Sympathy for Kurt Sutter (and Veena Sud, and David Simon) 

Sympathy for Kurt Sutter (and Veena Sud, and David Simon) 

Last week, The Wire creator David Simon sent the Internet into a tizzy when he suggested in an interview that nearly everyone who calls him- or herself a Wire fan is a late-coming poseur who likes the show for all the wrong reasons (or words to that effect). Simon later apologized—sort of—in a follow-up interview with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, but the essence of his sentiments aren’t exactly unique to Simon. There have been several prominent examples in recent years of showrunners taking shots at critics, TV reporters, and Internet commenters over what they see as an unfair barrage of nitpicks and misapprehensions. Lost’s Damon Lindelof has warred with journalists and viewers—sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes not—and two weeks ago penned an editorial in defense of The Killing’s much-criticized showrunner Veena Sud, showing solidarity with a colleague who’d been lambasted for her creative choices. And Sons Of Anarchy writer-producer Kurt Sutter has become almost as well-known for his vitriolic blog posts and Twitter rants as for writing and producing one of the most popular shows on cable.

There are a number of smaller trends feeding this phenomenon, mostly related to the evolving nature of television, TV criticism, and entertainment reporting. For example:

1. The game of “Internet telephone”
Simon’s original interview with The New York Times’ Jeremy Egner wasn’t even about The Wire; it was about writer Richard Price, who worked on The Wire and has created the new CBS show NYC-22. Simon’s gripe about Wire fans was originally just an aside, which Egner excerpted and posted on the Times’ ArtsBeat blog. The reasoning behind Egner’s post is perfectly defensible: Here’s the creator of one of the most intensely beloved television shows of all time lashing out against his base. That’s something people obviously wanted to read about (and then to link to). But as Simon’s most provocative comments were posted and re-posted at various websites, the context got a little lost. People reacted as though Simon had sat down and penned a carefully thought-out “fuck all y’all” editorial for the Times, not really taking into account that he was making off-the-cuff remarks. (It didn’t help that Simon always comes off as something of a “smartest guy in the room” type in interviews, which some understandably find infuriating.)

Sutter too has gotten angry about the way opinionated comments made by himself or by his cast members—in interviews and on Twitter—have popped up all over the Internet, making it seem like he’s a hopelessly hotheaded crank, overseeing a set wracked with dissension and dysfunction. Again, part of the problem is that Sutter does overreact at times. But the viral nature of the Internet is also partly to blame. One no-big-deal remark can become a very big deal once it’s been repeated across two dozen of the most-read news and entertainment sites.

Please understand this: I’m not saying Egner did anything wrong, either by asking follow-up questions when Simon began to get worked up about Wire fandom, or by posting those comments on the Times blog. Nor have other reporters done anything wrong when they’ve asked Sons Of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam about his creative differences with Sutter. The sites that pass along these inflammatory tidbits aren’t doing anything wrong, either. Still, I get how the sheer volume of blog posts and news items built around brief, often unintentionally contentious comments could get under the skin of the person being talked about, and make him feel like he’s being willfully, maliciously misinterpreted.

2. Too much TV coverage
One aspect of Simon’s interview for which he didn’t apologize was his opinion that weekly episodic TV reviewing is an inapt way to cover a serialized show, and that there’s far too much of it going on. Simon’s not alone in this. Scott Tobias and I took an early crack at hashing out this argument two years ago in a Crosstalk about the changing nature of TV-watching and TV-reviewing. Rich Juzwiak wrote a column for Gawker a couple of weeks ago about why he’s giving up on writing weekly recaps in order to reclaim some big-picture perspective on the medium. And A.V. Club contributor Ryan McGee last year wrote a thought-provoking piece on his Boob Tube Dude blog about why he thinks TV criticism in general needs a radical rethink.

My own perspective on weekly TV reviewing has changed a little since my Crosstalk with Scott. I’ve come to realize more and more that episode-by-episode reviews are fundamentally different from record reviews, movie reviews, and other kinds of traditional criticism. They’re conversation-starters, and while the quality of the conversation is often determined by the quality of its start, ultimately, episodic TV reviews are meant to give fans of a show a place to congregate online and converse. And at that, they’ve been hugely successful. The reason there are so many sites offering weekly coverage of TV series is because those pieces tend to be well-read, and to draw a lot of comments. Demand is driving supply, as it should.

That said, there is an awful lot of writing about TV going on, and much of it is lousy. Because networks are so bad about providing information about their shows, I often rely on Internet recaps and reviews when I’m doing research, and I get appalled by how many sites host “reviews” that are little more than two paragraphs of plot summary with a fannish “I liked this part but didn’t like this other part” tacked on. Themes, aesthetics, historical context… the elements that make criticism an actual art form are lacking from a lot of the writeups out there. A critic friend of mine lamented on Facebook last week that there’s just too much TV writing these days to keep up with, but the percentage actually worth reading may not be as high as he thinks.

3. Twitter has changed the relationship between artists and fans
Anyone who has a book, record, movie, or TV show to promote is encouraged to use social media to get the word out, and to foster warm, friendly relationships with fans and critics. Twitter has been an effective tool in that way: humanizing creators, as well as giving them unfiltered access to comments about their work. But not all those comments are positive—or even intelligible—which can help create a perception among artists that anyone who has anything critical to say is an idiot. And the brevity of Twitter doesn’t help, since it can make creators seem glib and critics seem unduly vicious. During the last season of Lost, for example, Lindelof tried to defuse some of the negative reactions from fans and critics by cracking jokes about it on Twitter, but to some, that was just further proof that Lindelof “didn’t get it,” and that he was cockily dismissing the complaints of people who’d invested years of their lives in his show.

