Monday, September 6, 2010

Playing catch-up: "Sons of Anarchy"

I try my best to stay current with TV's latest offerings, particularly when the shows in question develop feverish fan followings. But sometimes -- more times, in fact, than I like to admit -- shows fall through the cracks. That's what happened, initially, with FX's biker drama "Sons of Anarchy," which premiered roughly two years ago.

As I'd just gotten married around the time "Sons" started, I was a little overwhelmed by the business of honeymoons, thank-you notes and settling in to my new life. So, some shows got lost in the shuffle, including "Sons." Initially, this seemed OK, as many early reviews of the show were rather lukewarm. However, as the series progressed, I kept hearing stronger and stronger endorsements for it.
By the middle of the show's second season, missing it seemed to have been a huge mistake that I needed to correct sooner rather than later.
Thus, this summer, I hunkered down with the first two seasons, and watched. Indeed, the saga of young Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his motorcycle club started slowly. It lacked the visceral shock of the early episodes of "The Shield" and "The Sopranos," and its dark vibe felt forced at times. Still, it had something.
Mainly, it offered insight into a world I'd never really seen depicted on television shows. The motorcycle club, it seems, was a surprisingly bureaucratic institution, with meetings and votes and lots of rules about behaviors.
 The show also had a powerful secret weapon, in TV vet Katey Sagal, who gave a ferocious performance as Jax's tough mother, Gemma. Sagal, who is married to "Sons" creator Kurt Sutter, has always been a strong actress -- even as slatternly mom Peg Bundy on Fox's trash classic "Married With Children." But Gemma cut something loose in her. Here, she was sexy, intense, funny and in complete control of every scene.
By the end of season one, the rest of the show seemed on pitch with Sagal's performance. There was a fairly lacerating plot twist with Ryan Hurst's character, Opie, that I didn't see coming. And, much to my shock, I'd grown rather fond of the Sons as characters. Even more than the gangsters on "The Sopranos," these guys seemed like real people, not just vicious stereotypes.
Yeah, Sons leader Clay Morrow (Ron Pearlman) is vicious, but he also has quasi-crippling arthritis in his hands. Yes, Jax was capable of murder, but he was also capable of great love -- particularly for his baby son, Abel, and his girlfriend Tara (Maggie Siff).
True, the characters weren't admirable. But they were likable and appealing in their way.
I moved onto the second season and was completely blown away. If the first season was an example of a show finding its voice, than the second season showed "Sons" in full voice. It knew its tone. It knew its characters. It was confident and focused. And it offered a doozy of a season-long arc, about a polished, power-hungry "business man" (played beautifully by Adam Arkin) who wants to take down the Sons. That part of his quest included a vicious gang rape of Gemma made for a queasy, but fascinating season.
The bulk of the episodes dealt largely with the aftermath of Gemma's assault, and her post-traumatic stress as she dealt with (or, rather, tried to avoid dealing with) what had happened to her. Sagal's performance was, quite simply, the best delivered by a woman on a drama last year, no matter what the Emmys say.
The season also found a nice niche for Siff's Tara, who went from being at odds with Gemma to being one of her few confidants.
It was a devastating season, that ended on a major cliffhanger: Gemma, framed for a murder she didn't commit, is on the lam and Jax is reeling from the kidnapping of his son. The new season premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. After watching the first few episodes, I'll say it doesn't yet have the absurd watchability of the second season (which begged to be devoured in multi-hour blocks), but it's still strong.
Gemma, while on the run, reconnects with her father, playing beautifully by Hal Holbrook (Holbrook, it should be noted, is excellent at playing characters who are both frail and fierce, and he gets prime opportunity for that here).
Meanwhile, the guys search for Abel, who has been kidnapped by one of their former allies. There's the usual gunfire, mayhem and bracingly bizarre moments (one memorable incident involves an unfortunate soul buried up to his neck in sand. I will not elaborate further). There's even a darkly funny cameo by author (and "Sons" fan) Stephen King.
But the meat here is the character stuff. Even though Gemma is kept apart from the other main characters for much of the first few episodes, she's as compelling as ever -- nurturing her dad one minute and duct-taping a woman to a wheelchair the next.
However, there's not yet been much with the show's appealing supporting characters, particularly Ryan Hurst's hulking Opie, whose wife's murder in season one turned him into a walking symphony of grief and rage. Hurst constantly seemed weighted down by his pain, and his few plum scenes this season have me begging for more. I'm hoping he and some of the other characters (including Kim Coates' Tigger, thus far reduced to the role of Gemma's sidekick on the lam) get a little more screen time.
Still, I'm very glad I finally took it upon myself to catch up with "Sons." Had I not, I would have missed one of the most unique and entertaining dramas on television.

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