Interview: 'Chuck' star Zachary Levi on Hulu, ratings and Comic-Con
"Chuck" star Zachary Levi has always had a deep and abiding love for the show's fans. During the Subway campaign to save the show at the end of season 2, Levi led a group of several hundred fans to a local Subway. When Fienberg and I somehow failed to get a single audience question in at the last San Diego Comic-Con "Chuck" panel, the only person more upset than the two of us was Levi, because he loves hearing from the fans and interacting with them.
So a few hours after it was announced that "Chuck" had won Hulu's Best in Show fan tournament, I got on the phone with Levi to get his reaction to the news, and also to gauge his feelings about where the show stands in terms of renewal. (A few months ago, when the show was consistently averaging a 2.0 rating in the 18-49 year-old demographic, I thought it was a lock to come back. These days, it's averaging about a 1.7, putting the show once again on the bubble.) During a break from filming this season's 23rd episode, Levi had mixed emotions about the result, given the show's familiar precarious position, and we talked about where things stand, what he's enjoyed about doing this latest season, and what his Comic-Con plans are, whether or not renewal comes.
This contest is far from the first time you've gotten to witness the passion of your fanbase. How did it feel this time?
I'm always a little conflicted with it. Obviously, it feels amazing to have fans as passionate and dedicated as we do. I've always tried as much as I can to show them that love back. Our fanbase is so amazing and I'm so appreciative of them. It really makes you feel good about what you do at the end of the day.
Unfortunately, none of these competitions mean anything to networks at the end of the day. I'm sure that they clock them to some degree. There's a couple of issues, one of them being. Most of these online voting battles, you can vote multiple times. It's not indicative of an overall number. It could be 10 people who are literally on their laptops all day long. If there were 5 million votes for you, it could be just a fraction of that in populace. So networks don't look at it and go, "Oh, see? There's a whole lot of people watching the show."
But even if it was, unfortunately, and I've talked to fans about this before, online viewership just doesn't hold water with networks. The money is coming from advertisers who are paying for the show to be watched on television. We make some online revenue, but it pales in comparison to what we need to make a show, especially one the size and scope "Chuck" is. I want to say to the fans that I love your fervor and your passion and your love, and it means so much to me, but don't waste your time thinking it's going to resonate with the network thinking that they'll renew the show. We've come back every year, and I know that the network and studio have taken the fans voice into account. One of the smartest things I've ever seen is the Subway campaign, because that does resonate with the advertiser. The advertiser might say, "Well, if they're willing to buy sandwiches to keep a show on the air, there may be some merit to it." While going online shows love and shows passion, our numbers continue to drop. You've got to go rustle up people to watch the show.
I kind of have mixed emotions about it, I guess. I'm very appreciative of it, but I know, being on this side of it, it doesn't mean what I think all the fans really want it to mean.
So this late into the season, with the show again not a lock to come back, how are you feeling?
I think everyone's attitude is good, and not necessarily because we're optimistic about a pickup, but we're just choosing not to be negative, and come to work and appreciate your cast and crew and try to have as much fun as possible. And we know that however many people watch these episodes, even if they are the last, they mean a lot to those people. And we're coming to the end of a really long season. It's the longest we've ever done in terms of episode count. The second season we still had 8-day (production) schedules, that got cut down for the third season, so it's maybe the same number of days, but this is more episodes. It's nine months of 14-hour days and not seeing your friends and family for extended periods of time. While we don't know what the future holds, we know that we've worked hard, and try to do the best we can by our fanbase, and the rest is in God's hands, and it always has been. every season it's always been the same situation: will they or won't they? Maybe it mirrors Chuck and Sarah's relationship.
Well, Chuck and Sarah eventually made it work long-term...
People have asked me what I think is going to happen. Every year I've always ended up in the same place: I really don't know. As fruitless as it came to be, I always tried to figure it out and apply logic, but Hollywood isn't necessarily the most logical place in the world. Or maybe it's just that logical. Especially with television, it's all about ratings, all about live viewership. Look, man, if we were on any other network, any of these seasons, we wouldn't be back. But because we've been on NBC, with all these changes they've been through over the past four seasons, and fighting to get those viewers, and knowing that "Chuck" has been kind of this staple. While we drop in viewership it's never drastic - kind of a slow decrease.
But our numbers right now are not great by any stretch of the imagination. The one thing that one can look at and go, "Well, there's this," is the fact that by the end of the season, we're at 78 episodes, which is 10 shy of syndication, and 22 of the illustrious 100-episode mark. One more would get us there, even a half season would get us into syndication, and Warner Bros. as a studio is what they're most attracted to. It's how they get from the red into the black. But I don't know. In a time like now, who's going to buy a catalog of episodes for a show that was barely hanging on with live, brand-new episodes? I understand putting reruns of the really big hit shows right now: "Glee" and "Modern Family" and the like. It's a tough thing to see, but I'm not privy to any of those conversations. I try not to look at ratings, because at the end of the day, all you can do is go to work, do your best, and be as much love and light for everyone around you, and keep a positive attitude.
Well, moving away from the show's future, how has it been working on this fourth season, in terms of the guest stars, storylines, etc?
The highlights for me of any season, one of the biggest is always the guest stars. Getting to work with people that I've idolized or respected or just had a nerd boner for? It's been really cool. Having John Larroquette come back was awesome. Dolph Lundgren, and all these people who I would never, five years ago, have thought, "Oh, I'm going to work with that guy one day." And Timothy Dalton is just ridiculously awesome. Linda Hamilton is so awesome and loving. They just kind of jump in with you and play in your sandbox. It's a really fun experience in that regard. And as far as the storyline is concerned, I was very happy when Chuck and Sarah got together. I was over the will they/won't they thing, because I like stories to move forward.
And one of the biggest perks this season has been getting to work with Josh Gomez more. When we did the pilot, he and I hit it off greatly - both gamers and both nerds - but then almost immediately, we didn't get to work together anymore, because Chuck was off in spy world. So last season, as soon as that secret was revealed, and now Morgan is getting more and more infused into the spy world, I like that. Josh is so talented, he's so funny, such a great guy, and a delight to have on set. That's one of the things that I've dug the most, is just more Josh.
Well, Zach, I hope the news you guys get is good, and that whomever you get to moderate the next Comic-Con panel actually gets some fan questions in.
(laughs) Oh, I'm gonna go to Comic-Con one way or the other. I'm in the process of putting together my own little slice of Comic-Con. I've rented my own little venue for what I hope will be the first annual Nerd Headquarters. It's going to be a place for people like myself and Nathan Fillion and Seth Green and Chris Hardwick and Felicia Day, it's going to be a giant co-op. We're going to have panels and signings and an awesome lounge. We'll have games set up. Whether Chuck comes back or not, I'm definitely going to be down there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org