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Howard Gordon on Fox Panic Over New Show ‘Accused,’ Making More ‘24’ and Being “A Writer of a Certain Age”

Howard Gordon has spent much of the pandemic consumed by his latest thriller, an anthology series titled Accused. The weekly collection of topical stories, where viewers come in knowing nothing about the featured crime or how the defendant ended up on trial, has him back at Fox — home to his earlier entries The X-Files and 24. And while he didn’t necessarily conceive of Accused for broadcast, he believed the adaptation of the BBC series would be best suited for a commercial environment. So, on Jan. 22 comes the first entry from the lucrative deal Gordon and his longtime friend, Princeton classmate and Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa signed with Sony Pictures Television in 2019.

Ahead of its debut, the Emmy-winning showrunner, just back from two weeks in Japan with his wife and three grown children, invited THR to his home in the Pacific Palisades for a wide-ranging conversation about a fast-changing industry and, at 61, his place within it.

Let’s start easy: What was the appeal of adapting Accused?

It felt like an opportunity to process some of these big questions about class, race, the corrosive effect of social media. There were stories to tell here. Like, I was haunted by an article I’d read about an elderly Japanese guy who killed his adult son because he believed he was part of this movement where adult males were living at home, playing video games, and they’d do these knife attacks. I thought, “Wow, what would you do if that was your child?” So, I worked up a pitch and, to be honest, nobody was jumping up and down about it.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. I have to say, I’m irrationally proud of this show and, as you know, I usually hate everything I do. Maybe I’m getting soft, but I do think the anthology scares people. I also think people sometimes find reasons not to do things, as much as anything else. And I really do have to respect that I’m a writer of a certain age and a certain sensibility. I’m not dumb, there’s a frequency that I may not be tuned to now, and I get that. This, in some ways, is an old-fashioned show, but it deals with very modern subjects. And I gotta tell you, even the people at Fox didn’t all get it. They were betting on me as much as they were on the idea, and they heard how passionate I was about it. The deal was, “Write three scripts and we’ll pick it up to series if we do it.” I think the scripts were really good, so they had to [order] it, but I realize now that they never meant to pick this up. They didn’t want to do it. They said, “We’re scared, we have no idea what this is going to be.”

Was it envisioned for broadcast?

No. But, truthfully, I felt like it was a perfect broadcast show. Look at 24. It, too, was meant for that broadcast cadence. And also that breath, where you need the pauses in between — they actually make it a better watch — whereas Homeland was decidedly not a broadcast show. Now there are six commercial breaks, instead of five, so that’s its own challenge. And there’s some content stuff. Like, we did an [Accused] episode that Billy Porter directed about a drag queen, and in the scene, J. Harrison Ghee’s butt is showing, and [standards] was like, “No.” And we’re like, “Well, yeah.”

So, did the butt stay in?

That was the one time I forwarded the email to [Fox’s entertainment president] Michael Thorn and the team, and I said, “Guys, you have to fight this one. I can’t because my head’s going to explode.” Ultimately, we got it.

You’re still having those kinds of fights at this point in your career?

It’s very bad for me. I actually have a blood pressure machine. I’m not even joking. Right, Cam? (Calls to his wife, who confirms from the next room.) After certain meetings, I’ve actually turned to the thing just to see if I’m about to stroke. (Laughs.) But I’m also at the point where sometimes it’s entertaining. Or at least it doesn’t feel as existential as it once did.

One of the conversations being had in Hollywood is around who can or should tell what story. What did that discussion look like here?

Because this is an anthology, there are so many stories: One is a Native story set in Arizona; one is at a drag place in Southie Boston. The stories are very specific, and I’m this old white guy who has also, by and large, worked with old white guys. As progressive and open-minded as I thought I was, this moment has forced, compelled, shamed many of us into going, “Wait a second, my assumptions are not what I thought.” And for someone who likes to talk and hold court, I really have learned to shut up and listen. I’ll use Billy as an example. Seeing what he did, I realized, “Wow, this is a story only he could tell. It couldn’t have been [frequent Gordon collaborators] Jon Cassar or, frankly, Lesli Linka Glatter.” It had to be him, and you’ll see it, too. But I also feel like what I bring to the party is significant. I know how to keep the story on track.

In 2019, you moved your overall deal to Sony, an independent studio where, presumably, you can take projects everywhere …

That’s been a little frustrating because some of the projects have been passed on. Frankly, it’s been challenging to sell some things.

Certain kinds of projects or all projects?

Like, the thriller. And look, I had the same experience on Homeland. Coming off 24, [Gansa and I] couldn’t have been hotter, and we wrote Homeland on spec and it was still passed on by Fox and FX. So, you don’t get a blank check. I think, too, that the gatekeepers, whoever they are, in their attempt to diversify have also let some people in prematurely — they’ve rushed people into positions, and I think there’s a recklessness to the process and in some ways a counterproductiveness to the process. I had a very long apprenticeship, and I had a lot to learn. I didn’t run a show for 15 years. Now people who’ve written two scripts are suddenly running shows. And some people are naturals, but most people are not. So, the system, in its attempt to open up, has on one hand found some phenomenal voices that we would never have found before. That’s the good part. The confusing part is that there’s a kind of free-for-all chaos.

If a younger version of you — a young white man coming out of Princeton who wants to make it in Hollywood — came to you for advice today, what would you say?

