Sons of Anarchy – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Television that I Love: A Valentine to Unpredictable Melodrama Mon, 10 Feb 2014 14:25:37 +0000 sons-of-anarchy-season-3-premiere

A love that has caught me by surprise has had me thinking about the characteristics of television that I love. I don’t think I’m talking about either fanship or aesthetics here. I am, in my own mind at least, distinctly not a fan. I often feel like I have some sort of genetic aberration that prevents me from engaging in fanlike behavior toward television, sports teams, really anything; don’t get me wrong—I like, even love some things, but I’ve never been one to take it to the next level of fanship behaviors. I’m also aware that the television I most love is not necessarily at the top of the list I’d construct of “most excellent artistic achievement” in television. What follows is consequently decidedly not a case for what makes for the “best” television, but for the television I most want to watch.

Sometimes love surprises us; I never thought I’d love Sons of Anarchy; in fact, were I to have laid the odds, I’d have guessed there was a 1 in 10 chance I’d watch beyond the pilot. Now, I had to watch beyond the pilot because I was writing a book about masculinity in cable dramas, and this cable drama is more than a little relevant to contemporary constructions of masculinity. But I soon found Sons was the show with the shortest DVR life; as soon as it appeared, I’d devour it. I even came to know new episodes would be delivered on Tuesdays and found anticipation of a new episode seeping into my weekly routines. But why?

imagesI love Sons because it surprises me. Indeed, I can often feel my blood pressure rising as I watch because there is no telling what can happen. Important characters die, typically without teasing or spoilers. Sons has somewhat ruined broadcast TV for me. I tried, really tried to watch The Blacklist this fall, but I struggled to really care about narrative stakes. Come now, it’s NBC, we all know there is no way the backpack full of explosives is going to go off while a child is wearing it. That could happen on Sons (though if you are reading Sutter, I’m not suggesting it should).

I also think a good bit of my love for the show comes from its intense emotional melodrama, which is set in the highly masculine space of the motorcycle club. While I find melodrama predictable and fraught with complicated gender politics when set among women, watching Jax try to negotiate the personal dynamics of the family that birthed him, the club, and the family he’s created is pure pleasure. The emotional stakes are always high and situations can be melodramatically absurd, but this show makes me feel in a way few others do. I have a running tally of television moments that have just destroyed me, they make my heart hurt when I think of them to this day: the last hours of Shane Vendrell’s life (The Shield), Opie’s death; the end of this last Sons season. I love television that makes me feel without making me feel manipulated into those feelings.

images-1I love the way Sons leaves me pondering it after our weekly time together is over. Because anything can happen, it allows me time to play back the small moments for hints of what might be to come, which brings me to another thing I love. The show is densely plotted, but never violates its previous narrative. Admittedly, sometimes the “saves” that come near the end of each season strain credibility, but they are always plausible within the narrative universe. If there is one thing that disinvests me from a narrative fast, it is when a show contradicts its own story or the nature of the characters it has constructed; why should I pay attention to detail if the writers aren’t.

Parsing out what I love about Sons—unpredictability, intense character relations, narrative consistency—reveals characteristics of many of my favorite shows. Most other favorites succeed in the first and last characteristic (The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards), but few develop characters in the way that make me—and perhaps others—feel profoundly, a fact that I suspect has prevented many television opinion leaders from considering Sons among those routinely trotted out as television’s best. But regardless of journalistic attention or Emmy adulations, Sons, as paradoxical as this seems, is my TV happy place.


Of Motorcycles and Melodrama Tue, 29 Nov 2011 00:00:51 +0000 The happenstance of academic life recently has led me to revisit a lot of 1980s feminist writing on soap operas at the same time I have been enthralled by the fourth season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy. The drama, set in a California motorcycle club, has often been described as Hamlet on Harleys for good reason. But my readings of late have me thinking that the show actually offers some really different inflections on Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance.

