Growing up, Howard Gordon loved television—Star Trek, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Much to the dismay of his parents, he shunned family expectations and set out for Hollywood, with his best friend and later fellow showrunner, Alex Gansa, to be a TV writer. Gordon got his first job writing on Spenser: For Hire, and a few series later joined The X-Files, for which he was also executive producer. Then came the breakout hit 24, followed by Homeland, by which time Gordon had well honed the skills of creating flawed characters, complex situations and edge-of-your-seat adrenaline rushes in story lines that always weave in topics in the news.
TV DRAMA: Over the course of your career, how have you seen the TV landscape change?
GORDON: It’s changed in so many ways, in part because of the proliferation of platforms. And viewing has changed with the ability to time-shift. That really started with VHS tapes so many years ago, and has become a real opportunity for creators and consumers. Also, TV is a writers’ medium in a way that film just isn’t and hasn’t been. The film director does have an outsized amount of power and famously hires and fires writers, and is responsible for a narrative experience that tends to be under two hours. The reason a writer gets preeminence in television is that it’s a much longer narrative, so the continuity and creative stewardship are in the writer’s hands. We’re seeing actors and directors migrate from film because the writing is so strong. As television has become more complex, more nuanced and more serialized in its storytelling, certainly studio movies have gotten broader, tentpoley and brand-sensitive, although independent movies are in their own category.
TV DRAMA: How do you work with writers? I imagine in some shows you are more hands-on and in others you have more of a supervisory role.
GORDON: Generally, I’m more involved at the beginning of a show. On 24 I was very involved from the very beginning to the very end. Now that I have a number of shows, I feel like more of a fireman; I go where I’m needed! I stay on in a consigliere kind of way. I think of myself as a showrunner runner, although if the right show came and I decided to run it I would do that as well.
TV DRAMA: What have you found to be the keys to assembling a great writers’ room?
GORDON: It’s part art, part luck and part hard work. You have to read scripts and stay open to new talent. By definition, being a writer is a very idiosyncratic profession where a writer has a voice and wants to express him or herself very specifically. And the idea of collaborative writing is something that doesn’t come easily to all writers. A talented writer may not do well in that collaborative environment. You have to add your voice, but you also have to subvert your voice somewhat simultaneously to this alchemical process. My best analogy [for a showrunner] is a leader of a band. You have to audition people. Some people don’t work, and some people do. The staff on Homeland is one of the strongest writing staffs I’ve ever been involved in. Everyone has been a showrunner or a show creator and has a certain amount of experience. The proliferation of content even since Homeland started makes it increasingly difficult to find writers with that level of experience and competence. That requires you to look harder and look for newer talent that hasn’t been found yet, whether it’s from the ranks of playwrights or emerging writers. And truthfully, I’ve discovered I’m very much a middle-aged writer who has worked in many cases with the same people again and again. There is a parochial part to [working with the same people], and for someone like me, [looking for new talent] really requires harder work than I am sometimes willing to do! But I’ve done it, and it’s been very rewarding, finding writers from diverse backgrounds and having the patience to become a mentor to them.
TV DRAMA: What are some of the skills required of a showrunner?
GORDON: Showrunning and producing require a certain combination of having a point of view but also being very open to other points of view. It’s a fine line that I’ve found the best showrunners have, which is to say they’ve been open and at the same time closed. They are closed insofar as to protect their vision and their sense of what the show is. One of the things that has become a guiding principle for me is to understand the dramatic questions that you’re asking in the show. You may not have all the answers as the showrunner, but you need to make sure that all the people you’ve hired at the very least are asking the same questions. Because you’d be surprised how many times people see so differently something that may seem very clear to you. It’s surprising, like a Rorschach experience. Some people are tone-specific to their own voices. It’s kind of an art, and you know it when you see it. And then you’re lucky when [you assemble the right people in the writers’ room], because in the end, you add something that is greater than the sum of its parts. In terms of the shows I’ve worked on, from The X-Files to 24 to Homeland, they have all been beneficiaries of that one-plus-one-equals-three philosophy.
TV DRAMA: How did Tyrant come about, and was that show a hard pitch, given the subject matter?
