REVIEW: ‘Sons Of Anarchy’ (Seasons 1 – 5) (FX – Tuesday, 10:00 p.m.)

Sons posterSons of Anarchy is an adrenalized drama with darkly comedic undertones that explores a notorious outlaw motorcycle club’s (MC) desire to protect its livelihood while ensuring that their simple, sheltered town of Charming, California remains exactly that, Charming. The MC must confront threats from drug dealers, corporate developers, and overzealous law officers. Behind the MC’s familial lifestyle and legally thriving automotive shop is a ruthless and illegally thriving arms business. The seduction of money, power, and blood. – FX

Score:     92 out of 100

Shawn: The problem with the way we normally do reviews is that we usually only go based on the first episode or first few episodes and make a decision based off of those early impressions.  This is the standard for the industry and usually it’s pretty spot-on but when it comes to epic, arcing drama, a lot of the subtleties of the big picture and overall story can be lost and under-appreciated when the episodes originally aired.  This is the case for Sons of Anarchy, FX’s drama revolving around the motorcycle club of the same name.  If I had watched the series from the beginning, I probably would have only given the first handful of episodes between a 65 – 70 and even if I had only seen the first season in its entirety before reviewing it, It would have gotten no higher than a 75 if I was being generous and only for the sake of the obvious potential the series had.

Over the course of the last two weeks, I have had the pleasure of watching the the first five seasons of SoA and it has dawned on me that the entire purpose of season one was purely for the sake of  character development and premise establishment for the seasons yet to come.  If you’re expecting a phenomenal storyline in season one, you’ll likely be disappointed, however, you’ll appreciate what creator and showrunner Kurt Sutter (The Shield) was thinking with season one about midway through season four.  Now that’s not to say that season one is bad as far as drama is concerned, but it was obviously just a prologue.

To say that approach during a freshman season was risky is an understatement but then again, if the characters are strong enough, they can carry average to slightly better-than-average plotlines, at least for a time.  It’s quite obvious to anyone who has ever appreciated Shakespeare that Sutter is very fond of Shakespearean archetypes. I picked up on it immediately which therefore immediately led me to the obvious Hamlet allusions.  Knowing that there’s a whole lot of Hamlet going on, I figured out by the second episode of the series what was only revealed to Jax (Charlie Hunnam) during the season four finale by his mother (Katy Sagal).  Now, I’m not suggesting that SoA is obvious by any stretch of the imagination, but if you appreciate classic drama, you’ll appreciate the clever use of these types of nods.

venusShakespeare himself also believed that in order to not have your audience have a heart attack from all the stress you’re throwing at them, every now and then you had to give them a break from the melodrama and thus, he made use of comic relief quite regularly.  SoA excels at comic relief right out of the gate so brilliantly that it puts most sitcoms to shame and yes, a lot of it is quite dark and you hate yourself for laughing so hard but you simply can’t help it. If you like the comic relief from Breaking Bad you’ll enjoy it even more with SoA because it’s one of the few areas that a drama on television actually one-ups the best series on television and part of the reason to that success is that it’s not just a matter of a sidebar joke, it’s a matter of integrating the scenes into the main plots and in the process humanizing the characters even more and causing you to be that much more attached to them…. which you really shouldn’t be.  As enjoyable as six seasons of The Sopranos were, the fact is that the protagonists were never particularly likable.  Relatable to an extent, sure, but not likable.  The Sopranos failed in doing what SoA has found great success in doing: creating strong anti-heroes.   The funniest scene by far of the entire series to date, happened during season five when Walton Goggins (The ShieldJustified) made a cameo appearance as Venus Van Dam, a transgender prostitute, in order to help the club blackmail a member of the city council.  I’m not saying any more than that but the picture to the right speaks volumes, I think and ironically, as an audience, you are rooting for the club’s blackmail and corruption to succeed.

Bringing us full circle to what I said about the first season, the character development on SoA is what really sets it apart from other series.  Even the recurring characters are so beautifully fleshed out and evolve so well that you forget that many of them have only been on a dozen episodes.  A perfect example of this is the character of Otto Delaney (Kurt Sutter, himself) who goes from being a club member due for parole within a few months to a vicious psychopath who winds up on death row, having been manipulated by both by federal law enforcement and his loyalty to his club which ultimately costs him everything. Otto transforms completely from being just a guy biding his time in prison to being a complete monster (both physically and personality-wise) being responsible for the two most horrific scenes in the entire series in the fifth season.  It’s refreshing to see a series be able to transform a relatively minor character into such a pivotal tragic hero.

Anyone will tell you that aside from the riveting story arcs, what really sets the show apart is the incredibly strong performances by all members of the main cast with special recognition needing to go to Katy Sagal (Gemma Teller), Ron Perlman (Clay Morrow), Hunnam, Maggie Siff (Tara Knowles) with an honorable mention needing to go Kim Coates (Alex ‘Tig’ Trager).  Although there’s no question the rest of the cast does a superb job bringing SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original, the original charter) and the fictional town of Charming, California to life, those five actors really chew the scenery with Emmy-worthy performances (not that the Emmy’s have anything to do with actual talent, but for the purposes of the discussion, we’ll pretend that they do).  While Katy Sagal’s performance is often critically praised, I have actually enjoyed Maggie Siff’s subtle transformation and portrayal of of Tara’s inner conflict the even more.

As far as compelling drama is concerned, as I noted, season one is kind of a preamble for what’s to come but season two is absolutely brilliant, culminating with a shocker of a finale cliffhanger that no one will see coming.  Although I disagree with most critics about the  lack of quality of season three, which actually had several episodes filmed in Northern Ireland, I do agree that it was hampered by the fact that the entire saga of the season revolved around the events from the cliffhanger from season two.  Season four, was pretty brilliant all the way around with the notable exception of the big twist that develops in the season finale.  It was cheap and contrived and made it seem like the writers didn’t know where to go to get the SAMCRO crew out of the mess that they were in.  Season five marks the apex of excellence for the series, thus far, that culminated with a phenomenal finale with twists and turns that would put 24 to shame.

Although, Kurt Sutter is committed to two more seasons of SoA, making it clear that the story will be wrapped up by the end of season seven, the season five finale was so well-done that it could have easily have been a series finale.  SoA has proven over the course of five seasons to be one of the best dramas on television and we highly recommend that you watch the first four seasons on Netflix and then beg borrow and steal to get your hands on season five… or just wait for it to come out on Netflix this summer.