Rebel Without a Cause: Kurt Sutter’s War on (Some) Critics

Kurt Sutter’s War on (Some) Critics

December 30th, 2010

Earlier this year, I wrote a profile of sorts regarding the role that Kurt Sutter’s Twitter account, @sutterink, was playing in shaping Sons of Anarchy’s image within online communities, and the degree to which its polarizing nature would play into one’s experience of watching the series. When I wrote that piece, I had more or less no opinion on the issue: while I found it academically interesting, on a personal level I felt as if the Twitter account was a logical extension of the kind of renegade spirit which defines the series and Sutter’s personal approach to both storytelling and showrunning. It’s his opinion, his Twitter account, and his show – that gives him every right to say whatever he so desires, and I have no intention of vilifying his activity in this area.

However, on a personal level, my opinion has changed. I am among those who were disappointed in Sons of Anarchy’s third season, a group which includes many of the same people who were so high on the show before the ratings bump in Season Two made it into FX’s biggest hit. It is a group which includes intelligent critics, critics who elaborate on their opinions on a near-weekly basis and whose opinions are well-respected. It is also a group which includes people who may not be as well-respected, and whose opinions may not be quite as elaborate, as is the case with any or all responses to television in the internet age.

My frustration is not that Sutter refuses to admit that Season Three was a failure – that remains, of course, just my opinion – but rather that he seems intent on categorizing and labeling critical response to the season based on broad generalizations which suggest a hivemind incapable of independent, or comprehensive, thought. While there is an argument to be made that trends in online criticism contributed to the negative response to Season Three, suggesting that it is the result of bandwagons or gender determination represents a dismissal and an insult to the very kinds of people who supported the show in years past, and may now be less likely to support the show in the future.

And these suggestions may be the only thing more confounding than the narrative decisions which drove Sons of Anarchy’s third season.

I’m not going to lie and say that I understood where Sutter was coming from this season: frankly, I still have no idea what drove him to create the season he did. I understand the thematic impulses, perhaps, and I think the journeys on which he took particular characters were pretty compelling, but why this story needed to be told in this way confounds me. There was a strong 6-8 episode arc in SAMCRO’s journey to Ireland in search of Abel, and yet by stretching it out to 13 the season lost any and all momentum they once had. Jax lost motivation, the club lost any sense of internal tension (or individual motivation), and a lot of viewers (myself included) lost patience. This was a season that needed two arcs to work properly, two arcs which would have made the local politics, government bureaucracy, and revenge-seeking rival gang members more well-realized and thus develop in a cohesive, engaging season. What Sutter had was a compelling opening and an exciting ending, and the season’s inability to string together a decent narrative in between was the year’s biggest disappointment.

I think Sutter is right that certain trends in criticism are to blame for the degree of online negativity regarding the season, but he has yet to put his finger on the reason. The real reason is that, in this age of post-air analysis, criticism is inherently impatient. There is something unnatural, and perhaps even unfair, about judging seasons of television as they air – Sutter was clearly creating an arc-driven season, and thus individual episodes which did little to drive that arc forward were met with more intense criticism. As the season wore on, those episodes started to pile up more than perhaps some critics/bloggers had expected, eventually creating enough of a backlash that the finale was considered strong in spite of the season rather than because of any sort of cumulative narrative development.

Now, ultimately, I don’t buy the notion that episodic reviews are unfair: a truly great television show should hold up both as individual episodes and as an entire season. And, frankly, I think the season actually becomes worse when you think about it on a macro-level, with the finale strong in ways which did little to redeem earlier concerns. However, I think Sutter’s response reflects the ramifications of this form of criticism, of the immediate response to something that, for Sutter, was anything but immediate – he knew where the story was going, and what he was trying to accomplish, and being outspoken as he is he chose to comment on that.

It’s the nature of those comments which has surprised me, as Sutter has resisted dismissing critics entirely in favor of deconstructing certain trends within criticism. In the past, directors like Kevin Smith have purposefully distanced themselves from all criticism in an effort to suggest that their movies are not intended for critical audiences (which has recently returned to the news just today with Smith’s Twitter rant on the subject), but Sutter is choosing a different tact: instead of suggesting that all critics don’t “get” his show, he instead tries to explain away certain critical responses. In perhaps his most memorable example, Sutter decided that what really determined a critic’s response to his show was their gender:

Despite being male, I did not find this particularly offensive: I think Sutter knew this was a broad generalization based on incredibly anecdotal evidence, and so I chose to take this as a brief aside which could become fodder for numerous Twitter jokes in the weeks which followed. However, it is still an attempt to disenfranchise certain critics (those who are “linear” thinkers) in favor of other ones, a hierarchy based here on gender and their ability to see Sutter’s “big picture.” As one of those critics who would fall into the lower end of this hierarchy, I just shrugged this off: Sutter is observing a trend, rather than making an argument, and thus his interpretation of the information in front of him is his interpretation of that information. It’s a ludicrous claim, one which would prove wildly indeterminate by season’s end (when at least one of the female critics Sutter was referring to would prove as disappointed as many of her male colleagues), but it’s more silly than anything else.

