Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What can a Professional Screenwriter/Filmmaker learn from the Cancellation of "The Bastard Executioner"?


This morning Variety announced that the FX show The Bastard Executioner (created by the Series Showrunner, Kurt Sutter) was canceled. 
I watched the show from the beginning and found the quality of the production on the series to be exceptional, and the performances by all the actors excellent as well. 

However, from the start, and throughout the run of the series, I found the scripts were good (at times very provocative, specifically the arc/storyline of the character, Milus Corbett/portrayed by actor Stephen Moyer)... 
But not great. 

This assessment became easier when another TV show launched around the same time --The Last Kingdom (on the BBC network). TLK was essentially a series similar in genre as TBE - Neo-Realistic Medieval Action-Drama-Romance. 
TLK ended up telling a better story, not only overall, but every episode was emotionally and intellectually engaging. Setting aside the action scenes of both series (though TLK was better than TBE on that front as well), I’m specifically referring to the scenes of the characters moving the plot forward with their interaction and dialogue. TLK’s
Talk-Talk stuff was much more 
riveting, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging than similar scenes in TBEAnd I believe this ultimately was the main reason TBE did not connect with a bigger audience to justify a second season. 


WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT TO PROFESSIONAL SCREENWRITERS/FILMMAKERS

In the Variety article, Kurt Sutter is quoted as saying, “The Bastard Executioner had a dense mythology. It was historically based. I do think they’re harder to plug into. It takes more time for people to find those shows and to have the energy to sit and watch them.” 

I think Mr. Sutter is a gifted storyteller, but I’m not sure there’s anything right about his verbal autopsy of his own series. 
First, I believe there's a lot of viewers (we can start with the number of viewers who tuned into the first episode of TBE – 4.2 million people) who would have had no problem plugging into a neo realistic period piece action/romance TV series. The trick is for the filmmakers to deliver a show which creatively connects to a sizeable amount of an audience with traditional and contemporary genre expectations.   
And, what I believe was the second biggest problem with TBE was that the mythology of the series wasn’t actually very deep at all. 
Only in the most recent episodes did viewers get a glimpse of some hidden writings that might have come from Jesus Christ himself. 
And the reveal that the main character was related biologically to another principal character in the series just occurred in the most-recent episode. 
Is there any doubt that both story/series reveals came way too late in the game if the filmmakers intended the content to be considered an essential part of the creative DNA of the series? 

Sutter’s only previous effort as the main show runner of a TV series was The Sons of Anarchy, a ground breaking series that ran for seven years on FX. Is it possible Sutter didn’t re-calibrate his artistic sensibilities when unfolding the overall story arc in the first year of a brand-new series? 
The thinking behind the storylines of a show in its sixth season is obviouslycreatively different than what is required for launching a new show in the hope that a sizeable amount of viewers (even if one is assuming that there will be loyal followers from the previous show who will trust you know what you'e doing and stick with you), will respond throughout the entire run of the series.  
I point all of this out for Professional Screenwriters/Filmmakers to take notice and digest.
I’m certainly simplifying the creative reasons for the cancellation of a well-produced TV series, but I think there are possible cautionary lessons that can still be learned from TBE’s cancellation. 



I liked The Bastard Executioner, and will be excited to see how the season/series final plays out. 
But the show wasn’t exceptional. 
And being exceptional is really important in the modern entertainment marketplace where viewers have so many quality choices every night.
Coming up as the second best medieval action drama on TV can end up with someone losing their head.