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'Chuck' vs. the Retrospective Interview, Part 2
With money, time and inspiration, the series delivers its strongest season
The "Chuck" series finale — for real this time — airs Friday night at 8 on NBC, and we're spending this week preparing for the end with a 5-part interview I did with the show's creators, Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz. Yesterday, we talked about the show's origins and the truncated first season. Today, it's time to discuss what everyone considers to be the show's creative peak: season two, when they had a full-season order practically from the start (though even that caused problems), when they had their full budget and full cast, and when they started to hit the jackpot with guest stars.
So now you go into season two and as you say that was when had the most money and you didn’t have to worry about how many episodes you were doing. Or did you know it would be 22 the whole time?
Josh Schwartz The story is — which we probably shouldn’t tell, but what the hell? — we had 13. NBC really loved the episodes that they were seeing, so we got a call that we were getting an order for more before we ever aired, which is very unprecedented. We told the cast. It got out into the press and then we became aware of the fact that the people who had called us hadn’t called their higher ups at NBC yet, who were like, “You can’t do that. You can’t just pick up the show.” By that point it was too late and we were off to the races, so we benefited from that.
So you were able to plot out all 22 of those.
Chris Fedak: We were probably halfway through. Yeah, but that was the most time we’ve ever had in advance.
Josh Schwartz Except for this year, right? They gave us 13.
One of the things we talked about before season two was you figured out from season one in the episode where Kevin Weisman guest stars, "If we get familiar guest stars we don’t really have to do much writing for them because people already know who they are."
Josh Schwartz I'm always trying to figure out shortcuts, where there is less layering and depth required in writing.
Chris Fedak: Because we don’t do the bad guy scenes. That’s the problem. Most shows you can go and see the bad guys talking about stuff. I think there is a handful of those scenes on our show, maybe 5 in 91 episodes. So the faster you know kind of who this person is that’s always helped us.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, it was and definitely when Kevin Weisman came by everyone is like, “It’s the guy from 'Alias'!" And like all of the sudden he was the poisoner. He was a gymnast…
The gymnast/poisoner was an interesting combo.
Josh Schwartz I don’t know that he was the most inspired villain of all time, but people liked that actor and so we got the benefit of doubt. That was eye opening to us along with the fact that look, we were off the air for eight, nine months and we were going to have to do whatever it took to get promotion and get people back to the show and what excited NBC to promote was guest stars. So it actually creatively was good for us and it was good for us publicity-wise too. Nichole Richie was probably, in terms of the level of publicity that we had gotten for the show I think a high point and I think a lot of people were skeptical about her. Then they saw that episode and saw her and Sarah fighting in the shower and were like, "They pulled it off," and I think that was a moment for us. It was like either people were going to be onboard with this or they were going to think we were "The Love Boat" and I think they felt like we were doing it with integrity.
That was definitely one of the best fight scenes I can think of that was - that and Sarah in the car in "Best Friend."
Josh Schwartz That’s a great one.
Who came up with those? What was the genesis in general of the fight scenes?
Chris Fedak: Well those are both actually...
Josh Schwartz Wait, hold on. He is getting modest, but you should know that when the writers break stories they leave open act four on the board, but they did for awhile, where all the big cool action shit happens and it just says "TBF," which means “to be Fedaked”.
Chris Fedak: That’s very nice. I obsess over action, but I do love it quite a bit.
Chris Fedak: Those are both Ali episodes.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, Ali Adler.
Chris Fedak: Ali Adler episodes, but usually it’s a collaboration.
Josh Schwartz Ali wanted those two women in a shower soaking wet.
Chris Fedak: She wanted that.That was going to be a part of that episode. I think the original iteration was a chocolate factory, but yeah, I think we dialed her back to a high school locker room.
Josh Schwartz And again, our influences and stuff that we love are in those episodes too, like "Grosse Point Blank" obviously in that episode, "King of Kong" in the Jeff episode.
So one of the things that happened right at the beginning of the season is (CIA Director) Graham blows up. Tony Todd losses his gig. Was it just that two bosses was one too many?
Chris Fedak: You don't need two people on the phone. And what happened was that…
Josh Schwartz Fedak had developed a crush on Beckman.