And yet I am more profoundly annoyed by Sutter’s more recent claims. In a year-end blog post expressing his (understandable) frustration with the critical response to the season, Sutter made the following analysis of why that response might be:

“The truth is a lot of bloggers and critics are too fucking lazy to actually watch the show and form an original opinion, so they’ll let a few other critics determine what the show is.  In season two, a few critics tagged Sons as one of the best shows on television.  That buzz was picked up and so season two was labeled “brilliant”.  This season, a few critics struggled with the Ireland/Baby narrative and labeled those middle episodes as confusing and off-point.  That buzz was also picked up and so season three is being labeled “not-so-brilliant”.  The reality is that neither assessment is true.  It’s just that one is easier to accept [than] the other.”

On a personal level, as someone who has spent the better part of three years trying to establish a critical voice, the notion that my negative response to the third season – or any of my critical responses to any show – would be considered simply reductive of more well-known critics is enormously frustrating. I hate the idea that the diversity of critical opinions that the internet offers has been reduced to a hierarchy wherein a few big names have certain opinions and then everyone else become lemmings jumping on (or off) the bandwagon – as someone who started as a “lowly” blogger and has slowly gained something approaching critical credibility, I’m particularly protective of the value of “smaller” voices within this field, and so the notion that their voices are irrelevant if they reflect those of a more prominent critic irks me.

However, my greater issue is that Sutter seems intent on profiling critical responses, a profile which is bleeding down into the show’s rabid fanbase. I think it’s one thing to dismiss critics entirely: I think it is perfectly reasonable for a creator as admittedly hyper-sensitive as Sutter to stop paying attention to what critics are saying, and I would not be offended if Sutter said he didn’t give a shit what I said about his show. However, instead of fueling a general apathy towards critical responses, Sutter profiles critics as lazy, unoriginal, and reductive; he portrays male critics as linear, incapable of grasping the complexity of the series, instead of simply disagreeing with them. In the process, the real hivemind in this situation is revealed to be those who commented on Sutter’s blog post, spewing back the same rhetoric about lazy critics with very little originality – the most alarming part of Sutter’s piece is not his own comments, but instead the degree to which the dichotomy between critics and “real” fans of the show was picked up by the 50+ comments which followed.

Yes, this is not particularly new behavior from Sutter on the surface, but I think it’s different in two key ways. The first is that it isn’t exactly positioned as a rant: rants are meant to seem emotional and full-force, but when dealing with critics Sutter seems to be doing something more serious, which could lend unearned credence to his so-called analysis of the situation at hand. The second, however, is that his purpose in his blog posts is often some sort of social or bureaucratic ill, positioning himself as a refreshing voice for change amidst an industry where the status quo is sometimes overbearing. In this instance, however, his target is television critics who have in the past liked his show, and who could well like it in the future, and who in their decision to cover the series on a weekly basis provide it a certain degree of respect which should stand regardless of how much they enjoyed the season in question. That Sutter seems intent on devaluing their contributions, and that he seems particularly intent on devaluing those who have less notoriety and who (in his mind) couldn’t possibly have an independent thought on the subject seems more petty and more spiteful than any of his previous behavior surrounding the series’ reception. The internet has proven quite emphatically that critics are individuals, not simply part of a larger institution, and for Sutter to treat them as such is incredibly disappointing.

I’m glad that people enjoyed Sons of Anarchy’s third season – like any good critic, I understand that not everyone watches television like I do, and that there are going to be people who don’t care about narrative momentum or character motivations or any other concern I had with the season in general. I do not begrudge them their enjoyment, nor would I ever suggest that the entire world start viewing television as I do – that world would be nearly insufferable. However, I would simply ask that people like Sutter and those fans who have chosen to repeat his rhetoric also understand that the intelligent critics who disagree with them are not all-male, not all of the same mind, and certainly not to be disenfranchised based on a well-reasoned, if different, opinion.

And that even an outspoken showrunner should know better than to suggest otherwise, making just one more resolution for showrunners to add to Daniel T. Walters’ fine list.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Rebel Without a Cause: Kurt Sutter’s War on (Some) Critics

  1. Digifreak642

    As Mr. Sutter proved last night, he feels that he can form an opinion on something before reading all of it. This makes him look like a hypocrite.

    Most of his fans enjoy his twitter persona, so if he alienates some critics, he doesn’t lose enough fans for that to be a problem.

