Photo from "Chuck vs. the Bullet Train" (Image courtesy NBC.com)
(USA TODAY) -- Chuck has a quality its title character would be proud of: the ability to survive.
NBC's fifth-season action comedy, a cult favorite perennially in danger of cancellation, has lived to write its own ending in a two-hour finale Friday (8 ET/PT).
"The biggest blessing about doing this last season was that it afforded us the opportunity to have closure with one another and with our audience," says Zachary Levi, who plays Chuck. "It's been a very tumultuous road, but we've always survived, and to be able to survive to the point of getting to have that closure is something I would wish on any show."
Despite less-than-stellar ratings throughout its run (just under 4 million viewers this season in a tough Friday time slot), the story of an electronics-store-employee-turned-secret-agent has boasted a passionate following that had influence beyond its modest size. Fans constantly rallied on behalf of the show, whether it was through devotion each year at Comic-Con, or a campaign to patronize advertiser Subway in order to persuade network and studio executives to continue the show.
Fans "are the reason we're around. They're the reason that Season 2 was picked up for a Season 3," executive producer Chris Fedak says. "When you have a show that has an incredibly loyal fan base, that X factor is incredibly helpful when you're trying to convince the network to pick up the show for another season. We would use all the fan campaigns as well as their enthusiasm and support as another factor in pushing the show and trying to convince NBC to bring us back."
There were some benefits to uncertainty. Levi says the threat of cancellation often earned Chuck media attention late each season. In the past three years, the series twice was the winner and once finished second in USA TODAY's Save Our Shows survey, which asks fans which "bubble" shows they want to see avoid cancellation.
In addition, "the fact that we were always on the chopping block allowed us to push the envelope every year and go for broke, because we didn't know if we were coming back," Levi says. "And then, once we came back, we're like, 'Well, we already pushed the envelope to there, and now we've got to push some more.' "
Fedak says the final season is "designed as a love letter to our fans," and the show has been going back to its first- and second-season roots as it nears the end. The Wienerlicious restaurant, which was seen in the pilot, is one early element that will make an appearance in the finale, he says. Linda Hamilton, who plays Chuck's mother, will be back, too.
Mostly, the final episodes are being built around Chuck and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), the spy who eventually became his wife.
"We (are focusing) on what I think is the heart of Chuck, which is the Chuck and Sarah romance, and it will be difficult to watch because it's unexpected, what is happening, and I think it will leave audiences a little bit on the edge of their seats wondering how this is going to finish up," Strahovski says.
Will it be satisfying for those dedicated fans? "I hope it will be," she says. "The way it sort of gets tied up in a bow to finish it will be good."
As for whether this is truly the end for a show that wouldn't die, Levi says he could see a continuation via an online film. Again, it goes back to depending on the fans.
"I genuinely believe that our fan base, if given the opportunity to spend $5 on an hour-and-a-half Chuck movie to buy online and keep, I think they would," he says. "That would be a really fun thing to do."