Chris Fedak: I do have a little bit of a crush on Bonita, but what happened is that the more Casey and Sarah worked as a team, we didn’t need two sets of instructions coming in, so one part of it was is that it was confusing to have two people giving the mission. But Tony was so fantastic that killing him was such a surprise that it felt like season two was going to have this extra step, which is it's dangerous. And I think that the show kind of walked on that tonal line. It was important for us to do some dangerous stuff over the five seasons of the show to test the balance.
And the other notable change at least at the start is Wienerlicious goes away in favor of Orange Orange. Was it just that you didn’t want Sarah to have a boss anymore?
Josh Schwartz No, I wouldn't say that boss was really a critical part of the storyline. I think we had it at one point where we thought we were going to have all this money, and every year she was going to have a different cover. So it would be the Wienerlicious one year and then the Orange Orange and some other funny store that would take advantage of whatever was going in the zeitgeist and that mini mall the following year and basically after the Orange Orange change we didn’t have enough dough to build another new set.
I just kept waiting for her to like wind up at the Buy More in some form, but she just doesn’t have a cover job anymore.
Chris Fedak: The idea that we kept talking about was she was going to become an HR person at the Buy More because I really liked her having to do sexual harassment instruction with Jeff and Lester, but we couldn’t. It was just one of those things that we never got around to.
She and Lester had that one good scene in the first season where he asks her out on a date.
Josh Schwartz And again that was back in the days when we could go to that strip mall and shoot there.
Chris Fedak: That is one of the hardest things for us to shoot actually, is parking lots.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, when it comes to going to Switzerland that’s fantastic, but doing the Buy More parking lot became more and more difficult over the years.
And Yvonne sometimes gets to be funny and sometimes not, and there are a lot of different moving parts on the show. It does feel like these last couple of seasons - basically since she and Chuck got together - there has been a little bit more of funny Sarah. I don’t know. Has that been your feeling?
Chris Fedak: Absolutely, absolutely, I think that starting off the show when we first got into it we looked at Yvonne to be the anchor for the spy side of the show, funny, romantic-
Josh Schwartz Soulful.
Chris Fedak: -soulful, able to do the action scenes, to carry a gun, sit on a roof with wind blowing in a miniskirt and still be amazing. She can do all that. I think the discovery over—like Gomez in season three learning about Chuck’s spy life and finding another gear, the fact that Sarah and Chuck are really good together and also that Sarah is very funny - like her doing that Texas accent in "the Honeymooners" episode. For the life of me I tried to get that into the show, into the finale, but just didn’t have time for it, but she is so funny.
So season two, in addition to standalone guest stars like Larroquette who were terrific, you’ve got a bunch of notable recurring people. You have Tony Hale as Milbarge. You’ve got Chevy, Bakula. Jordana Brewster did a few episodes. Tell me first about Chevy, because the "Spies Like Us" thing was so huge for you.
Josh Schwartz It was a huge get for us and he hadn’t really done TV and he hadn’t done an arc like that on a show. And we were delighted and terrified of him. He was coming to play this Steve Jobs type, but as an uber villain, and I think we were so excited we didn’t know what to expect, and he turned out to be great. And then once he started to get comfortable with the rhythms of the show a be a little bit he found us little funny moments for himself and I think off of the show he got "Community." I think it was kind of like a dry run for him (to see if) he liked television.
And why Bakula specifically as Chuck’s dad and as the founder of the Intersect and all that?
Josh Schwartz Well we’re both hugely obsessed with "Quantum Leap." We were as kids and he was on a short list of guys who could play Chuck’s dad, who you would believe as a brilliant, eccentric scientist, but also could make that turn into the kick ass action guy and that you really liked him. You know this is a guy who has turned his back on his family and deserted his kids, but you had to like him and there are very few people who are as likable as Scott Bakula.
And was Milbarge basically that you lost Harry and you needed a new antagonist in the Buy More?
Josh Schwartz That’s where it started from and then obviously you get a guy like Tony Hale and it takes on a whole life of its own. One of the moments I'm most proud of on the show is Tony Hale getting shot in the eye with "Hold On" playing on the soundtrack. We were on the Wilson Phillips thing well before this whole "Bridesmaids" phenomenon.
Was that just that Tony had other opportunities or Milbarge had run his course?
