Sons of Anarchy, and the war of words on violence in the media

What would cause a forty-seven year old man to become so enraged that he regresses back to his high school days, and his favorite high school swears, by calling another grown man “a f***ing douchebag”?  What would cause a seemingly brilliant mind —a mind that created six seasons of a highly rated television show— to become so desperate in an argument against a critical opponent he calls them “an idiot that is idiotic, unintelligent, not bright, and an angry white guy with an exclusionary plan, using fear and (G)od to spread a gospel of ignorance?”  What would then cause other men —men purported to be respected in the mainstream— to read such a letter and regard it as “widely respected”?

Founder of the Parents Television Council (PTC), and current Media Research Center (MRC) member, Brent Bozell, and Sons of Anarchy creator, and primary screenwriter, Kurt Sutter engaged in a war of words regarding the violent nature of that show’s September 10, 2013 season premiere for its sixth season. 

BZFBrent Bozell claimed, in a Fox Nation piece, that the show’s premiere was gratuitous with it’s depiction of violence.  Some of the scenes, that Bozell catalogued from the show include, a Columbine-style “School shooting, ‘milking a fictional Catholic school shooting for commercial gain,’ as well as two rapes, and a man drowning in a bathtub of urine.”{1} Sons of Anarchy creator, primary screenwriter, and showrunner, Kurt Sutter, claimed that he didn’t include any of those particular violent scenes for shock value, and Bozell responded to that, and a war of words was born.

Most of the back and forth that occurred between these two doesn’t interest me.  I’m not overly concerned with Bozell’s greater, moralistic fears for society, or the role of Michelle Obama in this matter… or any other matter.  I also don’t think Sutter’s “widely distributed, widely read, and widely praised” letter was effective, but the reason I deem this exchange newsworthy is Brent Bozell’s attempt to dissect the motivations for making violent TV shows today, by using Sons of Anarchy as a focal point for that argument.

Sutter wants people to believe that the larger plot point was how the biker gang, in this series, is going to (slowly, over many episodes) reap the consequences of their gun-running.  But we know what the “bigger objective of the episode” is: “Ka-ching.”  You load as much sensationalistic sludge in your debut episode to build some ratings momentum.  The “narrative arc” that follows may try to make some sense of that avalanche, but it doesn’t justify it.” 

The fact that the narrative arc may not ever justify the inclusion of violence is true, but for many of us that just doesn’t matter.  Most of us don’t care what happens in the aftermath of such scenes.  We don’t care if there is a greater moral message, or if the character learns from his depravity, we just want the scenes.  We want to rubberneck on that interstate accident to see that guy’s leg sticking out of the car, every night, in primetime, and in the comfort of our living room. We want to see a Mr. White cut off a policeman’s ear, as happened in the brilliant Reservoir Dogs, to speak into it.  He cut off the cops ear and said stuff into it.  Suh-weet!!!  What happened to Mr. White in the end?  Did he learn from his malfeasance?  I honestly don’t remember, because I don’t care.  We want to see blood fly, and we want to see the perpetrators of the violent act walk away like it’s just another manic Monday.  This, as Mr. Christopher states in the quote below, is what is called “torture-porn”.  Writers know all about torture-porn, as do screenwriters, and everybody that’s into this type of fiction, but it doesn’t advance their agenda to talk about it in this manner, so we don’t.  We call it art, we defend it as art, and we expect our audience to define it as art regardless how far down the pole we slide.

 (Sons of Anarchy) began as a well-produced, white-washed examination of morally ambiguous bikers,” writes Tommy Christopher for Mediaite, “But it has devolved into melodramatic torture-porn.”{2}

As Mr. Christopher alludes, most creators/show runners have one, maybe two, and possibly three seasons of a television show, in mind even before the production of the first season begins.  They have it all logged in what is called a show’s bible.  That bible contains tight scripts, motives for actions, reactions, characters, characterizations, beginnings and endings, and anything and everything showrunners can think of to pitch to the networks then make what they hope to be a great show.  If they are lucky, and that term may be considered relative over time, and their show gets renewed a couple times, the showrunner begins to realize that the material in his bible is finite.

Most showrunners don’t plan on making a season six when they begin.  They can’t.  They have to take it day by day, and season by season.  It’s the nature of the business.  If a showrunner is lucky enough to have a season six, one cannot blame them for feeling some desperation, and some pressure, be it external, or internal, to create a sixth season that is as great as his first or second.  The first couple of seasons of tight scripts that the showrunner pined over for years, and in some cases a decade, are gone, and they’re left with months to produce cutting edge material that keeps them atop the hip, cutting edge, cut-throat world of TV.

