Friday, 3 July 2009

SAMCRO Forever

It looks as though ‘Californication’ may have a rival for its crown as the best show on TV right now in the shape of the absolutely fucking awesome ‘Sons of Anarchy’.

One would expect nothing less really – coming from the pen of one of the men behind the equally gritty ‘The Shield’ – Kurt Sutter, like many of today’s finest TV writers, Sutter honed his skills on a hugely successful show before branching out on his own.

Matthew Weiner did the same by working on ‘The Sopranos’ and then creating ‘Mad Men’, as did Bryan Fuller who worked on the excellent first season of ‘Heroes’ before going his own way (sorry for the Fleetwood Mac reference) with ‘Pushing Daisies’.

Back to Sutter though, and with ‘Sons of Anarchy’ Mr. Katey Sagal has created a relentlessly brutal, gripping show full of devilish machinations and Shakespearean tragedy.

You may think that the guns, drugs, sex, violence and bikes make this very much a testosterone-dripping machismo fest but if you look beyond the surface you will find a rich tapestry of fractured relationships between friends, enemies, lovers and family.

The family element is where ‘Sons of Anarchy’ draws a lot of the Shakespearean comparisons and like Bill’s greatest works, far from being misogynistic and simply treating women like objects, it is the women of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ that hold the real power.

Head of this pack of strong female characters is Gemma, played to MILF perfection by the evergreen Katey Sagal – Sutter’s real-life ‘old lady’. She is a modern day Lady Macbeth with more control over SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) than anyone realises and she carefully orchestrates events to satisfy her own agenda like some sort of busty puppet master.

Then there’s another lady of more advanced years who, like a fine wine, has only gotten better with age: Ally Walker, who plays the rather sexually charged ATF agent June Stahl. Stahl makes her male law enforcement counterparts on the show look timid by comparison and is definitely packing the most heat.

Throw in old lady in training Cherry, Jax’s old flame Dr. Tara Knowles and Drea de Matteo cranking the skankometer up to eleven as smackhead Wendy and you have a cast of female characters to give the bikers a severe run for their money and that’s where the brilliance of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ lies it’s about so much more than boys and their toys.

Yes it’s brutally gritty, yes it’s violent as hell and yes some of the language would make Richard Pryor blush but ‘Sons of Anarchy’ is a multi-layered tale of loyalty, respect, honour and there’s that word again – family.

At the end of the day that’s what the Sons of Anarchy are – a family. But there is not just the metaphorical ‘family’ element in focus here; there is also the traditional nuclear family dynamic that we see both prosper and painfully fall apart.

Never has the latter rung more truely than for Opie. Played by ‘Wanted’s Ryan Hurst, Opie is fresh out of prison and trying to go straight for his wife and kids but his other ‘family’ is calling out to him and he cannot resist that lure.

With his wife Donna wanting him out of club activities and the club wanting him involved, Opie seemed to adopt a ‘half-in’ nature but with his marriage falling apart regardless, he returns to the family that will never leave him.

I won’t spoil it for people watching the show at UK pace, but suffice to say Opie’s plight will be central to ‘Sons of Anarchy’s season ending arc.

It is family ties that have really shook up SAMCRO’s bedrock as well with Jax becoming a father and starting to question himself and the club.

Charlie Hunnam might be from the illustrious list of ‘Grange Hill’ alumni but he comes across authentic and genuine as vice-president of an American motorcycle club and he has been the star of the show thus far.

He brings a compassion to Jax that is seemingly severely lacking in some of his leather-clad counterparts. Reading his Dad, John’s book ‘The Life and Death of Sam Crow: How the Sons of Anarchy Lost Their Way’ Jax has started to re-evaluate the club’s position but at the same time he has proven himself to be the club’s smartest and most resourceful member.

All roads lead back to SAMCRO though and it is in Jax’s blood to protect the club and his family’s legacy at all costs. The question of his Father’s death looms large and I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon discover that Clay and/or Gemma were somehow involved…

At the start of the series when Gemma discovered Jax had found her late husband’s manuscript she was panic-stricken and uttered the ominous line to current spouse and SAMCRO kingpin Clay that she wanted to make sure Jax was following in “the right Father’s footsteps”.

Speaking of Clay – we all know Ron Perlman is a great actor but he brings a quiet menace to SAMCRO President Clay that only an actor of his esteem could. Clay is all about respect and as an audience we respect Perlman, and thus we respect Clay.

We are also extremely fearful of Clay – while Jax more often than not takes the non-bloody route, Clay invariably goes the other way. Clay’s past is suitably murky, both to Jax and to the viewer, and his machievellian ways are a nice accompaniment to his wife’s scheming.

Clay does have a soft side though and a sense of humour for that matter, which runs parallel with the tone of the show; because Sons of Anarchy isn’t all family melodrama and hard-hitting violence – it also has some lovely light-hearted moments and some laugh out loud comedy peppered in.