GORDON: Yes, in a way it broke all the rules of conventional wisdom, one being, Don’t set a show outside the United States; that never works. By and large, people have never done that, so that was a hard sell. The fact that it was set in a fictional Muslim country, it almost sounded as if it could be a parody it was so improbable. The idea was pitched to me by Gideon Raff, who created Hatufim [Prisoners of War], the Israeli version of Homeland. I asked Gideon for [a few drafts of the pilot] and wound up developing it myself. All series have to excite me or interest me or make me curious in some very fundamental way. In the case of Homeland, Alex [Gansa] and I were asking ourselves, ten years after 9/11, what do we as a country need to be thinking about? How afraid should we be? Who should we be afraid of? What’s the price of our security? These were the questions that were the primordial soup that Carrie and Saul and Brody sprang from. In the case of Tyrant, on the other side of the world is this region [whose people are] trying to figure out their identity politics, who they are and how colonization, religion and tribalism inform their political lives and their governance. And this story about brothers intrigued me. It was like catnip! I’m really proud it made it to its third season.
TV DRAMA: You’ve mentioned the value of listening and how that feeds your writing process and creative process.
GORDON: Somebody once asked me what I am most proud of, and I found myself saying it wasn’t a show or a moment, but it’s the process of listening—I’ve become a better listener. If you want to become a writer, you have to develop a kind of empathy and compassion for all your characters—the bad guys, the good guys and all the people in between. You come to recognize the complexity of the human experience. So I’ve learned to listen to my characters, how they feel, how they talk, how they think, and it’s translated into my life in other ways. When you’re running a show, when you’re working with writers, you have to hear where they are coming from and why they are saying what they’re saying and why they are writing what they are writing. It demands a kind of patience that doesn’t always come easily to a lot of people.
TV DRAMA: Even though Kiefer Sutherland won’t be involved in 24: Legacy, you’re confident that the narrative structure of the show will continue to attract viewers and do justice to the series?
GORDON: The show is a format that is so unique, and what compelled and continues to compel me is the real-time engine that I think is very durable. It’s been a kind of chicken-or-the-egg question, is 24 Jack Bauer or is it real time? For me, it’s been both. This is going to be an experiment in terms of, Can the real-time format sustain a Jack Bauer-less story. I think we’ve found a story that feels contemporary and relevant, and equally importantly, we’ve found an actor, Corey Hawkins, in the role of Eric Carter, and he’s one of the most compelling actors I have ever worked with. He’s extraordinary. He just has that charisma and that thing that makes you want to watch him.
I went to Comic-Con and we presented a few scenes from the show and then we had a panel conversation. I felt the audience was positive, but they are a little wait and see, show me what you got. That’s a fair position for them to be in, but it’s going to be interesting to see how it works. Eric Carter is a very different character from Jack Bauer, and I hope the audience gives it a shot.
TV DRAMA: Are you finding that the new viewing habits of time-shifting and binge-watching are having an impact on how you think of shows and write shows? Or do you just stay true to the story and how they watch is irrelevant?
GORDON: It’s not irrelevant. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get the collective attention of an audience. Once upon a time, when you watched week to week, and the audience was bound by when you delivered the show, it allowed a collective experience and buzz, which helped these shows. Now people are binge-watching, which is a gluttonous experience; it’s asynchronous, so it’s very hard [to gather that audience]. In a way, it requires a Game of Thrones or a Homeland, a show like that, that grabs enough people’s attention and compels them to watch the show when it first comes out. I think the bar is higher than it’s ever been, and the math of it is just a challenging experience. And for me, it’s intimidating. I’ll be honest. I haven’t put out a show in a long time, and I’m impressed with the quality of so many of the shows. It’s the opposite of junk food. The food now is great, and there is a lot of it. I’ve been blown away by some of the shows that have been coming from so many voices and so many creators out there.
TV DRAMA: Not to mention there is not enough time to watch everything.
GORDON: It’s overwhelming. It’s like going to a restaurant where there are too many things on the menu. The paradox of too much choice becomes not an opportunity but a paralyzing thing. That’s why I find myself when there are so many shows lined up, sometimes I just don’t bother watching anything and read a book!
TV DRAMA: I’ve heard that you hate the writing process but you love having written. Is that true?
GORDON: Yes, I carry that long face around with me. It’s not a secret to anyone who knows me.