The NBC cult favorite has upped the ante this season, but can it beat cancellation?

Chuck (2007-2012)

Ona brilliant blue day in Huntington Beach, Calif., Chuck star Zachary Levi is directing his first episode of the NBC spy series. But someone searching for a metaphor doesn’t have to look far: A giant cloud is rolling across the ocean, threatening to envelop the sunny set. Similarly, having already survived the writers’ strike, time-slot roulette, and a long hiatus, the staff of Chuck is determined to keep the cloud of cancellation at bay. ”We never know if we’re coming back,” says Levi. ”So it’s like, ‘Well, you better get it out there, let the people see something.”’

The game has changed big-time for season 3, which kicks off Sunday, Jan. 10, at 9 p.m. before moving to its regular Monday-at-8 p.m. slot: Once a hapless box-store tech geek brainwashed by a secret-intelligence computer called the Intersect, Chuck Bartowski (Levi) is now a man who chose to upload a new version of the Intersect to his own mind — and this time, it comes with a kung fu grip. ”His flashes are now more than just information,” says Chuck co-creator Josh Schwartz. ”There’s physical attributes. Martial arts, acrobatics, foreign languages…” Fans of awkward Chuck needn’t fear — his emotions, especially for CIA handler/love interest Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), often make Intersect 2.0 misfire. ”Bumping into things and falling feels more second nature to me,” says Levi.

Further changes arrive in the form of Superman Returns star Brandon Routh and Smallville‘s Kristin Kreuk, who join the cast as points of what Schwartz is calling a ”love trapezoid.” Routh was already a Chuck fan when he signed on as Daniel Shaw, a superspy and rival for Sarah’s attention. ”I keep wanting to go, ‘You know, people aren’t going to like me for this,”’ says Routh. ”If I was watching somebody else play this character, I’d be like, ‘Grrr.”’ Guest stars like Armand Assante, Angie Harmon, and ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin will wreak havoc as well. ”We’ve made an effort to up the stakes,” says Schwartz, ”but not lose the heart and humor at the core of the show.”

Loyal viewers waged a massive Subway sandwich-buying campaign last spring to save their show (the chain is a sponsor); it’s unclear whether more foot-longs will be needed in 2010. But since our metaphor has a happy ending — the clouds burned off, and Levi got his shots (his ep will air in mid-March) — maybe Chuck‘s story will too. ”I believe this show is truly original,” says Schwartz. ”Sometimes it just takes a little longer for people to appreciate.”

Chuck (2007-2012)
Zachary Levi is nerd-turned-superspy Chuck Bartowski in Josh Schwartz’s action dramedy
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