'Chuck' vs. the Retrospective Interview, Part 3
Chuck gets a nemesis, Sarah and Chuck get other love interests, and the series gets two different finales
"Chuck" comes to the end of its run on Friday night at 8 on NBC, and we're continuing our five-part retrospective interview with creators Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz by discussing the unlikely Subway sandwich fan campaign (the brainchild of Wendy Farrington) that helped the show get a renewal for the third season, and then the various ups and downs of season three itself.
(And it occurs to me in looking over this transcript that, while Fedak and Schwartz talked in an earlier part about how Chuck might have gotten the Chuck-fu powers at the end of season 1, I never specifically asked them about that decision and the ways it changed the show in the third season. Fortunately, Fedak and I talked about that at length after the season 2 finale, and that interview is still up on the old blog.)
I forget. What episode is the initial sandwich scene in, where Big Mike is listing the ingredients?
Chris Fedak: That a Scott Rosenbaum special.
It’s all his fault, okay.
Chris Fedak: No, Rosenbaum will take credit for the show coming back, but it’s the—I forget which. I think it was 19 or something like that. He goes into Big Mike’s office with the sandwich and Morgan-
Josh Schwartz 20, "First Kill."
Chris Fedak: "First Kill," he goes in there and he gives the sandwich speech and Rosenbaum wrote that and when you do one of those things that means you have to really get into it with all the executives because you have to give—the language has to be worked out. If there is a joke they have to sign off on it, and Scott went through that process and we have him to thank.
What was that period like: that weird gap in between when you’re not alive and then you are and the fans are doing the sandwich thing and everything is happening?
Josh Schwartz Well I remember that time very, very distinctly because I remember many conversations with Peter Roth, who was the head of Warner Bros. TV at the time. I remember this very clearly because we were also doing a "Gossip Girl" spinoff at the time and I was told, “Look, sorry about 'Chuck.' It’s not happening, but the good news is the 'Gossip Girl' spinoff is.” And then like 40 hours later the opposite was true, so I very clearly remember. But I remember Peter Roth making me do the Mourner's Kaddish over the phone. He was so certain that it was dead and then I was like, "How much do I tell Chris? I don’t want to depress him."
Chris Fedak: Because I was in the hospital delivering baby Clara.
Josh Schwartz Right. Chris had had his baby and I wasn't going to call and be like, "Congrats on your kid. I don’t know how she’s going to eat."
He totally could have written for "Gossip Girl."
Josh Schwartz Yeah, totally. He could have. He can write anything. But I remember being like, "Peter is telling me all these terrible things about the show and I can’t share them with Chris because he’s in the hospital and his wife will kill me," and yeah, the sandwich revolution began. There was also because the other big problem we were facing was that Jay Leno was coming on the air five nights a week. I remember we went in and made our pitch for season three and we sat with then the second of the four presidents that "Chuck" would have at NBC and we were told, "We have Jay Leno at 10, all we need to bring back are hit shows," shows that were doing a 3 (demo) rating or above.
NBC used to have shows that did a 3 rating or above.
Josh Schwartz So then we didn’t know if we were going to come back now, but the sandwich revolution began. The fans took to the Subways, made sandwiches. It actually got on CNN. Like all the sudden people were talking about the show and the show had an air with it that it never had before and kind of broke through a little bit and got an identity amid the larger kind of pop cultural landscape that it never had before. And then we were going to potentially be on Fridays and then we were told, "Okay, we’re saving you until January," and then by the time we aired in January, to skip forward to season three, the Jay Leno experiment had not panned out. They didn’t have a lot of shows in inventory because of that. Suddenly we got the premiere two hour Sunday night. There was like a four hour "Chuck" two day premiere that got launched out of the Olympics and the show opened and did great and that was the best we had ever done for a long period of time. We were like, "Yeah, we’re a hit now," and then invariably we weren’t by the end, but you know.
Was it season two or season three where you did the 3D episode?
Chris Fedak: Yeah, season two.
Okay and you did the 3D episode and then Obama did the address and that took away all your momentum. So what was the thing in season three that messed you up? Where did the dip begin?
Josh Schwartz Daylight Savings, I don’t know. Who knows?
I think it was actually an episode or two before the finale of the first half of that season. No, wait - I'm thinking of season four.