As I’ve reread debates about whether and how soap opera and melodrama are inherently “feminine” forms (this writing is notably pre-Butlerian), I’ve thought of how the authors couldn’t have possibly imagined Sons of Anarchy’s (SOA) melodramatic depths that are paired with just about every imaginable signifier of patriarchal masculinity. SOA is fascinating as a story set in a male, homosocial, largely patriarchal context but which centrally relies upon drama created by family conflict and secrets.

This season, SOA has utilized most every narrative strategy that defines soap opera and at the same time turned them on their head by refusing other aspects of daytime soap related to drawing out action over long periods of time. Despite the fact that many episodes feature motorcycle chases or firearm fights that offer physical action, the aspect of the storytelling that has me on edge of my seat—yelling at television, “tell him, tell him”—is that the real action has been about the process of disseminating or withholding information—straight out of the daytime playbook. The viewers know most all the secrets (or so we think), which inflects scenes with rich nuance as we try to ascertain what characters might know or suspect, just like in daytime serials.

But at the same time, SOA has used the pacing of a weekly serial, burning through narrative at a rate similar to The OC (the last show I can think of that developed and resolved major plotlines and subplots that would span seasons in most shows in just a matter of episodes). Here we have a hybrid storytelling strategy that allows and delivers conclusions within the span of a few weeks or at least the course of a 13-week season, very much contrary to the perceived source of women’s soap enjoyment of never-ending serial complications.

Categorizing SOA is difficult. In many ways, it is a family drama. Its deepest conflicts are personal and deal with the negotiation of competing loyalties; its cumulative narrative seems to be Jax Teller’s journey of deciding what kind of man he will be and dealing with the implications of that choice on those he loves and who love him. Of course this family drama takes place in the fictional, small, rural town of Charming, California on the backs of motorcycles, amidst plotlines of illegal guns, drug trade, and porn shoots, albeit with a more complicated gender politics than non-viewers might assume. I’m pretty sure John Fiske would be at a loss in trying to apply his categorizations of “feminine” or “masculine” television, and it makes me wonder a lot the scholarship of the era and continuing assumptions of gendered spectators and genre/narrative strategies.


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The Rise and Fall of @Sutterink: Showrunners [Off] Twitter III Sun, 14 Aug 2011 12:55:48 +0000 With Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter’s announcement on Saturday that he would be “pulling the plug” on his now deleted Twitter feed, it is the end of an era (albeit a short one).

When I looked at Sutter’s twitter feed in the first installment of this series last fall, I posited that there might come a time when Sutter’s brash online persona would overshadow his own show, and it seems that we have reached that point. However, while it was perhaps inevitable that Sutter’s lack of a filter would result in his Twitter account becoming a liability, I can’t shake this feeling that the rise and fall of “@sutterink” has more to do with public perceptions of Twitter than with his actual commentary.

In recent months, online media outlets have taken a sudden interest in Sutter’s Twitter feed, with sites ranging from The Hollywood Reporter to TMZ taking series of tweets and presenting them as news. It started in July when Sutter went on an extended rant regarding the Emmy nominations (where his show, including his wife Katey Sagal, was ignored), and it continued last week, when Sutter shared his opinion on the recent controversy surrounding AMC and The Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont. TMZ shared the former story with the headline “’Anarchy’ Creator PISSED Over Emmy Snub,” while pitched the latter tweets as “‘Sons of Anarchy’s’ Kurt Sutter Goes Off on Frank Darabont’s Firing,” and both stories were picked up by multiple outlets.

What’s interesting is that Sutter’s rants have not really become more prominent in the past year. As I noted in my initial post, Sutter has ranted about the Emmys before, just in the form of a blog post instead of a series of tweets. Sutter has even recently added outlets for his rants, including a YouTube series entitled “WTF Sutter” that features the same kind of profanity-laden honesty his fans have come to expect. However, Sutter’s blog has not been subject to the same media scrutiny, and these outlets have also ignored his YouTube videos.

