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- Katie Aselton on going from mumblecore to thriller—and directing her own nude scenes
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At age 26, a precocious USC film-school dropout named Josh Schwartz became the youngest show-runner in network-television history when Fox gambled on his primetime soap opera The O.C. Though it owed something to the trail blazed by the likes of Melrose Place and Dawson's Creek, the show distinguished itself through a savvy mix of teen angst and snappy banter, juicy class-driven conflicts, a great alt-rock soundtrack, and adult characters who were just as well-drawn as the kids.
After four seasons, The O.C. faded away, and Schwartz returned as co-creator on two new shows launched in fall 2007. Pitched as The Office meets Alias, NBC's Chuck (which Schwartz created alongside his USC buddy Chris Fedak) stars Zachary Levi as a wimpy tech geek who becomes an accidental James Bond when an encoded e-mail from an old friend in the CIA embeds spy secrets into his brain. Protected by a pair of government agents (Yvonne Strahovski and Adam Baldwin), he experiences "flashes" that help them track down criminals.
Co-created with Stephanie Savage, Schwartz's other series, the CW's Gossip Girl, doesn't score high in conventional ratings, but it's quickly become the struggling network's most buzzed-about show. Based on Cecily von Ziegesar's young-adult novels, the show imports some of the wealth and treachery from The O.C. to the Upper East Side, but ramps up the underage excess and sexual shenanigans considerably. So much so, in fact, that a new ad campaign brazenly trumpets the show as "Every parent's worst nightmare." With the second seasons of Gossip Girl and Chuck set to launch in September, Schwartz recently spoke to The A.V. Club about
The A.V. Club: How are your time-management skills these days?
Josh Schwartz: Well, luckily I'm getting married in a couple of weeks, and so I have that to completely occupy my thoughts. [Laughs.]
AVC: What are your duties on these two shows? How does a work week go for you?
JS: The thing that's cool about it is that every week is different. And both shows couldn't be more different as well. So if you ever tire of Upper East Siders [on Gossip Girl] or are blocked about it, you can go downstairs to Chuck and blow stuff up. So both shows appeal to very different sides of my brain. But I'm really fortunate, because I work with great people. I co-created both shows. And both the people I created the shows with are amazing and fully capable of doing the shows in their own right, which makes my life a lot easier in terms of being able to go back and forth. So I go where I'm needed.
AVC: Are you doing a lot of writing, or just overseeing the process?
JS: My job has sort of evolved. On the first season of The O.C., I wrote a lot. We did 27 episodes, and I wrote maybe 22 of them or some crazy number. And I was like, "Wow, that was fun, but I don't know if I could ever do that again, technically or emotionally." Now I would say that I write when it's necessary, or I'll jump in and rewrite a couple of acts if needed. Probably most of my time, I'd say, I spend in editing now. Casting and editing.
AVC: Do you have to fight the impulse to micromanage?
JS: Not at all. [Laughs.] I'm not a micromanager. I think with The O.C., the lesson for me was, I wanted to write less. And I wrote less as the show went on. So I wrote probably half as much in season two as I did in season one, and even less in season three. Then I came back in season four and did more writing. But I think the key is, if you're not going to write, then feel like you've laid out a vision for what the show should be, and hopefully have a team of people around you that can really execute that. I feel that the writing staffs for both shows are so good that they write the shows better than I would. Which I'm fine with.
AVC: Did the strike blow a hole in both shows for you? Did you simply table developments for season two, or did entire subplots just have to get scrapped?
JS: Well, with Gossip Girl, we actually came back and did five more episodes after the strike. Which is kind of great, because 22 episodes is a lot of episodes. I think if you asked anybody who works in network television, they would say that the perfect number is somewhere between 13 and 16. That's what they do on cable. So the five episodes we did of Gossip Girl at the end, I feel, were really able to go to a new level in terms of generating excitement. And the storylines seemed really juicy, and people got really, really into the show. I think we benefited, in that during the strike, a lot of people discovered the show, caught repeats, or watched it on iTunes. It felt like the audience grew for the show even during the strike. And so when the show came back, it seemed like the audience was really primed. But because we were doing nine episodes' worth of story in five episodes, it really allowed us to make those episodes action-packed. So I think Gossip Girl benefited from it. With Chuck, we would have loved to have come back to do additional episodes, but NBC really wanted to keep us paired with Heroes on Monday nights. And that show, because of its production size, wouldn't have been able to be back on air in the spring. So we had ideas for the end of season one that we weren't able to do, that we've kind of figured out how to roll into and employ in this part of season two.
AVC: Does Chuck have to be rebooted? With so much time having passed between the end of season one and the beginning of season two, do you have to do something to bring viewers back in?
