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Saturday, August 30, 2008

CRITIQUING THE CRITIQUE (part 1)

Sons of Anarchy is getting lots of reviews. Some good, some not so good. Some smart, some not so smart. There are several ways that an artist can deal with critiques.

1. You can ignore them. This of couse is impossible. We live for adoration and acceptance. Especially from strangers.

2. You can stew in resentment and take twisted solace in the fact that some critics are bitter because they are writing about TV and not for TV. But alas, for a guy like me, resentment is poison.

3. You can take your twelve-year-old son's aluminum baseball bat, wait in an underground parking structure and "discuss" the finer points of a review with said critic. My personal default.

4. You can embrace them, learn from them and as we say in recovery -- take what works and leave the rest. My shrink and sponsor's suggestion. As I sit here reading Emmet Fox and polishing my aluminum bat, I've decided to go another way --

5. Critiquing the critique. Why should critics be the only one who can sit back and discharge opinions like beads of sweat dripping between rolls of belly fat? Artists should be able to review the critics work as well. So to purge my own anxiety and perhaps in some small way - help critics help themselves - I will critique reviews. I will try to be fair and open-minded.

The most recent unflattering review came from Variety's, Brian Lowry (pictured above). My comments and scores are in bold.

Lowry writes:

After two episodes, "Sons of Anarchy" -- FX's gritty drama about a brutal, gun-running motorcycle gang -- still appears stuck in neutral.

Gritty? Does anyone really know what that word means anymore? I've heard it used to describe swing moves on Dancing with the Stars.

- 10 for lack of originality. Eager to occupy the mob turf vacated by "The Sopranos," the series features an intriguing cast and introduces a bleak new world. This is true. The Sopranos is a blessing and a curse for this show. We wouldn't be on the air if The Sopranos hadn't broken that anti-hero outlaw ground. But unfortunately, because this is a family drama set in an outlaw community, I knew we would be compared to Chase's show. Not only are they impossible shoes to fill, they are shoes that nobody wants filled. We are doomed to disappoint.

It's also true that our cast in intriguing and the world is bleak.

+10 for astute observation. Once that's accomplished, though, there's not much momentum to the story, other than fits of nastiness designed to establish that this is one dangerous group of hombres. What does “not much momentum to the story” mean”? Does it mean there's not enough action, not enough narrative, too much information? It just sounds like a pat critic’s phrase that really says nothing about the show. If you asked 100 people what you meant by that, they might say yes, but when pressed to elaborate, they’d realize they have no idea what you are talking about. Nor do I. And I wrote it.

Yes, there are definitely “fits of nastiness” and they are a dangerous group of "hombres" -- not quite sure why the Latino vernacular seemed appropriate, but I guess "group of guys" didn't sound very sexy.

- 20 for vagueness. - 10 for mild racism.

Mission accomplished, but when does this hog stop spinning its wheels?

Okay, we get it, it's a show about motorcycles. I let you get away with the first cheesy "stuck in neutral" reference, but I gotta deduct for this one. And hog should be Hog. It's a Harley, not a pig.

- 50 for swine and cheese.

Series creator Kurt Sutter cut his teeth on "The Shield," and he seems well-versed in the tense links among disparate gangs of California.

Thanks for the shout out, man. Don't get many of those.

+ 50 for mentioning my name.

There's the motorcycle club -- which essentially rules the small town of Charming -- supplying weapons to African-American drug dealers, who are at odds with Mexican drug dealers, who may be collaborating with the white supremacists. As for the cops, they're corrupt enough to sit on the sidelines, until a young deputy begins to take interest in the bikers' activities.

Very good. There are indeed a lot of players and like The Shield, you have to pay attention to know who’s doing who. Your score card is accurate.

+ 70 for paying attention.

At the show's core, though, is Jax (Charlie Hunnam), the son of one of the biker group's founders. He's a tough, good-looking ladies man, and his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal, in perhaps the least-flattering performance of her career) is a badass in her own right -- having married the club's current leader, Clay (Ron Perlman), after her husband's death.

I’m trying to detach from the fact that Katey is my wife and focus on the facts. But I’m itching to reach for the aluminum bat. What does “least-flattering performance of her career” mean? Again, an interesting-sounding phrase that fails to illuminate. Does it mean she doesn’t look good? Does it mean the character is unflattering? Are you dissing her acting? One thing all the reviews have agreed on - even the bad ones - is that Katey’s performance is a standout one. So I’m assuming you mean her character is somewhat despicable. Yes, Gemma is hard as nails, but her behavior is clearly driven by a deep, dark maternal pull. She’s a little bit of Vic Mackey with great tits and a vagina -- a different kind of mother.

- 50 for working out your "angry, over-bearing mother" shit through a review.

The premiere opens with a raid on the gang's stash of guns, leading to vicious reprisals. Yet the ostensible turn to the story -- the event that alters the existing dynamics and thus should produce drama -- centers on the birth of Jax's son by his ex-wife ("The Sopranos'' Drea DeMatteo, in a wasted cameo), and Jax's discovery of his father's diaries, which hint at more noble ambitions than the criminal enterprise Clay has established. It's a lifestyle an outsider describes as "white trash thugs holding on to a dying dream."

By “wasted cameo” I’m assuming you mean we shouldn’t have used her, not that the character is fucked up on meth -- which she was. I guess it’s that Sopranos sanctity issue I mentioned above. FYI -- it’s not a cameo, she’ll be back.

