Interview: 'Chuck' co-creator Chris Fedak post-mortems season three
Fedak on the Shaw arc, Morgan's spy career, the future of Jeffster! and more.
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"Chuck" season three has ended on a very strong note, and you can read my review of the two-hour finale here.
Meanwhile, I got on the phone with "Chuck" co-creator Chris Fedak to discuss the ups and downs of this season, and to discuss in incredibly vague terms what might be coming next year. (Fedak's even more spoiler paranoid than I am, so there's nothing there that's unsafe to read.)
So Fedak's take on the finale, the season as a whole, etc., coming up just as soon as I blame the CIA for my bachelor party...
I want to start by going back to "Chuck vs. the Other Guy." Once upon a time, that was going to be the finale of the season, and that played to me like you guys said, "We got season 3 by the skin of our teeth, so just in case, let's give our fans a real ending this time." Am I reading that correctly?
Absolutely. When we were looking at season 3, we always knew that section of the story, those first 13 episodes, the end would be Chuck and Sarah together, and that we would build the whole season around that: Chuck wanting to be a spy and Sarah's perspective on Chuck, and then culminating in that moment of Chuck's first kill. The original iteration of the finale - we found out early enough when we were working on episode 13, so we were able to scale it back a little bit, but it was going to be a bit more of an epic battle on the Eiffel Tower. When we realized we were going to be airing that in the middle of the season, we scaled that back to the bridge scene, and I think that worked quite well. It was going to be more of an Intersect v. Intersect scene, like we did in in the season finale, episode 319.
But it would have ended either way with Chuck at least appearing to kill Shaw?
Well, you spend the first 13 with Sarah concerned about the idea of Chuck killing anybody. And then we come to that point, and he does kill Shaw, and Sarah is okay with it, and understands that a Chuck who is a killer is still "my Chuck."
Right. That Chuck is the same guy. Even though he's a hero and done these amazing things, in the end he's actually killed someone to save her live, he's still the Chuck Bartowski who saved her life.
But now we find out that Shaw is not dead, and here Chuck chooses not to kill him again at the end of 319. I'm curious: what is your philosophy going forward in terms of Chuck and fatality? Do you want to keep him pure, or will there maybe be a point in season 4 where he kills somebody and it's treated as not a big deal?
Let me talk first about the scene from the season finale: the confrontation between Chuck and Shaw at the Buy More. The kung fu battle with Jeff and Lester's video. At the very end of that battle, when Chuck is holding Shaw and has him by the neck and has defeated him, it's Ali standing over Frazier. You don't shoot the guy at that point. You've already won. It's a different type of scene, a different moment for Chuck. As opposed to the scene on the bridge, Shaw is about to kill Sarah, and Chuck has to do this. When it comes to fatalities on Chuck, there will probably never be a moment on the show where if Chuck has to kill someone in the future, that it's a small moment. Sarah and Casey are soldier spies. They've been battling against bad guys for years. Chuck Bartowski, that's never a simple thing for him. I think that's an important part of the show. He's a person who's more like Jack Ryan, where if you ever find yourself in a situation where you're going to kill someone, the stakes have to be clear and present.
But there's not anymore going to be the angst of, "Oh my God, I've killed someone. What will Sarah think of me?" That is resolved?
Yes, that's resolved. Chuck and Sarah are together, and we're really excited to see them together and be a couple. That internal angst, I think we've played it out. It's been well explored. I'm much more interested to see what happens to them as a couple, their relationship.
It seemed to me that when we got into this bonus mini-season, stylistically, you were doing different things than you had in the previous 13. The tone was a bit lighter, etc. Was that by design? Were there things you saw in the 13 that made you say, "We should steer away from that?"
I think that one of the things that, when we did the first 13 episodes, and we had gotten to episode 13, and the big epic mythology of Chuck and Sarah in Paris and Chuck's first kill and that moment, we were excited, that was something we had been building to, that epic moment. And then we were ready for a change. When we look at the "Chuck" show from an episodic basis, it's kind of like a mix tape. We had done the big grand epic song, and when you get to the next song, you ask what the next change up is going ot be. That's where "Honeymooners" and "Role Models" came from. We wanted to get back to the fun and more carefree "Chuck" show. We were really jazzed by that. The heart of "Chuck," when Josh and I started talking about this show, we had in our mind some kind of weird mashup of "Spies Like Us" and "North By Northwest." They have dark moments, especially "North By Northwest," but we had got a point of, "Let's get back to the fun, let's get back to the breezy adventures." Looking at season 4, we want to be able to mix and match, to do the heavy moments like at end of "Chuck vs. the Santa Claus," but to have those fun bits, and to keep the show fresh.
I also don't know if this was a consequence of the story you were telling with Shaw, but it seems like Sarah was more assertive and more active in these last six than she was in the first 13.
We were having in the first 13, the story we were telling about Sarah, she was responding to things. She was looking at Chuck, seeing how he was changing. She was in a state of crisis. Now they're both empowered, they're excited to be together, excited to be spies together. That was something we were excited to play out. Sarah is much more emotionally empowered in these last six episodes.
How long ago did you conceive of the idea of Morgan joining Team Bartowski?