One has to guess that in place of those tight narratives, Sutter chose to supplant them with torture-porn, and murder-porn, scenes that kept his show cutting-edge and popular.  One has to guess that there was great deal of pressure on Sutter to make this season’s premiere the greatest ever made, just as there is immense pressure on every writer to do it, and possibly overdo it every time out, until “it” hopefully becomes unforgettable.  If Sutter were not under such pressure from the network, and their advertisers, one would think that Sutter would have been able to shrug off Bozell’s charges better, and say that the man doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Sutter’s juvenile attack on Bozell, suggest that Bozell must have nailed Sutter’s motivations so well that Sutter had no defense for it.

The You-So-Stupid defense

“I would imagine these (PTC and MRC members) are not evil people,” Sutter says, in an attempt to be sardonic.  “But they are just not very intuitive or intelligent individuals.  It’s such a small and simple view of process.  The fact that people want to be monitoring what my children watch is terrifying.  There is no awareness of what is the bigger objective of that episode is, the bigger point of the narrative.”{3}

It’s not complicated, I would counter and Mr. Sutter knows it, and that’s what makes him so sensitive to Bozell’s charges.  Sutter wanted to have provocative, cutting-edge, timely, and popular scenes.  He got eight million viewers.  Do you know how many showrunners would kill for eight million viewers?  You did it Mr. Sutter.  Quit trying to make it seem more complicated than it is.  You won!?

Bozell countered Sutter’s charge:

“(Sutter and his team) are getting paid millions to offend as aggressively as they can possibly imagine.  They have nothing to discuss but their own “intelligent and intuitive” work and how outrageously hip they are.”

OUCH!  Placing myself in Sutter’s shoes —as a creative writer that writes scenes that are violent, based on the numerous violent scenes that I have enjoyed in fiction, movies, and TV— I have to say that Bozell’s insightful condemnations would wreck me.  I like to think that I’m a creative, intuitive, and intelligent writer, but when someone takes away my ammunition as thoroughly as Bozell did in two sentences, I would probably start making mean faces and throwing spitballs too.

The Censorship Defense

“Whenever that stuff crosses the line into censorship, it’s just scary … I’m not a social guru, I’m not a guy with an agenda politically, socially or morally.  I’m a f***ing storyteller.”

Most artists misuse the word censorship when someone criticizes their work.  It’s their desperate attempt to thwart criticism, for in the truest definition of the word, Bozell is not capable of censoring Sutter.  Bozell does not work for a government agency, he does not work for Sons of Anarchy in any manner, or for the network that airs it, and he does not have any direct pull with their advertisers.  He is simply acting as a critic, in the manner Brent Bozell has always offered criticism.  Anyone that pays attention to Brent Bozell knows who he is, and how and what he critiques.  If you don’t like him, don’t read him.  When Robin Williams denigrated religious preachers, was he censoring Jerry Falwell, or was he a righteous dude?  In this game, it all depends on which side of the stadium you’re sitting on.

The Start-A-Debate Defense

At one point, Mr. Sutter claimed that he just wanted to “start a debate” on the topics covered in the show.  He obviously picked that “start a debate” card out of the politician’s excuse hat that contains the cards “start a dialogue,” and “start a conversation”.  The problem with using such a line is that some of the times an actual debate breaks out, and you might encounter someone that takes the other side of that debate.  It appears that the debate that Mr. Sutter wanted to start was one that he was entirely unprepared for, and he was left with nothing more than personal attacks and swears.

The aspect of this debate that is utterly confounding is that anyone that reads Bozell’s actual blog on this topic, will probably have to re-read it about five times to figure out how this relatively benign criticism sent Sutter on such a tear.  You’ll wonder how such a relatively benign criticism could cause a forty-seven year old man to lose his mind and write a letter that calls another grown man a “Pathetic, f****ing douchebag.”  I’m not sure what school of thought Mr. Sutter currently calls home, but having nothing left but juvenile names and petty accusations says more to me about Mr. Sutter than it does Mr. Bozell.

In his letter, Sutter writes that Bozell is an “idiot” and his organizations are “idiotic”.  He claims that Bozell is about nothing more than his agenda, that is “desperately trying to create a lobby”, and that Bozell and “his hate club are flaccid and impotent”.  Sutter writes that Bozell is: “Not very bright, (that Bozell’s) message is archaic, and loving parents can innately sense that the PTC has no heart and no real interest in the betterment of children.  You reek of McCarthyism and holy water.  And right-minded folks can smell you coming a mile away.”  He writes that Bozell is “just an angry white guy with an exclusionary plan, using fear and god to spread a gospel of ignorance.”  Sutter then concludes his letter with: “I bet your kids hate you.” {4}

In a piece for the Washington Free Beacon, Sonny Bunch claims that this Sutter letter was: “Widely distributed, widely read, and widely praised.”{5}  I know that it’s written to denounce a conservative, and I’m sure that those on the receiving end of these distributions hate conservatives, but I’ve tried to read this “widely praised” letter with objectivity, and I can’t understand how anyone would consider it a “gotcha” moment for Mr. Sutter to celebrate.  It reads like a letter a teenage boy would send to a girl that just dumped him, and it makes the reader want to take Sutter aside and say, “There are other fish in the sea.”  Adolescent rage are the only words that come to mind when I read Sutter include “idiot” and “idiotic” in the same sentence.  When he criticizes Bozell’s attempts to lobby professionally, it sounds like the raging, teenage boy is trying to find the perfect punctuation to the letter, along the lines of, “and I hope that you don’t make the pom pom team either.”

