One of the major differences between television and film is that television has all these rules. From episode to episode, characters, setting, tone, theme, format should be relatively consistent. 42-44 minutes for an hour-long with commercials, closer to 55 on a premium network. No swearing on network, some swearing on cable, maximum swearing on premium. Same for sex. Five acts, usually. You figure out the parameters for the show you’re writing, and you have to stick within them. It can be challenging for the writer, but if you’re good at it, it will keep the audience coming back. And since you can’t have a show on the air without a studio, a network, and an audience, you have to play by all their rules. Audiences have rules, too. They like to know what they’re getting. Which brings me to Sons of Anarchy.
A few years ago, when Sons was the hot new show, the showrunner, Kurt Sutter, wrote a blog post saying that the interference of network execs was “Why Most Network Scripted Dramas Suck.” It was the second year of the show, a work-of-genius show, and in the aftermath of the writers strike, still in an us-vs-them mentality, it was what writers wanted to hear. We read his later blog posts about development execs accosting him in parking lots, and we grimaced at the sexism but mostly we cheered. Here was our tough guy, standing up for us! And FX… let him. Let him do whatever he wanted! Everything was going to change!
Well, some things changed. Sons has taken a slow dive into torture-porn. Very slow torture-porn. I find my life is easiest when I have fewer than 40 shows on my season pass list. Right now there are 47. Which means the first time I sit down to watch my DVR and find myself thinking, “ugh, this show again?” it comes off the list. Nearly every episode of Sons this season was super-sized. So when I got home from work and only had three hours until bed and had to decide which shows I could watch, Sons wanted a disproportionate amount of that time. Much of the extra was spent on montages set to Katy Sagal singing. Katy does an excellent job playing Gemma Teller. She is also a very accomplished singer with a beautiful, distinctive voice. And she’s Kurt Sutter’s wife. So when I was already fidgety, planning out how the rest of my evening would go, and the show stopped for a few minutes so I could listen to the voice of one of the actresses but not in a way that had anything to do with her character, I couldn’t help but feel I was being drawn into the inner workings of a marriage that I don’t really belong in.
The rules are there for a reason. Your audience has expectations. I expect to spend 45 minutes watching a well-paced drama featuring characters I care about doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. (Here I am giving some serious side-eye to AMC for Low Winter Sun, The Killing, and Rubicon.) If you super-size your episode there’s supposed to be a really good payoff. There’s supposed to be story you couldn’t possibly have fit in any other way. It’s supposed to be the exception, not the new rule.
How ironic, a show about an outlaw biker gang breaking the rules.
I hope season 7, the last, will be awesome. I hope everyone tells me what a great show I’m missing out on. But I will be missing out.