A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is, “meh.”
So reads the ad creator Kurt Sutter took out in this publication (see below) and others to announce the cancellation of his FX series, The Bastard Executioner. The “heartbreaking” decision, made in concert with FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, comes as the ambitious 14th century period drama lost more than half of its audience through its first six weeks on the air, falling from 4 million combined weekly viewers for its Sept. 15 premiere to just 1.9 million for episode six. The series wrapped its first, and now final, season Nov. 17.
“It’s not like it had a chance and I said, ‘Let’s not take it,'” explains Sutter, who watched as Bastard failed to catch on the way his previous juggernaut, Sons of Anarchy, had on the same network. (The gritty biker drama famously grew every season it was on, ending its seven-year run in December as the top-rated drama series in FX’s history.) The timing and delivery of Bastard‘s cancellation news fell to the long-tenured and often outspoken showrunner, who was adamant everybody involved not be strung along. Sutter preempted the ad with a heartfelt email to the Wales-based cast and crew, who he says remained committed and enthusiastic even as the ratings sputtered and he’d fallen woefully behind on scripts.
“It’s fantastic to get a good review [or] an award, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters, really, is numbers,” he says, adding: “I’m not the guy sitting in my ivory tower spitting shit out and not caring if anyone is watching. … I don’t want to write something that nobody’s f—ing watching.” Sutter, who spent seven seasons on FX’s The Shield prior to Sons, suggests he hasn’t done too much second-guessing, though he acknowledges he has wondered whether his latest series’ mythology was too dense and the glut of period pieces a turnoff. Other potential hurdles: a largely unknown cast, led by Aussie theater actor Lee Jones, and lengthy runtimes.
Already Sutter is thinking about his next act. He’s taking meetings about reviving his early film script, Delivering Gen, a love story between a junkie and a hit man; and he’s in search of the right writer to tackle his Sons‘ Mayans spinoff for FX and 20th Century Fox TV, where he’s locked into a massive eight-figure, three-year deal. Upon wrapping production on Bastard, Sutter took the train from London to Venice, where he wrote an early draft of his next TV idea. While he’s staying mum on details, he reveals with a laugh, “It’s contemporary — and there are no horses involved.”
Here, Sutter talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the decision to pull the plug.
Let’s start with the ad. Why do it this way?
I decided to post the ad just because I love this cast and crew so much. It was all very interesting. I think some of it was because a lot of them are stage actors and Brits and they’re not plugged into the same shit the way L.A. actors are plugged into it, worrying about numbers and blah blah blah. They’re just there to do the work. Everyone showed up somewhat skeptical, not necessarily of me but of the process because it was new to them. But then by the end, both cast and crew were so bonded and so excited and they loved it. I didn’t get the official word [that it was being canceled], but I knew enough numerically that we weren’t doing well. To me, the most heartbreaking part was that there really was a sense of everyone being excited to tell more stories. I don’t necessarily think that’s usually the vibe on a show that’s not doing well. So this was about letting folks know what a great experience I had, and how proud I was of them.
Will the cast find out through this ad, too?
I sent an email to the cast basically letting them know what’s going on. I wanted them to hear it from me. And everybody I heard from, the response was, “Oh my God, are you OK?” Or “I’m so sorry.” Everybody was worried about me. Not, “F—, this sucks. What happened?” I was like, oh right, that’s why I love you. That’s the main reason why I did it. And look, I love FX, and John Landgraf, who has become a close friend, basically said, “How do you want to do this?”
Look, I know the game. I know the way it works. Obviously, we premiered low, but I wasn’t worried about that that much. I know that you basically have to establish a medium line, where you have your base and that’s your core audience and then you can go, “OK, can we build from that? Can we sell ad time based on that?” But the problem was — and, look, I’m very proud of the show and many of the people who watched the show dug it — we were just ticking down a tenth of a point each week. When you’re in that mode, it’s just purely numbers. And look, it’s obviously an expensive show and a high-profile show. I think it was as heartbreaking for Landgraf as it was for me. John loves the mythology, he loves the theme of it and the message of it. But at the end of the day, if you can’t sustain it, you can’t do it.
There are plenty of little-watched cable shows that live on …
It’s fantastic to get a good review [or] an award, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters, really, is numbers. My job as a storyteller is to share my vision while I engage and entertain an audience. If I don’t have that audience, I can’t do my job. So, I saw it coming. I saw each week that it didn’t hook, it didn’t necessarily land. With Sons, it premiered low but then it flatlined really quickly and by episode seven or so of that first season, it slowly started to tick up. With Bastard, we never hooked that core 2, 2.5 million viewers to build from.
Looking at it now, what went wrong?
I think the mythology was a little too dense for some people. There’s a glut of period pieces on right now, and I’m sure timing has something to do it. There’s just so many f—ing variables involved in that formula. My sense is that a year from now, people will be like, “Why didn’t you make more?” (Laughs.) I mean, I get so many people telling me they’re on episode four of Sons.
It’s not particularly common for the creator to jump in and pull the plug on his own show. So, why?