JS: I think that's absolutely right. I think our point of view going into it was that the first episode of season two was going to be almost like a new pilot. And Chuck is not a show where if you've missed an episode, you're out. It's not a super-serialized kind of show. Although we are working this season to make the show more serialized, and deepen the mythologies, and have the stories sort of link more episodically. The romance of the show, obviously, is the more serialized component. Still, there's nothing in the season première that would keep you from being able to understand or enjoy the first episode. It's not contingent on having seen that final episode of last season. We bring the audience back up to speed very, very quickly at the opening of the show. Within the first 30 seconds of the new episode, I think you'll be completely caught up, whether you've never missed an episode or never seen the show before. You'll totally get it, and be able to dive into the storyline.
AVC: With shows like Chuck, and with a lot of these serialized shows, it seems like the big challenge is to figure out how to service an overarching plot without alienating potential new viewers who might feel they can't get into something mid-season. Is that something you always have to struggle with?
JS: I think with Chuck, there's an element that is procedural. It's got a very specific tone, and it has its own unique take on a procedural. But there are close-ended stories in every episode. And that will always be the case. We found last year that the show really started to hit its stride creatively, and in terms of building an audience, about a handful of episodes into the season, when we started to go into more serialized storytelling. It was something we always planned on doing. The stories worked best when they linked back into who Chuck was, and why he got sent all this information. You know, that kind of origin story of the character, and deepening the mythology of his character as well. So our goal this year was to continue to tell close-ended stories every week, but have every episode be part of a larger storyline.
AVC: How conscious are you of how people respond to a show? Do you ever make adjustments based on that? Do you feel like there's a relationship between viewership and the creative team on a show?
JS: I used to be a lot more hypersensitive to it. I used to spend an unhealthy amount of time during the O.C. era on message boards. Which is sort of the most direct way to get feedback. And you know, you can worry about it too much, you could over-correct, you can start writing for the message board instead of what's necessary for the show. But that being said, audience reaction, fan reaction, is critically important, because that's who you're doing the show for. So I always like to try to stay connected to that to a degree, and feel like, "Is this working for the audience? What are they responding to?" You always want to give people more of something that they love. And if there's something that feels like a larger number of people are bumpy on, then you want to be able to go make an adjustment there. So I try to spend what I now feel like is a healthy amount of time worrying about that. But it's absolutely a critical component. I mean, we're not making the show just for ourselves. We're making it also, hopefully, for an audience.
AVC: But then there's this kind of idea that writers have to give viewers what they need more than what they want. Do you subscribe to that notion?
JS: Meaning, sometimes what they want, they won't like if they get it?
AVC: Exactly. They want two characters to get together, but it's your job to put obstacles in the way.
JS: That's absolutely true. And that's what I mean about spending an unhealthy amount of time trying to write for the message boards. Because if they say, "I want this" and you go too far, it can potentially backfire. But you're right, though, you do have to give them what they need and not what they want. And you have to always keep in mind that the fans, or whoever is on the message board, are reacting to the episode that they've seen, and what's happened between two characters that episode, and don't have the information that you do as the producer of the show. I often read reactions thinking, "Well, if you're really mad right now because so-and-so broke up, in four episodes, you're going to be really happy." And so you also have to sometimes take the reaction with a grain of salt. Because you know where the storyline is going in a way that they don't know. But I have found that you want people reacting passionately at one point or the other.
AVC: Can you contrast the sort of input and notes that you've gotten on the shows you've worked on? You were a little green when you started with The O.C. Have things changed for you at NBC and the CW?
JS: I'm very fortunate that both networks have been incredibly supportive. The O.C. was challenging because, as you said, I was green. I'd never done anything before. I'd never had a job before, let alone a job working television. I may have had a job, you know, but not like a real job, with people working for you. It was very much a learning curve. And there was a regime change at the network, and there were a lot of ideas like, "Well, how do we make this show bolder?" And you're like, "Well, you don't. That's not what the show is." So sometimes things happen, and a network completely changes its profile, and then wants to push your show in a different direction. But right now, luckily, both shows seem to be exactly right for what the networks want them to be.
AVC: Do you get a lot of input from both networks about what they want?
JS: I do. I get input from the networks. I get input from the studio. And I'm open to it. I'm of the mind—like about micromanaging—to where I'm open to a good idea, wherever it comes from. And again, you want the networks to be invested and supportive of your show. You want them to be championing it. The difference between great ratings and not-great ratings is pretty small now. And a lot more shows can survive on ratings that are borderline. So you want everybody to feel really invested in the show you're doing. And I think there's a lot of smart people that work at the networks, and can always give you perspective that you don't have necessarily have when you're in the trenches and trying to fight your way through a season. So I'm open to input. That being said, you don't agree with every note you get. But there's always good ideas coming from different places, and I never want to have my head in the sand and miss an opportunity to make the shows better.