4. Creators read selectively (and so do critics)
In my experience, if one of my pieces here at The A.V. Club draws 200 comments, and three of them are from people who say I’m a moron, I’m more likely to remember the negative than the neutral, or even the positive. That’s just human nature. So it shouldn’t be that surprising that in his interviews last week, David Simon focused on the more trivial or snippy criticism of his shows, and made very little reference to the critics and scholars who’ve tried honestly, painstakingly, and in some cases brilliantly to unpack them. (Nor should it be surprising that some of those critics and scholars had their feelings hurt by Simon’s seeming indifference to their efforts.)

Similarly, in interviews following the season-one finale of The Killing—in which a frustratingly prolonged murder investigation remained unresolved—Veena Sud talked about defying “formula,” and how she was trying to make a different kind of policier, thereby implying that those critics who were taking shots at her show just weren’t sophisticated enough. This so misinterpreted and misstated the reasons why people were angry at The Killing that it made critics all the madder. Somehow Sud got the idea people were annoyed that The Killing wasn’t conventional, rather than because it was tedious and contrived, with twists for the sake of twists. But just as the media sometimes take showrunners’ comments out of context, so showrunners sometimes focus too much on selected negative lines in a review, and miss the overall thrust of a critique.

5. “Entitlement” and “arrogance”
I’ve had largely pleasant experiences in my few interactions with people who write and produce the TV shows I cover, but I did hear once from a writer on an older, now-off-the-air show who didn’t see the point of my writing something negative about it, now that it’s too late for the people who worked on the show to fix the problems. This was a telling comment, I thought, because I’ve never considered my job to be advisory—merely evaluative. But I think that perception exists among some TV producers, that critics are telling them how their shows should be run. And sometimes I think critics feel the same: that they’re offering advice that ought to be taken.

I want to tread lightly here, because a big part of criticism is talking about what works and what doesn’t work, and sometimes that can be misread as arrogance. And a big part of the fun of talking about TV shows from week to week is debating the choices that the creators have made, and speculating on where the story might be going, and that can be misread as entitlement. Then again, what’s that old saying? “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”

In a way, this all goes back to the old debate about whether TV shows are meant to be reviewed episode by episode. David Simon doesn’t think so, because he’d like to see TV as a novelistic medium, and he says it would be dumb to review a book chapter by chapter. Me, I think TV can be a novelistic medium, but that’s more the exception than the rule. I tend to agree with Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee, who’ve both written in favor of television embracing its episodic roots and delivering weekly installments that can be enjoyed as standalone units of entertainment as well as (or even in lieu of) pieces of a larger story.

But even with shows that try to balance the serial and the episodic, Simon is right that critics and fans sometimes jump the gun, passing premature judgment on storylines and characters that haven’t yet run their course. (Sometime critics and fans do this mid-episode, via Twitter, but that’s a subject for a whole other rant.) Of course what Simon misses here is the advantage of the weekly review: It allows critics and fans to change their minds. If I dismiss a new plot development that pays off weeks later, I can admit I was wrong. But in the meantime, I’m just sharing my reactions and having the conversation that all TV fans have after they watch an episode of their favorite show. The format is more formal, and preserved for posterity, but episodic TV-reviewing is really just another version of sitting around the living room with (ideally) smart, informed friends, and talking about we what we just saw.

The problems seem to creep in mostly when we as viewers can’t let go of our sense that we know best what a show should be doing. As fun as it was to theorize about Lost every week, it often led to fans concocting solutions and future plot developments that were vastly different from what Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had in mind, which then inevitably had us judging Lindelof and Cuse’s plans against our own. This still happens, with shows as diverse as Fringe, How I Met Your Mother, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Sons Of Anarchy: Fans cling to the version of the show they like best, or the direction of the show they’d prefer, rather than engaging with what’s actually on the screen. This was the gist of Lindelof’s defense of Sud: not that The Killing is a great show, but that it’s Sud’s show, and deserves to be judged for what it is, not for what viewers expected it to be. (I’d argue that The Killing was in fact judged fairly, but I still think Lindelof’s point is valid.)

It’s no wonder, then, that showrunners like Sutter get so defensive. First, they create a show to which viewers and critics respond enthusiastically. Emboldened by that support, they then make some daring creative choices, only to meet with skepticism and scrutiny. Fundamentally, the show they’re making isn’t so different from the one everyone seemed to love a year ago, and yet every choice is now being second-guessed. Worse, those choices were made months ago, and are thus long past the point of any tweaks or adjustments. 

Is there any solution to this creeping hostility between artists and their critics and fans? Perhaps only a little mutual understanding. Television critics can adopt a more respectful, less demanding tone toward the people who are sweating out difficult creative choices, juggling the demands of actors, budgets, schedules, ratings, and network heads to try and make something special. And those creative types can regard critics, reporters, and fans as people of goodwill, who react honestly to what they see and hear with no sinister ulterior motives. After all, far more unites than divides us. In theory, at least, we’re all here because we love TV.