I wrote a few weeks back in a brief discussion of the show how a lot of the comedy came from Juice and Half-Sack which still holds true, but everyone has their moments. That said though, Theo Rossi (Juice) and Johnny Lewis (Half-Sack) are definitely the go-to guys for the funny stuff.

Lewis as the SAMCRO ‘prospect’ who lost a teste in Iraq is a fine young actor from the Michael Cera school of awkwardness (he looks slightly more unwashed than Cera however) and the recent reappearance of his wannabe ‘old lady’ Cherry has meant a great deal more screentime for him, which has been enjoyable.

Like so much of the great TV being made right now, ‘Sons of Anarchy’ isn’t just about one or two charismatic performances or brilliantly written characters, it is very much an ensemble piece. Much like the great ensemble casts of cinema, no character is under-developed or superfluous to the story being told.

On top of those already highlighted above there are a myriad of hugely watchable characters making up this superb cast – the remaining core members of SAMCRO in particular; Kim Coates is disturbingly awesome as the slightly unhinged Tig, Mark Boone Jnr. is also great as the club’s treasurer Bobby who has a nice side job as a surprisingly good Elvis impersonator and then there’s Scotsman Chibs played by Tommy Flanagan – a man with one of the scariest scars I’ve ever seen but who also has a rather formidable screen presence.

Beyond SAMCRO there are great characters, dynamics and stories all over Charming – the best acting performance not already mentioned so far though has to go to ‘The Shield’s Jay Karnes. Karnes played slightly weird Detective ‘Dutch’ Wagenbach (best character name ever?) on ‘The Shield’ across its seven season run but his portrayal of ATF Agent Kohn has been something else entirely.

Kohn was a worthy foil to SAMCRO & Jax and Karnes turned in an exceedingly creepy and altogether unsettling performance – this man should be a bigger star!

If I haven’t already convinced you to give this fantastic show a chance then I may never do, but I can honestly vouch for the fact that after one watch you won’t just not be disappointed, you will be hooked.

‘Sons of Anarchy’ has been the FX network’s biggest hit since ‘Rescue Me’ and much like Denis Leary’s genius tale of life inside the FDNY, ‘Sons of Anarchy’ has it all – action, drama, romance, comedy and for my money is the best new show to hit our screens since ‘Mad Men’.

New Season 1 episodes of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ premiere Tuesdays @ 10pm on Bravo in the UK. Season 2 begins in the coming months in the US.

Other Televisual Musings this Week:

- ‘Mock the Week’ returns to BBC2 next week to save its Thursday night comedy line-up – a welcome return as Dara and the boys have been sorely missed.

Although I bigged up ‘8 out of 10 Cats’ the other week and as much of a ‘Buzzcocks’ fan as I am, I don’t think anyone can deny that ‘Mock the Week’ is the best panel show we have right now; and I’m very much looking forward to having the legend that is Frankie Boyle back on my screen.

- Charlie Brooker’s ‘You Have Been Watching’ comes to Channel 4 this week – no hard sell, just fucking watch it!

- ‘Flight of the Conchords’ seems to have finally hit its stride as the season heads into its final straight.

This week’s episode was another cracker and featured an absolutely belting tune, probably the best of the season thus far, with Bret & Jemaine going all 80s electro.

This week’s instalment also featured my favourite ever New Zealand tourism poster on Murray’s office wall (a long-running, and very funny, sight gag) which simply read “New Zealand. Like Scotland, but further”. Genius.

- ‘Reaper’ made its return to our TV screens this week and was as quirky and funny as ever. It’s such a shame that more people don’t know about this lovely little show and it’s even more of a shame that it has now sadly been cancelled.

Rather than mourn the loss of another show that deserved better, as we in the UK have the whole of season 2 to look forward to, I’m instead going to celebrate ‘Reaper’ and enjoy every bizarre minute of a severely underrated show.

Watch out for a ‘Reaper’ feature in the coming weeks!

TV Moment of the Week (or should that be year):

Best. Ad. Ever.



Final Thought:

- Hours after posting last week’s thrilling instalment of TV or not TV, news broke that Michael Jackson had died. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said over and over and over and over again by every facet of the media – but I think, bizarrely, that Tony Blair’s former Lieutenant Alastair Campbell summed it up best in his blog when he said “Sad. Is it possible to be shocked and unsurprised at the same time? I think so. But it's sad all the same”.

Well, in honour of Jackson’s passing, I’d like to present you with one of the King of Pop’s greatest moments – the best music video of the 80s (possibly of all time) – ‘Liberian Girl’



TV or not TV takes a break next week – but make sure you check in with us in two weeks time for a special look at one of the greatest shows in TV history: the brutal ‘Oz’.


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