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Kurt Sutter and Me

I’m sitting in my Principles of Theatre Directing class, a three-hour extravaganza that has evolved into a debate about the best film adaptation of Hamlet.

“Kenneth Branaugh’s is the most approachable”

“Maybe, but Laurence Olivier’s is the gold standard”

Over all the pretentious arguing, I timidly mutter “Don’t forget Sons of Anarchy.

It’s difficult to overstate my obsession with Sons of Anarchy. Kurt Sutter’s famous “Hamlet on Harleys” series was the final nail in the coffin of my theatre career, showing me that television is the best medium for narrative writing. At first glance, it shouldn’t be my kind of show. The impression I give off in person is much more “Niles Crane” than “outlaw biker.” And as far as crime drama series go, there is much higher-brow fare to study. The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad all received more critical acclaim. But for my money, Sons runs circles around them all.

To simply describe it as an adaptation of Hamlet is to undersell the show’s brilliance. I like to tell people that it is a uniquely American take on Shakespeare’s story. It addresses the same questions (How far does family loyalty stretch? What if that loyalty pushes us towards violence? Are we doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes?), but the conclusions it draws are quite different. While both are tragedies, the original play is served with a massive scoop of European pessimism. Sons of Anarchy, on the other hand, underscores its dark storylines with the distinctly American idea that we have some control over our destinies, no matter how bad things seem. To say any more would be to spoil a masterpiece, but trust me when I say it’s enthralling.

I bring this up today because of a little show called Mayans MC. Sons of Anarchy ended in 2015, but a sequel series, also created by Kurt Sutter, premiered on FX last month. And anyone who has picked up a Variety lately knows it’s a hit. Mayans MC has been the highest rated new show on cable this fall, and was renewed for a second season this week. At first glance, it seems like a sequel to a ratings juggernaut like Sons of Anarchy would be a layup, but the show was still something of a gamble. The characters in Mayans MC were minuscule players on Sons…not only did they have minimal screen time, but nobody was remotely interested in their backstory. Sutter’s decision to give them a spinoff raised a lot of eyebrows. But the show is phenomenal.

Now, to a pessimistic viewer, one great TV show can feasibly be called a fluke. But to create two shows of this caliber, you must be doing something right. In the midst of his fantastic run, I wanted to explore what Kurt Sutter is doing to make his shows so damn compelling.

What separates my favorite drama from comparable TV thrillers? First and foremost is the level of technical prowess that Kurt Sutter and co. bring to storytelling. If television writing is an instrument, then Sutter is a virtuoso. Remember all of those literary techniques that you learned in English class? Dramatic irony, mystery boxes, misdirection, etc.? Sutter has such a firm command over them that, to a writing geek, each season is a symphony. He never gives the audience too much information, but never keeps us in the dark either. A show like Lost, whose entertainment value is derived solely from the audience’s confusion, can seem cheap after a while. A show in which the audience always knows more than the characters (something common in the theatre), can be enlightening, but doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat. Neither is ever a problem for in the Sons of Anarchy world. Every storytelling device used on the show can be found in classic literature and theatre, but they never fail to feel fresh. He crams twist after twist, lie after lie, secret after secret into the show. And Mayans MC seems to be more of the same.

Okay, the writing is superb, but great writing isn’t hard to find on TV these days. What specifically makes these shows great? The way Sutter sets up his pilots, making each fictional universe a tinderbox ready to ignite.

It’s hard to explain the premises of Sons and Mayans. They’re both shows about motorcycle clubs in California, but there’s no easy elevator pitch. Nothing as simple as “a high school teacher starts cooking meth” or “a mob boss starts going to therapy.” Instead, the beginnings of these shows are devoted to creating worlds reminiscent of Europe before the start of WWI. Almost every character has at least one secret that could ruin them. People are always lying to each other. There are multiple relationships that are strained to the breaking point. He introduces all of these plot lines early on, then releases one spark and watches the entire thing burn. In the first hour of Mayans, we’re introduced, among other things, to:

A motorcycle club struggling to maintain its relationship with a drug cartel. A member of that club who is secretly working with a rebel group to overthrow the cartel. That member’s brother, who is colluding with the police.  And the undercover cop’s ex-girlfriend, who is now married to the leader of the cartel. What could possibly go wrong?

To call this storytelling “tight” would be an understatement. By adding layer after layer after layer of deception, Kurt Sutter is setting up a world with endless storytelling potential. Some of this seems like common sense, but pay attention to other shows that you watch. You’ll find that this “Tinderbox Method” of writing is not utilized with this much complexity almost anywhere else. It’s crazy to think that nobody is copying this formula…

Not to worry, there’s one writer in Boston who’s up for the challenge.