Howard Gordon was executive producer/showrunner of Fox’s 24, which won Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 2006. He was on 24 for its entire 2001-2010 run and went on to co-create and executive produce Showtime’s Homeland. In a conversation with Deadline, Gordon reflects on 24, which “came of age in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” its unexpected role as an outlet for the country’s collective anger following the attacks and as wish-fulfillment, featuring a hero who “does whatever he needs to do to get the job,” as well as the show’s complicated history on the subjects of torture and Muslim portrayal, which America grappled with in the years after 9/11. He also provides an update on a possible 24 revival and reflects on the events in Afghanistan through the prism of Homeland.
9/11 Programming Schedule Leading Up To 20th Anniversary Of The Attacks: How To Watch On TV, Streaming & Online
On September 11, 2001, the new Fox drama series 24 was in the midst of filming Episodes 4-5 of its first season. The network had been promoting for months the “groundbreaking” real-time terrorism-themed drama starring Kiefer Sutherland with a trailer featuring a plane being blown up in the sky.
Howard Gordon, born and raised in New York, had a lot of family visiting from the East Coast who were staying at his house in Los Angeles. They were all scheduled to fly back on September 11, and one of them, Gordon’s uncle, woke him up early that day and urged him to turn on the TV. He tuned in between the first and the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center towers.
“I believe we were meant to shoot that day, and I think Sarah [Clarke], who played Nina, had a brother working in the financial district in New York,” he said. “She went home, so we stopped shooting that day, and it’s hard to reassemble exactly how long it took before we started shooting again because, obviously, everyone was in such massive shock.”
While the memories of what exactly transpired that day have gotten fuzzy over the past two decades, “I remember the feeling very vividly,” Gordon said. “Absolute anger. Incredulity and shock and confusion that this could have happened in Fortress America. How can this happen? Why did this happen? How did it happen? All those are questions that we wrestled with as a country and as individuals for a long time, but what was kind of amazing about it was that it would be the questions that I would ask in different forms for the next 20 years.”
When the initial visceral reaction to the 9/11 attacks subsided, the 24 team shifted its attention to the potential impact on the fledgling series. “Wow, our show is related to this in some way, particularly some of the images,” Gordon recalled. “For instance, the plane blowing up out of the sky was a very graphic image. Again, the context very different, but none the less, it was an image that definitely echoed the one we were all living with on constant replay and in our heads. I think also when we were able to even talk about, well, what does this mean for the show, the first thing we all thought was that it was doomed. That comedies and blue-sky shows would be what people wanted, not something that echoed, even in a remote way, the anxiety we were all feeling at this time.”
Indeed, viewers did gravitate towards comfort-food fare after the attacks, driving Friends to its biggest season ever, capped by an Outstanding Comedy Series win. 24 was an outlier, and it took awhile for the dark, intense drama to catch on. Fox at the time did seriously consider delaying the show’s premiere. Ultimately, 24 debuted in October 2001 with the footage of the blown-up plane edited out. While nobody could’ve predicted it, the timing ended up defining the series.
“It turned out, I think, 9/11 was the beginning of that resonance became something that I think the public watched the show through a different set of eyes than they would have had 9/11 never happened,” Gordon said.
If 24 turned out to be the right show for the right time, having Sutherland’s Jack Bauer as its protagonist played a major part in that as the hero America needed in some the country’s darkest hours.
Gordon joined 24, created by Joel Surnow and Bob Cochran, because he had a competing pilot and liked the “ingenious conceit” of the real-time drama. “I also really related to Jack Bauer as a man, as a father, and as a husband — I loved his character,” he said.
Several months later, following 9/11, Jack Bauer took on a much bigger role that transcended television.
“Suddenly we were getting to write about this character who had become America’s hero, who wasn’t just fighting the terrorists but was really fighting part of, I think, everybody’s rage and confusion of how much our institutions had let us down, and how much the law enforcement and intelligence apparatus had missed this attack,” Gordon said. “Jack, cut from the old-school cloth of the individual, rugged American hero who bucks authority and does whatever he needs to do to get the job done and doesn’t throw up excuses, was part of the line of Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone, Charles Bronson. It wasn’t a character we’d never seen before but it was a character we hadn’t seen quite that robustly expressed on television. I think we, the writers, really got to unconsciously express our anger at the terrorists and at the bureaucracy. I think we wrote him the way people watched him, and with that kind of, I wish this guy existed, I wish I knew somebody like that who just says it like it is and is not afraid of the consequences and to just cut through the bullsh*t. I think in that way it was cathartic, and I think it was cathartic for the audience as well.”
But Jack Bauer’s heroics had a dark side as 24 also reflected the fraught issues of torture and Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11.
