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The Happy Outsider

Joel Surnow relishes his role as a conservative in the generally liberal sound stages of Hollywood
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jim Nantz, May/June 2011

(continued from page 1)

The family moved to California when he was eight. "And my father became a carpet salesman. He sold door to door. We had a rough go of it. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I would roll out a foldout bed in the living room every night. The mood in the house depended on when my dad would walk through the door and say whether or not he'd made a sale. The days he didn't make a sale, it was a bleak evening. If he did, it was a happy evening."

At Beverly Hills High School, Surnow was "the classic B or C student. Watch out for C students," he says with a laugh. "You'll wind up working for them." He got into the University of California at Berkeley, and finished up at U.C.L.A. film school.

"I spent the next five or six years working with my dad. It was a split existence. I was selling carpeting and writing screenplays, one after another. I had a little bit of success early. I had written a script about my father and it got me some jobs. I was 21, and I failed miserably because I didn't know what I was doing. I was writing out of enthusiasm. I had no real craft."

So by the time he was 22 he was a Hollywood failure. "The word got out—because your reputation moves fairly quickly here—that I was no good, that I was a flash in the pan and didn't really have the goods." So he spent time "learning the craft of writing. I would say that over the next six years I really began to understand the language of writing a script," Surnow explains.

In the meantime, at 25, he married—with "kids (two daughters) at 26 and 27." And then he got his first real writing job, on a short-lived TV series called "Bay City Blues," created by the writer-producer Steven Bochco, whose credits included the long-running hit "Hill Street Blues." The year was 1983; the show told of a group of minor league baseball players—and it lasted all of eight episodes.

But that led to work on another new series, and this one was called "Miami Vice." After a year writing most of the scripts, he had another success, "The Equalizer," about a former secret agent who becomes a vigilante.

"Here I was running a show, writing every script, with a whole year and a half of experience under my belt, which was really far too little experience to have the maturity to run a show like that. But I did reasonably well. The show was picked up for more episodes." But Surnow had just gone through a divorce (he has three more daughters from his current marriage). "And I was burned out."

But the onetime failure now had "a little bit of a reputation." He continued to work in television, as a journeyman writer and producer. And in the late 1990s he ran a show called "La Femme Nikita" on the USA cable network. The program, about a woman falsely convicted of murder who is recruited into a ruthless counterterrorism organization, was for two years the highest rated drama on basic cable.

And then, in 2000, Surnow had an idea. "Every TV season was 22 episodes," he says. "One day between seasons I was thinking that 'OK, my life is going to be a season of 22 episodes.' Then I came up with the number 24. What if you did 24 episodes and everything in an entire season took place in one day, with every episode one hour of that day? I picked up the telephone and called my friend Bob Cochran, with whom I had worked on 'La Femme Nikita.' I asked him what he thought of the idea. And he said, 'It stinks.' And I said, 'You're right. It stinks. You can't do an entire season on one day.' So we hung up the phone."

But Surnow kept on thinking. "It was an idea that just refused to go away. It lingered in my subconscious. About three or four days later, I called Bob up and said, 'I think this is a good idea.' He said he had been thinking about it too and also thought it was a good idea. We got together at the International House of Pancakes in Woodland Hills, two minutes from here. We said, 'OK, what does it mean to do a show like this, what kind of show do we do?' We said, 'What if it's about a wedding and it's 24 hours before two people get married and you follow their families?' We let the idea settle for a half hour, and we said, 'It doesn't have enough heat for 24 hours. What keeps someone awake for 24 hours? A wedding wouldn't do it.

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