It was conceived at the end of season two. I think that we all agreed that it was difficult to do the Chuck and Morgan story without Morgan knowing Chuck was a spy. There was always that barrier, because Morgan could only know so much. I had a sitdown with Josh Gomez, we were talking about the show and what we wanted to do with him, and he brought up the idea of Batman having Alfred, and we locked onto that idea. We wanted Morgan to know that Chuck is a spy. What we love about Morgan is, he's not a cynical character. When Chuck tells him he's a spy, instead of it being the sturm und drang, "How could you not tell me?" it's, "This is awesome. My best friend's a spy!" Josh Gomez this season was so much the heart and the real world every day person thrust into the spy world. It's fun to have another person excitedly entering - and I'm sorry for using the word excitedly - this world.
Well, obviously realism isn't a big concern of "Chuck," but I'm wondering what it is Beckman views as Morgan's role on the team, beyond the fact that Casey blackmailed her into hiring the guy.
In a word, she views his role as limited. She views his abilities as limited. His chances for survival? Also limited.
Since his role on the team so far has been largely as "the Intersect of Chuck," what does that mean for his spy career now that Chuck has allegedly retired?
I hate to say this, Alan, but that is something we will have to get into in season four. We are working on that now. I would say this: Morgan does not totally go back to the world of normalcy.
Well, what can you tell us about next season and this apparent new set-up with Chuck finding his dad's underground base in the old family home?
I'll tell you a couple of things. Yes, we did a lot of super-epic big things in the season finale. The show is still going to be the Chuck show. It's not going to lose its sense of humor. It's still a show about this regular guy who becomes a spy but is still Chuck Bartowski. For us, we get that it's a lot of fun when Chuck, Sarah and Casey and now Morgan are going on missions and together and having fun. That's the heart of the show. Our instinct isn't ever to do an arc where it's an entire season where two people are separated.
And when it comes to Dad's lair at the end of the finale, we've talked a lot about Superman in season 3. Part of us was like, "Well, what about Batman? What does he have to offer us from a perspective of secrets and lairs and the family story?" At the heart of season four, too, is the search for Mom. That's going to be a really interesting exploration. The "Chuck" show has always been a family show. The mythology episodes always fold into family issues, be it weddings or reunions. That's the show. We're excited to delve into that.
In the finale, Ellie finds out Chuck is a spy and asks him to retire. So he does it and then immediately gets caught up in whatever Stephen was into. How much of Chuck's decision to retire and this new status quo came from too many people knowing the secret?
That's certainly a part of it. A spy show without secrets isn't much of a spy show. But what I would also say is we're not going to be telling the same story in season four. Obviously, Ellie's discovery of Chuck's spy life changes things. And it's going to change the complexion of the show.
And you also blow up the Buy More and turn Jeff and Lester into fugitives. Should fans be concerned that we're not going to see Jeffster! and Big Mike next season?
It would be hard for me to imagine the "Chuck" show without those guys
I imagine fans are going to be a lot more pleased to read this interview than the last one we did (during the "Chuck"pocalypse after "Chuck vs. the Mask").
We love that our fans are passionate about the show. The worst thing you can do is make a show nobody cares about. We realized when we brought in the Shaw character he would be a polarizing figure. Maybe we didn't know how polarizing. But we knew we would bring in this guy who would create some tension within the team, and then would also in turn become the villain. Josh and I like to be engaged with the audience.
Looking back, is there anything you might have changed about that arc?
I think the only thing that we would have done differently was if we had known we were going to get the order for 19 episodes, we would have parsed it out differently. We might have told the first story more quickly.
So the confrontation in Paris might have come in, like, episode 7 or 8?
Maybe. Like anything that comes to writing this show, I'm not really able to think about how the show is structured without looking at the whiteboard.
I've heard concern from some fans that you've lost a bunch of your top writers, with Skeeter (Scott Rosenbaum) going to run "V," Ali Adler doing "No Ordinary Family" and Matt Miller going to do "Human Target." How are you feeling about the state of the writing staff going into next year?
I'm feeling good. We're currently in the process of bringing on a new staff. We're finding really exciting interesting people to come onto the show and who are engaged by the show and excited to tell the story. We love our writers and we had such a wonderful writing staff. One of the things you run into when you have a good writing staff is people desire them. We're excited to see the shows that Ali and Matt are doing and like what Skeeter's doing on "V." It's bittersweet. The new staff will be different, but I think in a good way. Chuck's been show that always evolves. But Josh and I will always be here. This is our baby. It's such a special unique show.
Another concern from this year was how, with the reduced budget, you had to juggle which supporting actors could appear in which episodes. Is there any way that might change next season?
We're looking into how we can get the cast into more episodes.
You guys hit a home run when you got Scott Bakula to play Chuck and Ellie's dad. So what are you looking for as you go to cast Mama Bartowski?
We are currently on the hunt, much like Chuck, for his mother. I agree: when we cast Scott Bakula as Chuck's dad, it was like the perfect fusion of nerd, hero and just a wonderful actor. We're definitely looking for the perfect person to play Chuck's mom. We're using Bakula as a model for who we try to cast. It's going to be a big part of season four.
And do you have any idea about how your schedule will overlap with "Men of a Certain Age"? Because you seem to have a perfect set-up to bring Bakula back for all these "secret origin of Orion" flashbacks.
I would love to bring Scott Bakula back
Finally, how does it feel that, for the first time in the show's history, you're heading into the season finale without worrying about whether you'll be back next season?
It feels good. It feels great. When we spoke at the end of last season, it was definitely daunting to consider we had all these big stories we wanted to tell. With the sword of cancellation hanging over our head, it was frustrating. I'm super-jazzed. I'm happy to already have the ability to be working on the big story we're telling next season. It's kind of one part a relief, but it's also a challenge. Each season on the show, we've changed and done exciting things and we look forward to doing that again next year.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org