I don’t understand why Sutter didn’t just let it go.  I don’t understand why Sutter didn’t just say, ‘Bozell is a religious, conservative, and he’s not my demographic, and the only people that read his column are religious conservatives.’  I don’t understand why he would want to give Mr. Bozell’s opinions more airtime.

At this point in the overall debate of artistic content, so many provocative artists have defended themselves in so many ways, that all of Mr. Sutter’s defenses now sound like clichés.  Sutter could’ve tried the “reflecting a culture” response that rappers give, but even that has become a cliché at this point.   He could’ve tried turning the responsibility back on the parents, with the cliché: “Hey, it’s their job to watch what their kids are watching not mine.”  The only response that is not cliché, and the one I would use if I had eight million viewers, is, “People watched it.  Scoreboard!  I provide a product in the same manner Budweiser provides a product, or Coke, or Hostess.  It may not be good for you, or the culture, as Bozell puts it, but that is a decision each household has to make.  That is what the free market is all about.”  The only thing that would prevent me from doing an “Eight million viewers” touchdown dance would be if I had some sort of insecurity about the material I created that attracted eight million viewers.

Bozell wrote: “The (FX) network and the “creative team of Sons of Anarchy” are getting paid millions to offend as aggressively as they can possibly imagine.”

This line, more than any other, probably provoked Sutter, because it called to mind all the pressure Sutter felt to do it, and overdo it, with more shock, and more violence than he had included before.  I’m sure he felt personal, and professional pressure to equal, and possibly top, the progression that began with Goodfellas, moved to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, to The Sopranos, and finally to Breaking Bad, and that he hoped to carve Sons of Anarchy a niche somewhere in that lineup.  Judging by Sutter’s vitriolic response, I’m guessing Sutter feels he fell short, and Bozell’s commentary only intensified that feeling.

When Sutter tells you it’s not about the shock, I can tell you –as a writer of violent crime fiction– that it’s all about the shock.  To paraphrase Bret Easton Ellis, I try to write something that will shock my friends, and my friends are pretty jaded.  All the movies and shows listed above have jaded us, and we are always on the lookout for our own progression in that line.  We love to shock, we live to shock, and we probably wouldn’t be writing today if it weren’t for those inspirations shocking our sensibilities into this direction.

I would not be interested in writing a story about a quirky family in New Hampshire that happens to live in, and own, a Hotel.  All the power to John Irving, one of the greatest living writers, but that ain’t me.  I would love to achieve the fame, and sales, of The Bridges of Madison County, and Tuesdays with Morrie, but I’ll never write stories like those.  I need a little violence in my stories, to be intrigued.  I need a lot of violence to be interested, and I need this violence to reflect a culture that has the perpetrators walking away from these extremely violent scenes like it’s just another manic Monday.  I am not a violent person, but I think those movies listed above were monumental, and influential.  All of them bordered on being gratuitously violent, in a manner that shook my foundation and my fundamentals, and after viewing them, I decided that I wanted to write the progression, and I’m sure that it was Sutter’s goal too.

The problem with being this open and honest about your intentions, or your agenda, is that you’re allowing others to see your intentions, and your agenda, and that somehow minimizes your intentions, and your agenda in a manner that makes them too apparent.  If an author has a violent scene that is cool, very few of them will say that they just wanted to write a violent scene that was cool.  They’ll tell you that the character, and the plot, are driven by a myriad of complications that will become clear when the narrative arc reaches its climax.  Yet, if you watch these shows, and movies, as often as I do, and you read ‘the complications to come’ interviews from their author, you find that more often than not, it was all about the shock and awe of writing violent scenes that were cool.  You can’t say that though.  Saying things like that makes you feel too much like a carnival barker trying to get patrons to take a look at the bearded lady, and the problem with that is that there might be some critic that comes along and says it’s just another bearded lady, and you’re just another carnival barker.






2 thoughts on “Sons of Anarchy, and the war of words on violence in the media

  1. A correction was made on a previous attribution made to Sonny Bunch. The writer at extends his apologies to Sonny Bunch, and a ‘thank you’ for the correction.


  2. You seem to have attributed something Tommy Christopher wrote (that bit about torture porn and show runners above) to me; I’d appreciate it if you’d fix. Thanks.


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