AVC: What can Gossip Girl viewers expect from the second season? The show seemed to really find its groove in the back half of the first one.
JS: That groove, I think, is a balance of outrageous moments—or I guess now, as it's called, OMFG moments—that are grounded with humor and really emotionally relatable characters. Stephanie [Savage] and I have spent a lot of time talking about that. We make decisions on certain episodes. Like the season finale last year, we felt like, "Well, there's an expectation that it's just going to be completely crazy and all the emotional pyrotechnics will take place." And we felt like the previous four episodes had been pretty outrageous and had gotten really juicy. And you never want your characters to feel like they're leaving earth. You could overheat these shows to a point, and the characters lose their relatability. So we really wanted to do a finale that, while it might not be as shocking as some of the previous episodes, felt like it was landing our characters in a very grounded, emotional place. It's that balance in storytelling that has really been the mantra for moving forward in season two.
AVC: On a show like Gossip Girl, which takes place over 22 episodes, is it hard to keep the characters' actions consistent over time?
JS: That's another thing that's really great about TV. As you write more, you really start to find the characters. And they start to write themselves, to a degree. Certainly not the storylines, but how they would react in those situations. And you get more comfortable writing for the actor. And everyone just gets more distinctly drawn over time. So I think you start to anticipate that part with a degree of glee. You know, you look forward to how Blair Waldorf is going to react to a certain situation. Or Chuck Bass.
AVC: Shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl break the mold, in a sense. They're supposed to follow bad behavior with a moral lesson, but the shows are both pretty resistant to that.
JS: Overtly resistant. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you get away with it?
JS: I don't know that it totally works that way. We don't necessarily preach our positions of morality. And certainly the shows push the envelope in ways. But I think at the end of the day, most of the characters, if not all of them, are good people struggling to make decisions in the world. You even see that Chuck Bass has a redemptive side. I think you can show consequences over time. It doesn't necessarily have to be someone smoking a joint in the first act of the episode, and then contracting lung cancer by the end of the episode. I think there are ways that you can dole out the repercussions for people's behavior over time. And in ways that are not necessarily from an after-school special. But it's hard, because on the one hand, you want to present things realistically. And this world is very accelerated and sophisticated in terms of the behavior of these kids. And at the same time, you also want to be aware and responsible to your audience. Part of the audience is young, and you certainly want to be sensitive to that.
AVC: Do you have a sense of how far you can really go on the show? Are there certain lines that you worry about crossing, that will make the sponsors revolt, or viewers flee?
JS: That's never our concern. That's usually more the network's concern. And I know Stephanie's had quite a few heated arguments over the last few days about stuff. [Laughs.] There is a double standard, I think, in terms of what's okay to show in terms of the guys' sexuality. But people are sometimes more resistant to that when it comes to girls' sexually.
AVC: They have to be in one box or the other. They're either pure or they're harlots, right? JS: Yeah. And I think sometimes we run up against that in Gossip Girl. Bass can behave a certain way, but Blair can't.
AVC: Early in the show's run, Gossip Girl herself seemed to comment on the action more than she affected it. But that seems to have evolved a bit.
JS: I think from the beginning, the omniscient-narrator device of Gossip Girl was always there to comment on the action, and occasionally move the action forward. It's something Stephanie and I spent a long time talking about as well, the balance of that. You don't want episodes where Gossip Girl is driving all the action. But there have certainly been episodes where things landing on Gossip Girl were showing up on the site, or being forwarded to the site, and are responsible for characters breaking up or confronting each other. So I do think that from episode to episode, it changes. But we've kept it alive. From the pilot, you know, Serena [van der Woodsen]'s return was heralded by Gossip Girl first, and that's kind of what got the crowd reacting. We've had other episodes where Gossip Girl's been much more directly related to the action, and some episodes where it's less. Every episode, Steph and I look at and go, "Do we need more Gossip Girl voiceover there? Should we pull some out there?" So you're always trying to find that balance.
AVC: Heading into the second season of Chuck, do you have a sense of what the network's expectations of the show are going to be at this point? They seem fairly high.
JS: They are. The Olympics were very good for us. I think I've been very, very lucky. All the shows I've done, I've loved, and loved working on. It's so exciting, people reacting to Gossip Girl the way they have. And that it's gotten the amount of press it's got. And all the publicity. And the cast deserves all of it, all the publicity they get. Chuck has been a little bit quieter in comparison. But it's the most ambitious show I've ever worked on, in terms of the tone we're trying to strike, the fact that it's an action-comedy-romance-coming-of-age hybrid. It's this really fun, and really unique show.
