By any measurement, Chuck never should have survived to its fifth and final season. The perpetually low-rated show about a humble computer geek who becomes a top spy, thanks to a supercomputer that was transferred into his brain, was always on NBC’s cancellation bubble. But thanks to a rabid, loyal fan base, love from television critics and recappers, and a network mired in fourth place, co-creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak were able to explore the geeky world of the Burbank Buy More and the relationship between Chuck (Zachary Levi) and his handler, Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski). Going into the final season, some things have changed: Chuck and Sarah are married, the team is no longer working for the government, and Chuck’s bumbling best friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez) is the one with the Intersect in his head. Right before the season première aired last Friday (to record-low ratings, of course) Fedak sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about the final season, what fans of the show should expect (more Buy More stories, for instance), and why he digs the idea of Stan Lee as a spy.
The A.V. Club: What was your reaction when you got this order for 13 episodes, and the word that it was going to be Chuck’s last year?
Chris Fedak: Oh, we were jazzed. I think when we’ve come to our season finales, especially for the first four seasons, we’ve always kind of designed them to launch a slightly different version of the show, or a new version of the show, each year. The idea was that if we didn’t come back, people would know deep down that Chuck Bartowski and his team were off saving the world.
You know, I love those endings that promise another show, be it Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart walking off into the mist in Casablanca—and I’m not making that reference comparing my show to Casablanca—or Batman going after the Joker. It’s that notion [that] there’s great adventures out there. So for us, when we got the pickup, we were excited to start breaking season five, because we liked what it did to the show. We like the fact that Chuck didn’t have the Intersect. We loved the idea that Morgan had the Intersect, his best friend, and now it was [Chuck’s] job to take care of him. Because, you know, it’s been five years; he’s gotten better as a spy, and he’s now ready to be a handler. He’s now ready to be who Sarah Walker was in season one.
The other part of it, too, was I think that we had a lot of fun with Chuck having these abilities and doing those Superman stories, and having him figure out the Intersect 2.0. But it was neat to take it away from him, and I think that’s what we’ve had fun with this year as well, is that the spy world is that much more difficult for him.
AVC: Were you expecting the pickup? Or do you never expect to get picked up?
CF: I never expect it. Because in the end, we have to pitch the next season to the network and the studio. So it’s been the same for the past couple of years. We finish the year, and then we work on the shape for the next season, and we go pitch it. And then they make the decision, yea or nay on that.
AVC: Was the cancellation a surprise?
CF: As TV writers working on a network television show, you rarely get the opportunity to close out your show and to tell your final chapter. We were excited to do another year, and to do a final year of the show. It’s kind of a responsibility, but it’s also a neat one. For the writers, as well as the production team and the actors, I think we weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to these characters. It’s made for a rather bittersweet, but just incredible final season.
AVC: People are now calling this the Lost method, where you’re given an end date and you have to write toward it. What are the challenges of writing toward an end date?
CF: I think having an end date only makes things easier from a storytelling perspective, because you know where you’re going. Usually, you have an idea of where you want to end your show. We’ve always, in the past, had an idea that episode 13 or episode 22 or 24 of a season would be a possible end point for the show, so we’ve built our seasons kind of heading toward a conceivable ending. But for this year, since we knew this would be the series finale, it allowed us to sit back and come up with a very tightly structured season.
AVC: You’ve basically written what could have been three or four series finales. Do you think being always on the edge of getting cancelled was good for you and the writing staff?
CF: I think there’s two sides of it. I mean, I think that there were certainly benefits. Starting with season two, we knew episode 13 could be a series finale. So we began to break our shows in a very aggressive way. We told stories much more quickly than maybe we would’ve done if we felt like we were sitting on top of 22 episodes every year, and we knew we would be coming back. But there was no conservative storytelling here. So that was a neat way to break a show: If we saw the kitchen sink, we threw it in. If we had an idea, we put it into the episode we were working on. Because we wanted to push story.
