Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the FX network realized that most television viewers tuning in after 10pm were adults, and as such were perfectly capable of being treated like adults. This revelation meant that no longer would sanitized television be necessary to maintain sponsorship, and it meant that edgier, cinema-like shows were viable outside of the HBO realm both in terms of quality and viewership. Over the past 7 years, FX has laid claim to some of the best dramas on television: “The Shield”, “Nip/Tuck”, and “Rescue Me”. It’s time to add one more to the list.
“Sons of Anarchy”, from “Shield” writer and executive producer Kurt Sutter, is a crime drama centering on the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club. The Sons are led by Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and his stepson Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), and together they run the fictional Northern California town of Charming. The club specializes in guns, supplying the regional muscle with assault rifles in order to keep drugs and prostitution out of their territory. Rival gangs The Niners (a black gang) and The Mayans (a Latino gang), white supremacist drug pushers, and ever-growing heat from the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau threaten the fragile relationship maintained by The Sons and local law enforcement. To make things worse, internal conflicts between Clay and Jax, who have different ideas for the future of the club, threaten to tear the Club apart in the most Shakespearean of ways (and indeed, creator Kurt Sutter has said that the show draws major inspiration from “Hamlet”).
“Sons of Anarchy” is unabashedly hardcore, with graphic depictions of violence and sexuality that provide a thorough portrait of life in a modern day Hells Angels. Like “The Shield”, “Sons of Anarchy” features dynamic characters who are appropriately and accurately transformed by the events of their daily lives. While “The Shield” focused on the daily operations of a rampart-like division of the LAPD as a central hub and the members of that division as parallel, sometimes intertwining character studies, the characters in “Sons of Anarchy” are intricately entangled from the beginning. The show is first and foremost a family drama which creates a poisonous trickle-down effect that systematically severs the intense trust that the members of the Club must maintain in order to maintain their place at the top of the food chain.
Ron Perlman, who most will know as Hellboy, plays to his strengths as the grizzled, hardened, and aging Clay. From the outset he is strong and methodical, but as he becomes increasingly aware of his physical limitations, his actions become desperate and reactionary. Charlie Hunnam, who played the charmingly British Lloyd in “Undeclared” and the sinister dreadlocked Patric in “Children of Men”, plays Jax as a brash young man whose life is transformed by the birth of his first son, Abel. He is mentored by the voice of his dead father, Jon Teller, who speaks to him through a dissertation on the future of the Sons of Anarchy. This shapes his ideas for a motorcycle club that relies on cool, calculated strength rather than the brute thuggery that is responsible for the sloppiness that is becoming endemic of the Club. Katey Sagal (yes, Peggy Bundy from “Married with Children”, but also one of the most talented television actors working today) plays Gemma Teller Morrow, Clay’s wife and Jax’s mother. She is Jon Teller’s widow, which sets up the Shakespearean family drama. She loves her son and would do anything to protect him, but her love for Jax is superseded only by her love for the Sons of Anarchy. Though she fulfills her role of matriarch to Jax and Abel, she has a manipulative streak that seeks to undermine Jax’s idealism to protect the club from internal strife.
As the first season of what will hopefully be a long-lived series, there is a lot of time devoted to exposition, to setting up the characters and their motivations. There are no flashbacks or longwinded descriptions, but each of the main players is visited and pursued by the ghosts of their pasts in interesting and compelling ways. It works very well, and nicely sets up the intense action that characterizes the series.
The Blu-ray contains the 13 Season 1 episodes rendered in crisp, vibrant HD quality. Selected episodes feature audio commentary by the cast and crew. There are also a few “Making of” featurettes, including explorations of casting decisions, tattoo placement, and the motorcycles used on the show. It’s not nearly as robust as the feature-set of some DVDs (The “LOST” DVDs feature about 12 billion hours of extras), but the quality of the show itself more than warrants a purchase.
The most refreshing aspect of “Sons of Anarchy” is that it never feels like sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism. The show debuted around the same time that Larry Bishop’s “Hell Ride” squeaked in and out of theaters. “Hell Ride” was a biker exploitation film that featured a similar rival-gang setup but with none of the execution, and ended up being more of a soft core porn movie with motorcycles that felt altogether sloppy and joyless. Needless to say, I was skeptical that a show about biker gangs would be able to capture what makes the concept so compelling. Those fears were quickly put to rest. “Sons of Anarchy” is HBO quality television without the premium price tag.