The television drama 24 is one of my favorite shows of all-time. It combined action, morality and politics with taut writing and riveting acting in a way no other television program had ever done. I was offered the opportunity to interview Howard Gordon, who is promoting his novel Gideon’s War, and took the opportunity to talk 24 with one of the writers and producers who made Jack Bauer an iconic American character. This interview took place between the hours of 4 pm and 5 pm on a Friday in Los Angeles.
Q: You were the show runner on 24. You wrote the story arcs for a couple of the seasons. What do you think was your personal contribution to the Jack Bauer legend?
A: It was like it was The Magnificent Seven and everyone brought something. Bob (Cochran) has this giant brain. Joel (Surnow) was really the pulse of the show. My contribution was probably grounding the characters in an emotional way. It’s like The Wizard of Oz. I had the heart. Bob had the brain. Joel had the courage.
Q: It can be easy to lose site of the characters in a thriller filled with explosions and action, right?
A: I think all action and all suspense really is a function of how you are not just into the characters, but in the drama of who they are to each other. It all takes place from a point of view and without that it’s just a bunch of explosions.
Q: Why does America love Jack Bauer?
A: It was twofold. I think he was a beautifully-imagined character, as imagined by Bob and Joel and as played by Kiefer (Sutherland). Every man could relate to really working hard at trying to do the right thing at the expense of their home life. Jack, although he was a superhero, was also an everyman. He was a very relatable character, especially as Kiefer portrayed him. I think also it was just adrenaline. That’s an addictive chemical. Unfortunately, the context of terrorism added yet another layer of interest for the public. It was threefold.
Q: Can you summarize Jack Bauer’s personal code?
A: He does whatever it takes, and within that Jack has certain things that he won’t do. Often Kiefer would let me know, this is what Jack wouldn’t do. There were lines that Jack drew. Those lines were always receding, always changing, like when Jack killed Chappelle in season three. I think Jack would say, ‘I wouldn’t take an innocent life.’ What was amazing about the show was being able to test the limits of what Jack would do. Certainly at the very end of the series we red-lined Jack to a place we never imagined having been.
Q: Are you satisfied with the way the show ended?
A: I was very happy with the way it ended.
Q: Did you ever write a scene in which Jack ate or went to the bathroom?
A: I would always say Jack is doing those things while we’re tuned into other people. Those are mundane things. There were a couple times when we shot it and it took the air out of the show.
Q: So you shot scenes like that and they never made it in?
Q: And it wasn’t riveting to watch Jack Bauer drink coffee?
A: (Laughs) Oh, completely so.
Q: I hated the Nina Myers character, played by Sarah Clarke. Just hated her. Same with Sherry Palmer, played by Penny Johnson. Why was 24 so good at creating such loathsome characters?
A: When you look ay the construction of it, Jack was a family man who did the best he could, but he had stepped out on his wife while they were putting a pause in the relationship. In a strange way Nina represented a threat to the marriage on an emotional level, and then when you realize she represents a threat to the country on a global level, it made it all the more resonant. Sherry Palmer, similarly. The stakes were so great. These women weren’t just betrayers, they had the fate of the world on their shoulders. Even with Charles Logan, an equally nefarious villain, because the stakes were so high, that’s what helped measure their villainy.
Q: Did you hear from the Los Angeles suburb of Valencia after you nuked it on the show?
A: We got e-mails.
Q: What kind of e-mails?
A: Most people had a sense of humor about it.
Q: Have you been following WikiLeaks at all? What do you make of Julian Assange?
A: I have. I don’t think anyone would dispute that there’s a certain recklessness to it. I think if he was there to throw a grenade in the national security apparatus, he succeeded. If he was trying to make a point, I think there were probably more discreet ways to make the point.
Q: I was going to ask if it was nice to write something that does not take place in a 24-hour timeframe, but Gideon’s War takes place in a 48-hour timeframe. What’s with you and timeframes?
A: Thrillers tend to work best in a compressed timeframe. There’s an event that you’re trying to prevent. That’s a convention of the form. I will say it was an amazing relief not to have to account for every hour of those 24 hours.
Q: In Gideon’s War, your protagonist is a pacifist. How do you write a thriller about a guy who is the opposite of Jack Bauer?
A: It’s a little bit like a Western and a gunslinger who has hung up his gun. The reason I was able to do it was because I knew where it was going and that those core beliefs that he had would be tested. That’s really what the book is about. A guy who tried to engage the world by invoking his better angels by talking and negotiating found out that sometimes you need to pick up a stick.
(Joe Donatelli is a senior editor at Break Media who writes and edits for Made Man. He has written about The Day His Bachelorhood Ended, How Dreams Help Your Brain and Taking A Dip In A Sensory Deprivation Tank. You can contact him at jdonatelli(at)breakmedia.com.)