Fans of the show "24," or anyone who has followed the recent controversy surrounding its portrayal of torture, may have been understandably surprised by a mid-summer announcement by Fox network executives: The series—whose co-creator and executive producer, Joel Surnow, is a Rick Santorum- supporting, friend-of-Ann-Coulter sort of conservative, and whose hero, Jack Bauer, knows his way around a waterboard—was going green. In fact, it would be the first TV series ever to do so. Henceforth, every electroshock session would require the purchase of carbon offsets.
Led by executive producer Howard Gordon, whose wife coauthored The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming with Laurie David, high priestess of Hollywood environmentalism, execs promised to reduce the show's carbon footprint during the upcoming seventh season, with a "carbon neutral" finale as the ultimate goal. Surnow, for his part, has remained mum about the venture. "He is tolerating it rather than embracing it," Gordon tells me by phone.
Politics aside, an environmentally friendly "24" still seems an oxymoronic notion, like eco-conscious coal mining. For one, the show shoots roughly half of its scenes on location--unlike, say, a medical drama, which mainly adheres to a single interior. This makes "24" something of an energy glutton: Each new venue requires the transportation of crew and equipment, the building (and dismantling) of sets, the rigging of generators to power the voracious lights that illuminate those sets. And, of course, the series' numerous special effects (car chases, explosions, shootouts) are not exactly low-emission—the show's carbon footprint for 2006 was 1,684 metric tons, the annual equivalent of approximately 364 cars or 89 households. Mike Posey, a Twentieth Century Fox Television production manager who also spearheads the show's environmental efforts, sums up the logic behind the decision this way: "We could have done it with a sitcom that never leaves the stage and only shoots one day a week and said, 'Yay! We did it.' But we picked our toughest show, our most expensive show, and, if we can pull it off, it will be a great achievement."
AT THIS POINT, just putting out a new season seems like it would be achievement enough. As I pull into the production office parking lot in Chatsworth, California, a quiet suburb in the San Fernando Valley, I notice that many of the spots reserved for producers (the industry's high-toned designation for TV writers) are empty. Two weeks earlier, the writers' strike began its long, slow smolder, and the series, which had already delayed production due to a radically rejiggered storyline, has made its way through all but one of the scripts in its meager inventory. The show's star, Kiefer Sutherland, will soon begin serving a 48-day DUI sentence. And Fox announced that the eight recently completed episodes will not even air until the strike ends. Amid all this chaos, however, eco-changes are apparently afoot.
I am expecting an obvious enviro-chic overhaul: solar panels, sustainable bamboo flooring, actors drinking out of lead-free ceramic mugs. But a generator that runs on biodiesel looks like any other generator. And the ghoulish glow of energy-efficient fluorescent lights will be familiar to anyone who's ever shopped at a Kmart. Posey, a tall, baby-faced 30-year old, tells me that he had "zero experience" with eco-matters before last year, but he has since become a de facto environmental guru of sorts. The warehouses are leased, which is why there are no structural changes like solar panels to point to, but he recounts the numerous changes he and his colleagues have made: the aforementioned generators and light bulbs, the motion sensors in almost every room. A "Virtual Production Office" now posts scripts online, obviating the daily distribution of up to 100 scripts via messenger. "Green power" from renewable sources is being purchased for all electricity used. Finally, Priuses—Prii?—have been leased for the crew's frequent drivers. As we cross the parking lot between warehouses, Posey points to a black Prius. He seems pleased by the visual aid. "If you look through our parking lot," he says, "you'll see a lot of our crew and actors drive Priuses on their own."
I don't have the heart to tell him the Prius he has pointed out is mine. I wonder aloud whether anyone has complained about the green measures. "Just one," Posey tells me, and cites "one talent"—an actor, in other words—who refused to be ferried in one of the Priuses now being used by the show's car service. "He just didn't feel like it was big enough for him to get in with his luggage," Posey says. But, in general, cast and crew have been amenable to the changes. "You know Hollywood," Posey explains. "They all jump on these kinds of things." Gordon, on the other hand, tells me that he's heard grumblings about the motion sensors—the bathrooms go dark when someone "sit[s] for a while on the toilet."
In the vague, optimistic terms favored by businessmen, Posey tells me that the show has already met its goal: "Just from what we've done the past three months, we're gonna, like, blow that out of the water." Through fuel reductions and the purchase of green power, Posey says, the series has reduced its emissions by 125 metric tons, "the equivalent of taking twenty-seven cars off the road, and like fourteen thousand gallons of oil." If this is true—and, short of rifling through the show's electricity bills, it's hard to verify—it's definitely an accomplishment.
Around the production office, some staffers have clearly gotten into the conscientious spirit. An article from The Week titled "The High Price of Bottled Water" has been posted on a kitchen wall. It hangs a few steps away from a stack of cardboard crates filled with Arrowhead water bottles. I ask Posey whether he has thought of going the Gavin Newsom route and banning plastic bottles altogether. "It's tough," he says, "because what do you do when these guys just need to grab a water and get on the road?"
We peer into a large room where numerous desks and halogen lamps (fitted with eco-friendly bulbs) are arranged in small groupings, college-dorm-like. The remaining writers' assistants sit among many empty desks; screen savers swim on idle computers. Various underlings on their way down the hall eye Posey warily. "How's that hatchet?" one asks. Posey confesses that in the past week, he has personally had to fire 75 people. That, I think, is a sure way to reach carbon neutral.
"IT'S ALL TALK, talk, talk," a key grip sitting around reading Mike Davis's Planet of Slums says of the environmental efforts, once Posey is out of earshot. I am seated next to him, watching the filming of a White House scene in which Jack Bauer is, as usual, charged with finding a subject and extracting information from him. Between takes, Madame President's hair is lacquered with aerosol hairspray. Sutherland growls at a crew member who has stepped in his sight line ("That's unbelievably distracting!"). The air conditioning is off—not for environmental reasons, I am told, but because the hum is too loud for filming. The crew sits around reading, playing computer games, and sending text messages while fanning themselves with tiny, half-sized scripts (the better to save trees with). It's not only electrical energy, you might say, that is wasted on a set. "It's an interesting idea to try to go green on a film set," the grip says, as though reading my mind. "It's a pretty hard argument to make. Everything is a one-off. Every time we come, we build something new. We don't own the building. We're like carnies: We pitch a tent and move on."
This may explain why the set looks like a garage sale: shadeless lamps, empty picture frames, an old bathtub lying around. And then there are those ubiquitous special effects—in many ways the hallmark of "24"—the carbon impact of which is hard to deny. Though Posey tells me biodiesel is now used for some explosions and the show is trying to create more of the effects digitally "rather than physically going out and blowing things up," he also admits that entertainment value still comes first. "We can't do what we can't do," Gordon emphasizes, "like curtail the creative requirements of the show." He adds, "I do hope that, once the consciousness is raised, maybe a director would say: Maybe we don't have to blow the whole building up. Maybe we can do it on a smaller scale, and lessen the environmental impact of a scene, without lessening its dramatic merits."
Amanda Fortini is a writer in Los Angeles. This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.