  2. iva

    this blogpost was boring, and remarkably off key. SoA season 3 was ok. Kurt Sutter is an individual that deserves respect for what he created regardles of his tweets and disrespect for critics. While I wasn’t exstatic about the Ireland arc, I realise it had a point and it provided further background into the instinctual drives of our characters. Not to mention it made for a good build up to a great season finale. Yes, blood shed is interesting but it was refreshing that instead of overblowing the season 2 plots he made whole new ones.

    And he has damn nice blogposts. If more of show creators were like him we wouldn’t be faced with the likes of Shonda Rhymes attempting to run 3 mediocre shows instead of one worth watching over and over.

  3. “Kurt Sutter is an individual that deserves respect for what he created regardles of his tweets and disrespect for critics. ”

    This statement seems hypocritical on its face, but more to the point, I think this post here shows nothing BUT respect for Sutter, in choosing to take a closer look into Sutter’s latest online hissyfit and examine its causes and implications. Much as I’m likely to dismiss Sutter’s rantings as yet another instance of a showrunner unwisely choosing to sling mud with critics and generally show themselves to be unable to handle criticism, Myles has chosen to engage these outbursts, and by doing so, he’s at the very least respecting them as something worth discussing.

  4. Steve

    While it had its moments, I’d paraphrase one of the best lines of the season in response to Sutter: “I don’t recognize your bullshit S3″.

  5. djones

    I found his comments interesting in how they changed over the course of the season. At first he took the complaints about not getting to Ireland quickly as driven by people who just wanted the show to be about violent action, and when it became clear that that wasn’t the critique his comments shifted to critical culture in general. It’s easy to paint his comments as petulant or oversensitive, but then it also must be very difficult to have connected with critics and audiences so strongly last year, and then to have the critical support evaporate when you weren’t expecting it and still put in the full effort on the season.

    It was still mostly a failure as a season. Obviously repeating the storyline of season 2 wasn’t possible or desirable, but most of the characters had no arc at all, including major characters. Juice obviously isn’t going to get many of his own plots, but for a character like Clay to essentially just be there while the season happens around him is a major failure. Jax has the wonderful scene where he watches the other family with Abel, but beyond that his story was essentially a fetch-quest from a videogame. While most of the characters were backgrounded, I found that Gemma was hugely overexposed this season. Katey Sagal is great, but the focus of the flabby early episodes on her time at her father’s home and as a fugitive, followed by the ridiculous machinations required to free her from federal custody in the hospital and get her to Ireland so that she can be the focus of almost every major scene there was too much of a muchness. I’m fine with taking the time to show her with her father, but there was a much more believable and compelling arc in having that story unfold over the course of a season while she stays in the US rather than shoehorning her into the Ireland stuff. Building so much of season 2 around her was incredibly successful, and I can understand the reluctance to put her in the background now, but her presence there left the Charming storyline anemic and took time away from actually building up the Irish characters, who, with the exception of Maureen, never developed much beyond “people who will likely die by season’s end”

  6. belinda

    I’m not a blogger, but as a regular ol’ television show watcher who occasionally likes to post comments on various tv forums (or here at a blog post of a critic) I do feel your annoyance regarding Sutter’s responses to critics/bloggers at large.

    There are times when there’s a show I absolutely love, I watch every episode, I read about it on blogs and forums, and even take the time to want to post comments to discuss it – yet if I ever voice negative opinions on a particular scene or an episode or a season, there will be people who will instantly jump on me and label me as a “hater” or a “troll”, which I don’t think is fair. There’s a difference between hating on something and having a discussion (via a blog post/forum comment) with valid concerns. And there’s a difference between constructive criticism and a “I just don’t like it” without reason. And there’s a difference between blindly loving something and having a real reason to love it too.

    So to have a show creator (or a writer, or an actor, or other fans) equating all negative comments as the same and quickly judging – which is ironic – those who voiced such opinions as irrational or worse, being labeled as someone obviously too stupid to understand the show they’ve been watching for years, or form any opinions of their own and are just blindly ‘following a hate/love trend’ – is bull.

    I’m insulted, and I’m just a regular ‘unprofessional’ viewer!

  7. Season One was decent. Season Two was slightly above average. Season Three was decent. This show has never been great. Because of which, Sutter’s ego is unbecoming.

  8. Thank you, Memles, for being the voice of reason in this idiotic dispute that seems to be going on between Sutter and TV critics (and audiences alike).

