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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: Here’s the amazing thing about writing: I am humbled by it every single time. You’d think at this point you could reverse-engineer a hit, but you really can’t. It’s not like building a box or a house. It’s just not schematic. It’s new every single time. When you face a page you don’t know what the tone is, you don’t know who the characters are, and it beats the hell out of you. I fail a lot. There are many scripts and many ideas that fall apart because the DNA is messed up. There’s no falsehood or modesty to this; it’s a punishing process and you need to maintain that humility and that openness to the realization that it is really hard and that you need to get lucky at every step along the way because so many things can go wrong—you write a bad script; it’s good but you cast it wrong; you give it to the wrong director. It only takes one thing to go wrong to mess up the whole enterprise. It’s humbling. And horrifying.

AN: One of the things that interests me is that TV—and a specific kind of TV—has become clearly more sophisticated as Freudian psychoanalysis has gone out of favor. But you are obviously driven by the idea that characters are motivated by certain drives and impulses. And yet it’s almost as if people still can’t handle that idea …

HG: They outsourced it.

AN: Yes. There’s a lot more of this thinking—about who those characters are, what their backgrounds are, and so forth that goes on but that we never see. How much filigreeing do you guys do?

HG: More than you think. I was actually one of the last analysands in Beverly Hills. I was on the couch for many years. The analytic process is one that’s very personal to me. I think you’re exactly right; every character is deeply imagined and deeply considered and the history so much more known than what’s shown. And what’s really fascinating about it is that unlike a novel, the writers room is filled with people imagining this character together. These characters live in the ether in the writer’s room, in our collective psyches.

AN: Which means those characters are inevitably reflections of all of you.

HG: Very much so.

AN: Let me ask you about another show: Homeland. My feeling about it is weirdly related to my feeling about Rescue Me, which felt to me almost like Shiva for New Yorkers. I think for some viewers—myself included—it was very hard for it to end because it was like “And now we’re not going to mourn anymore. Get back to your life.” In a funny way I feel that about Homeland, too. How do you end a show when the circumstances around it haven’t ended?

HG: Did it pick up the torch where Rescue Me left off in your mind?

AN: In a way I think it did, though they’re obviously such different shows. But my question is: Do you get anxious about what a show is doing to viewers not just as entertainment or as art but what it’s actually doing emotionally for people?

HG: I’m stepping back from the show a lot this year. The emotional responsibility it has now rests far more squarely on Alex’s shoulders than on mine. But I know that feeling, and I know the crushing, punishing, debilitating effect that it has. You do feel a tremendous responsibility to the audience and to your actors and to yourself and to the story as some sort of entity that’s out there and needs to be told right and you need to honor that. And part of it is stubbornness and part of it is pride but part of it is just honoring something that you take very seriously. We didn’t set out to create a national anthem or to create an allegiance of addicted fans, but the more people like it, the more worried we get that we are going to let them down.

LL: Do you ever get enraged by the reactions? Do you ever see certain elements that viewers take and think, “This is what you’re focusing on?!”?

HG: I’m self-loathing enough and self-doubting enough that it just tends to corroborate some deep doubt that I have. And a lot of these people take pot shots at what’s clearly the Achilles heel of an episode. I always want to reach into the computer and say the opposite of the Nike thing: YOU just do it! So, yes it is enraging occasionally. But that’s why I don’t look at it anymore. Critics included.

AN: You don’t read anything?

HG. Alex really reads these things carefully, and there really is some astounding criticism. The level of criticism has risen with the level of television. It is positively Talmudic. And it’s also become a legitimate area of study in academia. My son is writing papers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Larry David. These are my friends! I say “I’ll call Joss, I’ll call Larry.” It’s very funny that this stuff is being taken so seriously.

AN: There’s a Talmudic story in which two rabbis are fighting about the meaning of a particular law—what God intended it to be. Rabbi A finally says, “You know what? Let’s just ask God.” And God says “It’s what Rabbi A says.”  But then Rabbi B is says “Well, too bad. You gave it to us and now it’s for us to figure out.” Larry David’s opinion about what he’s trying to do doesn’t matter.

HG: Wouldn’t it be funny if Larry David wrote like a paper on his own stuff and got, like, a B?

AN: Exactly. So, what are you focusing on now? Are you actively seeking other projects, and if so, how do you find them?

Howard Gordon
Howard Gordon in Los Angeles, Calif., 2012. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

HG: It’s simple. If I feel excited by an idea, if I feel that stirring excitement, if I want to see it, then I assume someone else will want to see it as well. I’m working now on a show called Tyrant, which is about an ophthalmologist living in Orlando, he’s the son of an Arab dictator who turned his back on his family his autocratic father and his crazy Uday Hussein-like brother and moved to Florida and married a woman, an all-American woman, and has two kids. He goes back for a wedding to this unnamed country and his father dies of a stroke in the middle of this wedding, and so he winds up staying with his family in the midst of this Arab Spring-like-affected country. The country is somewhere between Syria a year and a half ago and Jordan today—and kind of every other country. I felt like this was a family drama that was really able to tell what I think is the story of our time. I think what’s happening in the Middle East and the reshaping of the Middle East is one of the most scary, exciting, dynamic stories, and being able to tell that story from the point of view of an American family was exciting to me.

AN: Do you know about Waller Newell? He’s a political scientist who studies tyrants. He’s argued, to put it roughly, that before the enlightenment tyranny was actually the norm—it was just a form of government—and that Assad, for example, would be perfectly recognizable to Plato because he is a form of tyrant that has always existed.

HG: And it’s not just tyranny of a country—it’s tyranny over your family, tyranny over yourself. And there’s a deep psychoanalysis of all our characters in this particular story.

AN: So, when do you go back to L.A.?

HG: Tomorrow morning.

AN: Well, at least you got your pizza and your CitiBike ride.

HG: It’s a great New York day. I’m so excited to be here. I miss it here.

AN: You should move back.

LL: Yeah, you can make TV from here.

HG: I plan to. I think I am going to take a sabbatical in two years.

***

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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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