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All photos © FX
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t's never easy saying goodbye to your favorite TV show, but when "The Shield" ended last year, no one could have imagined that FX would find a worthy replacement so soon. That "Sons of Anarchy" comes from the mind of longtime "The Shield" writer Kurt Sutter certainly helps, and based on its first season alone, the biker drama has the potential to surpass Shawn Ryan’s groundbreaking cop drama as the cable channel's best series yet. Obviously, it’s far too early to know for sure, but the sheer fact that it’s even possible speaks volumes of its quality.
Taking place in the small town of Charming “Our Name Says It All” California, the show stars Charlie Hunnam as Jax Teller, a thirtysomething biker trying to balance his duties as a member of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club and as the father of a newborn son. The latter is a particularly bittersweet moment in Jax’s life, as his kid is forced to spend his first weeks in the NICU because his drug addict ex-wife, Wendy (Drea De Matteo), was shooting heroine while pregnant. Meanwhile, Jax is finding it increasingly more difficult to deal with the criminal nature of the club after uncovering a transcript written by his late father, John Teller, detailing his original intentions. Nowadays, the club is being run by John’s best friend, and Jax’s new step-father, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), who has since turned the Sons of Anarchy into a gunrunning business, and indubitably put them smack in the middle of a war between rival clubs.
At its deepest core, the show is essentially a retelling of “Hamlet,” except that instead of Danish royalty, they’re a California biker gang. There’s Jax, the second-in-command, or Prince if you will; his mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), an ice-cold queen bee; and step-dad Clay, the club’s hard-nosed president. Heck, there’s also an Ophelia (Jax’s high school sweetheart, Tara, played by Maggie Siff), a Horatio-type best friend (Opie, played by Ryan Hurst), a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Theo Rossi and Johnny Lewis), and even a Ghost via the transcript of Jax’s father. Of course, one of the play’s biggest plot points – the murder of the King – has yet to come to fruition, but it’s certainly been hinted at in the first season and will likely be touched on again in the near future.
The comparisons to “Hamlet” may run wild, but that’s only a small part of the show. The theme of family and brotherhood is something that was explored in great length in both “The Sopranos” and “The Shield,” and it’s the driving force behind “Sons of Anarchy” as well. There’s Jax’s relationship with Opie, fresh out of prison after doing time to protect other members of the club; Opie’s relationship with his wife (Sprague Grayden), who desperately wants him to make an honest living; Jax’s renewed relationship with Tara; and most importantly, the relationship among the Sons themselves, as well as with the people of the city. They may be a little immoral when it comes to certain aspects of their lifestyle, but they aren’t complete monsters, which is an important distinction to make. The early season episode, “Fun Town,” proves exactly that point when, after the cops fail to track down a child rapist working at the carnival, the Sons step in to deliver justice.
For everything that goes down in the first season (and it’s quite a lot for 13 episodes), the story arc remains remarkably tight. Too often, a freshman series gets so excited at the prospect of exploring all the different possiblities that it starts diving into material better saved for a later time. Sutter, who clearly knows better from his seven-year stint on “The Shield,” doesn’t jump the gun, and the series only benefits as a result. His involvement is obviously key here, but the writers also deserve credit for delivering solid material week in and week out. Fans of “The Shield” will be happy to learn that “Sons of Anarchy” features its share of dark and twisted moments, including the near-fatal burning of a former member (Brian Van Holt) who failed to remove a tattoo of the club's logo from his back, and a shocking death in the second-to-last episode of the season.
It wouldn’t matter how good the writing was if there weren’t great actors to deliver the lines, though, and the casting is just about perfect. Charlie Hunnam, who is pretty much an unknown in the U.S. save for his role on Judd Apatow’s short-lived “Undeclared,” is excellent in the lead role, while Ron Perlman brings exactly the kind of gravitas that the character of Clay requires. Katey Sagal also proves that she has more than just a great voice with the best dramatic work of her career, while Ryan Hurst steals nearly every scene he’s in as the most relatable member of the club. Add to that a supporting cast made up of some of the best tough guy character actors in the business (Tommy Flanagan, Mark Boone Junior and Kim Coates), “Deadwood” alum Dayton Callie as the town sheriff, and a multi-episode guest stint by Jay Karnes as a psychotic ATF agent, and you can begin to see why “Sons of Anarchy” is one of the best new shows on TV. Unfortunately, it also happens to be criminally underrated, because while some people might be tempted to disregard it as a "Sopranos” clone on Harleys, you'd be surprised to learn that it’s just as good, and in some cases, even better than the HBO favorite.
Special Features: Though not nearly as prolific as a typical season of “The Shield,” the three-disc set comes packed with a trio of audio commentaries featuring creator Kurt Sutter, star Charlie Hunnam and various cast and crew (the track for the season finale, for instance, features all of the actors who make up the Sons of Anarchy), as well as nearly 35 minutes of deleted/extended scenes. Also included is a brief overview of Season One, featurettes on the tattoos and bikes that appear on the show, audition tapes for most of the principal cast, and an “Anarchy on Set” featurette that combines a sizzle reel of the season’s most violent moments with a gag reel of on-set goof-ups.