Chris Fedak: We’ve had so many finales.
Josh Schwartz We’ve had so many near finales. I don’t know. Everyone made excuses for awhile and ratings were what they were, but all I remember is every week they were like, "Here is a number you've got to hit and you’ll be fine," and we'd always be like one tenth of a ratings point below that number," and they were like, "Well, we said to hit that number, I guess one tenth isn’t really that much off, but it sure would have been better if you had done one tenth better," and we’re like, "Come on."
Chris Fedak: It’s always hard because I was trying to figure it out too. You'll see weird dips in our numbers. Last year for the life of me I can’t figure out what about "Push Mix," why there should have been a dip like that right before it. The episode before was good with the cliffhanger ending and it’s kind of hard to figure out. With a show where the margin is so tight it seemed like it was always about a tenth of a rating point with us, that we felt we could maybe survive.
Josh Schwartz Until this year. Until this year.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, there you go.
Josh Schwartz This year we wanted to make no mistake about it.
If would have made sense if they had dipped after "Push Mix." People could have been, "All right, fine: he proposed, I’ve seen it all," but that was very weird.
Josh Schwartz The show has always done very well when it was on iTunes. It has always done very well on iTunes. It’s always done very well in the Hulu sphere, so it’s hard to say. It’s always something, but we got that launch and then for much of last year we were over performing.
When we came here for the podcast a year ago Dan and I were saying, "Oh, you guys are coming back for sure."
Josh Schwartz I know. And what did I say? "Don’t say that."
You pooh-poohed it.
Josh Schwartz I did and for some reason, we were strong in the fall, but we just made it a nail-biter at the end of every season. But it worked out for us in season three because we did get a nice big launch and had a lot of momentum.
Right, so you come back for season three. The money is gone or a good chunk of the money is gone.
Josh Schwartz No, the money is gone.
So Milbarge dies. Anna moves away. First of all, before we get into anything else, Fienberg wanted me to ask about the origin of Anna Wu's martial arts skills that she used to kick Strahan's ass. We never got closure on that and he demands it.
Josh Schwartz It’s kind of who Julia (Ling) was in real life.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, she has all these amazing—if you ever go to her website she does all these amazing sword fighting kind of Chinese martial arts and so we knew that she had these skills, so we were like when we had Strahan, we knew there was going to be a fight at the end and we thought it would be great if it was taken out by—if a 6’ 6” man was taken out by a 4’ 8” person and we gave her a tripod and she was fantastic.
Josh Schwartz In one season, Morgan got beat up by Strahan and Jerome Bettis.
There was some speculation after that for a while that Anna was going to somehow find her way into Spy World and obviously that didn’t happen.
Josh Schwartz No, we loved Julia. She was a great like flavor for the show in terms of just like she is so—such a quirky performer and her and Morgan had such a nice chemistry. It was just one of those things where—and she had her fans out there for sure, but there was just, you know...
So season three: Shaw, Hannah, Chuck and Sarah hooking up with other people.
Josh Schwartz Thank you for reminding me of these things.
Well, I had forgotten certain people existed until I began prepping for this.
Chris Fedak: This is your show.
Some people had some issues with one or both of them —do you think it was just at that point people were getting impatient and they wanted Chuck and Sarah to get together or do you think it was something specific about either of them?
Josh Schwartz Well I think Chris made that point early on that as soon as you saw Zach and Yvonne together and you saw Chuck and Sarah together onscreen it was sort of an undeniable chemistry. So it’s a hard chemistry to replicate, right. I think people were probably more open to the chemistry between Chuck and Hannah at the time and kind of got that a little bit more. I think people had a harder time because they loved Chuck so much they had a hard time understanding why Sarah would go for somebody who is so different from Chuck in Shaw. I think Bryce, people understood because there was history there and Bomer and Yvonne had this great chemistry. With Brandon, I think the character really found its footing in the second half of his arc. Again, you cast people. Brandon was great. He really brought a lot and brought a lot of profile to the character and strength and was kind of the anti-Chuck and that’s what we wanted, but sometimes it takes a minute to figure out how to write for somebody.
Chris Fedak: And I think that once we found out he played a great villain, we found him. That that was why seeing him again this year was such a thrilling and exciting thing and felt like really good energy. But, like, we did "First Class" with Hannah and Chuck, it was a fun episode. People really enjoyed it. Then episode six where Sarah got a back rub - a back rub! -from Shaw and all of a sudden, God forbid - God forbid - she get a back rub.
