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‘Homeland’ and ‘24’ Creator Howard Gordon on Terror, Tyranny, and TV as Art

The man behind post-Sept. 11 TV opens up about his background, what goes on in writers rooms, and what he’s working on now

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HG: We were actually shooting the fifth or sixth episode [of 24] when 9/11 happened. Suddenly we had this show, one that hadn’t even aired yet, and it was the zeitgeist. That suddenly became the prism through which so many people viewed the world, and I joined on the bandwagon. Jack Bauer became this guy that who was adept at navigating the failure of bureaucracy that we had suffered, that we couldn’t be protected by our intelligence agencies, that they didn’t see this coming, this massively plotted attack. Jack became the guy who cut through the bureaucracy and went after the bad guy in a very American way. And he did it in a day! I mean, talk about fast service. That was in some ways the most binary narrative.

The other side of it was that I was accused of promoting Islamophobia, promoting torture. Jack did nothing that Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry didn’t do. And by  the way, no one mentioned a thing until Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which shows you the dance between television and current events. Jack Bauer in the first few years after 9/11 was a total hero. Suddenly, after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Jack Bauer is a little darker. Suddenly, what Jack does isn’t so kosher anymore. So, a character now has to account for his own existence in the real world.

AN: You can’t control current events.

HG: Jack became a dark, conflicted character, and he even had to confront a new reality. How do you do that without denouncing the essence of the series itself? And saying that Jack is a torture-mongering Islamophobe?

LL: So, here you are finding yourself accused of all sorts of things that I imagine were very new and jarring for you to hear, to learn that you’re that guy. So, do you … What does one do?

HG: You have to listen. You have to ask questions and not have the answers. You really have to stay fluid enough to say, “I may not believe Jane Mayer’s article in The New Yorker entirely, but there’s something here I can’t ignore.” Jack has to account, as a character in the fictional world of 24, for the way that our country had to answer for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He had to acknowledge that it’s not that easy. That if he’s going to do this, if he’s going to be a tough guy, and he’s going to shoot first and ask questions later, that there’s a price to be paid and he’s going to have to pay for it, he’s going to have to feel guilty at the very least, he’s going to have to at least understand that it’s not that simple. That he’s made mistakes.

LL: Is this the post-Sept. 11 theory of television? That we should all be less interested in answers and more interested in questions?

HG: Yep. And I think that it’s a good philosophy in life, too: People with too many answers are people to be worried about.

LL: We’ve seen ironically little of that before.

HG: When I grew up, my early television mentors told me something very didactic: Your heroes can’t make mistakes. I’m amazed that was even ever true.

LL: Speaking of early mentors, let’s pull back for a minute. How did you get into television?

HG: I assumed I would be a doctor or a lawyer. There was no other path for people in my world. My father was a dentist, my mother was a school teacher and a guidance counselor, and there weren’t that many paths for someone who wanted to make his living making things up. But I had a really acute failure of imagination—I realized after I graduated that I hadn’t taken any science classes, so I wasn’t going to be a doctor, and then I overslept for the LSATs. But I’d always loved television. I was a poet, actually. I wrote poetry and I wrote short stories, but I loved television. It wasn’t ever movies—I never aspired to write movies. I just grew up on television in my house, but I knew no one and had no connections and didn’t even know what a script looked like.

LL: Wait, so you’re 8, 9. What are you watching?

HG: Star Trek, That Girl, Room 222, Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, Batman.

AN: When you say you loved television …

HG: Roots! It made me think about my life, what it was to be alive. Roots was seminal. TV movies like That Certain Summer or Brian’s Song, this was a golden age of television back then that was so immersive.

AN: Did you see TV as an art?

HG: I did. I had none of the sort of parochial view of television, that it was an idiot box. I took it very seriously. I was aware of the level of wit and cleverness and also immersiveness. A movie is a two-hour event. Somebody can work on a movie for years and years, the lights go down and they go up and you go home. But these TV characters that you live with from week to week and year to year was something that was very powerful.

LL: Having kind of been in this position myself as a kid, and having a lot of friends who did this, when you start understanding that you’re very serious about TV, you start to think about it a lot. You analyze. What were you noticing that you liked about particular shows you followed?

HG: I don’t think I grew up articulating this or being conscious of it, actually. I just really did not know what else to do. I had nothing else to do. I actually had applied to graduate school in creative writing and found myself more interested in trying at a television career. Again, I didn’t know how one even went about it. I didn’t know anybody who did it. But I was young enough to go out to L.A. with my partner Alex Gansa—who, like me, was an English major who also had no plans—and so I convinced him that I had this great idea for a miniseries on the life of Lord Byron. We got out there, and as it turned out no one was interested in Lord Byron. And I couldn’t even get my hands on a script, to learn what it looked like. So, we literally transcribed scripts of television shows we had taped by hand and broke them down on index cards. That was our crash course the summer after graduating.

AN: You autopsied them.

HG: Pretty much. We deconstructed television episodes of shows we liked—St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues. I was more of the TV fan, Alex was not. He and I had forged a love of Saul Bellow. We were both huge Saul Bellow fans.

AN: Favorite Bellow story?

HG: Humboldt’s Gift. Herzog is great, but Humboldt’s Gift. I was fascinated with Delmore Schwartz. Anyway, we went out there and we became SAT tutors. I started an SAT preparation company, and we were very successful. Had I stayed doing it, I might be publicly traded now. … Instead, one of my students was the daughter of a producer who offered to read our St. Elsewhere spec script. He read it and invited us to pitch stories. In those days you could be a freelance writer. That doesn’t exist so much anymore. There was actually a time when there was an executive producer and one or two story editors, and the rest were freelanced out. Those were the days you could actually schlep your story ideas and pitch them, sell it like Willy Loman and then go to the next show. That’s what we did. Within a year, by 1984, six months after getting out there, we landed our first script. I have not stopped working since. If you graphed my career it has almost been at 45 degrees. It’s had some zigzags but I’ve been mostly employed since 1985.

LL: What do you learn when you make the transition from a kid who’s sitting and listening and transcribing to, say, your third gig in?

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‘Homeland’ and ‘24’ Creator Howard Gordon on Terror, Tyranny, and TV as Art

The man behind post-Sept. 11 TV opens up about his background, what goes on in writers rooms, and what he’s working on now