan -
Jon Stewart loves newspapers
urls will probably break but i bet if all else fails you can use google news. I found it on an old friend's site

Alan Sepinwall said...

Jon Stewart loves newspapers

Of course he does. He's over 40.

Steve B said...

I loved this show last year and can't wait for the new season to start. I was surprised just how quickly it become 'must watch' for me. But for whatever reason it hasn't connected the way I hoped it would. I'm afraid it has fallen in the gray area, where it doesn't have enough action for the fanboys to fall in love with it, and too much action/nerdery for most females to really enjoy.

I am very glad that it was picked up for a full season though. That's fantastic news. Chuck has, in my opinion, one of the most likeable casts out there. I even like Morgan, but I can see why others may not.

Pamela Jaye said...

I'm 49 and I almost never read newspapers (and never have. they're too big and unweildy). I do read. books.

Anna said...

hahaha, Oh, Josh Schwartz, you had me at "Farmer Takes a Wife."

I completely forgot how much I love this show. But now between this and the season one gag reel that I just saw the other day, I think I'm more excited for the return of this show than I am about almost anything else in the new TV season (except "Dollhouse").

Sara Ann said...

Oh, Steve B. Girls don't like action or sci-fi? I'm just going to assume you would have put that differently if you'd read it over before you posted.

I liked Chuck S1 fine, but like a lot of people, or at least a lot who post here, it was never appointment TV. I could watched a whole show about Casey and Captain Awesome (and if this show's ever successful enough for a spin-off, that's the one I want to see), but the stories rarely surprised me and, unlike a lot of the best sci-fi, it didn't create a world I was dying to spend time in. It always felt like absolutely everything that was going on in the Chuck-verse was happening right there on the screen, and what was on the screen was fine - but not fantastic.

I will tune in to see what they've got cooked up for S2. Unfortunately for the Buy More crowd, however, Middle Man may have ruined me for any lesser goofy spy antics in a world almost like ours.

Sara Ann said...

Unlike a lot of the best sci-fi and TV/movies/literature in general, that is.

Nicole said...

I think Chuck was my favourite new show last year, even more than Pushing Daisies which was sometimes too quirky for its own good. Chuck is like Alias but without all the convoluted plot twists and with more of a sense of humour.

I read newspapers and am significantly under 40, but then it's a habit my parents got me into at a young age. The morning doesn't feel right without reading the newspaper. And then I follow up on the net later on.

Karen said...

I'm a middle-aged female in NYC, who reads the online NYTimes and blogs but refuses to watch any televised news (other than the Daily Show), and I love love love "Chuck."

Thanks for this interview, Alan; Josh Schwartz sounds smart and funny and truly devoted to the series. That will show.

I'm sorry that the programmers are giving us a 3-way with Sarah Connor, Chuck, and Gossip Girl. Bye-bye, Terminator.

Anonymous said...

The full season pickup is such awesome news.I am disgustingly excited about the return of this show. I love Josh Schwartz, I love Zach Levi, I love Adam Baldwin, I love the genre (or genres?) and I loved 99.9% of everything that happened in the too brief first season. And, yet, for some reason I've surprised myself by how anxious I am for the new season to just start already. The teaser from Comic Con is just not cutting it anymore. I need more. Now.

I completely ignore the Paris cameo on "The OC" (as well as various other things about that show that displeased me and, therefore, never actually happened), but I'm kind of okay with Nicole being on this show. It helps that Nicole has a personality and even when she was being a dick on "The Simple Life" she never seemed unaware of the world around her or the absurdity of her life. That doesn't automatically equal great actress, but she won't have me cringing from the sight of her. I'm putting my faith in Schwartz to keep the stunt casting to a believable level. Not sure about this whole Strahan thing, but I'm all over the John Larroquette guest spot.

Unknown said...

Wait, so Chuck, Terminator, AND How I Met Your Mother are all going to be on at the same time in the fall? Even if I do break down and get a DVR, I won't be able to watch them all.

Bobman said...

Wait, so Chuck, Terminator, AND How I Met Your Mother are all going to be on at the same time in the fall?

Eesh, I forgot about HIMYM. Looks like Terminator just got the boot (I wasn't all that excited about it anyway).

Anonymous said...

Monday night just got so complicated.

Monday Night Football on the main tv with DVR. (I'm on the west coast)

Pause MNF for Chuck and go watch it on the set with rabbit ears.

Record HIMYM on second DVR tv.

Record Terminator on the computer.

Daughter will have to watch Gossip Girl in her room.

After Chuck, finish watching football and bypass the commercials.

Sadly, I don't have a DVR that can record one show while I watch another.

Luckily, I couldn't care less about a doctor who does hallucinogens and is hated by all and hates everybody and still manages to keep his job somehow.

(Really folks, I can understand suspending reality for something like BSG or Eureka, but how could a character like House have gotten to a place in his career of such distinction. Any real person would be in a ditch somewhere, either from substance abuse or from getting his ass kicked so many times.)

Anonymous said...

I'm confused as to why people think "House" is on the Monday schedule. It's on Tuesdays. "Terminator" is on Mondays. Unless that was just an excuse to take a dig. In which case, carry on. Otoh, if it was a serious question: because he's surrounded by enablers and protectors who keep him from dying in a puddle of his own vomit and, in the many instances where he *does* get his ass kicked, breaks it up. Except for that one time they *did* leave him lying in that puddle...

I don't really have to suspend disbelief to accept that people who behave badly or in vile ways can make it to the top if (and sometimes even without) they have people covering their asses.

I like TSCC, but it might have to go as I try to juggle "Chuck", HIMYM and "Gossip Girl" while still attempting, for reasons I'm no longer even sure of, to pay attention to "Prison Break" in the next hour. And "Heroes" still owns me. And I don't hate "The Big Bang Theory", which is benefitted by the fact that it's hitched to HIMYM and doesn't really cause any more convenience to the schedule than was already there. Monday just has way too much great stuff and way too much decent stuff that I like. I'm not sure how Monday became the most complicated night of the week for me.

If I was only allowed to commit to one, I'm not sure how I would choose between "Chuck" and HIMYM. It would be mean to make one choose.

Pamela Jaye said...

Sorry, Amy. My fault. They've been tossing House into every vacant time slot...

Tuesdays at *8* (which is okay, cause, you know, they have that warning about graphic...)

I don't hate Big Bang either, and Jay loves it. So I think it's only a two way. Hey, House premiered into my first three way collision on a machine that didn't get a third card for two years (and pretty promptly committed suicide as soon as it did)

So HIMYM and Chuck. How did that happen? was it happening last year? Remember Tuesdays with Veronica Mars?

I haven't seen anything new I'm remotely interested in other than Life on Mara.. er Mars (what is it with Mars?) Probably due to Journeyman last year... I still have Eli Stone and Pushing Daisies. Mostly unwatched and not cancelled, darn it!

and btw, Gameshow Network is rerunning Ken Jennings on Jeopardy.alas, I don't get GSN.

the futon critic needs a "please make these cable channels go away" button on their primetime grid.

Pamela Jaye said...

hey, i didn't know mynetwork tv still existed...

Pamela Jaye said...

I did, however, figure out why I thought House was on Mondays.a