Josh Schwartz But that was insane because it meant people were really invested. We were at Wonder Con I think when "Other Guy" aired and Chuck and Sarah finally got together and he shot Shaw and the place erupted. So it wasn’t people turning on the show. It was people who were wanting to see their two leads get together and when it did happen there was a really nice catharsis and that was the end of the show.
That’s my next point. With "Chuck vs. the Ring," had you not come back, it would have worked in a weird way as a finale, but it was not in any way designed as one.
Josh Schwartz It wouldn’t have been super satisfying.
But I like to think of it like the Doc Brown "Marty, we’ve got to take care of your kids!" ending. There didn’t need to be "Back to the Future" sequels.
Josh Schwartz That’s true. That’s true.
But "Other Guy" was clearly designed like you went into that saying, "All right, this is the end of the show."
Josh Schwartz Yeah. Yeah, that was the end of the show. As far as we were told, "All right, somehow you assholes have made it to season three, there is no way there'll be a fourth."
Chris Fedak: "Are you still on the air?"
Josh Schwartz "There is no way it’s going beyond this first 13" - and it did.
So you decided Chuck and Sarah need to get together. What other sort of boxes did you feel you need to tick?
Josh Schwartz Chuck had to kill someone.
Chris Fedak: Yeah, especially for that season we knew that Chuck had to take a life, and that would be Shaw. The Shaw arc was tied into the season. That was another part of it. It was like as we built the season out of tangling Shaw’s back story with Sarah’s back story and Chuck’s relationship with Shaw as teacher and then the one who would rise up and destroy him was all tied into very much that season. So 13 was the culmination of all that.
Josh Schwartz We were also nerdy excited about it having Superman and Lana Lang in the show together. Having Superman and Lana Lang at the same time was exciting for us.
Did they actually have any scenes together?
Josh Schwartz Yeah, they did, right, in "the Mask."
Chris Fedak: I think so, yeah.
She may have been unconscious at the time.
Chris Fedak: She was unconscious I think in that, yeah.
Okay, so you’re planning all along. You’re building towards this where the series ends, Chuck finally kills somebody…
Chris Fedak: Morgan also had to find out. That was another thing we wanted to do.
Morgan finds out, Chuck and Sarah are rolling around in the hotel. It’s the James Bond ending in the hotel suite. At what point do you get the call saying "Oh, wait we need six more"?
Josh Schwartz After those episodes were broken for sure. One of our writers was like. “I quit.”
Chris Fedak: He just didn’t want to come into work anymore.
Josh Schwartz Like, "Great, news, we got more episodes!" And he goes, "This is terrible!"
Chris Fedak: "NOOOO!!!!"
Josh Schwartz "This is not what I signed up for!" Like, be happy!
Chris Fedak: It was only 6 episodes, not 11.
Josh Schwartz Yeah, but it was tricky because it was even more so than where everybody was at that point in season two. Season three was like pretty definitively wrapped up, but it led into "Honeymooners"and the end of season three I think it super satisfying.
But how much scrambling did you have to do? Was there ever any temptation to say, "Wait a minute, let’s just push 'Other Guy' back five episodes and we can do some filler until then"?
Chris Fedak: If it had been a smaller order you could have done something like that where you just re-jigger the number of episodes and you find some standalones with a bit of mythology that can fold into it. But when you do six you have to tell more story, and then when they order 11 (for season 4) that meant that you know we had to tell a lot more story.
But among other things that means that Chuck has actually not killed anybody because Shaw comes back to life.
Josh Schwartz Sure, but you didn’t know that at the time. As far as you knew he had. And at the end of season, three was also some of the most dramatic stuff that the show had done.
Chris Fedak: And the darkest stuff too. The death of Scott Bakula’s character was an amazing moment on the show. It’s like one of those things that just as we worked on it we knew that we were testing the outer limits of the show and I think that’s one of the biggest ones we’ve done.
Josh Schwartz And I loved the tease of mom at the end of season three.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
Coming up tomorrow: Bond plays a villain, Fedak says farewell to the Buy More, and the Giant Blonde She-Male rampages through Thailand.