SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Conservatives who lament the ideological bias in Hollywood need to stop acting like liberals.
That's the advice Joel Surnow, the executive producer of the hit television series 24, gave to hundreds of conservative students on Saturday at the Young America's Foundation West Coast Leadership conference.
"Our job is not to whine, that's their job," Surnow said. "Our job is to succeed despite the adversity."
Following the speech, Surnow sat by the patio bar of Fess Parker's DoubleTree hotel on a cool Santa Barbara afternoon with his wife at his side, and elaborated further to a group of conservative bloggers. He insisted that good material will see the light of day in Hollywood, no matter what the political bent, and pointed to productions such as 24, Path to 9/11, and the movie 300.
Surnow recalled that when he first entered the business 35 years ago, he was advised that, "if you write a great script, you could drop it off a freeway overpass during 5 o'clock traffic, and that movie will get made."
The goal of developing 24 was not to make an explicitly conservative show, but merely to entertain the audience with a good storyline, Surnow said. However, in an age during which moral relativism dominates popular culture, the series stands out for embracing old-fashioned notions of right and wrong, and for portraying its protagonist Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as a heroic figure for doing whatever it takes to protect his loved ones and his nation. At a time when it has become culturally taboo to portray radical Islam in a bad light, the show does not hesitate to make Muslim terrorists the bad guys.
"Jack Bauer really represents justice," Surnow said during his speech. "This guy doesn't care about the law, he doesn't care about the courts, he doesn't care about consequences. He just cares about getting the bad guy and putting him down."
Surnow continued, "I understand all the legal eggheads who say we can't live in a society like that. I tend to agree that you can't have vigilantes running around, because eventually that could lead down to a very crazy place.
"But in a world where there's so much noise about what we've done wrong, why we're such bad people, there's so little support for just the real common sense idea, which is: they're bad, we're good, we're going to get them. Jack Bauer represents that. I think the fact that he's as popular as he is is encouraging."
The television series is also at the cultural forefront of the ongoing debate on the use of torture, because Bauer routinely uses brutal tactics to obtain information from detainees, and critics have argued that the show glorifies the practice. Surnow sees things differently.
"In the context of our show, torture is like the only option," he said during the interview. "Does it glorify it? I don't know. I think it's hard to watch. I think Jack Bauer has paid a horrible price for having to do the things he does.... It's always done with the dark side attached. But we happen to believe that torture works, in a very simple, simplistic, way. We believe that if your kid was kidnapped and was about to be killed and you had the person who could tell you where that kid was, that if you didn't torture that person to get information, that would be immoral and irresponsible."
Nonetheless, Surnow sees Bauer as a "tragic character" who has been emotionally eviscerated over the course of his show as a result of what he has had to do. He's lost his wife, has been estranged from his daughter, and imperiled everybody close to him. This reality has made the show harder than ever to write, because "There's nothing for Jack to love or protect or care for anymore."
In a surprisingly candid admission, Surnow told students that "From a creative standpoint, his story is close to over. But from a business stand point, the show is in profit. They picked us up for two more years, and we kind of have to find ways to keep his story going without repeating itself. That's what we struggle with every day. Where does Jack Bauer go from here?"
The next season was supposed to debut in January, but will be delayed indefinitely as a result of the Hollywood writer's strike. It transfers the main setting from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., where Bauer finds himself before a Senate Committee, and faces possible jail time for his use of torture on enemy combatants.
There are also plans for a 24 theatrical movie, which has already been written, but will only be made once the series is over. It would all take place in real time over a 24-hour period, but they'd skip over parts of the day to keep it to a feature length. So, it may start with a 45 minute segment in London, then skip several hours later to show somebody arriving in New York.
In the upcoming season, there will be a woman president played by Cherry Jones.
"If she's a really good character, she may help Hillary," Surnow joked. "So we may have to turn her into a bad character."
Surnow said he would probably be supporting Rudy Giuliani, and he asks, "Are we nuts thinking Hillary Clinton could be president of this country?"
Asked about the battle over popular culture, he said that conservatives should keep their heads up. "I happen to believe that the MoveOn culture is going to have to implode at some point," he said, and also remarked that it is actually liberals who are becoming more restrictive.
"To me, the liberal movement is old and repressive," he said. "If you want drinking, smoking, and red meat, you have to hang out with Republicans."
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