Another day, another few million lives saved by CTU agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as the wild roller-coaster season of 24 wrapped Monday night. The two-hour finale drew an average of 12.2 million viewers, helping the series finish its most-watched — and most controversial — season so far. The Biz talked to series cocreator Robert Cochran about why the show worked so well this year and what lies ahead.
It was your best season ever in the ratings. What do you think made this season different from the first three?
When we started the season, we had no idea it would break out like this. In fact, we were a little concerned that we had used up some pretty big premises early on — nuclear weapons, biowarfare — you couldn’t go back to that well. We thought, “Well, is the stuff we’re doing — kidnapping the secretary of defense — are the stakes going to be high enough to draw people in?” I think it worked. The Araz family certainly was an aspect that drew people in. Everything came together. The cast was terrific. Kiefer Sutherland has always anchored things; the chemistry between him and Kim Raver was excellent. Everything worked on an emotional level and that’s why the thriller stuff worked.
How much do you think it helped to start in January and run on consecutive weeks?
It sure didn’t hurt. That was the network’s decision. I always thought it was a good idea to run consecutively because when people miss one [episode], that’s when they tend to [break the habit]. I wasn’t sure about showing the first four episodes in two nights. That seemed a little risky to me, but I think it paid off brilliantly.
It will roll out the same way next year?
That’s the plan.
It seemed like there was a level of authenticity this season that we didn’t see in the first few seasons. There were no made-up countries. The action reflected what’s really happening in the world.
That’s an interesting comment. I feel that particularly in Year 2 we matched up pretty well with what was happening in real life. Although while we didn’t make up the countries’ names [this season], we didn’t name the countries.
But there seemed to be more specificity this season. It felt more real.
The main character, Jack Bauer, is constantly walking the line. Or crossing the line, most would say, in terms of doing stuff that he really shouldn’t be doing. But he has to do it in order to accomplish the mission on a given day. It seemed to us it would be very interesting to put him in a position where there is no way out of those consequences. The president is not going to bail him out. CTU is not going to bail him out. There is no way he can dodge the consequences of what he’s done. It’s not that what he did was wrong necessarily — it’s something that’s got to be done. But somebody has to take the heat for it. That was interesting to us, and that’s how the whole Chinese subplot came into it. Similarly, from a national point of view, if you look at the war on terror, it is having an impact on our relationships with other countries, and that’s an interesting thing. So if it made it seem more real, that’s great. You see how the implications of what we’re doing [to fight] terror play out on the political level and how they play out in the trenches…. The politicians make certain decisions and put certain pressures on the guys who are carrying out their orders, and when things go wrong it’s usually the guys in the trenches that take the heat. To me, that is true of every organization and certainly true in the government. I think that helped things seem real, too.
Some critics have been making an issue about the amount of torture on the show. Is that something that you debated in the writers’ room?
Yeah. We don’t get off on it, but we find ourselves in story situations where, if you were an agent in that situation, you’d really have little choice other than to apply some kind of physical pressure. There is a nuclear weapon that’s going to go off in a few hours. I don’t think you call the guy’s lawyer. You ask him, “Are you willing to talk to me? Talk to me and we’ll make a deal?” If he doesn’t, what are you going to do? Sit back and let the bomb go off? When you’re in that situation storywise, it’s tough. Frankly, the main character looks kind of stupid if he doesn’t do something.
And the real-time element of the show probably drives some of it, too.
There are two things that drive it: One is the time element, as you said. The other thing is that on our show, unlike in real life, we know that the bad guy knows information. So torturing him doesn’t seem so bad, because you know he knows.
But as viewer, it does makes you think: “How comfortable am I with the lengths my country will go to get information about terrorists?”
Absolutely. Regardless of what anyone may say, we are not in any way, shape or form trying to put out political messages, left or right. But if there is a philosophical underpinning to the show, it’s that question you just raised: How far can you go in fighting evil before you become the thing you’re fighting? Every time Bauer has to decide whether to torture somebody, or how far to go with something, that’s the line he’s walking. I think in real life, that’s the line our country is walking.
Air Force One was shot down in this show. We heard the original plan was to have the president die, and you had to pull back a little bit.
We talked about that and finally decided it wasn’t necessary. It was shocking enough that the plane got blown out of the sky, which on most shows, it’s safe to say, would not have happened. What we wanted to do was bring David Palmer back as a character. It seemed like a nice way to do that would be to get the acting president, whom we’ve already established as a pretty competent, strong guy, out of the picture. The vice president — whom we hadn’t established at all, so we could do whatever we wanted with him — steps up and it turns out he’s in over his head, knows he’s in over his head, and turns to an ex-president who’s been in this situation before. Our first thought was that you could kill the president. Then we realized you don’t have to kill him, as long as he’s incapacitated. It’s a little less harsh and a little less shocking. We are not necessarily in the business of trying to shock people. We’re just trying to tell good stories.
There seemed to be more personal stakes and emotion this season as well.
I totally agree with you. It works best when we’re able to do that. It’s difficult because you can’t really go through a relationship in 24 hours. The format in the show forces you to shorthand a lot of emotional stuff that, in normal storytelling, you’d be able to draw out and explore. Everyone is trying to stop Armageddon; it’s pretty hard to have them turn to each other and start talking about how they feel.
Have you started plotting out the next season?
We’re wrestling with the first two or three episodes right now.
Will there be a connection to the last minutes of the finale?
Certainly. We’ll pick Jack up in a very different place, roughly a year later. Of course, the show is the show, so it won’t be long before he’s back in the saddle. But we’ll explore a little bit of what he’s been doing with his life and the situation he’s gotten himself into. That will certainly have an impact on his behavior when he gets involved in the streets.
It must be tricky to decide who lives and who dies on the show at the same time actors are being signed for pilots.
Horrible. Not just that — we’re always working around actors’ schedules. You lock someone in for 24 episodes, and you find out it’s a great twist to kill him after 12. So you’ve overpaid him. By the same token, if you don’t lock someone in and you really want them for the rest of the season, that’s a problem. The pilot thing is a problem. That’s a huge logistical nightmare.
So do you have to keep your stars out of pilots for the following season’s shows even though you may not bring them back? That must be a complicated negotiation.
It is. We have to work around that all the time. We try everything we can to give people the chance to do what will further their career. But in the end, we have to serve our show.