In what Sutter has pitched as his final tweet, he suggests that Twitter is simply the wrong outlet for someone without a filter. He writes that “ultimately, me having an instantaneous outlet for my darker impulses is not a good thing. i’m a guy who needs filters. lots of them.” In his latest WTF Sutter video, where he foreshadowed his departure from Twitter, he expands on this logic before answering some fan questions:

Sutter’s departure from Twitter says less about Sutter and more about the ways in which Twitter is perceived by media outlets and by the public at large. Over the course of the past year, we’ve seen the media start to notice Twitter, and they’re starting to find ways to use it: the service has become a resource for cable news outlets (which Jon Stewart has criticized on The Daily Show), and I’d argue that the increased attention to Sutter’s tweets is a product of the media’s search for the best way to leverage this form of social media.

However, I’d also argue that the way Sutter’s tweets were presented is a reflection of a public understanding of Twitter as a soapbox. Sutter’s lament in his YouTube video is that he is no longer able to have a “conversation,” which might refer to the fact that the reports about his tweets rarely include any discussion of the context in which they appeared: TMZ wasn’t talking about the people on Twitter who were encouraging Sutter’s comments about the Emmys (including critics and other showrunners), and The Hollywood Reporter wasn’t interested in the fact that Sutter retweeted a number of critical responses to his AMC-related comments in the days following his initial statements.

I would not necessarily say that this has resulted in Sutter’s comments being taken “out of context,” because even he argues that he has not necessarily been misrepresented by these reports. What I would say is that Sutter’s comments have been filtered through a perception of Twitter as a place for rants and provocations, a place where a Twitter feed is a direct glimpse into the Id (as reflected by coverage of the Anthony Weiner scandal). The story isn’t the actual nature of Sutter’s comments or what they say about the Academy system and the situation at AMC: rather, the story is that someone famous has said something controversial in an outlet that has become known for its controversy, and that has now become publicized based on this perception.

As someone who has written about Sutter’s tweets in the past, I am not suggesting that his tweets should be beyond reproach: he is responsible for what he says within this online space, and I think holding him accountable for that is perfectly reasonable. However, these news reports aren’t interested in holding him accountable; they’re interested in exploiting his comments as gossip, turning them into news without exploring the context of the conversation or even considering their veracity.

Kurt Sutter hasn’t changed since his Twitter feed first appeared, or since my first Antenna piece about it was published. What has changed is the amount of attention paid to Twitter outside of Twitter – Sutter has four times as many followers now than he did then, but that doesn’t take into account (as Sean Duncan noted in the comments on the initial piece) the people who are made aware through outside sources reporting these tweets. And now that this includes major media outlets interested in tapping into the zeitgeist, public figures like television showrunners must reconcile their comments with a mass media that is still trying to figure out what Twitter is, what it’s used for, and how they can best exploit it.

And when you’re Kurt Sutter, that’s a situation in which pulling the plug might be the only viable option if you don’t want your Twitter feed to become a story in and of itself. While it’s possible that Sutter is simply posturing, and that this is a bluff designed to reframe the media narrative (and draw the sympathy of his followers who are pleading him to reconsider), it nonetheless reflects on the changing state of Twitter as discourse.

Addendum – September 7th, 2011

Today, after the ratings for the fourth season premiere of Sons of Anarchy showed a 20% increase, Sutter officially returned to Twitter – this was after an initial pledge to return at 250,000 followers and a subsequent pledge to return at 66,666 were both suggested and then altered.

On his blog, Sutter discussed his logic behind his early return before it happened, suggesting that “I’m…looking for a graceful re-entry into Twitter that doesn’t make me look like a complete f**king douchebag for pulling the plug, then a month later, coming back.  Truth is, I miss the fan interaction and since my Facebook hacking, unplugging from Twitter has been counter-intuitive to keeping an SOA presence in social media.”

While his return does reflect the performance elements of Sutter’s Twitter feed which led to the media attention and the earlier departure, and could be considered hypocritical by some, his justification focuses on the importance of social media in terms of communicating with fans and promoting the series to potential viewers within these social media spaces.