I think there’s probably—if you know you’re coming back for a longer season, there’s a couple things you do at the beginning of the year that allow you to plot out the season in a different way. And this gets into the technical side—when you get an order and you’ve already built the 13 episodes, you have to figure out the second half of the season as you’re still working on the first half. So if you have more time, and you know you have 22 episodes or 24 episodes, that’s an easier way to break a show. But I think the show benefited because we were always dancing for our dinner. Like really trying to grab eyes. It made the show very dynamic. Just in watching it, we could feel that energy. But there are also the drawbacks, and that just has to do with having to build out the second half of the season as a new season midway through.
AVC: So structurally, it’s almost like Chuck has had six or seven seasons.
CF: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think if you look at season three and four, we really did have to reboot the show in episode 14. The great part of doing that was episode 14 of season three, where it’s just Chuck and Sarah. It’s our Honeymooners episode. By episode 13, we put Chuck and Sarah together as a couple. That’s something you do in a finale. But when we got ordered for more episodes, we had to essentially launch the Chuck/Sarah show, the Hart To Hart version of this show. We had this incredibly charming pair, and there was more to this show than simply a will-they/won’t-they relationship. But we did that on the fly, and it’s one of our best episodes. And I think that that’s the fun of this show, is that we change the rules halfway through the season, then figure it out as we go.
AVC: Now that you’re almost two years removed from that, how do you think it benefited you to do it that way?
CF: I think it benefited us simply because we did it, because we had written our finale, and then we had to write the next chapter. We knew we weren’t going to simply pull the string on the relationship and put them back to square one and do the Chutes And Ladders version of the story. What we wanted to do was follow that relationship. Starting off in season one, where Chuck is in a quarter-life crisis, we knew that once he got together with Sarah, we wanted to follow their relationship. We wanted to follow a young relationship of these two people together, finding themselves, but now life is not easier. It’s actually more complicated. I think that’s what’s pushed the show, and it’s kept us from that “they can’t be together” fear, because that would be the end of the show. I think that was a real test for the show. As a producer, there’s always that anxiety that your show is built upon something that, if you take it away, it won’t be the show anymore. But we realized at that point that the will-they/won’t-they certainly wasn’t that pillar. The show wasn’t built on that.
AVC: From the beginning, the show dealt with Chuck struggling with the Intersect. Is that a risky move, in your last season, to start that over with Morgan?
CF: You know, it’s funny. Since it’s the final season, I think the great thing for us [is that] the show is all about doing risky moves. We think it’s exhilarating that Chuck has decided to start his own spy company, and they’ve got this kind of A-Team operation. They’re trying to bring in clients, and they’re not working for the government anymore, and there’s new stakes and new problems tied into that. Like every other season of the show, there’s a bit of a reboot happening here. I think that’s great. I mean, I think retreading one of our previous seasons just flies in the face of how we attack this show. So we love rebooting. We love coming up with a new way for this show to work. And yeah, it’s kind of the way we’ve done it. So I think that when the audience comes and sees [the first three episodes], it’s going to feel like a different show. It’s going to feel like we’ve made changes that just affect how we tell the story. But I think it’s very much Chuck’s story, in the sense that we’re following his dreams and ambitions, and we’re taking our characters in new directions. For us, it’s exciting to find out more about these characters.
AVC: When you reboot a show like you have, you always run the risk of alienating loyalists. What do you tell yourselves in the writers’ room, knowing these moves might lose you fans?
CF: The most important thing is that it has to be fresh. When you’re working on a new season of the show, it has to feel like a new season of the show. It has to feel like we’re going down a different road and we’re taking these characters, as well as the premise of the show, and testing it, and seeing what’s going to happen. But looking at this season and watching the episodes coming together, I think the people that like Chuck and have enjoyed where we’ve gone in the past are really going to enjoy this. It’s very much the kind of fun, comedic, character-based action we’ve been doing for the last couple years. It’s just, some of the rules have changed, and some of the stakes have changed. But I think it’s still very much the same show.