You hear writers go, “They’re not looking for people like me,” but are white guys now just using that excuse? Maybe you just have to write a really good script because something tells me, if you do, it’s going to go. So, I’m humbled by these voices that would never have had the chance. On the other hand, I think we have to be careful that we don’t abuse this moment.

You spent much of your career at 20th Television before you decamped with Gansa. Why leave?

Alex and I did the rounds. We first had to make the decision of what our partnership was going to look like. Because we’re different people — obviously we’re good friends, but we don’t write everything together. What was interesting about Sony, at the time, is that they presented themselves as the last independent place, so they can sell everywhere. The good news is they can sell everywhere. The bad news is that to sell anywhere, you have to jump over a pretty high bar. You have to have a piece of IP or a project that’s really compelling, otherwise they’re going to go to their own stable. So, it’s a double-edged sword. And by the way, Dana [Walden, whose purview includes 20th] was very generous, and that was a possibility [to stay at 20th]. But no one knew what Disney was going to be [Disney had just acquired assets from Fox], and sometimes everyone needs a change. Also, Sony came up with a very generous offer, which had a thing to do with it. How could it not, right?

Beyond his producer title, is Alex actively involved in Accused?

No, he’s really not. He didn’t respond to the underlying material the same way. It’s one of those things where he has been a friend of the court and has weighed in, but no…

It seems as though you’ve figured out how to navigate that.

Well, yes, but it’s a process every time. And in a way, what I have figured out, and I hope I’m not speaking out of school, is that it’s best if one of us is driving.

Well, you can’t have two drivers.

Maybe you can, but we can’t. And we broke up [as writing partners] the first time on X-Files, and it was probably over not dissimilar things, and then got back together again when I hired him on season seven of 24 and, of course, the rest is history. But it was very clear to me that that’s just how we’re going to organize: there are projects that I’ll be supervising, and I probably have a bigger appetite than Alex. So, the secret and the challenge is finding the projects and we went through a couple that we ran down and then abandoned for reasons that you’re talking about, like, #MyStory. The world kind of changed. We had a story that was set in the Israel-Palestine polemic, and we were like, “We’re stepping into something that we probably shouldn’t be stepping into.”

When it comes to pitches, what seems to get people excited today?

I hate when people say, “They’re looking for X.” I’m always like, “Really?” The WB was not looking for Buffy when Joss Whedon came in. Fox wasn’t looking for The X-Files when Chris Carter showed up. But it’s interesting, I just watched The Offer [about the making of The Godfather], and you realize that the kind of pathology, let’s call it, that it took to be a Robert Evans or a [Albert S.] Ruddy or a Brian Grazer or a Joel Silver, I feel like the power of persuasion that those people once enjoyed, people are immune to now. They’re actually like, “You’re crazy,” or “We’ll tell you, ‘Have a seat.’”

We’re operating in a very different era …

I remember reading an article about the new executives, and it may have been referencing Peter Rice, specifically, but the executives who cast no shadows, and it really haunted me. And it’s understandable; we’re living in a time where scrutiny has never been so high, where the opportunity to be either misunderstood or ambushed by even the most innocent thing is so great, so we’re all walking around with this fear, but that, to me, is the enemy of creativity, of taking chances. And even on [Accused], I’m sure I’m opening myself up. We have [an episode] about a drag queen, we have a show about a deaf woman, and it’s like, “Have you cleared it with the deaf community?” Well, there’s not, like, a pope of the deaf community. Marlee [Matlin, who directed the episode] is in a fight with, you know, activist X who’s in a fight with otolaryngologist Y and speech pathologist Z. There’s always going to be someone who’s going to tweet something, and it’ll get amplified. So, again, I think we did a great job, but we’ll see. I feel lucky to be at this point in my life, where, if I get canceled, it won’t be the worst thing in the world.

I can’t help but wonder how you feel about doing business with Fox in 2023? Does the Murdoch association give you pause?

There was a group of us who had long been employed by Fox, who started asking the question and actually brought our concerns directly to the Murdochs. But I also felt it was a bit like being a soccer player at the World Cup [in Qatar]. I don’t know where to start throwing stones. And, in my own experience, never once has that editorial bias been imposed. If you look at this show, I think people watching Fox News are going to go, “How did you guys let that get on?!” (Laughs.) So, yeah, it’s disappointing, but at the same time, it speaks more to the market. I have to even give the Murdochs a pass insofar as I think there are deeper structural issues that are affecting our democracy that they may be exploiting or responding to from a business perspective. And I like [new Fox Entertainment CEO] Rob Wade a great deal. He’s taken the helm and he’s a really good showman. And personally, I like the scale of [Fox]. I just watched 2001 with my 18-year-old, and the fact that I’m not responding to an algorithm but a bunch of people in an office who sell commercials on linear TV, I like that.

Are they still asking you to bleed the 24 stone?

They are. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in bleeding it.

Do you have ideas?

Well, that’s a different question. (Laughs.) But I’ll tell you this, when I started writing on 24, I was in my late 30s and so was Jack Bauer, and I remember relating to him as a father and a guy with a family. It was a simpler world then. We’re both older now, and I do wonder what he’d make of the world that we’re living in today. So, I think everyone is open to it, but, as Kiefer [Sutherland] has said, “We better hurry up.”

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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