In Season 1, conceived before 9/11, the terrorist attacks were tied to the Yugoslav Wars, with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević’s right-hand man as the mastermind. Season 2, which followed the attacks, featured Islamic sleeper cells.
“It got more complicated once our bad guys were (tied to) Islamic terrorism,” Gordon said. “I think in a way there was a honeymoon — at least in our minds and I think even in the audience’s mind — that there were these bad guys who had attacked our country and taken down the Twin Towers, and it was very much echoing the collective rage we all felt. I think we got to enjoy for a moment unconsciously, not recognizing that there were consequences to that decision, and I think those consequences became more evident when Jack would torture a suspect or someone he had gotten for information that became famously such a cultural touchstone that [U.S. Supreme Court] Justice [Antonin] Scalia invoked it in a law school thing, who’s going to prosecute Jack Bauer for torture.”
It was “this weird dance with current events and with reality” that put Jack Bauer and his actions in a different context than his many spiritual predecessors, Gordon said. “Look at any Clint Eastwood, or look at what Gene Hackman is doing in French Connection, it’s a narrative thing that this type of hero does, but it had never the resonance that it had after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo started happening.”
The shifting perspective on Jack Bauer’s go-getter persona as he “became conflated with the torture debate in America, or the torture issue in America” and the real-life consequences of the show’s portrayal of Muslims led to changes in the 24 narrative and the show’s evolution, Gordon said.
In Season 4, the producers were contacted by MPAC, a Muslim public affairs council, and CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“We met with them through Fox, and we had some really productive and eye-opening conversations where we recognized that it wasn’t as simple as this is just a TV show,” Gordon said. “There are real consequences to real American citizens who are Muslim who we are potentially adding to the xenophobia. That is the last thing any of us intended to do, but I think we recognized in that moment that that was a potential byproduct of some of the stories that we were telling. That, I think, made Jack’s character and his moral compass more complicated, and I think we wrestled for the balance of the series with that very question.”
Eight seasons and a limited series — 2014’s 24: Live Another Day — later, Gordon spoke about him and Sutherland possibly revisiting Jack Bauer and what the character might be up to in 2021.
“We have the desire to do it, but I think with the caveat that it has to be relevant both to the character and to the times. I think it’s a tricky challenge for all the reasons that we’ve just discussed,” he said. “Even though it wasn’t technically born after 9/11, 24 certainly came of age in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, then its fundamental conceit got increasingly complex, and we did try to address in the course of those last seasons; there was a price that Jack paid for his brazenness or his directness or his bluntness.”
Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn told Deadline this week that there are “active creative discussions” about bringing 24 back with a new take. Gordon admitted that an idea is being bandied about.
“Look, we love this character, and it is percolating, but nothing to really talk about yet,” he said.
Gordon did provided a glimpse into what aspects of Jack Bauer circa 2021 he would like to explore.
“I think Jack has been so beaten up and even betrayed by his own country so many times. I think as an investigation of what it means to be American — Jack is a really interesting character to ask that question,” he said. “I think it would be very interesting and relevant, and again, personally because Jack was a character of a certain age when I first met him, the idea of, I’m older now, and Jack Bauer is older, obsolescence and getting older is a subject that’s very close to me. So, personally, I’d be really interested in investigating what a finally older Jack Bauer might be doing, and how you might be not to be able to break doors down with your arthritic knee. Kiefer and I talk gingerly around it, but both of us have real fondness and real nostalgia for both the show and for the character and for the experience. It was a really special time.”
Gordon continued exploring the themes of terrorism in another series that won an Emmy for best drama, Showtime’s Homeland. It dedicated two seasons to Afghanistan, which the U.S. invaded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and exited on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
“We obviously did a very deep dive as we always did every season with the State Department and with our military talking about the challenges of Afghanistan and what would happen,” Gordon said. “People look at it like it was prophetic but every President since George W. Bush has been talking about how to get out of there, and so, this is something that has been talked about for a decade. Unfortunately, I think the facts of it are not anything that were unexpected, I think it was just the speed of it that was so unexpected. Mostly it’s heartbreaking.”
In the chaotic last two weeks of the U.S. withdrawal, Gordon was involved in an effort to get a number of actors, filmmakers and their families out of Afghanistan that involved writing letters to the State Department, trying to put them on various lists and offering sponsorship for visas.
Given the newfound resonance of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, would Gordon and fellow Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa be interested in exploring that in a new installment of the series starring Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin?
“It all depends on where everybody is at whatever moment in time an idea comes,” Gordon said. “I would say never say never because Carrie is a compelling character, Saul is a compelling character, and they’re both, as far as we know, still alive.”
September 10, 2021
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