We haven't seen a "family" like this one on television since The Sopranos.
While that groundbreaking HBO series featured a mob family in northern New Jersey, FX's new drama series focuses on a motorcycle gang in Northern California. Called Sons of Anarchy, the basic cable series will premiere at 10 p.m. tomorrow.
Like Tony Soprano and his cannoli-eating pals, the biker gang at the center of the new series places great stock in its one-for-all-and-all-for-one familial lifestyle, and it too makes its money through illegal and sometimes violent enterprises. The gang, called the Sons of Anarchy, has chapters all around the country, but its headquarters is in the small, fictional town of Charming, Calif.
Series creator Kurt Sutter, formerly a writer and producer for FX's award-winning series The Shield, admitted in an interview that the biker crew is his version of "West Coast Sopranos."
The club's president is Clay Morrow, a violent and cunning psychopath played by Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Beauty and the Beast). Clay will do anything to protect the gang and its primary business of running guns for the street gangs of Oakland. And with constant threats from the cops and rival gangs, it's no easy task.
The show's story line unfolds from the perspective of another gang member, Jackson (Jax) Teller, played by British actor Charlie Hunnam. Jax was born into the gang, the son of one of its founders, and he's the Sons' vice president and Clay's heir apparent. But he couldn't be more unlike the rabid Clay.
Smart, reflective, and sensitive, Jax, a new father, is questioning the direction of his life. He's loyal to the biker family, but he's also thinking how nice it would be to give up the gang life and just ride off with his high school sweetheart, a doctor at the local hospital. Despite his compassionate nature, though, the quick-tempered Jax is no choirboy. When a motorist cuts him off on the highway, Jax catches up to the guy later that night at a convenience store and beats him to a pulp.
A sign on the gang's clubhouse wall reads "Brains Before Bullets" - an inspiring motto if ever there was one - but it sometimes seems as if Jax is the only one who subscribes to that theory. When the gang is trying to temporarily divert the attention of the authorities, Clay thinks a great way to do it would be to visit a nearby town and murder a couple of random people so the cops would be busy with that for a while. Jax, however, comes up with an alternate plan that doesn't involve bloodshed.
Probably the most vicious character on the show is Jax's mother, Gemma, the matriarch of the gang. She's played with a surprising and ruthless intensity by Katey Sagal in a performance that's light years removed from her signature roles of Peg Bundy on the comedy seriesries Married With Children and Cate in 8 Simple Rules.
When Jax's drug addict ex-wife gives birth to his son, Gemma visits the young mother in the hospital. But instead of offering congratulations, she warns the girl to stay out of the baby's life.
She grabs the girl's throat, and in a chilling voice, delivers a clear message: "You so much as cast a shadow on that kid, try to turn some legal screw to try to get custody, [and] I will finish this job." Before leaving the hospital room, Gemma leaves the new mom a parting gift: a loaded syringe that she hopes will lead to an overdose.
The bikers may be law-breakers, but their particular moral code dictates that whatever their nefarious activities may be, they aren't allowed to sully their own hometown. To illustrate that point, one of the characters actually gets to deliver this goofy line: "We keep the drugs out of Charming, which keeps Charming charming."
Much of the language on the show is R-rated, and some of the lingo can be confusing. For instance, there are several references in early episodes to a name that sounds like somebody named "Sam Crow." It turns out, though, that what the characters are actually saying is "SAMCRO," which is an acronym for the club's unwieldy full name, "Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original." With so many chapters of the Sons around the country, "Redwood Original" simply refers to the organization's first chapter.
Veteran character actor Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff) was originally cast in the role of Clay Morrow, but the dour-looking Glenn was replaced by Perlman when producers decided to make the series more of a "dark comedy." That's a bit of a puzzle, because if there's any comedy in Sons, dark or otherwise, I sure missed it.
While the writing on the show could be crisper and the secondary characters more defined, Sons is still smart, gritty, and better than most of today's TV dramas. But considering that it's on FX, viewers are justified in expecting more. In recent years the cable network has launched a number of edgy, truly original dramas, including The Shield (which begins its final season Tuesday night), Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, The Riches, and Damages.
Maybe Sons of Anarchy will warm up after a few episodes, like a motorcycle that has to be broken in before it can be taken on a full-throttle road trip. If it eventually begins firing on all cylinders - and that's still a big if - the series may just be the first worthy successor to The Sopranos that we've seen since the iconic series went off the air last summer.