Kurt Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy, is one of the most interesting of the many TV showrunners who post or tweet online, particularly in his relationship to the community of online TV critics. In a blog post after the season finale of Sons of Anarchy, he lit into the critics who, he argued, don’t get the show and what it’s going for – in particular, he felt that some critics want the show to be a realistic drama rather than the pulpy soap opera it is. Then, when he’d calmed down a bit, he gave a more mellow interview to Alan Sepinwall where he retracted or modified some of what he had said, and discussed the same issues in a less contentious tone.
The original post is still valuable, though, as an expression of some of the frustrations of a TV showrunner’s relationship to critics, and particularly to episode-by-episode reviewers, a format that has only taken off in the last few years. (For many years, a continuing show only expected to get reviews for the season premiere and maybe the occasional event episode that the network made a special point of sending to critics in advance. The internet mainstreamed the idea of episode-by-episode discussion, but it originally mostly took the form of multi-person discussions or recaps. The weekly review is now more important than it was only a few years ago, when Sutter was working on The Shield.) It also expresses one of the recurring frustrations of the showrunner, or the artist in general, the feeling that critics want him to be making a different kind of show. Sutter argues at length that if Sons of Anarchy were a realistic drama, it wouldn’t have lasted a season, and that it should be judged on its own terms as a combination of darkness and escapism – a “blockbuster” show with some serious ideas, rather than a down-the-line serious show.
In the Sepinwall interview he also addresses the issue of reality: some things happen that could never happen in real life, and some scenes seem to abandon verisimilitude; is that a flaw or just part of the show’s style that people should accept? There’s no clear answer to this, which is why it can be tricky to say that critics should judge a show on its own terms – sometimes, particularly in television, there’s no way of knowing what is an intentional part of the show and what is just corner-cutting. Don Bellisario’s famous maxim about the logic of Quantum Leap, “Don’t examine this too closely,” stands in for a lot of television: TV is made fast, and it’s made (relatively) cheap, and sometimes the unreality we see on the screen are flaws, or shortcuts, that we have to accept or overlook. (If we are caught up in the story, of course, we probably will overlook them – at least until the second viewing – so if someone notices a reality hole it could be a sign that he or she is finding a bigger flaw in the show.) I think there is sometimes a tendency for logic and consistency to be applied too rigorously, especially when it goes to the extreme of questioning the very nature of episodic storytelling, or demanding more consistency from TV than we get in real life. But there is certainly room for argument about whether a logic gap is a mistake, or just a fundamental part of the way the show chooses to tell its stories. That’s where a lot of the disagreements come from.
But there certainly is something to the idea that our reaction to a show depends on what we think it’s trying to do. To go back even farther than Quantum Leap, a 1959 reviewer of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, who felt it was a sign of irrevocable decline, pointed out some things in the movie that simply would not happen in the real places where the movie was shot – for example, cliffs in an area that didn’t have any cliffs. To most viewers of the movie, and to Hitchcock himself, this seemed like nit-picking, because the whole movie was so obviously a comic fantasy where the only thing that mattered was internal logic, not real-world logic. But most works aren’t goofy comic fantasies, and with a more dramatic piece, it’s harder to say how much real-world rules should apply. A show like Sons of Anarchy is somewhere in between realism and fantasy, so different viewers are going to expect a different mix, and that will shape the kind of logic they expect to show to follow. And in any case, there are always ideas of dramatic logic that go beyond real-world rules: you can think something is plausible, or at least acceptable, and still find it dramatically weak.
I’ll note finally that I think the developing relationship between showrunners and critics is a fascinating development. It’s not exactly new, because there have been certain TV critics that producers both respected and feared. Tom Shales was once like that; producers really cared what he thought, even if they were infuriated by what he thought. Today, there are more TV critics and they communicate more frequently with the TV producers, so several people can be what Tom Shales was in the ’70s and ’80s, the person whose opinion the showrunners really respects even as they disagree. It’s a reminder that there are things beyond success for a lot of (maybe most) people in Hollywood. Sutter has the most popular drama on basic cable, so in terms of getting his message across to the people, he’s doing fine; he could argue, and to some extent does, that he doesn’t have to explain himself because the viewers get it. But showrunners relate to critics they like almost the way they do to friends: they won’t change what they do to suit them, but they do enjoy arguing things out with friends, explaining what they’re trying to do, and getting some recognition that is usually reserved for the actors on the show. It’s a prickly relationship, but it is basically a friendly one in many ways.