We must have seen a promo for this show on some cable TV station a few months ago. I remember that Ron Perlman was in the clip, looking very nasty in black leather and smoking a fat cigar that would have made Hellboy proud. We did the usual web search on the series. Based on the description, we decided to pick up the DVD set for Season One when it became available through our favorite local video outlet. Although we did not receive this as a review copy, I decided to review it so that our regular readers would have the opportunity to consider this as a potential future pastime.
Wow! What an incredible viewing experience! The title refers to the name of a motorcycle club (also known by the acronym SAMCRO for Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) founded in the early 1970s by a group of Viet Nam veterans who were inspired by the writings of Emma Goldman (I kid you not) and decided to build a corresponding lifestyle. The original chapter (Redwood Original) is headquartered in the fictitious northern California town of Charming (lovely name, don’t you think?), located somewhere east of San Francisco and in the same law enforcement district as Lodi and Stockton.
The chapter consists of a relatively small core group of members – less than 10 altogether. In spite of their anarchist leanings, they have both an organizational structure, with a president (Clay Morrow, played by Perlman) and a vice president (Jackson Teller, played by Charlie Hunnam), and a highly developed set of operating rules and associated sanctions. They hold meetings in the biker version of a boardroom (with some very nasty decorations) and make decisions by voting – although on occasion the president or vice president makes decisions without consulting the other members. Although she is not officially a member of the gang, Jackson’s mother Gemma (played by creator Kurt Sutter’s wife Katey Sagal), now married to Clay, is actively involved with the organization and contributes in numerous ways to the efforts of the remaining members of the older generation to preserve the founding values as they understand them.
Well, the Sons of Anarchy is not just a club, it’s an outlaw gang, after all. The members run one legitimate business, a motor vehicle repair center (cars, trucks and motorcycles) that was founded by Clay and his original partner John Teller (Jackson’s father, who died under mysterious circumstances but left a set of writings as a legacy for his son). They also operate the stateside division of a gun running business in cahoots with the Irish Republican Army and engage in protection services. One of their main customers in the latter activity is the local sheriff, Wayne Unser, who runs a trucking business on the side. Although several people associated with the Sons of Anarchy smoke pot in a very casual way and a few have other drug hobbies, somewhat remarkably the club itself does not appear to be involved in any aspect of the drug trade.
As you might expect given what I’ve told you so far about the Sons of Anarchy, each episode is rife with violence and language. Some of the violence is pretty graphic. For example, when people get shot at close range there is a lot of blood spattered about. One extra takes an axe in the back of the head in a scene that’s really a throwaway. A character expelled from the gang for leaving another member at the scene of a robbery has the gang tattoo literally burned off his back when the members discover he is still wearing it. A rival gang member who screws up on a job is dispatched with an icepick stuck into the back of his neck.
In terms of language, well, let’s just say I learned some very exciting new ways of using some of my favorite four-letter words. About the only word I don’t recall hearing is the f-word, which is quite surprising, since I know a lot of people who rely on that as a regular supplement to their speech. Most of the language is used to describe body parts or to characterize people in terms of body parts. For example, the so-called ‘prospect,’ a potential new member of the gang, is called ‘Half-sack’ because he is missing one nut.
What is not front and center in these episodes is a lot of explicit sex or nudity. Oh, it’s there, but used with much greater subtlety than the violence and language. Yes, people are shown in the act. They certainly talk about sex and about their body parts. Occasionally you see a brief shot of some man’s bare ass or some woman’s breasts (usually in the background). One of my favorite sub-plots that ran across more than one episode started with a failed sex act between Gemma and Clay. Gemma experiences hang ups about getting old (she’s in her early 50s) and losing her juice. Yes, I mean that juice. This really is an issue for a lot of older women, but it’s hardly the kind of thing you expect to encounter in a TV series about an outlaw biker gang!
One reviewer (cited on the DVD case) compared Sons of Anarchy to The Sopranos. Having never watched the latter series, I am unable to comment on the accuracy of that comparison. I found elements of The Wire, Intelligence, and (believe it or not) Twin Peaks – only without the total weirdness of that series.
Apart from Ron Perlman, there were only two actors on this series whom I immediately recognized from other roles. One was Mitch Pileggi, whom I remember most vividly for his role as FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner on The X Files. On Sons of Anarchy, he plays Ernest Darby, the leader of a neo-Nazi gang called the Nords. The other was Kim Coates, who plays the sleazy Ron Saris on CSI: Miami. I never much liked him in that character. His Sons of Anarchy role as Tig, who does a lot of dirty work for Clay, actually works a lot better and clearly gives the actor a lot more room to stretch. In fact, that’s one of the many compliments I can make about this series. These people really ACT. It’s a pleasure to watch them generate so much emotional energy.
The other compliment I want to offer is that I don’t ever remember watching any other series with such a clearly defined sense of style. This shows up in all kinds of ways. The music is quite wonderful, memorable and strong and loud, not lurking in the background the way soundtrack music often does. I’ve already alluded several times to the tattoos. As you might expect, many of the characters are heavily illustrated. All of the SAMCRO members have the gang logo (a skeletal grim reaper holding an M-16 rifle in the scythe hand, a crystal ball in the other) tattooed on their backs. This design appears in numerous other contexts, most notably as a bas-relief carving on their conference table and on the backs of their jackets and vests. Their clothing is biker cool (lots of black leather and heavy chrome chains, with helmets that look like those of WWII Nazi Stormtroopers), and their wheels are very classy. The sight of the whole gang in formation driving along a hilly California road is really quite awesome!
The boxed set includes all 13 episodes (each running about 50 minutes), plus a number of special features. What you won’t find in the boxed set is any liner notes on the series. For that background information and lots more, check out the official Sons of Anarchy website.
Among the special features are a very well-done piece on the making of the series and a number of deleted scenes that really added a lot to my understanding of the overall story. In fact, that is my most significant complaint about the packaging of the series. I can understand why the episodes had to be a relatively uniform length in order to fit into a network broadcast time slot. But that constraint is not an issue on a DVD, and it wouldn’t have taken that much time or effort to drop those few scenes back into the episodes where they belonged. In context, they would have been that much better. For example, in one of these deleted scenes, Floyd the barber doesn’t charge Piney, one of the older gang members, for a shave and a haircut. He explains to the shoeshine boy that it’s thanks to the gang that there is no Master Cuts on Main Street in Charming, no Wal-Mart on the outskirts of town. Awww, the Sons of Anarchy are really buy local campaigners!
In fact, not to make this all sound too sociological (I am a sociologist, after all), but the underlying meta-narrative of the series concerns both the changing values of the club as leadership passes from the founding members to the next generation, and the economic development pressures affecting Charming and the surrounding region. The plotlines of several of the episodes revolve quite explicitly around one or both of these dynamics.
The only other complaint I have about Sons of Anarchy is that it was so damn’ good I had a hard time getting engaged in any other series after we watched Episode Thirteen. Oh, I guess that’s not a complaint! That’s a compliment! Can’t WAIT for Season Two to come out on DVD!
(Twentieth Century Fox, 2009)
[Update: You can still find this program on DVD, and it’s also streaming on Hulu.]