Faster Than Life
Former MHS Toreador and co-creator of Fox sensation
Thursday, January 12, 2006
When Fox’s juggernaut drama 24 plunges into its two-day, four-hour season premiere this Sunday and Monday, it will do so with some of the most celebrated tricks and characters of any show on TV: its “real time” format, split-screen action, counter-terrorism crises, and lead man Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland). But rabid fans anxiously awaiting the fifth season might be surprised how humbly the now-iconic series started.
Co-creator and Monterey High School alum Robert Cochran remembers the genesis clearly. It happened over pancakes.
“One day, my sometime partner Joel Surnow called me and said, ‘I have a great idea for a TV show,’” Cochran recalls. “‘Twenty-four hours, 24 episodes.’ I said, ‘I don’t think it can be done. What genre would it be? Who would be the characters?’
“He said, ‘I don’t know.’
“I said, ‘Don’t bother me anymore.’
“He replied, ‘You always said you wanted to do something different. Meet me at IHOP.’”
Cochran’s lack of optimism wasn’t totally unfounded. Individually and as a team, he and Surnow were “Oh-for-17” with pilot pitches, he says. Over a 10-year period, scripts based on a lot of ideas—from cold-case investigations to sci-fi artifical intelligence—fell to the floor.
Still, Cochran’s outlook had been much bleaker in 1988 than it was along that extended oh-fer. “I was jobless,” he remembers. “The Writer’s Guild was on strike, my wife was pregnant and we had a mortgage to pay, and I was in a picket line outside Paramount.”
To add a little salt to the situation, Cochran had made a daring decision just a few months before the strike to abandon the “very substantial” salary of his management consultant position to try this writing life, to pursue something he had previously done for his own amusement.
“I had finally written something I thought was decent,” Cochran says. “I showed it to a writer, who thought it was pretty good. I knew in my heart I’d hate myself for the rest of my life if I didn’t give it a shot…so I quit my real job.”
That friend’s agent later showed the sample script to Steven Bochco, the creator and executive producer of LA Law, who later bought one of his pitches for an episode. That gave Cochran the credibility, after the strike ended, to have lunch with then-LA Law-producer David Kelley, which helped lead to 10 years writing for The Commish, JAG and La Femme Nikita. Cochran attributes his success to the fact that Kelley gave him a chance.
The 30-million-plus viewers who saw 24’s last season premiere are glad he did.
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“So we sat there at IHOP, eating pancakes, coming up with notions for the show,” says Cochran. “All we knew was we wanted it to be 24 hours.”
Not unlike Sutherland’s Bauer, who regularly survives sophisticated terrorist organizations, double agents, and fast-evaporating minutes to avert international catastrophe, the two creators used a matter-of-fact creativity to develop the blueprint for a show that would strike ratings magic—and earn 39 Emmy nominations.
“We wondered, what would keep our character awake for 24 hours?” says Cochran. “Intense action—an assassination.” They proceeded to tackle the other challenges the fresh format would present, devising effective subplots (“You can’t just have the good guy chase the bad guy for two hours,” says Cochran, “but what could balance the assasination—maybe his daughter is kidnapped…”) and ways to avoid the doldrums of any day, however chaotic. (“You can’t follow Jack the whole time, you need multiple storylines—the hero, the kid, the bad guys, the boss…”).
And while Cochran admits that “adding up the times we’d written pilots, I wasn’t confident,” IHOP musings morphed into “somebody talks, somebody types” and, ultimately, a successful sale of the idea to the network. And more challenges—they needed the main character on which the show’s success would hinge.
While Cochran demurs when asked to name the actors who read for the part, they came across something in Sutherland, who at the time was competing in rodeos.
“He’s a very smart guy,” Cochran says. “I’d seen his work. And he projects an inner demon that we liked. But I thought no one would believe that he had a teenage daughter. Then someone told me he had one in real life. He stepped into the part and carried the show.”
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Cochran, a tall, easygoing father of two who grew up in Monterey’s Monte Vista neighborhood and played football while at Monterey High, laughs when asked to compare himself to any one of the show’s ensemble cast. “Jack, of course,” he says.
The similarities aren’t as far out as they might seem. Cochran and Surnow’s ability to create on a pressurized schedule (Cochran says they can only realistically script three to four episodes ahead “if we’re lucky”) reveals a cool shared by their main character.
“The desperation on the screen mirrors the desperation in the writing,” he says, acknowledging that the task of completing 24 episodes was immensely ambitious and exhausting. “After the first season, I didn’t want to come back.”
It was a first season that had to be postponed because its believable, if apocalyptic, fiction—a terrorist stealing an ID and blowing up a plane—was set to be released right after 9/11. It’s a pattern of believability that’s continued since, most recently with a pre-Iraq War season where US officials nearly jump to war prematurely because of unfounded evidence. “We should sue real life,” Cochran says.
The first season also incited a whole population of fans to swear allegiance to the show and force Fox to do everything it could to re-up. But fans flipped for more than the blistering action and Bauer’s bold decision-making; they fell in love with fearless, seizure-inducing plot twists—signature moments like when Jack Bauer’s primary ally and ex-lover Nina reveals herself to be a spy, or when his pregnant wife, Terry, gets killed to end season one.
“When we came up with 24, they said, ‘They can’t do that,’” Cochran nods. “Then they thought, ‘They can’t kill Terry. And no way [in season two] are they going to set off the nuclear bomb in a city.
“With the spy, we asked, ‘Who’s the one person it can’t be?’ and we made it that person…but you don’t do that kind of thing a lot, just enough,” he says, adding, “It’s a mark of honor to be killed on our show.”
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Unsurprisingly, Cochran won’t say what’s next for Jack Bauer, who viewers last saw heading down a train track into the sunrise after helping stage his own death in order to stay alive. But when speculation starts that Jack will operate out of Mexico, he points out that Fox has paid a pretty penny for the sleek Counter Terrorism Unit set in Los Angeles—and that Jack can’t stay away from the action.
“He doesn’t tend to be a guy who sits down behind a desk,” Cochran says with a smile.
As for Cochran, he’s pleased that he no longer has to grind out hours and hours worth of explosive material himself, but can focus on helping the show’s team of writers manage the structure of the story. “There’s such good people on our staff, people that have been there for three or four years, that we can step away and the quality won’t diminish.”
But don’t expect the co-creator of arguably the greatest action show in a generation to sit on the sidelines either. Says Cochran, “We’ve got another idea coming.”
THE COMMERCIAL-FREE PREMIERE OF 24’S FIFTH SEASON AIRS 8-10PM SUNDAY AND 8-10PM MONDAY ON FOX.