We’re still in the early days of 2023, but the future of the modern television landscape is actually pointing backwards more than ever. With streamers like Netflix, Disney+, Paramount+, and Peacock adding cheaper subscription tiers that include forced ads, while free, ad-based apps like Pluto and Tubi become more popular, it seems the traditional broadcast model that everyone shunned is suddenly back in vogue once more. For long-time series creators like Howard Gordon—who went from writing on modern classics like The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 24 to co-creating shows like Awake and Homeland—the constant changes have felt like a bit of whiplash.
In fact, Gordon’s latest series, Accused (an adaptation of Jimmy McGovern’s 2020 BBC1 series of the same name), brings him back to the broadcast network he spent a lot of time with as the later-years showrunner of 24. Having created a multi-season hit for premium cable with Homeland on Showtime, Gordon has been able to shift across television models successfully. Curious about what it’s like to navigate the new world order of pitching TV shows, and to what home, as well as how difficult it was crafting a throwback procedural for 2023, Paste TV got on the phone with Gordon to talk about all those things and more.
Paste: With the waning eyes on broadcast and the tightening of the belts at all streamers, how do you make choices about where you want your story ideas to live now?
Howard Gordon:The business has been so disrupted. And when I say business, not just how we write and tell stories, but how we monetize them and how we watch them, how we distribute them, it’s very disorienting. I’ll use 24 or even The X-Files as an example; there was something to curating the audience’s experience and delivering them “must see TV” on a Thursday, or where you knew you had to watch The X-Files on Friday at 9pm. It became a thing. That center has not held, and something’s been lost in the culture. It’s all changed because people’s habits have changed. I miss it. And it’s given rise to words like “bingeing” which I find a disgusting word. I don’t want to “binge” my meals. I want to order from the menu, savor them, and then be hungry again.
With Accused, the people at FOX were the most aggressive in terms of pursuing this. It was nice that [president of entertainment at FOX] Michael Thorn, who I’ve known for 20 years, really championed it. There are certain shows that are meant for streaming, or maybe for premium cable. This feels to me like it’s a challenging show that really doesn’t pander to the audience. It doesn’t talk down to them. I hope it is as smart and interesting as any show. Perhaps it could have gone on streaming and on cable, and actually it is, I guess, on Hulu [where it streams the next day]. But I really liked the idea of being on a linear network and delivering once a week. And I even think commercials are good in this case, as it’s a nice respite from some of the stuff that happens.
Paste: It sounds like you don’t mind being a salmon swimming upstream in making a show for broadcast. Do you think about the home first when developing?
Gordon: I would say it was less strategic. At this point in my life and in my career, I have to do something that I’m passionate about. Jimmy’s format really spoke to me as an opportunity to tell some stories. When I pitched the show, I said to everyone who listened to the pitch, “The Chinese curse says ‘may you live in interesting times.’” We’re living in a really revolutionary moment. Even before the pandemic, which is certainly part of it and which has changed everything, whether it’s race or gender, power or inclusion, diversity or the truth itself. You’re a journalist, and look at your business. It doesn’t resemble what it was five years ago. To me, I’m confused as a human being, forget as a writer or producer. This show feels to me like a way for me to work through some of the questions I have about what it means to be alive in 2023. And a lot of the stories are stories that really could only have happened today. Like what social media has done, in all its iterations, to our culture and to our society is absolutely a character in several of these stories. And as a causal. So some of the consequences, and the collateral damage of social media, actually plays a big role in some of these stories.
Paste: Let’s talk about this iteration of the series, which consists of stories that are very U.S. centric in terms of addressing our unique issues like gun control, which is core to the pilot episode you wrote, “Scott’s Story.” What’s the ratio of stories that you ported over from the UK series and how much is entirely original?
Gordon: First of all, most of them are original stories. I think three of the original episodes of 15 are roughly based on, although very much changed. I’m a giant fan of [McGovern’s] and I’m really looking forward to hearing his response to this. I hope he likes it. But I think the stories that he told were, I don’t know how to say it… the world has changed, even in 12 years. It was a format acquisition more than a story acquisition, although some of the stories were really compelling, and I think, adaptable.
Paste: “Scott’s Story” is about a parent (Michael Chiklis) who considers murdering his own son to prevent him from committing possible violence. That’s a very “us” problem to explore.
Gordon: For the first [episode], it was feeling helpless as the parent of adult children and then imagining what that would be like. There was an article that really sparked it for me about a Japanese diplomat, who had been arrested for killing his adult son who was living at home because he feared he was going to commit this knife attack. That was a dramatic question that I kept coming back to, so that was an example of what sparked my first episode.