Every week, I watch Zach Levi, and I'm just completely blown away by how he's able to walk that line between comedy and being this real guy in this believable situation that's selling you on this jeopardy. Actually, the entire cast is really incredible. So my goal this year was to try to keep pushing the show, and like I said, delve into more of this serialized storytelling in terms of having each episode relate to the one before. Something catastrophic happens at the beginning of the first episode this season that kind of sets up what the larger storyline is going to be for the entire season. We're also going to own the romance right out of the gate. I think that Zach and Yvonne have unbelievable chemistry. We really wanted to write to that right out of the gate. Yvonne Strahovski's incredible, because she totally tells you that she's this ass-kicking CIA agent, she does most of her own stunts, she's incredibly beautiful, and she's a really, really great dramatic actress. There are some emotional scenes between them that are just I get a little choked up. I'm not going to lie. And we want the Buy More world to really start to flush itself out. We're spending more time with those characters. Just more. More of everything.
AVC: Do you have a fairly complicated mythology worked out for the show? How far ahead are you looking here, in terms of the show and the way these things develop?
JS: Chris Fedak and I co-created the show, and we've talked about it quite a bit. We know what the end of the season's going to be, and how that will launch us into a third season. And that would be different, but still the show. We'd take the show to another level, but it'll still be the show. The mythology is not so complicated that it's the labyrinth that you'll never be able to find your way out of. But I think it goes to interesting places, and connects in ways that are unexpected, and exciting, and that give the show real weight.
AVC: It seems like the major challenge of making an action/comedy like Chuck is that the light tone can drain the danger and suspense out of the action. Is that something you always have to deal with? How do you go about combating it?
JS: That's something else we talk about a lot. In the first episode, there's this notion that Chuck can get this intersect out of his head, or that the new intersect is going to be complete, and that Chuck will be able to go back to his original life, not working in the CIA. And of course as John Casey, Adam Baldwin is incredible. He gets the call saying, "Once the new intersect computer is complete, it's time to disappear Chuck Bartowski." And he is going to kill Chuck. And you keep reminding the audience that the people in Chuck's life that are there to protect him—one of them works at the Buy More [Baldwin], one of them used to work at a Weinerlicious [Strahovski] and now works at the Orange Orange, which is our version of a Pink Berry—are at the same time trained killers. People die on the show, Chuck's life is in danger, and if his family or friends ever found out, they would be killed. There is danger to this world.
AVC: Do you mind the tone wavering a little from light to dark?
JS: I really like that. I think my favorite episodes of The O.C. did that. My favorite episodes of Gossip Girl do that. You can, on the one hand, do something that feels really broad. We would always write these Seth [Cohen] / Summer [Roberts] scenes that were really funny, and then these tragic Marissa [Cooper] scenes right on top of them. I like moving between tones. And in Chuck, you're actually moving between genres. I think this year, the tone is more consistent than it's ever been, and the show has really found its voice, and confidence. I think we know what our target is, and we know when we feel like we've gone too dark and when we've gone too light. And I think that's really given us a lot of focus in moving forward this season. But that's part of what excited me about working on the show. It's a show that's really ambitious, and there are no signs to making it. You'll shoot scenes because they feel like they push the tone. It's a show that really can find its voice in editing sometimes.
AVC: Do you have much input into how your shows are promoted?
JS: Yeah. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the networks will decide how they want to promote something. Steph and I were less than happy with how Gossip Girl was originally promoted. And then we loved the OMFG ads, and think the new ads are really fun, the ones that are out now. [The sexually suggestive ads, featuring alarmist newspaper quotes like "Every parent's worst nightmare," have attracted some controversy. —ed.] I was quoted somewhere as saying, "They make me feel really bad." Which is not true. If I said that, I said it tongue-in-cheek. You see an ad that says "Every parent's nightmare" and you do go, "Well, I wonder how my mom feels about that." At the same time, I do think they captured the tone and subversive quality of the show. So I think the CW's done a brilliant job of marketing Gossip Girl. With Chuck, they're very open as well. We set scenes together, or montage clips, and try to work with them. It's a hard show to market, because of the different tone and high concept, and there's a lot of elements to it. You sell the romance, the action, the comedy. So actually, I was really happy during the Olympics. I felt like they ran a lot of different kinds of spots. Because I do feel like there's a lot about that show that can appeal to people. But at the end of the day, everybody does what they're going to do.