Remember when "Chuck" was a show about a helpless newcomer maneuvering ineptly through a world of espionage and danger?
Cherish those memories.
A few weeks ago, Zachary Levi, the actor who plays the nebbishy title character on that NBC show, was on a soundstage on the Warner Brothers lot here preparing to film a scene for a coming episode. After sneaking into the secret lair of an evil spy organization, the heroic Chuck Bartowski was about to exchange gunfire with a sinister enemy agent, disarm a second bad guy with a series of kicks and punches, and knock out a third with a single blow.
What were we saying before about nebbishy?
For the intensely loyal but perilously small "Chuck" fan base, the scene is indicative of a new creative direction that this action-comedy series has adopted as it begins its third season. (Its two-hour premiere is on Sunday, before it moves into its traditional Monday night slot.)
It is just one of many aggressive, potentially dangerous steps the "Chuck" producers have taken to keep the show alive on a struggling network and on one of the most competitive nights of the week, knowing that it still might not be enough.
"Certainty doesn't come with this particular job," said Josh Schwartz, a co-creator of "Chuck." "There's a lot of perks to doing this show, but being sure of your future has not been one of them."
"Chuck," following the adventures of a computer nerd with a spy database embedded in his brain, has been an embattled series since its 2007 debut. Though the show started with critical praise and decent ratings, its freshman season (which averaged nearly 8.7 million viewers) was cut short by the Writers Guild of America strike.
In its second year, a heavily promoted 3-D episode shown after the Super Bowl did not stave off a declining viewership (it averaged nearly 7.4 million for the season, but 6.11 million tuned in for the season finale), and by the spring, NBC was unsure if it would renew the show.
To obtain that third-season go-ahead, Schwartz, the show's co-creator Chris Fedak and its executive producer McG (the director of "Terminator Salvation") met with NBC to pitch a new storyline: Via an upgrade to his brain, Chuck gains new spy abilities and physical prowess that he must to learn to control; under the right circumstances, the wimp becomes a warrior.
"He's not the same guy who in Season 1 was sitting in the car and screaming girlishly," Schwartz said. "If the theme of last year was boy becomes man, then this year would be man becomes spy."
Yet when NBC announced its first round of fall pickups, "Chuck" was not on that list. "We were told, 'Don't take that as an indicator,"' Schwartz said. "But how can you not?"
NBC executives said they wanted to find a way to bring "Chuck" back. "It was definitely on the bubble," said Angela Bromstad, the network's president for prime-time entertainment. "But we liked that it was a young show, and having such a rabid fan base is something that we take into consideration."
Having secured a 19-episode order from NBC, the "Chuck" producers plan to play up the more heroic elements of the show and its title character, adding guest stars such as Brandon Routh ("Superman Returns") and World Wrestling Entertainment star Stone Cold Steve Austin. Schwartz also vowed that the coming season would resolve a romantic subplot between Chuck and his comely CIA chaperone, played by Yvonne Strahovski.
A new NBC marketing campaign built around the tag line "No More Mr. Nice Spy" will also seek to convince viewers that Chuck is a new man.
"We're trying to veer away from some of the goofball antics that we may have focused on in seasons past," said Adam Stotsky, NBC Entertainment's president for marketing. "We try to focus on the smart, and the smart-funny - never the silly."
The show isn't completely giving up its nerdy vibe. Chuck will continue to work as a computer technician and will still stumble comically when he can't summon up his new spy powers. But on a break between beating people up, Levi acknowledged that tinkering with the tone of the show was a gamble that could alienate existing viewers.
"Chuck" faces formidable odds on Monday nights at 8, where it will be competing against "The Bachelor" on ABC, "House" on Fox and "How I Met Your Mother" on CBS. Bromstad said she would be satisfied if "Chuck" could maintain the ratings of its predecessor, the adventure series "Heroes," which is moving to 9 p.m. and is averaging slightly more than 5 million viewers this season. "It's a very, very tough time slot, and we recognize that," she said.
With a decision about a fourth year of "Chuck" already on the horizon, Schwartz said he and his staff were running the show much the same as they did at this time last year.
"You try to take it to all-new heights," he said, "and if there should be a next year, then how we top that is next year's problem."