Now, you and I are talking about how the world has changed. I mean, the idea of the school shooting was once something that would animate the nation. Now, it’s a Tuesday. And that needs to be processed and talked about. I write and produce to tell stories in the same universe that we all live in. Being adjacent to reality, rather than sort of basing it on actual events, kind of allows people to think a little differently than they might. We’re asking about parent accountability now, and everybody asks, “Well, geez, didn’t the parents know?” That’s a big question and I find myself guilty of that assumption. I guess that felt like a dramatically interesting and again, inside this format, an interesting idea.
Paste: Broadcast shows that aired weekly were the original generator of watercooler conversations the next day. With Accused airing in that old school model, what do you want audiences to be discussing about this show?
Gordon: I want them to be discussing the question that I obviously was asking myself when I generated these stories and with other writers. It’s not even the “what would you do?” because even that’s too simplistic. I want people to not be able to talk for about 30 seconds and then I want someone to look at [another] person and talk about it. I want them decidedly not to want to pop in the next episode because it was a cliffhanger, but to really digest what they just experienced.
Emotionally, I want people to recognize the complexity of the world we’re living in and to be a little kinder at the end of it. And to recognize that with life, we are all so exquisitely vulnerable as human beings in the world. I hope that the show leaves them feeling humbled a little bit by how human we all are. Our lives, and the judgment that’s passed on people, are so much more than guilty or innocent.
Paste: In watching the episodes, another title could have just as easily been Truth, because often the pivot points come down to one character believing another person and that’s when things go sideways.
Gordon: That is a great, great subtitle because that’s the challenge in every episode, that there’s a moment in it that has to be earned, like you’ll see in the Malcolm Jamal Warner one, or even the one with Michael Chiklis, where you’re actually convinced, I hope, that he’s going to throw his son off a cliff. There are some episodes too, by the way, in which the world is actually better at the end of it. There’s a cosmic, kind of karmic justice, where the so-called “crime” winds up engendering a really happy and emotional result. I think the takeaway is much more This Is Us here than just “oh, fuck!” as in tragedy with a side of tragedy. There’s a diversity in the storytelling. I hope they’re all hard-hitting and emotional but there is a pretty big palette in terms of the storytelling, which was fun.
Paste: Unlike so much serialized storytelling that’s out there now, Accused is unabashedly self-contained. Did that seem feasible in canvassing other writers or even audiences who do like watching repeats of procedurals?
Gordon: I am so intimidated by investing in shows. More often than not, I don’t engage. We’re not holding anyone hostage and I think people can watch this show out of order; they can watch it, or choose not to watch it. I hope they will watch most of the episodes. And I think that’s why things like Law and Order seem to have a real resilience. I think this is familiar enough, but hopefully not just a pale carbon copy of the procedurals that seem to do so well. The format of a courtroom drama is familiar on one hand, but it’s also, I hope, a twist. You never can guess. I don’t even know what a “success” on network television is anymore! I’ve been canceled with shows that did a 100 times better than what [ratings] are today, which is really disorienting.
Paste: As someone who started in broadcast, do you feel like it was inevitable for the medium to come back full circle with the ad-model now being the talk of all streamers?
Gordon: [FX Chairman] John Landgraf really articulated what I certainly felt, which is how can people possibly track a culture where everyone is siloed? Not only are there so many shows, but you watch them at your own pace. You’re on Season 3 of Succession, but I’m on Season 1. I don’t think you can ever put the genie back in the bottle. Time goes in one direction. I hope we can recapture some of it. But Netflix just was such a disrupter, in a way, and just made everybody a little crazy.
It’s a little bit like the pandemic. We really haven’t seen the aftershocks of the earthquake of the pandemic in terms of mental health. I’ve heard many, many people go, “I forgot, was that that show, or that show?” People will watch a show in one or two weeks, and they can’t even process it. It’s the same way you can’t digest your food, if you eat breakfast and dinner in three hours.
Paste: Lastly, there’s the perennial question of whether a revival of 24 should still be looked at. Where do you stand on that?
Gordon: One, the show was so of its time. Even Homeland was a show that could only have been done 10 years after 9/11. I don’t know if we could even make it today. So, I think what you have to do is make sure it’s not just like the old rock and roll band who are just touring to keep their mortgage paid. I don’t think you want to bring it back for the sake of bringing it back. It means too much to the stakeholders, particularly. But you have to tell a story that really does resonate with not just today, but with Jack Bauer. As Kiefer [Sutherland] says, if you bring it back, you better do it fast before Jack is in a walker. But at the same time, we’ve seen the value of IP and old catalogs. You see it in music, you see it on TV. It’s a question that I always… I never say never, and try not to say always. I think if the right idea came up, I think everyone would be open to it and it will happen organically. We think about it, but we want to make sure it’s not just a business, and that there’s actually a reason to tell whatever story we want to tell to bring Jack Bauer back.
Accused airs Sundays on FOX, streaming next day on Hulu.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the recently released Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen
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