Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sons Of Anarchy [television review]

* Season one now available on DVD; season two currently airing on FX
If you live in Canada, Sons Of Anarchy is probably the best show you've never heard of. Season one aired here in late 2008 on Super Channel, a premium pay network that I'd never heard of and apparently few people subscribe to. Season two however, which debuted in September, is nowhere to be found on their schedule. Odd, considering the series scored impressive ratings on its parent U.S. cable network (FX) as their most successful original show since Rescue Me. FX has emerged as a worthy competitor in the original cable series marketplace, also giving us the riveting Damages, The Shield, Nip/Tuck and the wonderfully loopy comedy of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Series creator Kurt Sutter (who wrote and produced on The Shield) wears many additional hats on SOA: executive producer, writer, director and he also has a recurring acting role. Sutter sought to create a "West Coast version of The Sopranos", which he has managed to impressively pull off with this show about a fictional motorcycle club. SOA draws liberally from the acclaimed mob series - not so much in terms of being derivative, but in mining rich, dramatic territory derived from the parallel natures of the two worlds which are similarly rooted in violence, paranoia, lawbreaking, honour, tradition, and an adherence to a hallowed code whose practicality would elude most of the general population.
SOA is set in the fictional northern California town of Charming (irony!), where the titular club's presence is tolerated by the locals because of their influence in keeping drugs and corporate development out of the community (the club's full name is actually Sons Of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original, or SAMCRO). Never mind that they earn their living by selling guns to neighbouring Oakland gangs, while fending off encroaching threats from a rival Latino club and a white power group, while using a legit auto garage as a front. The star of the show is Charlie Hunnam, who plays the character of Jackson "Jax" Teller. Jax is young, yet worked his way up to club Vice President, a testament to his dedication, smarts and bloodline (his father started SAMCRO in the late 60's as a hippieish alternative lifestyle ideal with a "brains over bullets" philosophy, a vision which has shifted over the years since his death). The club President is now Clay Morrow (played by Ron Perlman), who helped start the club with Jax's father and ended up marrying his widow, Gemma (played by Katey Sagal, who is also Sutter's real life wife).
This is one of the best casts on television right now, I believe. Central figures Hunnam, Perlman and Sagal bring nuanced complexities to their characters, who carry on the anti-hero tradition that was redefined by The Sopranos. Hunnam's Jax carries an almost comical swagger in his walk and wardrobe (which seems more inspired by hip hop culture than Lynyrd Skynyrd, with his baggy pants and white sneakers)...comical were it not for the fact that if you mocked his George Jefferson-like walk and clothes he'd undoubtedly give you a beatdown you wouldn't soon forget. Although Jax has a lot on his mind as the series begins (women problems,impending fatherhood) it's his struggle with the direction of his father's club which weighs heaviest and Hunnam deftly balances shades of charm, brutality and a level-headedness expected from the heir apparent to Clay. Perlman is perfectly suited to his role, exhibiting a reserved demeanour, wry sense of humour and showing every battle-weary toll on his craggy, massive face. Sagal's Gemma is also a powerhouse, playing the matriarch of the club who is usually a step or two ahead of everyone else and every bit as ruthless as the company she keeps. Sometimes she feels a little overused, though. You can have too much of a good thing and Gemma occasionally finds herself inserted into scenes that don't quite ring true by her character's presence.
The additional cast of SOA is a top notch assemblage of talent that allows for deep storylines and interesting character dynamics. Other notable members of SAMCRO include Kim Coates as Tig, the most unstable member of the club, Tommy Flanagan as Scottish import Chibs, Mark Boone Junior as Bobby and Ryan Hurst as the hulking Opie. Maggie Siff as Tara, Jax's former teenage sweetheart who resurfaces in his life, is excellent in her portrayal as a woman conflicted by her attraction to a man who keeps bad company and does bad things. The struggle within appears to have taken up permanent residence on Tara's face, which seems set in a perpetual state of consternation. Or maybe that's just Siff's normal look. The X-Files' Mitch Pilleggi and the man with the coolest name in showbiz, Titus Welliver, add strong work in smaller recurring roles. Really, the only regular character who doesn't carry his weight is the corrupt police chief played by Dayton Callie. His portrayal just doesn't seem as effortless as it should.
The show has really taken a step forward in terms of quality during the second season. Although season one hit the ground running while establishing a historical foundation and setting up storylines, it seemed to run out of steam around the eighth or ninth episode, as too many plots were being worked into the show. One, where Tara has to deal with a stalker, felt like a misguided attempt to inject more tension and drama into a world that was already brimming with it. Another involving Ally Walker as a federal agent with SAMCRO in its sights had potential, but could have been handled better (although Walker is a real firecracker as the ballbusting agent). Despite all my praise for the cast, which is more a reflection of the fact they've really hit their collective stride as the show progresses, I actually stopped watching after season one's episode nine, as the failure to sustain the early momentum became a decisive factor in choosing to invest any further time with what I perceived to be a sinking ship. That, plus the fact this is a difficult group of people to spend time with. The dialogue and characters are coarse and the lifestyle is seedy, with many characters showing a wanton disregard for the value of human life. Some of the onscreen unpleasantness involves rape, murder, grave robbing, numerous beatings, racism, and a culture that both tolerates the practice of club members being allowed to mess around on their significant others (with extenuating circumstances) and the notion that a woman may act as a "club passaround" in hopes of settling on one guy for whom she can become their "old lady". Yuck.
During the rollout of season two, the show reappeared on my radar screen and I decided to give it another shot. Thank God I did. Additions to season two, now eleven shows into a thirteen episode run, include the introduction of Adam Arkin as the leader of a new white power group and Henry Rollins as his right hand man, the takeover by SAMCRO of a local porn studio, problems with SAMCRO's I.R.A. affiliated gun supplier and, most interestingly, a fascinating and brilliantly written power struggle between Jax and Clay. Still not exactly light fare, but once you get comfortable and used to the inherent slime that populates the world of SOA you'll begin to appreciate the undeniable entertainment value lurking beneath the ugly surface.
Season One Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆
Season Two Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