Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sons of Anarchy, Season One

Kindly Old Doc Eaton told me I either lose significant weight within a year or he’s going to tie a knot around my esophagus and cut out my stomach. (Not him personally. He knows people. He also didn’t specify what he meant by “significant weight,” but based on prior discussions, I inferred 30 pounds.) Among the ways to do this is to increase my amount of exercise to more than zero. I enjoy mindless exercise for the sake of exercise about as much as bugs enjoy high-velocity windshields. The initial solution has been to ride an exercise bike while watching television. Sons of Anarchy had been recommended, creator Kurt Sutter played an important role in writing The Shield, and it’s streaming on Netflix. This ensures I’m on the bike for 40 – 60 minutes at least four days a week, so I’m in.

Sons of Anarchy is the story of a motorcycle gang’s club’s Northern California
chapter. (The full name is “Sons of Anarchy Redwood Order,” a/k/a Sam Crow.) Begun by the late John Teller, it is now run by co-founder Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), with Teller’s son Jax (Charlie Hunnam) as vice president. John’s old widow, Gemma (Katey Sagal), is now Clay’s old lady, which causes some friction when Jax, who’s tweaker ex-wife Wendy (Drea de Matteo, Adrianna in The Sopranos) is about to give birth, finds an old journal of his father’s while looking for baby stuff. Turns out John had more of a club of outlaws running an auto and bike repair shop in mind, not the organized gang that generates most of its revenue running guns. A romantic complication comes when Jax’s high school sweetheart, Tara (Maggie Siff) returns to town as a doctor. Gemma wants her nowhere around Jax, but they’re forced together when Baby Abel is born with severe health issues, thanks to Mom’s drug abuse.

An interesting added attraction is the fictional town of Charming (allegedly located in California’s Central Valley), where everything takes place. Charming chief of police, Wayne Unser (Dayton Callie, Charley Utter in Deadwood) works hand-in-glove with Clay to run the town; Sam Crow effectively handles all law enforcement. This is fine with pretty much everyone in town—Unser makes good money, and the club keeps all drugs and violent crime out of Charming, as well as hosting charitable activities and the best auto shop around—except for the Unser’s deputy and chief-in-waiting, David Hale (Tayler Sheridan), who’s a good enough guy with a bit of a stick up his ass. Hale is appalled that a criminal enterprise is Charming’s most effective form of law enforcement, and can’t wait for Unser to retire so he can run Sam Crow out of town.

That’s a lot to keep in the air, and showrunner Sutter does it pretty well. The story lines of the budding power struggle between Clay and Jax, how Sam Crow plays black, Mexican, and white supremacist gangs against each other, and the internal workings of a semi-legit, criminal motorcycle-oriented enterprise are compelling. (I make no pretense to know if this is how motorcycle gangs really operate, but Sutter, his writers, and cast make it all feasible and palatable.) Forcing Jax and Tara even closer together when an ATF agent who stalked her in medical school comes to town (Jay Karnes, Dutch Wagenbach of The Shield) plays well into a legitimate ATF investigation to allow a little three-dimensional chess to take place. My exercise bike pretty much pedals itself when these balls are in the air.

The problem lies in the Jax-Tara-Wendy love triangle, manipulated by Gemma with a goal of playing both women against each other so Jax ends up with the baby and neither woman, keeping his attention on the club. Frankly, that part’s more reminiscent of Dynasty than The Shield, and my legs get tired after a couple of minutes.

Behind the camera, the casting was excellent, with Hunnam, Perlman, and Sagal more than capable of carrying the burdens given to them; the supporting cast is also solid. The dialog isn’t quite to the level of other cable crime shows (such as Justified or The Shield), mainly because it’s uneven. At times it whistles along, as when Unser and Hale have a rare heart-to heart because Hale is torn between honoring the badge and keeping someone from getting badly hurt, and Unser tells him, “Son, that badge ain’t even real silver.” On the other hand, some of what gets said in the love triangle line sounds too much like the first thing that popped into the writer’s mind, based on things he’d heard before on other, lesser, shows.

On balance I enjoy it. Season Two has begun with a white supremacy angle I’m curious to see play out. (Casting Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins as the two leaders doesn’t hurt any, either.) Unless it goes off the rails, I’ll likely watch the series through to the end. Will I watch it again, adding it to our rotation of Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, and, next year, Justified? Almost certainly not. Though not a waste of time—I’ve already come up with a couple of good angles for Penns River bits—the value here is mostly on the surface. Repeated viewings don’t appear to be in order.

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