- 30 for unfortunate, unintended use of double entendre.

Theoretically, these twin tugs from his past and present could prompt Jax to reexamine his life, but that's only an educated guess as to where this is heading.

The difficult job in a pilot, as any educated critic knows, is setting up a series in an engaging and exciting way. A writer has the task of revealing all the necessary information on the characters and world as well as trying to create a narrative that titillates and draws an audience back to the show. Sons has been doubly challenging because I have a huge cast of characters and it is a world, unlike the Mafia, that no one has really seen before. So in fact, there is nothing theoretical about the “twin tugs”. They are clearly narrative devices that set up the main character’s arc.

Indeed, as initially played by Hunnam (from the British "Queer as Folk"), it's hard to picture Jax experiencing a transcendent moral quandary, or, for that matter, any sort of intricate thought process.

Mr. Lowry's assessment of Charlie Hunnam’s performance is again oddly passive. He never actually comes out and says “this is what I think”. Instead his remarks are girlish, backhanded insults that neither illuminate nor educate. Apparently the boorish bravado gear of Tony Soprano is the only thing that constitutes good acting. Nuance and subtlety count for nothing. I can only assume that in Mr. Lowry’s world James Gandolfini is a renaissance man and anyone as good-looking as Charlie Hunnam is immediately doomed to obvious one-dimensionality.

- 30 for continued lack of clarity.

- 65 for working out your “pudgy yearbook committee nerd hates the good-looking quarterback” shit through a review.

Working with directors Allen Coulter and Michael Dinner, Sutter does bring a visceral quality to the violence, while detailing the club's code and commitment to functioning as an extended family; there's just so little dimension to the characters early on that it's difficult to care.

I hear that. My question is how much dimension are we expected to give “early on”? Am I supposed to carve out every nuance of every character in the first fifteen minutes? Isn’t the idea to “reveal” layers as the show and season progress? Am I supposed to spoon-feed you every motivation for every action? At a certain point doesn’t the creator have to trust that his or her audience will fill in some of the gaps? Isn’t that what an intelligent audience does?

+ 20 for again mentioning my name.

- 20 for making me ask so many questions.

That's particularly true of Sagal's biker-chick Lady Macbeth, motivated by her desire to see Jax eventually assume control of the club, who apparently fears that his late dad's sensitive scribbles will distance him from his anything-goes stepfather, who Perlman gruffly maintains at a constant low boil.

- 40 because now you’re just pissing me off.

Admittedly, "The Shield" felt a trifle clichéd at the outset too -- corrupt cops in L.A.? -- before finding novel ways to develop and prolong its cat-and-mouse scenario.

I think I remember... I believe you were at the LA Times when you wrote your scathing review of The Shield. Nailed that the one on the head too, didn’t you?

+ 30 for enduring my sarcasm.

Given that, there's still modest hope for "Sons of Anarchy" -- the disclaimer being that before the series gets much further down the road, somebody better check the steering.

Just a heads up, brother, you don’t need a disclaimer when you give something “modest hope”. A disclaimer is for when you go out on a limb. Which is clearly something you never seem to do.

- 40 for lack of balls.

- 115 for yet another bad motorcycle cliché.

Brian Lowry’s Score: -400

6 comments:

Outsider said...

Nobody in the viewership is gonna listen to that Vat Fuck anyway....The Viewers will be the
Electorate....

Vat Fuck is just goin' bla,bla,bla
bleat,bleat,bleat trying to kiss the asses
of some corporate committee somewhere
so he'll be right in some regard whichever way
things go

...but he's also like a black sheep working for the slaughterhouse... trying to lead the excited viewership away from the enjoyment of the show
towards culling by corporate Lobotomy

Hey Bro...I got a aluminum bat too... Right Where I
sleep....24" Mac 350 ultralight by Rawlings...
....to quote the Ramones, "Beat on the Brat, Beat on the Brat, Beat on the Brat with a Baseball Bat".

But better to do it in Finland...they have the Best
Jails in the World I hear

Writer Boi said...

I read the SOA pilot script a month ago and it rocked me and has inspired me as a writer. My older brother is a biker and I was trained to fight by a 1%er - I know the world - and I found the story and the characters 100% authentic. I can't wait to see the show tonight.

This guy's review reminds me of the Rock And Roll critics who dissed working class bands like Zeppelin and The Who. They can't relate to masculinity and tribal brotherhood because they have a deep seated intellectual resentment towards it.

The Sopranos pilot, while brilliant, is less about the mafia and more about a middle-aged man suffering from panic attacks, depression, and neurosis -- issues I'm sure most critics can relate to. They only like an outlaw when he's limping and wounded and apologetic for his ways. In the real outlaw world, those traits get you killed quick.

Good luck tonight. Hope one day to be a prospect in the SOA writer's room.

wackman said...

nice montage at the end with the Elvis song.
Where's the high def? SD sucks?
very good first show. good luck with the series.

Jen Yamato said...

I found your blog while watching the pilot's live broadcast just now, simultaneously reading and watching. Thanks for the amusing post! So far, I disagree for the most part with Lowry (and your wife looks fantastic, by the way).

Alex said...

HAHAHA. Brian Lowry is such a douche. Everything you critiqued him on was spot-on.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sutter, you have a great show going on.

But listen to the bikers. Some details must be fixed; no riding with colors in a cage. No no, and I have very little knowledge, but even I know that one.

With my best brutality, I will kick this show into infinite stardom! See you at the next episode!

Pia