Confessions of a 24 writer.

Interviews with a point.
Jan. 17 2006 8:44 PM

The Worst Day Ever

A 24 writer talks about torture, terrorism, and fudging "real time."

(Continued from Page 2)

Loceff: In Season 1, it actually made some things easier, because it just limited the possibilities. There weren't as many things you had to think about, and no matter how small you make a box, there are still infinitely many stories inside the box. But I think that everyone on the show has thought at one time or another about how nice it would be to work on an ordinary television show. It sometimes feels as if you're writing with both hands tied behind your back, blindfolded. Some of the problems are simple: You can't do a time cut. You want the character of Curtis to be at CTU, but he's at the airport, so we can't have him at CTU right then. And then the way we write the show adds to that, because although we do have a broad sense of the entire season's arc, we write the episodes sequentially. So, you end up in situations where you need a character to be acting as if they're at full capacity, but we just killed his mother or father. It seemed like a good idea at the time to kill their father or mother, but later it's just damned inconvenient to have somebody mourning.

Slate: As the show has gone on, it hasn't been entirely rigorous about hewing to "real-time" rules. Is it fair to say there's some fudging?

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Loceff: That's fair. But to be fair to ourselves, in almost every original script, the timing is actually worked out down to the minute. What happens is that as the scripts are rewritten and re-edited in order to make the story more compelling, you sometimes end up with what you could call a time singularity—where there's no way for everything that happens to happen in real time. It's something that you need to wink at. And we have loosened up, maybe just because the stories got harder to write and because we became more desperate. Especially at the end of the season, when you have fewer episodes to make the story happen, and not all that much time to tell it. That's when it turns out the airport is actually two doors down from CTU.

Slate: What about the problem of representing characters or political positions honestly? Do you worry about the show skewing one way politically?

Loceff: I honestly don't think so. Over the course of the four seasons, we've had villains on the right as well as on the left. Politically, our writing staff is very diverse, running the full range from left and right. This is stuff we have arguments about all the time, and I think we've learned to strike the right balance.

Slate:24 has become a show where we know that there is almost nothing the writers won't do. The flip side of that is that the penchant for unpredictability can become predictable. How do you navigate your way between those two extremes?

Loceff: The beauty behind killing someone who no one thinks you're willing to kill is, of course, that you throw people out of their comfort zone. And that's good because you want people to be on the edge of their seats. But we also recognize that you can't always do the extreme thing, and I think we're careful about not making the unpredictable predictable. So, we've let characters survive when it would have been easy to kill them for the shock value. We've allowed people to succeed when it would have been more shocking for them to fail. But we also remain willing to kill off characters, or to do the shocking thing, when the story demands it. In fact, we sometimes kill characters despite how much we love them. You know, it's hard as a writer to lose characters (and actors) you like. You really don't want them to die because you're not going to get to see them anymore.

Slate: In the first four seasons, Jack Bauer faced political assassinations, portable nuclear bombs, biological warfare, and nuclear missiles. Where could you possibly go from here?

Loceff: Well, at the end of Season 4, we collectively said that we couldn't just keep up coming up with bigger and bigger terrorist threats. The goal instead was to come up with bigger dramatic events that could be spawned by terrorist threats. So, our approach to Season 5 was one of making it more complex and more complicated narratively. We tried to downsize the enormity of the threat without downsizing the impact of the event. The stories are just as, or even more, interesting because of that complexity, even if the terrorist threats have been slightly downsized. As the series progresses, you'll see that over a particular arc of three to four episodes, lots of people could suddenly find themselves at risk. It just may not be the several million that we imperiled last year. Let's face it, from a dramatic point of view, a threat that endangers a bunch of people that we really care about is just as compelling as one that imperils lots and lots of people.

Slate: In the last five years or so, television has experienced something of a renaissance, with HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, and network shows like Lost and 24. Viewers seem increasingly comfortable with complex long-form stories. Do you think 24's been a beneficiary of this trend? Are you surprised by it?

Loceff: I recently saw David Lynch speak, and he said that years ago he could not turn certain ideas he had into reality because when he was pitching those ideas, the networks and the studios were not interested in them because they involved long arcs—stories that spanned more than a single episode. Today, that's absolutely not true. Almost every show that you can think of that's tremendously successful is episodic and has huge arcs, and I think 24 has been part of this revolution that's shown that people really are willing to follow stories that extend over many episodes; that they will watch serialized television; that they are willing to come back every week; and that they have an appetite for complex, demanding shows. I do think technological advances have helped with this: TiVo, obviously, makes it much easier to keep up with a serialized show. So, I think there's a combination of a change in the perception of what audiences will go for and a change in what audiences can do (in terms of missing shows and then being able to catch up) that has allowed us to tell these stories over very long arcs. And I'm not surprised that the appetite for shows like ours is out there. My background is in math and science, and I thrive on complexity, and I think lots of people do. People love puzzles; it's human nature to want to solve puzzles. I personally have more faith than the average writer in people's willingness to be complicated, and so I'm thrilled by what's happened. I'm elated at audiences' willingness to handle complexity. In some sense, I feel like my belief in what people are capable of is being validated.

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