[8 September 2011]
Some TV series live in the strange, twilight world between “very serious TV” and “guilty pleasure”. Few shift the parameters of that line more than Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter’s cheesy masterpiece.
In fact, Sons of Anarchy has what I can only describe as implicit shark-jumping tendencies. They never make the leap, but the boys of SAMCRO and their ladies certainly cycle along the boundary between high camp and high art. In season three, this line is masterfully explored. Jax’s struggle with fatherhood is put to the test and the theme of family ties becomes the axis of the season’s action. Explosive and over-the-top violence, a bit of gratuitous sex and important social and cultural themes blend seamlessly.
Perhaps the way this series walks the line between laugh-out-loud camp and interesting cultural comment is not at all surprising. First of all, camp is usually implicit cultural criticism. Second, motorcycles and the stories about them have provided both Grindhouse fodder (Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels) and one of the most important films about American identity ever produced (Easy Rider). Finally, this is the creation of Kurt Sutter, previously a writer, producer and director for the FX series The Shield. If ever a series expertly blended The Wire with Starsky and Hutch, that was it.
Sons of Anarchy is a bit better than The Shield, driven more by narrative and strong writing than shock and schlock. Not to say that there isn’t plenty of both things. As you know from the end of season two, Jax’s son Abel gets kidnapped by the IRA and is last seen speeding away in a boat. It’s not enough this season for Katey Sagal’s “Gemma” to find out that her grandson has been kidnapped. She also has to have a heart attack when she finds out. And this not long after imprisoning and murdering her father’s Guatemalan caregiver. Then there are the porn stars, the white supremacists and the prescription drug dealers (OK, they cut back on the skinheads this season).
Along with strong writing, great acting holds this M.C. together. Katey Sagal is in many respects the heart of the show, blending together Carmella Soprano with Dirty Harry to create the iron-willed “Gemma”, matriarch of the Sons. Ron Perlman’s work as club president and flawed patriarch “Clay” shapes the narrative in all kinds of subtle ways.
My own favorite in the series is the work of Charles Hunnam as Jax-prodigal, prophet and prince of SAMCRO. The narrative arc this season is much less Jax centered, exploring as it does the wider threads that hold him to Samcro rather than what divides him from it. It’s still impossible to imagine the show without him. Maggie Siff is wonderful as Tara, Jax’s lover and a stranger to the world of outlaw biker clubs. Her scenes with Segal are especially compelling, as is her role in the denouement of the season.
FX packed in a lot of extras in this DVD set, some of them pretty original. Gearheads out there will love the “Custom Bike Build” about the motorcycle Sons of Anarchy had built for charity. The Writer’s Roundtable features writers, producers, story editors and creative directors talking with Kurt Sutter about their writing process, show themes and the nature of their collaboration.
This feature includes answers to fan questions from Twitter. One of the most interesting of these, and one of the most interesting responses, has to do with how the writer’s vision has evolved. Sutter reveals that he has a seven-season plan for the show if it sticks around for that long. The big reveal is that the development of Ryan Hurst’s character Opie in season one led to a change in the character’s story arc. More specifically, Opie was supposed to die but his character had become something like the voice of the audience, the expression of their own sense about the series’ moral ambiguity. The decision was made to keep him.
Other features include a “Table Read” of a scene from the final episode, a fun inclusion and a great idea for a DVD extra. To top it all off, there’s a gag reel that includes a make-up person walking on set in the middle of a shoot to Ron Perlman’s great displeasure and the usual mangling of dialogue. Nothing too exciting, but a nice feature for a show that spends so much time exploring some pretty dark stuff.
Deleted scenes are included on all of the episode discs. For the most part, it’s easy to see why they were deleted. One for example, is actually a montage without its music. What’s a montage without music? Exactly.
Simple guilty pleasures don’t explore the meaning of family, the relationship of crime to social morality, or how tradition resists corporate take-over. All of these ideas make an appearance in Sons of Anarchy Season 3. Sutter and Co. have succeeded again in exploring the sometimes fuzzy boundary between the cheesy and the transcendent.