Howard Gordon on Accused, Rediscovering Human Vulnerability, and Moving People Through his Writing

24, Accused, Exclusives, FOX, Interviews, Television

Fox is putting a lot of faith in Accused, and it’s no wonder after 24, with Howard Gordon at the helm, put them on the map.

Accused premieres this Sunday on Fox after football before settling into its regular time slot on Tuesdays at 9/8c.

Fox uses football slots to promote shows they’re particularly proud of, and after years of success with Howard Gordon’s 24 franchise, they’ve got a good record with the creator.

The first thing you’ll notice about Accused is that it doesn’t look like other Fox programming.

The anthology series has very high production values and a stellar cast on screen. Behind the lens, an impressive array of directors brings the stories to life.

We’ve seen six episodes of the 15-episode season, and every episode brings a unique vision of what could arguably be the worst moment of someone’s life as they sit in a courtroom awaiting their fate and the actions that brought them there.

Gordon has gone to great lengths to offer varying viewpoints on a variety of topics with his inclusive storytelling, casts, and crews for each standalone story.

It’s hard to stand in judgment of an individual as a whole for what they did at one moment in time, but that’s our criminal justice system in a nutshell. It’s not a time to get to know someone or uncover shades of gray, but a time to weigh facts and evidence that will change a person’s life forever.

For even if someone accused of a crime is exonerated, that experience will stand with them inside and out for the rest of their lives. We had an opportunity to chat with Howard Gordon about the show, his creative process, inspirations, and hopes for the series’ success.

Accused began as a BBC show that aired almost a decade ago in the UK. How did the idea come about to bring it to the US now?

Well, Sony got the rights to it, and David Shore had been developing it with a writing staff. Then he kind of got swept up in The Good Doctor, and it went fallow.

Then when I had my deal at Sony three and a half years ago, among the many things they discussed, they showed me the British one and said they had the rights to it.

A light went off in my head. I said, “I have to do this.” I’m a big Jimmy McGovern fan, first of all, going back to Cracker. This one, I think, was a very good show, but it was done 10 or 12 years ago, and I felt like the format was an opportunity to deal creatively with a lot of this stuff I think I was feeling was happening in the world.

I mean, race, power, truth, and social media. I mean, the world has changed so much and so quickly and is changing so much and so quickly, that somehow this format felt like a way to tell stories that really were where my mind was living, trying to make a little bit of sense of where we are at the moment.

You and Alex Gansa have had a tremendous partnership throughout the years. What did each of you bring to the table to get Accused on the air?

Well, it’s funny. Alex and I are dear friends, and our partnership has been varied. One of the things is I’m sort of running points on this project. I’m more dominant.

There are projects that we’re doing in lockstep. There are projects that we’re doing that one of us is taking the lead on. On this one, I’m taking the lead, but he’s been there to read and be that objective set of eyes. That’s just the more divide-and-conquer strategy.

Given your history, it’s no surprise that you’ve had people just clamoring to work with you on this project, and you have such an impressive task and a talented group of directors, some of whom are also starring. How does this group of people that you recruited elevate the material that you’ve written?

Indescribably. It’s so funny you say that. Well, it’s not funny you say that, but it was so clear to me, and I think to everyone involved in the project, that we just needed a certain caliber of actor to do it. It’s a fairly tight budget.

Again, it’s on broadcast TV, so it was not a 20 million budget. It’s about as far from Game of Thrones, or even Homeland, as you could imagine. But I think the material attracted both actors and directors who were exceptional and really found themselves invested in the material.

I think we took some chances at the beginning. We had Marlee Matlin, who, not only is she deaf, but she’s also never directed, let alone directed, episodic television, which is a schedule that anyone in their right mind would really think twice about doing because you really got to get a lot of stuff fast.

But at the end of the day, this particular story could only have been told by her. Billy Porter did an episode about a drag queen. Have you seen any of them, Carissa?

I’ve seen six of them, yes.

Then you saw Billy’s episode. I mean, isn’t it great? I hate to put words in your mouth, but it’s pretty good, isn’t it?

Yes. They’re all very good. I like the logline that talks about shades of truth and guilt and innocence and how easy it is, with just a slight misstep, to find yourself fighting for your life in the court system. How did you come up with these cases, and what do you hope to address through the stories you’re telling?

This may sound pretentious, but I just thought of it when I was talking to the Fox people because when I was trying to explain to my partners at the network and at the studio what I was trying to do, I really said, “Look, I really want this to be an empathy engine.”

I know everyone talks about empathy, but we’re living in a time that is so polarized. We’re clubbing each other over the heads, whether on the street, in the newspaper, or in the privacy of our own homes.

I guess I wanted to rediscover how vulnerable and how human we all are and the urgency of these particular stories that live on the fault line, always, of a moment, and I think of a moment that’s very human, that’s very understandable.

In the case of the Billy Porter episode, I mean, it’s a guy who couldn’t be himself. Or, in the case of the Marlee Matlin episode, a woman who was deaf and whose mother never met her halfway. It’s about the story, but it’s about people.

It’s really about people and specific people at a specific moment in their lives. Even though it’s refracted through the prism of a legal drama, it is very much about very specific people at a very specific moment in their lives that, I think, shows how human we all are.

I hope that people, at the end of the episodes, for one thing, I hope they’ve been entertained because that’s the first job, but I hope they’ve been moved in some way and moved to feel and to think about the world we’re living in just a little differently.

If I had an intention, that’s sort of what the intention is. Of course, my intention is for people to really like the episodes enough to watch as many of them as they can.

Well, I had a visceral reaction to more than a few of the six episodes that I watched. I mean, if you were going for emotion, you scored.

