August 26, 2008

NBC’s ‘Chuck’ Intends to Come Out Swinging

By Gary Strauss

The Hollywood writers' strike crippled much of the entertainment industry. But for the creative staff behind NBC's freshman action comedy Chuck, returning Sept. 29, there was at least one bright side to the lengthy layoff.

"Unfortunately, the strike impacted the show when we were hitting our stride creatively and really building momentum," says series co-creator Josh Schwartz.

"But while we were on the picket line, we discussed a lot about where we wanted the show to go. The time off allowed us to reflect and come out of the gate really focused on making a better show."

The hybrid action/comedy/romance drama stars Zachary Levi as Chuck Bartowski, a hapless computer geek who becomes a spy after a top-secret database is downloaded into his brain.

Chuck's hybrid story lines makes it difficult to peg.

"It's a tough show to act, perform, write and shoot," Levi says. "It's an ambitious show. Fortunately, there aren't other action/comedy/dramas in (our time slot). That's definitely one of the strongest things going for us -- we're different. And different is so integral in this business."

Chuck had middling ratings but was gaining audience with each of its last few episodes before the strike. Two more episodes aired after the strike began -- 13 in all -- but nine additional shows were never produced.

"It was tough," Levi says. "The last episode that was aired really wasn't a finale. It didn't tie up anything. So we're starting fresh in many ways. Hopefully, we'll be able to have a full 22 shows."

Season 2 will keep Chuck on weekly missions and in danger of being eliminated by government operatives. But the romantic chemistry between the title character and comely CIA agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) will be explored as part of a season-long story arc set in motion at the end of the second-season opener.

Schwartz also promises more action, guest stars and insight into the show's central characters.

"Romance is something we're really owning and putting at the forefront of the show," Schwartz says. "Zach and Yvonne have great chemistry. They're terrific in romantic scenes. We always knew there was going to be that romantic yearning. But we want to go after that in a really significant way."

Sexing up Chuck could provide a bigger audience, but that could cut into the audience for Schwartz's CW series Gossip Girl, the sexed-up teen soap that happens to compete in the same Monday time slot as Chuck. "The truth is, the time period is very competitive," says Schwartz, who splits time between both. "But the shows have different audiences. Gossip Girl is strong with women. It could use a few more dudes (as viewers). Chuck has a strong male following. It could used more (women)."

Chuck's ultra-secret knowledge of the "Intersect" made him both valuable and a liability to the CIA and the National Security Agency, among others, in Season 1. A recurring plot point is for a rebuilt Intersect to render Chuck obsolete -- and expendable -- this season.

NBC used its highly viewed summer Olympics coverage to heavily promote Chuck's relaunch. And the season opener will reintroduce new viewers to the central characters.

"The promos have been good. The network's run a ton of different spots for the show. And we've designed the season premiere almost like a pilot," Schwartz says. "Our attitude is, forget worrying about a sophomore slump. We've got to treat this as a network launch. We come out swinging. In terms of action, this is as big as a pilot."

Says Levi: "We're coming back with a clean start and a fresh slate. You get this opportunity to learn from what you did and the creative paths everyone was taking. In the long run, it might end up being better."

Chuck's first-year growth also allowed for bigger budgets this season and has made it more attractive for guest stars.

Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile), four-time Emmy winner John Laroquette (Boston Legal), Jordana Brewster (The Fast and the Furious), Melinda Clarke (The OC) and Nicole Richie are slated to guest star. Richie "surprised everyone by how terrific she was," Schwartz says. And Arrested Development's Tony Hale joins the cast as a supervisor at Buy More, Chuck's daytime gig.