    As a fellow “non-linear thinking” female tv “critic” (actually, it’s just a hobby) who used to love this show, I too was disappointed with the way the story of this season was structured, the obvious mistakes made and the way the characters were used mostly as plot points instead of compelling people whose lives we enjoy watching. I particularly found the distinction you quoted above, between females and males watching this show, to be ludicrous. So… just because we get to see Jax’s ass, we’re supposed to forget every other plot point that seems contrived? Does he really take us, women – non linear thinking aside – for idiots? Because it sure felt like it…

    I understand that it must be hard having people criticizing your work, talking about your “baby” and maybe – just maybe, saying he isn’t as beautiful as you say it is. But hey, it’s life, and we all must learn to deal with it. TV critics and bloggers alike will not devote a huge chunk of their free time reviewing every episode of a show just to bad-mouth it. No, people who write in depth reviews, especially the ones who aren’t paid to do it – are usually the ones who actually love the show so much, that they’re willing to spend some of their free time to analyze and discuss what they just saw. And those people – all of us – deserve some modicum of respect.

    I knew there was a reason I never like to read about the creators of my favorite shows… because they’re usually asses who think they know better. I’ll be here next season, watching the new episodes of SoA not only because I love SoA but because I understand that every show has its ups and downs. I just hope Sutter will sober up a bit and learn to respect other people’s opinions until then.

  9. Indianacat

    There’s a lot if sayings about opinions. Everyone has one, no one agrees with all opinions. That’s the kind of thing that creates discourse and sometimes leads to enlightenment. Sometimes it leads to poo flinging.

    In reading the blogs and written critiques of SOA S3, I tend to wonder if the complainers were watching the same show that I watched. They complained about the pace, the Irish backstory, the amount of time it took to find Abel, the lack of excitement and intrigue of S2, and so on.

    I don’t blog, have no time for it. I post on message boards and write fanfiction related to SOA. Those things and real life take up my time. I hang out on Twitter and FB just to socialize with friends in all walks of life, and on occasion, receive a post from VIP’s in response to something i posted.

    Reading this blog about S3 and the back and forth between you and Sutter on Twitter was fascinating. Apparently, you felt a need to defend yourself against Sutter’s generalization of bloggers/critics. Yet, he has a point when he keeps reading the same thread online and in print. When the same complaints and the same phrases keep coming up, it’s hard not to feel that one is being assaulted by bandwagon riders gliding on the coattails of one thought.

    That’s his right to have that opinion, based on what he experiences. I read his latest blog, and have to agree with him. I’ve also read the blogs that complained about S3 as well as those that praised it. The complainers just didn’t seem to get where the creator was going. The praise writers did. Seems that those who ‘got it’also get accused of being brown nosers by those who didn’t.

    Sure, it’d have been safer and popular to stay in the formula that made S2 universally accepted. Safe isn’t Sutter’s way. We spent a season seeing Jax idolize his late father. This season, we saw Jax come to realize that his hero had feet of clay. We learned that years don’t mean shit’ when loyalties are broken, and eventually, those who did the most evil got their comeuppance.

    It’s easy for a person to state shoulda/woulda/coulda without taking the risk of creating something of their own. I respect what you tried to do here, and respect Sutter for defending his baby.

  10. Pingback: Once More Unto the Breach: Kurt Sutter vs. Journalistic Ethics | Cultural Learnings

  11. Cher

    I’m a woman and i wasn’t as invested in the Abel storyline. I thought it went on WAY too long and all the emotion i felt was lost somewhere in between episode 5-6 when Jax was too busy getting it on with the porn star. I felt that Jax was devastated in the season finale in season 2 but somewhere in the middle of the current season i didn’t really feel that he cared and in him doing so me and i know alot of my friends that watch the show stopped caring about his character along with whether they ever found the kid. Abel was treated like a prop – plain and simple. Big turn off.

  12. Dave

    The Abel kidnapping storyline felt like it came out of a daytime soap opera. How is stealing from All My Children intelligent writing Mr. Sutter? I didn’t care about the baby or the endless chase for him. I don’t think the actors did either. Jax was a joke this season. Clay, Tig, and Opie were just props.

    I hope Sutter gets to make a series about the IRA one day. He clearly loves the whole mythology(a word he loves) of the IRA. But I am tuning into a show about American bikers. And all I got this season was c-list actors doing bad Irish accents since FX couldn’t afford any locals. Someone needs to make a time machine so Sutter can go back to 1986 when people cared about the IRA. Chinese, Mexican, and Russian gangs would be far more relevant today. Same thing with his love of White Nationalists.

    And poor Gemma. Sutter shoved his wife into everything so she could win some awards. She was great in Season 1 and 2. Awful in Seasons 3. This is what happens when you overexpose a character.

    Sutter should just admit Season 3 was mostly bad. But his ego will not let him. And if Sutter is writing for women then he is doing a very poor job since the viewership is still overwhelmingly male. I guess SoA is too linear.

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