Kurt Sutter’s 14th century Sons Of Anarchy follow-up The Bastard Executioner has been canceled after its first season. Rather than allow the FX and Fox 21 TV Studios drama to simply fade away after 10 episodes, Sutter has taken the unusual step of helping the network make the decision and buying farewell ads on Deadline and the Hollywood trades to thank his cast and crew — and the network that ultimately had to swing the ax because the show wasn’t generating enough ratings growth quickly enough to justify the cost of a Wales-set period drama.
Sutter knew the end was coming as he wrapped the final episode five weeks ago, but didn’t tell the cast at the time because the final decision hadn’t yet been made and because he didn’t want to cast a pall over what he feels is an electric finish. Sutter, who is under an overall deal at Fox 21 parent 20th Century Fox TV, won’t be out of a job long. He’ll soon start the process of hiring a Latino showrunner who’ll spearhead the Sons spinoff that focuses on the Mayan biker club. And he’s discussing with Cross Creek principal Brian Oliver plans for him to finally direct his feature script Delivering Gen. The timing seems good on the latter; the Sutter-scripted boxing drama Southpaw with director Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal was a summer hit, and Cross Creek just signed a big co-financing and producing deal at Sony Pictures that positions the maker of Black Mass, Everest and Black Swan to become a major supplier for that studio.
“Brian and I have a rich history with that project, and when Propaganda broke up, he mortgaged his house and used his own money to buy Delivering Gen out of Chapter 11 and since then it’s been about finding the time,” Sutter said. On revving up another biker series, Sutter added: “The network is very hot on the Mayans project, and I won’t run that show. For me, this is about finding the right writer and the next thing I will be doing is sitting down and interviewing to find a Latino writer, someone who understands the world and the culture. I don’t want to just throw some white guy at it.”
None of this obscures the sadness Sutter feels at the moment for the demise of The Bastard Executioner, an edgy period drama that, for all of its ambitions and exploration of horrible behavior excused by religious devotion that seems relevant today, the show just wasn’t showing the audience growth needed to continue.
“I wanted that ad because I just loved this cast and crew,” Sutter told Deadline. “I’ve never worked with a higher caliber of talent from top to bottom. I love my Sons cast and the people I work with here, but UK actors just have a different approach to the work and are not caught up in the machine of Hollywood. Here, people get caught up in the awareness of ratings, and reviews and what everybody thinks, and am I going to have a job. Out there, there is more of a journeyman approach to acting. A lot of the cast had reservations about signing a contract for five years because they’re so used to doing a play, then jumping to a BBC project, and then doing something else. They just focus on the work. I started out with people who’d never worked together before, with some doing their first TV series work, and as the show progressed over the two-hour pilot and eight episodes, they bonded so much. They loved the work, and the characters in this ensemble. And so I was there in the finale, and I knew at that point the fate of the show, and I could tell there was no awareness of it, which was a bit heartbreaking and kind of beautiful. They didn’t know anything was coming and I couldn’t tell them. I just wanted to let them know now what an amazing experience this was for me.”
While the cast might not have been preoccupied with ratings, Sutter has no choice. Sons didn’t start as a juggernaut, but the contemporary biker club setting made it easy to embrace and those ratings kept building all through the series run. That is harder to do with an exploration of the Middle Ages.
“Good reviews are wonderful and so are awards, but for me, I’m very aware of ratings because my job as a storyteller is to engage and hook an audience,” Sutter said. “Ratings let me know that I’m doing my job. This show premiered low, and we never really established a baseline where we could say, OK, that’s our audience. We would find ourselves down a tenth here and there and I saw it coming. I have a really good relationship with [FX president John] Landgraf and we’ve been talking the whole time and it’s as heartbreaking for him as anything else. He loves the show and feels that eventually it would hook an audience. But it just comes down to arithmetic. If you don’t have that baseline, you can’t go to advertisers and say, this is the audience we have, so you just can’t sustain the cost of the show. That’s the other reason I took the ad. When a show gets canceled, there’s often this perception that, oh, it’s a failure, or the network didn’t support it and pulled the plug. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘Everybody was incredibly supportive, and gave me everything I needed,” Sutter said. “This is not a mutual decision; because at the end of the day, I don’t make the call. But I knew it was heartbreaking for Landgraf and I basically said, look, I know what’s going to happen here. And he said, how do you want to tell everyone.”
One thing Sutter didn’t want to do was try and place the drama elsewhere or appeal to an audience to bring a stay of execution.
“I’m not a showrunner who sits in an ivory tower, writes the words and passes them down,” Sutter said. “I’m very plugged into the impact it has on the audience. It’s my theater background, I’m very aware of audience response and reaction. To push, or try to sell it somewhere else, it somehow feels a little too desperate. This show is a very difficult one to produce. Maybe some of this was me not taking a break after Sons before jumping into this, but this show almost f*cking killed me. Mainly, I just feel like I don’t want to write a show that no one’s watching. That’s not my job, to produce something to make money. My job is to produce something that entertains and engages an audience and I just felt like we hit a point where that was going to be too difficult to do. I didn’t want to put Landgraf in a position where he had to lower the axe on me. No pun intended. My guess is that a year from now, when people actually watch it, there will be a sense of, hey, where’s the next episode? Right now, we just couldn’t catch the audience we needed and I wanted to let people know this wasn’t about the evil forces of 20th and Fox pulling the plug and shutting us down.”
Sutter has enjoyed a charmed run since making his breakthrough writing and producing The Shield on FX and then moving right along to the monster hit Sons Of Anarchy. He wrote a couple of pilots that didn’t get picked up: Lucas Stand, scripted with John Shiban, just sold to Boom Comics as a graphic novel; another, Diva Clown Killer was, by Sutter’s own admission, “just a little bit too off the rails for them.” Seeing a series end for a reason other than it ran its course is new for him and a bit humbling.
“The Shield went seven seasons and then Sons went seven seasons, so I haven’t had the experience of seeing something that was shut down before I got to tell all the stories,” Sutter said.
As for why The Bastard Executioner didn’t catch on the same way, Sutter said it’s possible his treatment of the subject matter was just too dark, and the show wasn’t helped by the current glut of period series. Sutter said he is proud of the exploration of ruthlessness in the name of religion that is still evident today, and said that many of these points are driven home in the final episode.
“I didn’t want this show to be about the execution of the week,” Sutter said. “Some of the things I wanted to convey, you’ll get a bigger piece of the mythology in the finale. What is so ironic and sad is, it was such a brutal environment that was driven by this sense of holiness and in the name of god, and the irony in that is a big theme to me. It’s something that continues to resonate. You look at what happened in Paris, all of that done in the name of god. It’s a theme that continues to penetrate and impact our society and it literally has never changed. There was no period where it was more vivid or applied than the Middle Ages, especially before the Renaissance. When the Renaissance hit, there was some sense of ideals and trying to incorporate some sense of humanity. Before that, life was so fragile and there was no sense of the impact of the loss of human life. That was a big theme to me that I feel I was able to communicate.
“Today, what I want to say is, hey, this was a great ride and we did something really great that we’re proud of, and we apparently were meant to do it for only one season and we’ll move onto something else,” Sutter said.