Imagine you are producing one of television’s highest-rated, most critically acclaimed dramas and for once the ratings are as good as the pundits raves.
Imagine that for three seasons the thrilling story of a fictional version of the CIA, told with breakthrough style in ticks of real time, has captivated a worldwide audience, many of whom connect it with the war on terror and Sept. 11, 2001.
Imagine that show is “24,” produced by Twentieth Television and Imagine Entertainment, the highest-rated scripted drama on the Fox Network.
So what do you do for the fourth season? First, you delay it until January, frustrating your fans but timing the run so the season finale coincides with the end of the broadcast season.
Then the producers make wholesale changes in the cast, sets and plots. “We sort of ran out of story lines with our existing characters,” said Joel Surnow, “24’s” showrunner, executive producer and co-creator with Bob Cochran, also an executive producer.
“So we just decided, `Look, let’s shake it up and we can still use some of these actors we love,”‘ Mr. Surnow said. “Let’s bring them in to do something as opposed to just being there. Because on our show, the story drives everything, so much that we don’t have the ability to write in a character we like if it doesn’t have a lot to do with the action.”
In keeping with the air of secrecy around the show, “24” is based out of nondescript industrial buildings in the west San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Inside about 80 writers, producers, associates and assistants work amid an air of seriousness of purpose. Downstairs scores more work on soundstages that have been created to house the new, flashier version of the “agency” offices and other sets.
On a recent day, a supporting player was doing a reaction shot to a phone call on the “agency” set. Just outside camera range the show’s star, Kiefer Sutherland, sat in a director’s chair with a checkerboard game box tucked in the side pocket. He was throwing lines to the actress, without looking at a script. And he didn’t have to be there. As star, he could have a sub. “He’s a total pro and a guy like that, with his stature and reputation, sets the tone on the set,” said Mr. Cochran. “He sets a completely professional but relaxed working environment for the rest of the actors and the crew.”
When he wants to blow off steam, Mr. Sutherland drives antique cars and plays intense chess matches with cast and crew, including the resident chess champ, Mr. Cochran.
Chess is an apt metaphor for a show whose plot is all about role players and strategy. Those surprises can sometimes push the conventions of television. Unlike most American dramas, “24” doesn’t always provide happy endings. For instance, at first Fox didn’t think it was wise to kill off the lead character’s wife to end season one.
“Fox has always been pretty supportive, but there were a number of things we wanted to do that Fox opposed,” said Mr. Cochran. “But if we really stated our position strongly, without exception, they trusted our creative instinct.”
“24” is a big success for Fox but questions still loom. The network has rarely rerun the show and when it did, it didn’t perform well. So concerns remain about the repeatability of a serial drama that needs to be seen in sequence to make sense. That question will be asked later this year when Fox takes “24” into syndication. Fox execs said in a statement they don’t believe it will be a problem.
Mr. Surnow points out that the lack of repeats, the show’s success, its suspense and its serial nature helped make “24” a hit on DVD. Two collections have sold more than 1 million units combined, according to Fox, which says “24” is now among the 50 best-selling TV DVDs of all time.
Mr. Surnow, who grew up in Southern California, began selling scripts before he graduated from the UCLA film school. After a quick start he hit a wall. “I was an over-the-hill writer by the time I was 23,” he jokes.
Mr. Surnow sold his first script to Steven Bochco for the ’80s series “Bay City Blues.” It was there he met Tony Yerkovich, whom he followed to “Miami Vice,” a hit show that taught him about music and visual style. After working on shows like “The Commish” and “Wiseguy,” he created the series “La Femme Nikita.” “A lot of what we do on `24′ started [there],” Mr. Surnow said.
Mr. Cochran began his career as a business consultant. He wrote scripts on the side and through a friend got in touch with David E. Kelley, then running “L.A. Law” for Mr. Bochco. “I owe a huge debt to David Kelley,” Mr. Cochran said.
Mr. Cochran was hired by Mr. Surnow for the show “Falcon Crest,” and they found they sparked well off each other. They got into a rhythm on “La Femme Nikita” and decided to create what became “24.”
Mr. Surnow said the first episodes, shot in the summer of 2001, were styled after movies like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Jackal.” However, the Sept. 11 attacks, shortly before the show’s premiere, changed everything . Mr. Surnow said the inspiration for the second, third and fourth seasons was 9/11. And that means, he said, they must be extremely realistic: “The world of terrorism now is unfortunately in our living room every day. So you can’t do kind of pulpy fictional stories that don’t have any relevance to today’s world. I don’t think it would resonate at all.”
It’s not an easy show to write. “We don’t know how the second episode is going to end when we are coming up with the first,” Mr. Surnow said.
The DVD of season three, due in December, will include a 10-minute preview of season four, which is unusual. Until then, every detail is treated like a state secre. Why? “That’s the atmosphere toward the outside because this show does depend to some extent on twists and turns and surprises, and we try to preserve that as much as we can,” Mr. Cochran said. “The truth is, if you go on the Internet, there’s already leaks … Whether they’re accurate is another question.”
We won’t know for sure until the clock starts ticking again in January for Jack Bauer, beginning this time at 7 a.m.