The return of Breaking Bad this summer drew headlines for its meteoric rise in the Nielsen ratings, transforming from a cult success to a breakout hit for AMC seemingly overnight. Many credited Netflix for this development, rightfully so, but I was struck that pieces like Andrew Wallenstein’s at Variety made no mention of Sons of Anarchy, which is arguably the first drama series to benefit significantly from Netflix in its continued—and trend-breaking for drama series—rise from season-to-season.
The reasons it hasn’t been mentioned range from the statistical (its increases have been more gradual) to the contextual (it isn’t in its final season) to the typical: for better or worse, depending on who you ask, Sons of Anarchy has slipped under the radar when it comes to the prestige drama trend. With Justified and The Americans more beloved by critics in FX’s lineup, and shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men seen as better representatives of the dark, masculine dramatic series trend, Sons of Anarchy has largely been left to grow its audience outside of conversations like Wallenstein’s that privilege those series deemed most important.
Sutter and his bosses at FX have been expecting these audience increases: Sutter continues to hold a “contest” to hold a special fan screening of an episode late in the season if ratings go up over the previous year, which is more a way of rewarding fans for sticking with and promoting the show than an actual contingency (I expect he’d find a way to hold the event regardless of whether or not ratings had gone up, as it wouldn’t be the first time he’s privileged his relationship with fans over an arbitrary number). Still, one increase that perhaps works against the ongoing trend—gradual 10-15% increases per season—is the fact that ratings for the season six premiere among women 18-49 and women 18-34 were up 35% and 43% respectively.
Variety’s AJ Marechal posed the possibility on Twitter that this could be chalked up to the casting of Sons star Charlie Hunnam in female-friendly franchise 50 Shades of Gray, but I’d argue that’s a web of causality we can’t possibly break down. That being said, the increase in female viewership does tie into discussions of the series’ streaming success, as well as its expansion in non-linear platforms with the online Anarchy Afterword series that debuted following the record-setting premiere.
Review: Sons of Anarchy Season Four
September 6th, 2011
I sat down to watch the first three episodes of the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy a few weeks ago, just a few days after Kurt Sutter’s decision to leave Twitter and his decision to, well, repost an entire article I had written on the subject on his personal blog.
It is not exactly a secret that I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with Sutter regarding the role of the critic, as Dave Chen’s documentation of our most notable squabble would indicate. It’s also not exactly a secret that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with Sutter on the quality of the third season, which I found quite unsatisfying. Given these two points, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of baggage going into the fourth season of Sons of Anarchy, baggage that could easily overwhelm a half-hearted return to Charming.
To be honest, though, I didn’t think much of the baggage when watching the first three episodes (which includes a 90-minute premiere tonight at 10/9c on FX). The show sidesteps many of the events from the third season, picking out the important pieces of information and building them out into more substantial storylines, and a return to a focus on the interrelation of the Sons as opposed to their external battles has reinvigorated the narrative to the point where “Kurt Sutter” didn’t feel like a character within the drama despite the off-season “war” we waged (and the effective resolution we reached in recent weeks) and despite the fact that Sutter actually plays a character on the show. It was just me and a compelling drama series, a series which is returning on a stronger footing after a season filled with missteps and an off-season filled with controversy.
Kurt Sutter vs. Journalistic Ethics
February 11th, 2011
In choosing to occasionally cover emerging stories within the television industry, responding immediately rather than waiting a few months for the dust to settle, it’s never clear where that story will go. When I sat down to discuss the controversy swirling around Chloe Sevigny’s critical comments about Big Love’s fourth season in an interview with The A.V. Club, and the degree to which the journalist’s integrity was unfairly dragged through the mud by those involved, I had no idea that the story would still be making news ten months later. My piece about that issue is very much an artifact of the initial event, but the continued misrepresentation of the interview has given it continued relevance, which surprises (and saddens) me.
By comparison, I sort of knew that my multiple pieces on Kurt Sutter’s engagement with online communities would continue to be relevant. For better or for worse, Sutter enjoys the outlet afforded by his blog and his Twitter account, and will continue to use them in the years ahead. The facts are simple: Sutter admits to having a fairly quick temper, people on the internet will continue to criticize his show, and he’ll continue to become emotionally affected by it.
