‘Accused’: Howard Gordon Breaks Down Premiere & Explains Why He Opened The Series With A School Shooting Episode
SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for the first episode of Fox’s Accused.
Michael Chiklis plays a concerned father who is stuck in a moral dilemma about how to handle his increasingly troubled son in the first episode of Fox‘s new anthology series Accused, which premiered Sunday.
The episode, titled “Scott’s Story,” opens with Chiklis’ Scott Miller entering the court room for a preliminary hearing about a crime the audience isn’t yet aware of. As the episode unfolds, through flashbacks as well as current moments in the courtroom, we learn that Scott had started to become worried that his son was going to commit an unimaginable crime. After finding his son’s diary full of violent thoughts, he begins to consider whether he should kill his own son in order to stop those thoughts from becoming actions. Ultimately, he can’t go through with it. After having a heart-to-heart with his son, Scott believes that he may be open to seeking help on the condition that his parents give him money to go on a trip with a friend.
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Only, he doesn’t use the money for a trip. He uses the money to buy guns, bullets, and other weapons to conduct a mass shooting at his school, killing several students and himself. Only then do we learn that the charges against Scott are accessory to murder for providing the money to his son after already having concerns about his violent behavior.
“Trauma is very good for drama, in a way, and as a storyteller, you get to process that fictionally. So you get to take that real truth and process it adjacent to actual events. I think the writers are getting a chance to dramatize some of the questions that we’re all asking ourselves at this particular time in 2023. These are stories that really probably could only have been told, for a variety of reasons, today,” said showrunner Howard Gordon.
It’s a heavy episode to kick off the anthology, which is expected to put 15 different people on trial throughout the course of the first season. Gordon spoke with Deadline about why he chose this story as to open the series, what he learned about crafting delicate narratives from 24 and Homeland, and whether he’ll ever return to his other franchises.
DEADLINE: Why did you think this was the right story to kick off the series?
HOWARD GORDON: I picked this story among the first batch of stories and frankly, I got scared of writing it. I really had a hard time breaking it and ready and I think it was [Fox President of Entertainment] Michael Thorne who liked it. I did a whole alternate story, which wound up being Danny’s Story, which is later on in the season, but he said ‘I cannot get Scott’s Story out of my head. So will you please stick with that one?’ We were very happy with the way it came out with Michael Cuesta [directing] and Michael Chiklis and Jill Hennessy and the whole cast, but it’s a hard one — the biggest gut punch. But we had to think: Is this going to be something? Is this the way that we lead, or should this be something we bring in once we’ve had more accessible, easy to watch episodes. Ultimately this one stuck with us. We said let’s not program out of fear. Let’s go with this one that has always been the definitive one, which shows the places we’re willing to go on the show. It’s funny, because everyone has been afraid of this on one level and on the other level compelled by it.
DEADLINE: School shootings have been depicted on television for a long time and, unfortunately, it’s still a very relevant story to tell. Why focus on someone more on the periphery of the situation and not, say, one of the students involved?
GORDON: So the reason I was even came up with the story to begin with was that I’m a father. Then I came across this story in the newspaper about a Japanese diplomat, and he was in the Parliament, and he had been arrested for killing his adult child who was living at home and who he feared was going to commit a series of knife attacks. That raised a real question, my own recognition of how helpless I sometimes felt as a father and then projecting it onto that situation. What would you do if you knew? As you said, once upon a time one school shooting would have been a generational nightmare that we process as a culture and as a society. That’s now become impossibly commonplace. We’re both in shock, traumatized and numbed by the frequency of it. One of the questions people always ask is, ‘Well, surely the parents must have known. How could they not have known?’ And that is that idea. All dramatic things tend to start with a question, and a curiosity and that’s what haunted me. Then the whole idea of the idea of the parent or parents being legally complicit. I think the crux of the episode is the line at the very end, when Jill Hennessy says ‘I wish you’d done it.’ It was a line that I actually omitted initially from the cut. It was always in the script. But I screened it for the crew, and 20 people came up to me and they said, ‘Wow, I loved it, but what happened to the last line?’ So it’s just a challenging line. I think it elevates the episode and gets to the point of it all, like what would any of us do? In hindsight, it’s one thing to imagine, how do you predict something that you’re not certain will happen? Especially when it comes to your own child. [Scott] is a neurosurgeon. It may be a little bit too on the nose, but the metaphor is clear that we never know what’s going on inside other people’s brains, and here’s a guy who cuts into people’s brains and takes out tumors and helps them. A guy who has spent a life fixing people and now has to make this choice of what’s the least bad decision.