Josh Schwartz I think it was they took away our money.
Chris Fedak: They took our money and they took away our time you know and that we had to look at how we were going to do this and that was the most definitely evocative way to do it.
Josh Schwartz Tony deserved it, if he was going, he was so good on the show. He was so much fun and so funny and we felt like if we’re going to have to lose this guy, let's just go for it. Harry Tang met a more kind of vague fate. He could still be alive, but Tony was different. Although there was talk for a long time - one of the favorite stories I ever heard that was being discussed in the writer’s room in later season - was that Emmitt Milbarge’s twin brother was going to come back searching for Emmitt, but he was going to have one eye.
Chris Fedak: He was going to have one eye.
Josh Schwartz And wear an eyepatch, so you wouldn’t know if it was actually Emmitt or not.
Nice. So season two builds to "Chuck Vs. the Colonel" and "Chuck Vs. the Ring." Those are two of the best episodes you ever did. It may be the two best. What was it about those two that had all the pieces clicking as far as you’re concerned?
Josh Schwartz Money!
Chris Fedak: Yeah, money and time.
Josh Schwartz We could blow a lot of shit up. That wedding sequence, my God, there are paratroopers coming down. Driving away the fighters are blowing up the base behind them in "Colonel." But I think I agree with your assessment and I think that was probably Chris should speak to that, but I felt like that was just what the show was building towards.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, we spent two years building to this point of Chuck making the decision, sitting there at the computer and we just had so many great things heading into it and we had a season of Jeffster! We had—
Josh Schwartz Chuck, Sarah, will they or won’t they.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, the hotel scene in "Colonel" and there were just so many great things that we were building to. Those were definitely also the two hardest episodes to make. It was we had lots of money, lots of time, but it was still an incredible challenge.
If I want to sum up what the show is with a clip I always grab the "Mr. Roboto" sequence. Whose idea was that? How did that all come together?
Josh Schwartz It was probably Chris’. I think it was your idea.
Chris Fedak: I think that was my idea because we had started with the fact that we had wanted do—we had to go to the big place where we had the spy ending, so midway through the episode we were going to do what would be usually your finale moment, the wedding, so we had the wedding. We also we knew that Casey was going to be getting on a plane to go back to Afghanistan. He was there with his team kind of football buddies getting ready to go back to war and at some point Chuck would be able to call him and they would come in through the skylight of the wedding and then with Jeffster! performing it was we just had to find a song. So that was just like we had—we know it’s-
Josh Schwartz There is always a huge discussion every year of what is the Jeffster! song. Like the Bon Jovi song (in "Ring Part Two"), that went round and round for us.
Chris Fedak: But that is always the fun in the show though. One of my favorite things is sitting in Josh’s office and we just go through iTunes.
Josh Schwartz We’ll think, "What would Jeffster!’s cover of this song be?" There have been a lot of discussions.
Who came up with Jeffster!? I remember you announced that at that Comic Con and you were all excited about it, but who actually said, "These two are going to do a band and they’re going to be called Jeffster!?"
Chris Fedak: It was Ali’s episode. I have to say-
Chris Fedak: There is a lot of parents. There is a lot of people who were involved.
Josh Schwartz Success has a thousand fathers. Only two people are going to take credit for "Chuck vs. the Helicopter," but Jeffster!, a million people are going to line up for it.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, Jeffster!, a lot of people are going to line up for it, but the fact is it did occur in Ali’s episode.
Josh Schwartz At the end of season two we did something that we debated long and hard about and then we’re like we have to do this and we put “to be continued” at the end of the episode.
Chris Fedak: That’s right.
Josh Schwartz And for us we were like, "We could look like two of the biggest assholes in the history of television." We didn’t know if it was going to be continued, but we just felt like there was so much feeling from everybody making the show of, "The show is too good, we love it so much and it’s just getting started. It can’t die." It just can’t die and we can’t even put that out in the universe that it could possibly not happen. It was after those episode aired when NBC announced their fall schedule. Chuck wasn’t on it initially and the sandwiches began. The sandwich revolution began.
Like the man said, "To be continued…"
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming up tomorrow: The fans buy sandwiches, the Buy More loses some personnel and Superman and Lana Lang generate controversy.