AVC: What are the challenges of giving Morgan the Intersect without repeating the first season?
CF: I think there are a couple things. One is, Josh Gomez as Morgan Grimes playing the Intersect is just—he’s comedically fantastic, and it’s a different world. Chuck in season one, when he had this computer put into his head, he spent the entire time trying to get it out, whereas Morgan is so excited. He is so stoked to have the Intersect and to be the hero, to the extent that it gets him into trouble. And Chuck is ready to be Morgan’s handler, but he’s got a different type of asset on his hands. So this is a guy who’s going to test the boundaries of being the Intersect. Chuck also now is in the situation of not having the super abilities. So in much of the way we did in season one and season two, he’s gotta be the smart guy. He’s gotta come up with solutions on his own on the fly.
AVC: Are we going to see more of that this year, Chuck trying to make his way out of things using just his intelligence?
CF: I think Chuck thinking his way out of things is a big part of this season. I think if we look at the guy, if he had graduated from Stanford and not gone into computer games and decided he wanted to be a spy, he would be an excellent spy. He might not be the soldier that Sarah and Casey are, but he’s got great talent and brains for this. So this season, we’re going to see a lot of Chuck just being clever and smart.
AVC: We do see a little bit more emotion coming out of Adam Baldwin as Casey. Are we going to finally see the soft side of John Casey this year?
CF: Well, you are. I mean, that’s another part of the show, just like with his relationship with Alex becoming a bigger part of the show. The fact that Morgan is dating [Casey’s] daughter, it’s like Casey’s becoming much more of a father character. He’s having to access those emotions and feelings that he’s suppressed for all these years as the super-spy. That’s going to lead to a lot of very big things happening with John Casey. This is a man who’s changed, and he’s even asking the question, is he the same guy? So it’s going back to season one. We asked the question, “What’s it like to take Chuck Bartowski and put him into the spy world, make him the fish out of water there?” But also to bring Sarah Walker and John Casey into the world of regular people, those people they’ve been saving all these years—that’s a fascinating, fun story we’ve been telling, and we’re going to be telling this year.
AVC: The show got away from the Buy More as the seasons went on, but this year, Carmichael Industries owns the store. Did you use this device as a way to get back to what people liked about the Buy More in the early years?
CF: We wanted to get back to the Buy More. That’s a world we just love. We love Big Mike, we love Jeff and Lester. And again, considering that this is our final season, we wanted to take that story in an interesting, exciting direction. The other part of it was, as we worked on season four of the show, which had Alexei Volkoff and his daughter, and this big Big Bad story that we told that took us into a lot of James Bond worlds. That was really fun to do, but I think season five, we’re changing pace. We’re going back to the Buy More world, and it’s going to… it’s still the Chuck spy adventures, but in episode four, we’re doing maybe some of our biggest Buy More work. We’re going to go to a Buy More sales convention. We’re going to find out about how the Buy More operates, and about the Peoria Buy More. I love it. I feel like there’s another version of the show, where we spend a lot more time there. I think that that’s going to be another neat, big difference with this season.
AVC: I didn’t know you could buy an individual Buy More.
CF: [Chuckles.] It’s a franchise.
AVC: How does that affect the show when it drifts more into spy territory and less into Chuck and Morgan working at the Buy More?
CF: I think that each season, the show evolves a little more. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t go back and forth. So I think we as writers, as well as the whole team here at Chuck, we really love the idea of doing the big adventure last year, going into that world, having Russian commandos parachuting in outside of a hospital, and facing off against Clyde Decker, and leading into the Chuck/Sarah wedding. I think that the most important thing is that even though we do our spy stories and we do these amazing adventures, it folds back to something very personal and emotional. I think that grounding last year was the Chuck/Sarah relationship, leading into the wedding. So that was a big, important part of that. I think this year, the Buy More’s certainly more of a part of the story, because Carmichael Industries is not Chuck and Sarah and Casey going after Volkoff under the authority of the Central Intelligence Agency and NSA. It’s them starting off their own spy company. So if they’re going to travel to another country, they’re going to be traveling coach. And it’s a different dynamic. So there’s a lot more homegrown action happening here.
