The Worst Day Ever
A 24 writer talks about torture, terrorism, and fudging "real time."
When 24 debuted on Fox in November of 2001, its chances of survival appeared slim at best. The show's narrative conceit—each season tells the story of a single day in 24 hourlong episodes—seemed far too demanding for viewers who seemed to prefer the satisfactions of stories that were neatly contained in a single episode. And 24's focus on the fight against terrorism—its chief protagonists are members of the Los Angeles office of a government agency called the Counter-Terrorist Unit—hardly offered escapist fare in the wake of 9/11. But over 24's first four seasons, those seeming weaknesses have proved to be its most important strengths. The show's inherently suspenseful real-time format distinguishes it from everything else on television, and the real-life fight against terrorism has given 24 a political and even moral depth that might otherwise have been missing. While the show is, at heart, an unabashed thriller, it is distinguished by its narrative and emotional complexity (and by Kiefer Sutherland's exceptional work as Jack Bauer). Michael Loceff has been one of 24's key writers and producers since the show began. He was in his office at Real Time Productions when we spoke by phone, shortly before the remarkable four-hour debut of 24's fifth season this past Sunday and Monday.
Slate: Where did the concept for 24 come from? Did it start as a show about counterterrorism or as a show that would take place in 24 episodes over a single day?
Loceff: It really started with a single idea from a single person, Joel Surnow. He came up with the idea of a show that took place in 24 hour-length, real-time episodes over the course of one day, and he called Bob Cochran, his producing partner, and pitched it to him. And Bob said, "It's a great idea, it'll never work, don't call me again." The idea that you could stitch together every detail episode to episode and preserve continuity for the length of a season and tell a story while using no time cuts, no flashbacks, nothing but pure real time just seemed too difficult. To create a situation where each new episode has to start in the exact same place as the previous one, with the actors' hair in the exact same place, seemed crazy. But Joel called Bob back the next day, and that was it.
Slate: So, where did the counterterrorism angle come from?
Loceff: Well, given that we decided we wanted to do a show in which all the action would be contained within a single day, we had to ask ourselves: What kind of situation would warrant doing 24 hours straight, nonstop, where our main characters couldn't sleep, couldn't go out for a meal, couldn't take a nap? And we needed a situation where personal and professional problems would intersect, where the characters couldn't put them aside. We wanted to give our characters no time to think in ordinary terms because the dilemmas they face are so overwhelming, where ideas of ordinary comfort don't even come into play. You ask yourself what kind of story carries that kind of weight, and the counterterrorism angle seems natural. Also, don't forget where we came from—La Femme Nikita [a show Loceff, Surnow, and Cochran all previously worked on] was about a global anti-terrorist unit, so that wasn't too far from our awareness.
Slate: The early episodes of the first season were written before 9/11 occurred. What difference did 9/11—and the war on terror that's followed—make?
Loceff: I actually don't think it had a major impact on the show itself, but it obviously had a huge impact emotionally on all of us who were involved with it. We were writing the fourth, fifth, and sixth episodes when 9/11 happened, and the first show hadn't even aired yet. Now, there was an explicit impact on that first show because it ends up with a plane being blown up. That obviously was very close to the bone, but it was also essential to the plot. So, it was recut to be less violent and visceral. There was no need to do anything to create a sense of horror, because we were all going to feel that instinctively. But the first season did not involve Middle Eastern terrorism, and I think that helped us, because we could stay away from issues that may have still felt too raw and real and paralleled the news too much.
Slate: 9/11 clearly raised the stakes for what you're doing: On the one hand, the show now has an inherent dramatic allure. On the other, it's not obvious that viewers actually want to see the things that we're most afraid of. How do you balance between those two poles?
Loceff: I think in every season we've based our A-story—which is the main terrorist story—on plausible scenarios. But just because it's plausible doesn't make it probable, and I don't think you should watch 24 expecting to see a forecast of what the fight against terrorism is going to look like in the real world somewhere down the line. As far as how important the real-life resonance of the stories is, I think it must play at least a small role in the show's success, because it gives the show this sense of suspense from the fact that it seems at least plausible. But I don't think it plays a major role: The X-Files was very successful, and most Americans don't have any worries about aliens taking over the government. So, I think there's a good case that the show would have legs even if it had nothing to do with the day's headlines.
Slate: How much work do you put into making the show realistic? There seem to be times when realism and drama inevitably come into conflict.
James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.
Still from 24 by Anthony Mandler/© 2005 Fox Broadcasting Co.