DEADLINE: I’m glad you brought up that last line. It is somewhat of a gut punch, especially coming from the mother, who all along didn’t want to see what was right in front of her.
GORDON: Exactly. She’s obviously in denial from the very beginning. Then when she understands that this is real, that her husband’s concern has real teeth, it’s interesting inside the marriage that he protects her by not obviously insinuating to her his plan [to kill their son]. He’s going to spare her this, which I think it may be lost on people, but that was a very big moment to me, retrospectively. He thought he was the protector but of course, couldn’t bring himself to do it. Then he actually learns from her that she wishes he’d done it. We don’t know whether she’s going to walk away and reject him like their other son did or whether she’s gonna slap him. The fact that she reaches out for his hand was where we ended it before. So just a moment of grace and acceptance. Even in the void of a lifetime that’s going to be spent dealing with the wreckage of this event, there’s a moment of grace between these two people. When she says, ‘I wish you’d done it,” she says it obviously in the context of accepting him and accepting that he contemplated doing that.
DEADLINE: How did you craft the narrative structure for the show? How did you know when was the right time to reveal certain pieces of information?
GORDON: That’s very similar to the central question of the show. When you put it together, how do you give enough to make people lean in before the first commercial break and compel them to keep watching and keep guessing? It’s really trial and error. We dialed it up, we dialed it back, and then ultimately it really is a bit of a sleight of hand. It’s involving the audience and telling them the part of the story that we want to sometimes willfully omit or delay so that they think they know what they’re seeing, because we try to subvert it in a way that feels surprising, but also inevitable and organic to what came before.
DEADLINE: This is obviously not the first time you’ve handled delicate and timely subject matter on your shows. 24 premiered right after 9/11 and was very much a show relevant to that time. What brings you back to these stories?
GORDON: Trauma is very good for drama, in a way, and as a storyteller, you get to process that fictionally. So you get to take that real truth and process it adjacent to actual events. I think the writers are getting a chance to dramatize some of the questions that we’re all asking ourselves at this particular time in 2023. These are stories that really probably could only have been told, for a variety of reasons, today. I think they’re universal, and they’re very human, but at the same time, some of the subjects whether it’s race or gender or even social media plays a big part in three of the stories. Everything’s happening and changing so quickly that this was a chance to take these bite-sized fables and work through, hopefully compellingly and in tandem, some of those things that are haunting all of us.
DEADLINE: Do you ever worry whether this is the right moment or the right way to tell a certain story?
GORDON: Oh, my God, of course I worry. I will say, trying to second guess or being afraid is not a good way to go. Both 24 and Homeland both demonstrate that. I mean, after 9/11, they were even talking about pulling the show before it aired. We had to revise it a bit, but I think in the end people wanted to process. I can’t speak for all people but hopefully again people will want to experience these hours, because at the end of each one of them, they’ll feel a little bit differently about what it means to be alive today. I think that’s what dramas are meant to do — make you think and make you feel.
DEADLINE: Speaking of 24, you and Kiefer Sutherland have both spoken to press about how you’d be open to more. Have you two spoken about this together? How probable is Jack Bauer’s return?
GORDON: We mentioned it idly sometimes. It’s a conversation. No one’s putting the fork in it and saying it’s over, But I think we do recognize that it has to be the right story. We don’t want to do it just to do it, or just to bring people back in. The trick is that that show was of a very specific time. The real question is how does that show and that character come back today? I don’t think we could do 24 or Homeland today. Again, if you imagine those stories are just like, pitch them from the beginning, but that was really meant that was a story of its time. Just like Accused. If you imagine any of these stories having been on the air 20 years ago, some of them couldn’t have happened. With 24 I think, you know, it’s a matter of when and how and who and if we can come up with a story that’s worth telling to bring Jack back.
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