Sons of Anarchy
Created by Kurt Sutter
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman, Maggie Siff, Kim Coates, Mark Boone Junior
Twentieth Century Fox
Season 1 DVD release date: August 18, 2009
Season 2 premiere date: Tuesday, September 8, 10 EST/9 CST on FX
The handiest and dandiest nutshell in which to describe the FX show Sons of Anarchy is “Hamlet with Bikers.” It’s not the least accurate metaphor in the world: You have a Claudius, you have a Gertrude, and even the hero of the show, Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), has blond hair and blue eyes, looking as Danish as Danish can be. Hamlet with Bikers isn’t the worst kind of thing for a show. There are a whole ton of shows that don’t have Shakespearean allusions or dirty, smelly bikers, so can’t we have one that does?
But the more cynical way to describe Sons of Anarchy is “The Sopranos with Bikers,” but it’s too early to call on that one. The show needs six more seasons to overextend itself and a ton of out-of-place dream sequences to live up to that. That show got so bored with itself that it ended in mid-sentence to go and do something else.
Sons of Anarchy is the latest, and arguably best, drama to come out of the basic cable network FX, beating out other shows like Rescue Me, Damages, and the recently concluded The Shield (which is that show poor people had to make do with when they couldn’t get The Wire on HBO). In fact, I would go so far as to call Sons of Anarchy last season’s best new show in all of television. It took a little while to get its groove on, but it veered quite close to great in its second half. That’s something even the best shows on TV rarely do.
Hunnam plays Jax Teller, the Vice President of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club (Redwood Original), or “SAMCRO.” He’s in it with a whole host of Hey-It’s-That-Guy character actors like Mark Boone Junior (as the AWESOME Bobby Elvis) and the great Kim Coates. The club is headed by the headstrong Clay Morrow, played by Ron “Motherfucking” Perlman and his wife (Jax’s mom) Gemma. She’s played by Katey Sagal in a performance that would have gotten her an Emmy nomination, were she not on FX. The Academy has a raging hate-woody for any basic cable show that doesn’t feature Jon Hamm in a suit or the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle dealing crank.
Anyway, SAMCRO holds sway over the NoCal town of Charming, a place so idyllic that they have their own Floyd the Barber (IT’S TRUE!). There’s no big urban development in Charming (in fact, one character points out that he can’t find a Starbucks), and that has plenty to do with SAMCRO, who actively quashes that kind of thing. This suits the people of Charming just fine, and even the local Sheriff (Dayton Callie) helps SAMCRO keep Charming… Well… Charming.
But SAMCRO also has a hand in gun-running to the IRA and gangs in Oakland, which leads to a season-long story arc about their conflicts with the ATF. This is merely the backdrop, though, for a story of fathers and sons. Jax has a newborn (premature, thanks to an ODing junkie ex-wife) and he finds a manuscript written by his late father and SAMCRO founder, detailing the tenets of the club. This manuscript comes into play in every episode as Jax takes the founding ideals of the club to heart, driving a wedge between himself and his stepfather Clay, who warped those ideals into a criminal organization.
The aesthetic counts for a lot with Sons of Anarchy, as I’ve spent more time than I could bear with gangsters in shows like these, but precious few bikers. There’s a kind of seedy desperation to these folks that makes them sticking together a kind of thrill to watch. In your average gangster show, the overall mesh comes from blood and family. A wonderful narrative device to be sure, but with the exception of Jax and Clay, blood relations don’t come into play for much of the rest of the club. You don’t need to be given the whole backstories for the guy who beats hookers, the Elvis impersonator who looks nothing like Elvis, and the Iraq vet with only one ball to know that these guys treat this club like family because no one else will have them. Knowing this creates a kind of buzz so unique that I fail to find precedent in modern television.
The show starts out slow, as I’ve said, but I’ll forgive it somewhat, as we’ve never really met folks like this before who have lived this kind of life. They have rules and customs that take some getting used to. But it’s time well spent, as it lays the groundwork for the back half, consisting of seven truly extraordinary episodes of television that tie you up in knots. This isn’t to say the first five episodes are bad, no, far from it. But while you can simply watch the first five, the last seven you want to grind up and snort. They’re that good.
The acting is about… ninety-five percent effective. Ron Perlman is Ron Perlman, which is all you need to know. Katey Sagal, as the matriarch of the club, uses her silences to say volumes. When someone could push Ron Perlman and Kim Coates (one of the most underrated character actors we have) out of the way and become the one to watch, it’s a performance for the ages. Some may say that Charlie Hunnam is Jax is the only weak point. I could see where they’re coming from but I disagree. They say that he doesn’t work because he doesn’t look like a biker, but that’s why I think he’s perfect. He’s the moral counterpoint to the rest of the club and it wouldn’t work nearly as well with the textbook “better choice.”
No, the real weak-point is Maggie Siff as Jax’s love-interest Tara. She’s a competent actress (in addition to being face-meltingly hot), but she seems too matter-of-fact and literal for someone like Hunnam, whose character has his head stuck in the clouds. They just don’t work together. Siff first came to our attention on Mad Men, where she and Jon Hamm seduced each other over the course of the first season. Don Draper is more this chick’s speed.
So there you have Sons of Anarchy. It’s not a great show, but it could very well become one. It’s fun, it’s compelling and it lays the groundwork for what looks to be an explosive second season… The first five episodes of which FX sent me for the purpose of review…
-SEASON 2 (Ep. 1-5) MINI-REVIEW. SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN SEASON ONE-
Unlike the slow start to Season One, Season Two comes roaring out of the gate. The ATF has left Charming, only to be replaced by Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin), a White Separatist hoping to shut SAMCRO down after they refuse to desist in dealing guns to minority gangs. The rift between Jax and Clay after Donna’s funeral continues to build as their decisions come at cross-purposes to one another. Tara is slowly getting used to life privy to SAMCRO and a horrible event befalls Gemma. If the first season didn’t yield Katey Sagal and Emmy nomination, there is no justice in the world if her work here doesn’t wield one for the second.
Arkin (yet another character actor who doesn’t seem to get his due) creates an antagonist in Zobelle so foul and unlikable that he takes his place alongside Glory/Ben and Marlo Stanfield in the pantheon of TV villains that you want to scrub off of your screen with Lysol.
I understand that it is sometimes common practice for TV networks to send critics advanced screeners of their television programming. But these episodes of Sons of Anarchy are so good that, on the part of FX, it amounts to bragging, almost. These episodes are heartbreaking and white-knuckle tense in equal measure. This is gonna be the show to beat this year. The sophomore slump is apparently an alien concept to these guys.
Watch this show or I’ll beat your ass.