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.