Trench Warfare: Kurt Sutter vs. Critics, Round Infinity
January 4th, 2012
As a vocal critic of the third season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, I was apprehensive going into its fourth season, and found myself more or less pleased with how the season went down. By dialing down the number of storylines, and focusing more exclusively on the inner-workings of SAMCRO (with additional storylines intersecting with the club dynamic quite successfully), the strong performances rose to the surface and the “plot mechanics” largely proved quite effective even if I would agree that the finale was a major step back in that department, ending up too cute for a show that purports to being so dark. Ultimately, while it didn’t make my “Top 20” at The A.V. Club, it probably would have made a Top 25, which is more than it would have managed last year.
I didn’t have time to write about the show this fall, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly disappointed by this at the time: while the show was better than last season, it was better in ways that were not particularly surprising, and which other critics reviewing the show week-to-week were capturing well in their own reviews. Similarly, while I did have my issues with some of the plot developments, people like Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan, and Zack Handlen were effectively covering the ground I would have covered, nicely capturing what proved to be a solid (if flawed) season of television that cemented the show’s future as a solid (if flawed) staple of the basic cable landscape.
However, when the season ended amidst a flurry of dismissive comments from creator Kurt Sutter regarding the critical reception of the season, I changed my mind. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to pick a fight with Sutter, who rang in 2011 by insulting me over Twitter, but rather that it felt wrong to be sitting on the sidelines while Sutter waged trench warfare on hardworking critics who were being criticized for doing their jobs (and doing them well). While I remain convinced that Sutter has a point regarding the limitations of weekly criticism with a serialized show, to suggest (despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise) that these limitations are a function of individual critics as opposed to the form made me wish that I had reviewed the series if only so I could stand alongside my fellow critics in support of critical analysis that reflects a personal, subjective approach to television.
What fascinated me about Sutter’s rants against critics towards the end of this season was that he had every ability to make a general argument and chose to make it a specific, personal one. In his elegantly titled “IT’S THE PROCESS THAT’S CUNTY,” he sets up an argument where the industry of episodic reviews is the problem, a circumstance that I don’t really disagree with. Given that the show was generally receiving solid reviews, a fact he himself acknowledges, it would be easy to simply observe that he struggled to find the value in episodic analysis of his show, which is a perfectly defensible position (and one other writers, like David Simon, have taken in the past). However, Sutter ultimately chose to single out critics like Mo Ryan and Alan Sepinwall, nitpicking at their reviews and suggesting that the problem was their lack of effort as opposed to the limitations of the form – although he suggests that this is the result of the system they’re being forced to work in, the binary drawn between these critics and others felt entirely arbitrary, and more importantly seemed entirely unnecessary to an argument about the form itself.
When I first read Sutter’s post, I had fallen a few weeks behind on the series, and in the midst of a busy semester I hadn’t been reading all reviews of the show week-to-week (largely just skimming one or two and then using Twitter to piece together the general response to the episode). So, although my initial reaction was that these attacks seemed unfounded, I went back to Mo and Alan’s reviews to see if maybe Kurt had a point, giving him the benefit of the doubt despite my best instincts. As it turned out, both had continued writing compelling, personal reviews which reflected their evolving opinion of the series as the season moved forward. Both were delivering reviews immediately after an episode aired, and while Sutter argued this meant they were rushed it simply meant that they had screened the episodes in advance, a process which gives you time to watch, rewatch, and collect your thoughts over an extended period. Effectively, I found no evidence to suggest that Sutter’s argument had any merit, leaving me with little to work with but a petty attack on critics I respect (and who, in continuing to cover the show, show a respect for Sutter’s work which is not returned).
Sutter’s concerns, however, suggest a growing disconnect between how critics are perceived by their readers and how criticism is received by the people who create television. I remain firmly convinced that the move towards a more personal, subjective approach to television criticism has been crucial to the expansion of the form, and that increased interaction between readers and critics have created a more valuable (if less “objective” or “evaluative”) discourse. Speaking personally, the way in which critics like Mo or Alan imbued their personality and their taste into their writing made them far more accessible, and helped foster extensive communities that inspired people like me to write television criticism and participate in these kinds of conversations. Weekly reviews have been a key source of this discourse, as we get to watch shows alongside critics, using their opinions less as a definitive take on the series and more as a guiding post for our own experiences.
Sutter’s response to Sepinwall and Ryan suggests that this is working perhaps too well. That he felt the need to make it personal, even refusing a post mortem interview with Sepinwall (before eventually changing his mind), indicates that he (like those who read and enjoy this criticism) viewed their reviews as an extension of their persons. Brian Lowry wrote a piece for Variety today in which he warned attendees at the annual January Press Tour to keep their distance from the stars and showrunners who they interact with over social media, but we could turn that around just as easily: where are the pieces warning showrunners about feeling too personally connected with television critics, leading them to lash out against those critics in a moment of frustration when they disappoint them by (allegedly) not putting enough thought into their reviews?
I don’t think Kurt Sutter is a terrible person for having this response, as I imagine most showrunners bristle at some of the weekly reviews their series garner (as I wrote about in the days following Sutter’s follow-up post about criticism in a review of The Office at The A.V. Club) – it is only natural that Sutter would feel protective of his show, especially when critics respond negatively to developments that Sutter knows are resolved in a particular fashion which might answer their criticisms. However, the fact that this response manifested itself so publicly, and so personally (aimed at particular critics in isolation, rather than the form or criticism in general) made me wish that I had had the time – and the sense of participation in the ongoing discourse around the show – to more actively express my frustration with Sutter’s argument in this matter when all of this went down.
It’s probably silly to be dredging this up again in 2012, and I know that those singled out by Sutter largely ignored his attacks and carried themselves with professionalism as they went on with their jobs like the hard-working critics they are. In addition, that Sutter approved a comment in which a reader criticizes him for singling out Sepinwall would suggest a mea culpa of sorts (given that the post likely drew additional comments which he chose not to approve, as has become the trend at his blog). However, of my regrets for 2011, that I wasn’t able to write a post taking a more active role in these discussions was one of the biggest – I raise it now not to start another fight with Kurt Sutter, but rather to emphasize the value of the work critics did analyzing (both positively and negatively) his series in 2011 regardless of his protests.
Tomorrow: Thoughts on going radio silent on the year’s best new series.