Published: April 2, 2010
The California sun is shining as I stop at the gate outside the warehouse where the show “24” is written and filmed. My first day on set, baby! I’ll admit I’m excited. I’ve heard that some writers have no interest in Hollywood. In my experience these creatures exist only in myth, or maybe in Brooklyn.
I am here because Howard Gordon, the show’s lead writer, liked my novel “The Faithful Spy.” He has invited me to Los Angeles to “consult” for a month on the show’s eighth season, which will turn out to be its last.
I have no idea what consulting actually entails. All I know is that I have spent a week trying to imagine new adventures for Jack Bauer, the show’s hero, a counterterrorism agent played by Kiefer Sutherland. But the show’s writers have beaten me to every possible plot twist. Terrorists unleashing an Ebola-type virus? Yep. A nuclear weapon? Check. Government corruption at the highest levels? Absolutely.
I am left with a single idea: Give Jack a sense of humor. Jack has not even smiled in seven years. I will change that.
I give my name to the guard at the gate and inch onto the lot. I don’t want to hit anyone’s Ferrari.
I pass a Prius, a Volvo and other unsexy cars. Don’t these people know they work in Hollywood? O.K., there’s a Maserati. It’ll have to do.
Alex Gansa, a writer, introduces me around. The men who write “24” — and, no surprise, they are all men — are an accomplished lot. Several ran other shows. While Hollywood famously skews young, they are in their 40s and 50s. All but one are married. (Guess who owns the Maserati.) Despite the pro-torture reputation of “24,” their political views run the gamut.
Their building provides no clue that “24” is one of the most successful — and profitable — shows on television. The writers have small individual offices. At the building’s west end is a large wood-paneled room that looks like a suburban basement. This is the “writers’ room.”
The world is watching Season 7, which had its premiere a few weeks ago. But aside from a few minor edits, the writers no longer care about Season 7. They are worried about Season 8.
Season 8 is a blank canvas, 24 episodes of 42 minutes apiece, not counting commercials or credits. Generally, one minute of screen time requires a bit more than a page of script. Season 8 is 1,100 pages that must be written. Today we will try to answer a terrifying question: How can we fill all those pages?
We sit on couches and comfortable chairs, looking for answers. Season 8 will be set in New York. But why is Jack in New York? He’s a diplomat. No, he’s in a hospital, rehabilitating from his near-death experience in Season 7. No, he’s handling security for a rich guy.
We spitball possible plots. When the process is going well, it is like playing soccer with an invisible ball. One writer pushes an idea forward until another steps in. Someone says, “So the terrorists seize a school bus filled with rich kids. ...” “except one kid hides a cellphone. ...”
And away we go.
But all too soon someone finds a hole in the plot, or argues that it doesn’t give Jack enough to do, or that it’s too maudlin. We backtrack. Sometimes we succeed in addressing the complaint. Sometimes, after a few minutes of arguing, we fail. Howard steers us in a new direction. But the original argument will flare up a few minutes later, like a fire in a garbage dump.
Howard has a reputation as a very democratic lead writer. He likes to build consensus. The good news is that everyone gets a say. The bad news is ... that everyone gets a say. The debate can seem exhausting and circular. As a novelist, I’m not used to this. My ideas are my own. I don’t have to listen to other people tell me how stupid they are. Maybe I should. Maybe I’d write better books. Or maybe I’d never finish one.
Why is “24” called “24”? Anyone who’s ever seen the show knows the answer. “24” takes place in real time. Each episode represents a single hour of a single day. In general, television dramas fall into two categories: “procedurals,” where each episode can stand alone, and “serials,” where each episode builds on the next. “24” is the ultimate serial.
The real-time conceit is central to the show’s appeal. And it is sacrosanct. Jack exists in a permanent now. He never flashes back or forward.
This real-time approach is also the reason that Jack so often resorts to torture. He doesn’t have time to develop a rapport with the terrorists he captures. He has to break them immediately.
The cigar room. In midafternoon, Howard announces that it’s time for a smoke. We decamp to a windowless cinderblock room that serves as a smoking area. (To comply with California law, it vents separately from the rest of the building.) If you want a drink with your smoke, that’s fine too. The bottles of scotch are next to the cigars.
Fortified by Macallan, I decide to unveil my brilliant idea: make Jack funny! At least have him acknowledge the absurdity of the situations he’s in. Howard gently explains that they’ve considered this idea before but that it doesn’t work. Like most of life, “24” is best served unironically, at full speed ahead.
Oh well. I have no idea what to say the rest of the month.
I head out of the lot for the 45-minute drive back to my hotel. The day hasn’t been long by any reasonable standard, and yet I’m wiped out.
I wish I could say I contributed mightily to Season 8, but when I left a month later Howard and the guys were still plotting the first episode. Not one line had been written. In the end, they did find an arc for the season, and the reviews have been reasonably good. But when Howard told me a few months ago that he couldn’t imagine coming back for Season 9, I understood.
When things weren’t going well, Howard sometimes proclaimed that his writing motto was: “Not good. Never boring. ” Yes, “24” had its share of absurd plot twists and banal villains. Every television show (except maybe “The Wire”) has those. The shock is that the real-time conceit survived for 194 episodes over eight years. Television will be less exciting without it, and without Jack Bauer.