What I couldn’t have (but perhaps should have) imagined, though, was that these two particular lines would converge. Yes, through the powers of fate, another film festival interview shifted gears towards an actor’s television program, and another actor made some off-the-cuff remarks about the show which have been twisted into some sort of controversy in the news media. And because that actor happens to be Charlie Hunnam, and the show in question happens to be Sons of Anarchy, Sutter’s personality has taken center stage in yet another largely unprovoked attack on journalistic ethics.
Unless a slightly botched interview has become a more vicious threat to journalism than I previously realized.
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.
November 30th, 2010
Look, let’s get it out of the way: Sons of Anarchy was very far from the best show on television this fall. It was a season with a story to tell which seemed completely unwilling to tell that story, and when it finally got down to business it seemed as if everything was expedited and choppy. For a series that once delivered what I would describe as sick, twisted poetry, the third season lacked both rhyme and reason. While I perhaps understood what Kurt Sutter was going for by the time we reached the season’s penultimate episode, nothing about “June Wedding” made those previous episodes any more satisfying. In fact, the show sort of felt like it was following Stahl’s example: when you think a situation is going south, or you’re tired of playing a certain angle, you just shoot someone and call it a day.
I have some fundamental issues with the idea that Stahl could even come close to getting away with what she did in “June Wedding,” and the degree to which Stahl’s sociopathic behavior is being used to fuel the march towards the season’s conclusion, to the point where I’ve officially written off this season of television. Last week’s episode indicated to me that whatever Sutter was selling this year, it simply was not the show I want Sons of Anarchy to be, or the show that it had the potential to be coming out of its incredibly strong (and cohesive) second season.
In advance of watching “NS,” I had heard the buzz: this was a “return to form.” However, as Cory Barker wrote about earlier, the degree to which a solid finale (which “NS” arguably is) can overwrite previous struggles is fairly limited. And yet, I had no expectations that a legitimately enjoyable 90 minutes of television would actually make the season’s problems more apparent. “NS” is a smart episode of television which only confirms that the show’s third season was a wild miscalculation, an absolute failure of “Serial Narrative 101″ that traveled halfway around the world and only got a lousy t-shirt with a bundle of letters hidden in it which only confirmed presumed details from the distant past.
I’m a bit busy now, though, to delve into all of the reasons why the season fell apart. I plan to come back to it at a later date, perhaps early next week, but for now I want to take “NS” as what it truly is: a launching pad to the future, and an opportunity for the series to move on with something resembling momentum.
Because on that level, “NS” is more or less a success.
September 21st, 2010
The Sons of Anarchy have positioned themselves as a morally complex guardian angel for the people of Charming, but that image can only last for so long – in the wake of an event like a shootout where an innocent child and an authority figure are gunned down outside a church, two questions emerge. First, how could SAMCRO let this happen; and, second, was this SAMCRO’s fault?
These are questions that, in the past, remained largely within the club: the series was, after all, about the internal conflict between Jax and Clay, specifically the former’s struggle to reconcile the current club with his father’s vision, so the external side of things wasn’t particularly important. However, with political forces swirling and legal troubles surfacing and resurfacing, SAMCRO is facing an uncertain future for reasons that go beyond their internal volatility.
“Caregiver” is another strong entry for the show’s third season, and one which nicely captures the difficult position of taking care of someone who runs off without notice, or turns coat with little to no notice.
September 14th, 2010
“I’m afraid the 21st Century has come to Charming”
Nothing has really changed within SAMCRO as Sons of Anarchy enters its third season: there’s little discord amongst the group, and even though Gemma’s on the run and Abel’s a hostage of sorts in Ireland there is still the sense that the club itself is as solid as it’s ever been in the wake of last season’s tragedies.
However, the problem is that the world around them is no longer bowing down to their power: as Hale’s elder brother Jacob, trying to leverage his brother’s death into a successul mayoral run, notes in “Oiled,” the sort of old-school notion of law which the Sons held over Charming is no longer effective. We saw the wheels starting to come off the train last season, but there was a sense that it was SAMCRO’s lack of cohesion that led to their struggles. And yet, even when Gemma’s rape united Jax and Clay, and Opie got over his wife’s passing, things still unraveled in the finale, and things continued to unravel last week when mysterious gunmen killed Hale and threatened the safety of Charming.
“Oiled” is certainly a more methodical hour of television compared to last week’s premiere, as the sense of urgency which we expected to take hold during last week’s hour is replaced by a more functional effort to properly interpret the situation at hand. And yet, as the club tries to piece things together, their enemies are either committed to a more dangerous course of action or are already at work obfuscating reality in an effort to throw SAMCRO off the trail.