Even a writer and producer with the track record of Howard Gordon can admit to some professional dissatisfaction. With credits on such hits as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and now as the showrunner for 24, Gordon has worked on some of the most buzz-worthy shows in recent times.
But he is the first to admit he has yet to see his own creations take off.
“I haven't created any shows that have lasted—my career has been littered with a bunch of failed pilots,” he says. “But it's really a happy accident.”
That's because every time Gordon has tried to get one of his shows on-air, an executive producer from another series has come along and snatched him up to take their show to the next level.
And while he may never be known as the creator of a hit show, Gordon nonetheless has played significant roles in several franchise series. When Fox's 24 returns this month, trying to build on its fourth—and by many accounts its best—season, it will do so with Gordon at the helm.
But writing for television was not the New York native's original goal; early on, he dreamed of being a novelist. After graduating from Princeton, he and writing partner Alex Gansa moved to Los Angeles to do a movie based on the life of Lord Byron.
Once in L.A., they ran into a small problem. “No one knew who Lord Byron was,” Gordon says.
So instead, Gordon and Gansa wrote and sold a spec script for St. Elsewhere, and began tutoring high school students for the SAT test. The SAT work turned into a thriving business and led to Gordon's first real job, as one of his students was the daughter of a producer on ABC's Spenser: For Hire.
Gordon and Gansa pitched some ideas for Spenser, and went on to write more than a half-dozen scripts for the detective show. From there, they got jobs as staff writers with the CBS drama Beauty and the Beast, which gave Gordon a chance to learn about the inner workings of a TV show.
Still, he says he was far from living the high life. “I was splitting a studio apartment and sleeping on the floor,” Gordon recalls. “I didn't have a bed for my first year and a half out here.”
But he was building a reputation. He moved on to NBC's Sisters, a drama starring Swoosie Kurtz, in 1991. The next year, Gordon pitched a pilot to ABC, a show about black and white families living on the same cul-de-sac. While the project never got off the ground, it turned out that a similar idea had been pitched by Chris Carter. And when Carter launched The X-Files on Fox, he came after Gordon.
Gordon stayed with X-Files for four years, eventually rising to executive producer. Then there was a turn as a consultant on Buffy, though Gordon says he never quite found the voice for that show. After Buffy, he finally got a show on-air: a midseason ABC replacement called Strange World. The sci-fi series lasted four episodes.
“ABC lost its appetite for the show early on, so it never got any kind of launch,” Gordon remembers. “I don't blame them—I don't think the show merited going on.”
The Strange World episodes ended up on the Sci Fi Channel, and Gordon took the time to launch a TV-related Internet startup and write for Buffy spin-off Angel. Then he tried a couple more pilots (“noble failures,” he says), including Ball & Chain, a comedy about a bickering couple with superhuman powers that was originally going to be picked up by Fox. But in a last-minute decision, then-Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman dropped it for a dark-horse project called 24.
“I was packing for New York for the upfronts, and that afternoon was told to unpack,” Gordon says.
BLIND DATE AT STARBUCKS
But Fox execs thought Gordon and 24 might be a good fit, and they set up a meeting between Gordon and 24 creators Joel Surnow and Bob Cochran at a Starbucks. “I don't think I was forced on them but was recommended really highly,” Gordon says. “There might have been some resistance. They're not easily recommended to.”
Surnow insists that was not the case: “He was by far our top choice. He was working on that pilot, and we weren't sure if it was going to get picked up. We had to sweat it out.”
Once again, the failure of a pilot led to a great career move for Gordon, who joined 24 as co-executive producer. Over the next four years he would devise storylines with Surnow and Cochran and be responsible for two of every six scripts.
But this year, when Surnow and Cochran stepped back to write a new pilot, Gordon took over the top role. And he did so with the show coming off a critically and commercially successful season, which ended with Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer faking his own death. Keeping the show's complex storyline moving forward will be a challenge.
“Perhaps had we been on the BBC, it would have ended, because it was a great ending for a series,” Gordon says. “But commerce often trumps creativity, so we're back.”
FEELING THE PRESSURE
As Gordon takes over in the fifth season of a show that some critics thought would never last because of its serialized format, he says he felt “almost paralyzing” pressure at the beginning of production. “I am worried about being the guy who buried 24,” he says. “But at least I am one of the guys who built it, I guess.”
If the show should falter, would Surnow place the blame at Gordon's feet?
“Of course I will!” Surnow says with a laugh. “That's Corporate Politics 101.”