AVC: Is Decker considered the Big Bad this year, because of his influence and how everything went down in the finale?
CF: Clyde is certainly a part of the season, and he does some very big and bad things, but we’ve got a lot of twists and turns ahead. So things are going to be changing around a bit.
AVC: What was surprising was that we see Mark Hamill at the very beginning of the first episode, and then he’s gone. How did that play out, that he would be just some random bad guy?
CF: Well, I always like movies, and it probably comes from the James Bond tradition, or Indiana Jones, where you start off the movie with the last case, from a mission we haven’t seen. TV writers have a term for this, but I can’t remember. It might be called the Levinson Case. The Levinson Case is the case that the cops are taking care of in the teaser, and they’re slapping the cuffs on the bad guy. We wanted to do that big opening. We wanted to see Chuck, Sarah, and Casey taking care of a Blofeld-like villain, someone very important. So we needed an actor that actually had that type of gravitas, someone who is certainly a big get for the show, and you could imagine having an evil operation. So we needed Mark. But by its very nature, the conceit of that is that they’re taken care of by the end of the teaser. So that’s the nature of that. However, Mark was fantastic, and he was a lot of fun to work with.
AVC: You usually have a lot of guest stars throughout the season. Will that continue?
CF: I think we have a lot of guest stars coming up. We like to think, “Who’s the best person to play this part? Who’s the most fun idea?” So if it’s Bo Derek, or if it’s John Larroquette, or if it’s someone else, that’s always been a fun part of the show, realizing that we write these characters designed for the actors. So when we came up with Gertrude Verbanski, we needed a tough, independent someone who could stand up to Casey, but who would also have that romantic chemistry. We thought about Carrie-Anne Moss from the get-go. I think we’ve been doing this for the last couple years, and we love guest characters, and coming up with a really fun and poppy guest cast.
AVC: What’s Stan Lee doing?
CF: We love coming up with cameos for the show. So Stan came in and did a quick thing for us, for episode seven, and he’s fantastic. I love the fact that he can—I don’t want to give anything away, but I love the idea that Stan Lee is actually a spy, that in all the years he’s been creating these amazing Marvel comics, the man has also been a spy assassinating bad guys and saving the world. So it was fun to have him on. We’re such huge fans, and I love the idea that amongst the Roan Montgomerys and Diane Beckmans and Alexei Volkoffs, Stan Lee is out there in our spy world as well.
AVC: Having Craig Kilborn playing an asshole is interesting casting. How did that come about?
CF: [Laughs.] We were looking for someone who really could do the douchey bad-guy investor type, but we also wanted someone with the comedy chops, and Craig had that. Craig can have fun with that character. We’re also sports aficionados here. We enjoy our ESPN as well as his late-night show. So it was great to have him on the show, and to bring a little something extra to that character.
AVC: Did you talk sports with him when he was there?
CF: I only talk a little bit of sports, usually just enough that people know I don’t know anything. Craig Kilborn would easily dissect me and know that I was not knowledgeable. Unfortunately, I know a lot more about movies and television and radio and TV. But it was great to have him on the show.
AVC: You said you’re writing the last few. What’s the feeling in the writers’ room, knowing you’re coming to the finish line?
CF: Bittersweet. I don’t think we really realized until we did the panel at Comic Con that this would be the final season of the show. It’s like over five years, a family develops, and even though it’s been tough, we’ve always hoped that we would come back, and that hope has always turned out to be correct. The family’s kind of stuck together, and it’s tough to imagine this is the final season. But we’re excited to be telling the last chapter, and I know the cast is excited to take these characters to a big ending.
AVC: Do you have your next gig lined up?
CF: Right now, I need to get back into that writing room and face episode 13. That’s my focus right now.