At the end of the day, do I have any say in that? Absolutely not. I could say to John, “I don’t want to do it anymore,” and [FX would] say, “Well, f— you, we’ll find someone else.” I love this show, I love the mythology, but, you know, it almost f—ing killed me. I don’t write in a vacuum. I’m not the guy sitting in my ivory tower spitting shit out not caring if anyone is watching. I like an audience. I don’t want to write something that nobody’s f—ing watching. And yes, some of that is ego. But some of it is just, [if no one’s watching] then I’m not necessarily doing my job. John and I have been in touch the whole time, and it’s not like it had a chance and I said, “Let’s not take it.” But yes, it was a mutual decision in terms of the timing of it. First, I’m so OCD, it’s hard for me to begin something new if something else is still dangling. It’s almost like, I had to clean up, put it away and say, “Thank you very much, this was fun.” But, also, I didn’t want to string the cast along. I just think it’s unfair when that happens, when people don’t find out for another three months whether they have a job in May. To me, the way we are handling it — in terms of, is it going to happen? Is it going to work? Let’s figure it out, give me a yes or no — is the way it should be done.
I’ll ask as the cast did: How are you doing with this?
Oh, I’m heartbroken. Beside the obvious — pride and all that shit — it’s an epic mythology, and I really love the themes and every place that we were going to go with it. So I’m going to miss that. But creatively, there is a lot of stuff I want to do. I ended up not directing the finale because I was down a little bit, I was sick, I was out here [in L.A.] with my kid, and then I was so f—ing behind on scripts, I was [David] Milch-ing it at the end. I was literally showing up on set with scenes. Paris [Barclay] was like, “You can’t do this to yourself.” We brought in Ashley Way, who did episode seven and I loved him. We brought him in to direct the finale, but I was there on set and by then I had a sense of what was going on. But people were so excited about where the story was going, and everyone was just rolling up their sleeves. Actors were getting their scenes really late but they didn’t care. There was just this great sense of camaraderie and excitement around the project, and it was just sort of like, “Oh man.” It was really hard to be around that energy because it just made me sad.
Did they not know that it wasn’t performing and likely wouldn’t continue?
Some did. Stephen Moyer is a savvy guy, and he’d always check in with me: “Where are we at?” I think he was reading other scripts by episode seven. But the rest of the cast? I think there’s that British mentality in terms of acting, where they’re used to being journeyman. It’s that, “I’m going to do a play for six months, then I’m doing something on the BBC.” They’re used to going from job to job, they’re not necessarily out to “land.” In fact, a lot of them really struggled [initially] with signing a contract that tied them to something for five years. So it’s not so much that they weren’t aware, it’s just not something that impacts them in the same way in terms of, “Do I have a job? Do I have a job?” Because they’ll have a job, and they’re used to that. Whereas out here in L.A., it’s more about getting that big gig. That journeymen sense isn’t as embedded here as it is out there.
So, what’s next?
I think [FX is] really hot on the Mayans thing. That’s not something I would write, it’s something I would produce. So we’re still looking for the right writer for that. I think that’ll be something that I’ll spend some time and energy on. And then there are two or three other things. I have my movie, Delivering Gen, that I want to do. I have a meeting with [Cross Creek’s] Brian Oliver, and I want to try to get that happening. And then there are two other TV ideas I’ve been playing with. I actually ended up doing a rough draft of a script. After production wrapped, I took the Orient Express from London to Venice, and then I spent about 10 days in Venice. But then I had this idea — and if I have an idea, I have to write it down or tell someone because five minutes later I will completely forget it. That’s how my brain works — or doesn’t work. I always go through this weird postmortem when I finish a project. You’re so adrenalized for eight or nine months, and then all of a sudden there’s nothing. So I didn’t want to be away from my kid for six weeks and then come home and lock myself in the office for a week, which is usually what I end up doing. So I got to sort of do that in Venice.
Are you going to tell me what the idea is?
I can’t tell you yet. Nobody knows! It’s contemporary, I’ll tell you that. (Laughs.) And there are no horses involved.
And you’ll be filming it in L.A., not Wales, I assume?
Maybe New York, but definitely on this continent.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m really proud of the work we did and I wish it could continue, but I think this is the most graceful way to bow out. There’s no animosity. I don’t feel like the network didn’t give us a chance or blah blah. I think everybody did everything they could to support it and make it work and, ultimately, there are just variables that are out of our control.
If you had it to do over again, anything you would have done differently?
I always think about that. [My wife] Katey [Sagal] was like, ‘Well, they should have given you more time off [between Sons and Bastard.]” And yes, I could probably have done it without it being quite as soul-crushing as it was. But the story was the story, so I don’t think any of that would have changed. So if I had more time, it would have been less stressful but it would have been the same show. In terms of cast, I love all of those actors, so it’s not like I feel like we made bad choices with that.
Of course, there’s always stuff. It’s why it’s hard for me to watch what I do because I always just see what’s wrong with it. There’s always shit I’d want to change. But in terms of big picture? I don’t think so. Everybody gave everything they had. The network and studio were super supportive. They never shut me down, they made shit work, and we figured stuff out. I don’t think there was a variable involved that was the cause. There was no, “If that were different, it would have worked.”
So there’s definitely the pride factor involved, but I feel like this was a big risk for me. Had I done another contemporary crime show and it failed, it would be different because then I didn’t take a risk and I didn’t make it work. If something is going to not connect, you want to feel like at least you took a risk and tried something different.