'Homeland's' Secret Weapons: Inside the 30-Year Friendship That Stuck Together
THR is on set and in the writers room of TV's hottest drama as its co-creators -- Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon -- reveal a tale of reunited friends, ripped-from-the-headlines drama and, oh yeah, all of those shiny awards.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
[Warning: This feature contains spoilers from Homeland's second season.]
In the fall of 1984, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon packed up Gordon's Datsun B-210 and drove from New York to Los Angeles to "make it" as writing partners. Having met a year earlier at Princeton, the two men moved in together in Santa Monica, launched an SAT prep company to support themselves and caught their first break on ABC's detective series Spenser: For Hire.
But it was staff gigs on The X Files nearly a decade later that offered both men the kind of launchpad that catapults a little-known writer to A-list status. And while it did precisely that for Gordon, who thrived on that show and later as the showrunner on 24, Gansa left X Files -- and his partnership with Gordon -- after one season and then struggled to cut through with a series of other small-screen projects. So much so, in fact, that the tuxedo he had purchased for the awards circuit during their late-1980s run on CBS' Beauty and the Beast wasn't used for nearly two decades, as he never was invited back to the Emmys. That is, until this year.
"This is a f--ing fairy tale," says Gansa, his jaw hanging open. It's Sept. 23, Emmy night, and the writer-producer is motioning to the two awards -- one for writing, one for best drama series -- placed on his dinner table at the postshow Governors Ball. A parade of agents, executives and fellow writers stops by to congratulate him and Gordon. With champagne flowing, roast tenderloin being served and such TV royalty as Lorne Michaels and Jon Stewart milling about, Gansa utters variations on "I just can't believe these are mine" as he loosens the bow tie of his replacement tux (moths had eaten through the original) and attempts to make sense of the show's previous three-plus hours. His Showtime terrorism drama, Homeland, which he created as a reunion of sorts with old pal Gordon, scored a whopping four wins (plus two technical awards a week earlier). Says an equally celebratory Gordon, "It's hard not to be emotional."
Like the vast majority of prognosticators, Gansa, 52, and Gordon, 51, had gone into the evening expecting that star Claire Danes, who plays a bipolar former CIA officer, would be the first-year series' only winner. That co-star Damian Lewis would top three-time best actor winner Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad) and Homeland would seize the drama series crown -- as well as the writing award -- from four-time champ Mad Men has both men in a state of utter disbelief.
Two days later, Gansa's statuettes remain wrapped in boxes at home, with no decision made as to where they will live; Gordon's haven't left his kitchen counter. "This whole thing is richer and more complex than just winning awards," explains Gansa, the series showrunner. "It was all of the years that Howard and I had spent together as partners, the emotionally wrenching difficulty of breaking up and trying to make our own mark on the world, and then ultimately deciding to come back together and having this be the crowning achievement of our careers."
There are few true fairy tales in Hollywood; even rarer are stories of genuine, enduring friendship. The Gansa-Gordon one is replete with both. The friends, who are going on 30 years since they first met as seniors writing their theses, suddenly have found themselves the town's hottest writing duo. The Emmy wins capped a year of acclaim and ratings milestones for Homeland, including that famous endorsement from President Obama. The show, loosely adapted from Israel's Prisoners of War, has been transformative for Showtime, too: Its first 12-episode season, which likely contributed to the 1.1 million subscriber gain this year (to a total of 20.5 million), became the network's highest-rated freshman series ever, with more than 4.4 million viewers tuning in over the course of a week for its at once queasy and addictive post-9/11 adrenaline rush. Notes Leslie Moonves, CEO of Showtime parent CBS Corp., "I've never gotten as many requests for DVDs in my entire career in television as I have for this show."
Season two, which kicked off Sept. 30 to rave reviews ("One of the best high-wire acts put on the small screen," wrote THR's Tim Goodman) and a record night of viewership of 2.1 million viewers, will center on the "doomed love affair," as Gansa puts it, between Carrie Mathison (Danes) and former POW Nicholas Brody (Lewis). "Every time Claire and Damian are onscreen together, the whole show elevates," he says. "So our job this year in the story room is to try to put them in each others' company as often as possible in the most exigent circumstances."
To be sure, the writers already burned through a series of pivotal plot points during the first season, including Carrie's breakdown, Brody's attempted suicide and the pair's short-lived romance. Now, with expectations sky high and rival networks feverishly developing copycats, the proverbial ante has been upped, a point that isn't lost on Gansa and Gordon. "The higher you are propped up, the further you have to fall, so you have to detach as best you can," says Gordon.
The pair has been back in the writers room since late January plotting out the second season with what might be one of the most pedigreed ensembles of all time. "It's a murderers' row," says Bert Salke, chief of Homeland's studio Fox 21, of the show's six-member writing staff made up exclusively of former showrunners: Henry Bromell (Homicide), Meredith Stiehm (Cold Case), Chip Johannessen (Dexter), Alex Cary (Lie to Me), Gordon and Gansa. (It is unlikely all six will return for a third season given the heightened interest in their work.)
Those writers rely on a cadre of past and present CIA consultants as well as their own experience, both personal and professional. Cary, for instance, served in the British military before moving to Los Angeles, Stiehm has a bipolar sister, and Bromell's father once was a CIA station chief. Gordon, along with Gansa, whom he brought aboard 24 during the show's seventh season, has spent several years immersed in the world of political drama. When it comes to story, Gordon is better known for 24-style thriller components and Gansa tends to be more focused on character, but they push each other -- often bickering like brothers and finishing each other's sentences like a married couple -- on both.
"They're this kind of odd couple," says Cary of the duo, both married now with four children between them. "If you put it in the parlance of our show, Alex is more like the CIA officer and Howard is more the politician or the State Department. Howard is the one who makes a lot of noise -- and it's good noise -- and Alex is the one who cuts it into some kind of decision."