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.
Loceff: We do have an investment in plausibility. We've hired writers who have done heavy research in espionage and anti-terrorism and worked with the government. And we've met with consultants from the intelligence community and other parts of the government, just to help stir up ideas and help us come up with something that seems compelling. But I think ultimately what makes the show is not the reality but the drama. Joel and Bob approach 24 the way they have always approached dramatic television: They've approached it with the idea that the drama is, in the end, more important than the factual aspect of the story. Joel in particular is really good at ignoring reality when it's convenient.
I actually started in the opposite place. I come from a technical background—I'm a mathematician and a programmer by trade—and I was one of those people who would watch a show and say, "Oh, that could never happen." And I know that those people sometimes watch 24 and get frustrated. But ultimately people don't watch shows because of how realistic they are. They watch them because of the same dramatic elements that have always made stories interesting. And fundamentally if those elements don't work, no amount of reality is going to be enough to keep people watching a show. The rule, I think, is: Do your homework, learn what there is to learn about the real world, and then when you get in the room, forget it all.
Slate: One of the places where 24 and the real world have intersected most powerfully is on the question of torture. On 24, torture is regularly used in interrogation. Some critics believe that 24 actually plays to our desire to witness torture, that it is, in some sense, "torture porn." How do you make sense of and justify the role of torture in the show?
Loceff: I absolutely do not believe that the show is, in any sense, torture porn. This is something we talk about a lot. Torture is of no interest to us as torture, and we're not anxious to show it, nor do we want to watch it. We don't want to go to any level of great detail in depicting it, and there are many times when we will pull back from the original idea because it seems too much. I think its real use in the show, aside from its narrative function, is to create dramatic conflict, conflict not just between two people but within characters as well. If you look at any given torture scene in the show, you'll find that there's something in it that shows someone's distaste or disgust. And Jack Bauer's decision to torture people for information in the past has cost him, because it's shown other people just exactly what he's capable of. Jack himself is appalled by what he feels he has to do, but he's also convinced he has to do it. That is a real dramatic conflict.
Slate: One of the familiar critiques of using torture as an interrogation technique is that it doesn't work. On 24 it tends to be veryeffective.
Loceff: I don't know that torture works, and we don't write it because we think it works. So, I don't think any of us are trying to make a statement about the efficacy of it one way or the other.
Slate: Back to the realism question: 24 is shot in real time, which creates a very powerful illusion of reality. In that context, things that seem especially unrealistic run the risk of snapping us out of that.
Loceff: It is a challenge. I'd say that for every idea you see on the screen, there were five ideas we threw away that were more interesting and less real, and there were five ideas that we threw away that were more real and less interesting. What you have to get used to as a writer is realizing that most of what you come up with is wrong for the show.
Slate: It seems as if that weeding-out process goes on not just in the writing room but even after the shows have been shot. On the DVD for Season 4, for instance, there are 39 deleted scenes, some minor, others involving entire subplots.
Loceff: That's right. We go into every episode knowing that we will lose at least one scene and probably more. This is one difference between the way things are done on 24 and the way they're done in most episodic television: Joel and Bob are the kind of writers who are willing to throw out a lot of what's already in the can, which means doing reshoots. To me, this is the single biggest characteristic that allows the show to be somewhat more engaging than average. When Joel and Bob are in the editing room, they look at the show as if they've never seen or heard any of it. They're not invested in any scene, and that makes you free to throw everything out. We sometimes say that you're not done unless you've cut your favorite scene.
Slate: Is it better or worse writing for a real-time show?
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?
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.
James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.
Still from 24 by Anthony Mandler/© 2005 Fox Broadcasting Co.