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Tweets of Anarchy: Showrunners on Twitter Fri, 17 Sep 2010 12:29:38 +0000 While there have always been strong personalities behind-the-scenes in television, including recent examples such as David Milch and Aaron Sorkin, until recently there were very few outlets in which the general public could directly bear witness to the character of television showrunners; stories were written about their personalities and how they influenced the creative process of their respective series, but it was predominantly second hand information. Outside of award show acceptance speeches, occasional interviews, DVD commentaries, or (in Sorkin’s case) run-ins with the law, the television showrunner was a largely private figure during the day-to-day airing of their series.

However, showrunners are now becoming active participants in conversations surrounding their shows, both formally (Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s Lost podcasts) and informally (Louis C.K.’s decision to wade into comment threads of Louie reviews); combined with their more prominent role in DVD bonus features and the proliferation of television journalism online, showrunners are becoming veritable celebrities among viewers of television. This is perhaps no more apparent than on Twitter, where showrunners (including Lindelof, Cuse, ,C.K., and numerous others) gain tens of thousands of followers who desire to know more about who is behind their favourite series.

In many ways, Twitter is a fantastic opportunity for showrunners. The Big Bang Theory’s Bill Prady has been using his Twitter feed to remind viewers that the show is moving to Thursday night, while Community’s Dan Harmon has been using his Twitter feed to help bolster the show’s viewers against the insurrection of Prady’s series to their timeslot (the two even collaborated on matching avatars, each featuring “THU 8/7c,” to build hype for their impending battle). With this sort of behaviour, often done in conjunction with answering fan questions or offering insights into the production of the series, showrunners directly facilitate fan community.

However, as most showrunners have discovered, Twitter can be a double-edged sword. While BonesHart Hanson is an active participant on Twitter in promoting his series, he also bears the brunt of the attack when fans become frustrated with the series (in particular the drawn out romantic tension between its leads). And while Lindelof and Cuse were showered with praise when Lost hit its high notes, they were inundated with frustration following the divisive series finale.

By putting their reputations on the line – and online – showrunners open the door to potential rewards (viewer loyalty, new viewers, professional transparency), but as they also face definite risk. There is perhaps no better example of this risk/reward principle than Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter, who one would likely classify as television’s renegade showrunner. Giving voice to every showrunner’s id, Sutter uses Twitter and his personal blog to criticize the television industry and his critics through a mix of cogent analysis and four-letter words; where other showrunners avoid calling out the Emmy Awards when their show is ignored, or resist responding to critics who write negative reviews, Sutter has made a conscious decision to present his own perspective without any sort of filter.

The question, at this point, is whether or not his “larger than life” personality has become larger than the show itself. While his notoriety has been a source of promotion for the series, which has only grown in popularity since he began blogging and tweeting in earnest, there is a risk that his actions could overpower the series’ narrative; the Los Angeles Times, for example, chose to profile Sutter rather than his series ahead of its third season premiere.

Some would argue this is actually valuable: the brash masculinity of Sutter’s online persona is heavily echoed within the series itself, meaning that the association could be seen as an effective (and novel) way to market the series. However, if Sutter’s extra-curricular activity becomes a primary association for potential viewers – which is happening more as his Twitter feed and blog posts are extending beyond social media to a more general audience (as the L.A. Times profile and mainstream coverage of his criticism suggest) – it is possible that the series’ subtleties, which include strong female characters, could be obfuscated. What fans could read as refreshing honesty could be read as outright arrogance by others, and while Sutter would likely argue that those put off would be unlikely to watch the show in the first place there remains the potential for lines to blur between the series and its creator.

For the most part, of course, these kinds of issues will largely remain confined within a small subsection of the viewing public – Sutter has 12,000 followers on Twitter, compared to Sons of Anarchy’s 4.1 Million viewers. However, the active participation made possible by Twitter and other forms of social media has changed the dynamics of audience/showrunner relationships, and as showrunners like Sutter test the boundaries of this new dialogue we learn more about where this relationship may be headed in the future.

Editors’ Note: a reminder that we like to keep comments civil and constructive here at Antenna. Those comments that seek to insult or vent, or that don’t materially contribute to the discussion, will be withheld.


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