When I was pitching it, I said, “I really want…” Again, it sounds pretentious, but I said, “I want people, at the end of every episode, to not be able to speak for a few seconds and hopefully, if they’re watching with someone, to look at the person, and I want them to feel something.”

I’m so happy to hear that, and thank you, by the way, for watching. I can’t believe you watched all those episodes. That’s amazing.

Well, I like all of your previous work, so that’s a good stepping stone for me. I really enjoy a lot of what Fox puts out, so I thought, “Well, with the log lines, the cast, the directors, and you, I can watch all six.”

So thankful. I’m very happy with the rest of them too. Even the ones you probably saw were in various stages of incompleteness, but I think it’s a really strong sampling. There are 15 of them, which I think is a little bit ambitious, but I’m very proud. I think they all came out great, and they’re all very different.

I can’t wait to see the rest of them.

Oh, I’m so happy you watch it. That means so much to me.

They stuck with me. I’m still thinking about some of them. I’m the kind of person who, whenever I watch a show that has one of those “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of situations, I can’t stop imagining myself in that position.

You did a really good job of exploring what these people are actually feeling, not in the second before, necessarily, whatever happens, happens, but just the overwhelming wave of what just happened and how it changes everything forever.

Well, for me, with regard to Scott’s Story [the Michael Chiklis episode], I was gunning as a man of a certain age. Like you, I’ve been around for a while, and I’m 61 years old. I have two adult children, and I was struggling with the helplessness of being the parent of an adult child.

Then I read this article about this Japanese diplomat who killed his adult son who was living under his roof because he feared he was going to commit a knife attack, which I guess was happening in Japan at that moment. The two things planted a seed in my head that I couldn’t get out to think, what would I do if…

Then again, also the spate of shootings that have been falsely and tragically normalized. Look, a lot of these places are hard places to go for all of us writing and acting it, but I think all are very meaningful.

Again, I hate to use the word responsibly, but I would say that it was done as consciously and as intentionally, and as sensitively as all of us could do it. I’m sure somebody will have problems along the way, but it’s been wonderful just-

Somebody always will, Howard.

Yeah, I know. I’m waiting to see. I’m curious because I always seem to find a way to step in something, but it’ll be interesting to see what I’ve stepped into that I have no idea I’ve stepped into.

I think it’ll be hard for people to point fingers because it was done with so many different layers, and every individual is looked at from so many different directions. People from all sides are reacting to that person and the situation. I don’t know. I think you’ve got your bases pretty well covered.

Oh, thank you.

You mentioned this case in Japan and how that planted a seed in your mind. Is that how the other cases came to you? Where did this come from? There are so many that are so different.

Some of them did. Well, one other one is actually, interestingly, a corollary of Scott’s Story, the Chiklis story. [Alex Jones’s denial of Parkland] was a spark of an idea, so I took that other side of the story where a victim, a mother [Molly Parker] who’s grieving for her child, she’s actually a professor of logic and truth and words matter.

She winds up going on the morning show promoting gun control laws, and she finds herself actually being the object of this denier, a woman, Margo Martindale, who goes on social media and insists this was all fiction and these kids weren’t really killed.

A lot of the stories are about the collateral damage of social media and of truth and of the way we can amplify, and how bots can amplify and people can throw rocks from-

And compassion. We’ve lost all sense of compassion and understanding for our fellow man.

Yeah. That’s what I insist that every writer and every actor knows. It’s so funny you say that because that’s the first thing I say. We need to have compassion for everybody in this.

I always feel that a writer has got to, and I’ve tried to do it as best as I can, given our own biases, obviously, but it’s also just more interesting writing and more surprising when someone you think you can’t find compassion for that you actively try to find that understanding of where they’re coming from.

Exactly, exactly. It’s a very different show for Fox compared to what they have on now.

Yes, it is.

What do you want prospective viewers to know about Accused before watching?

It’s so funny because, first of all, I only want them to give it a chance. What can I say that I want them to know? I was really happy to hear that you actually watched the episodes because it’s hard to talk about the show sometimes.

I think I talk about it fairly accurately, but it’s hard to describe, except that I think they will always be surprised in a good way. I think it has the familiar kind of format of a courtroom drama, but I think it is about so much more than innocence or guilt.

I really like how each case unfolds so that you are kept on your toes until the very end. You try to imagine what the end is going to be, but I was not successful in all of those stories, which is really good.

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. Yeah, that’s great to hear. Love it.

Is it one 15 episode-season, and that’s it? Or would you be open to digging even deeper for more?

No, I have to tell you, it’s interesting. There’s a lot more where they came from. I mean, I have a notebook filled with premises. Look, if the audience connects to it, I think this thing could have real legs because we’re living in endlessly interesting times.

There’s never going to be a shortage of inspirational situations out there that you can mine.

Yeah, exactly.

I have to ask before we go; a couple of years ago, there was news that you were working on a 24 prequel.


Is that still in development? Is there still a possibility that franchise will live on, especially since it was also on Fox?

I think there’s always a possibility. Our conversations have ebbed and flowed based on availability. I would never say never, I think, but there’s nothing to announce except to say that I think we’re always thinking and, again, occasionally trying to see if there’s something there.

Well, I think this is a good place for you to be now.

Yeah, it is. Personally, I’d love to do it one day. I do, and I think Kiefer jokes, “Just do it before I’m in a walker.” But I think that’s the advantage. I think Jack, with a little age on him, is a very interesting character, and I certainly can relate to him.

Accused premieres on Fox on Sunday, January 22 at 9/8c after football, and returns on Tuesday, 9/8c on January 24 in its regular time slot.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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