Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club talks 'Sons of Anarchy': Are you man enough to talk back?
This week at the Pop Culture Club, we were assigned Sons of Anarchy on FX, which recently started its second season. I had tried this show when it debuted last year; it was created by Kurt Sutter, an alumni of one of my favorite shows, The Shield. At the time, that cop show was concluding with one of the most intensely satisfying wind-downs in series history, so I was looking to clutch onto anything that remotely smelled like it. I wanted — no, needed — to like it, yet I couldn’t find anything on Anarchy to cling to. It felt generically badass, like someone had swept behind all the furniture on The Shield, collected all the run-off machismo, rolled it up, dressed it up in leather jackets, and stuck it on motorcycles.
Everyone was a bit too overenthusiastically manly. I have no problem with tough-guy TV, but the fact that it all this testosterone came in the form of a motorcycle gang made it too on-the-nose and predictable. The Shield featured badass cops, yes, but the twist was that they were corrupt. They set the mold for the FX antihero: good people doing bad things, or vice versa. But there’s no twist on Anarchy – ever since Gimme Shelter, it’s never a surprise when a motorcycle gang is up to no good. Everyone here was so aggressively macho that I feared they were going to sprain their testicles. (Ron “Hellboy” Perlman automatically adds a surplus of manliness; he can’t help it, it’s just the way he’s built. That giant mudslide of a head never looks complete without a worn cigar jutting out from his mouth.) Jax, the central character who learns about how honcho Clay led the gang astray, is supposed to be the sympathetic center, but the British actor who plays him, Charlie Hunnam, struggles so much with an American accent that it takes me right out of the story. He might as well be stomping around with a top hat on.
I abandoned it last season after a few episodes. But when I tried it again this season, I was more intrigued, thanks primarily to Katey Sagal as Clay’s wife, Gemma. On my first try, I didn’t buy her as the Livia-like manipulative matriarch; even though she was great as Locke’s girlfriend on Lost, I reflexively think of the Married…with Children vet as more of a comedic actress, and unfairly chalked her casting up to blind love. (She’s married to Sutter.) I retroactively apologize. The explosive end to the season 2 premiere (which aired two weeks ago) – when she’s gang raped by white supremacists who want to send a message to Clay – was immensely powerful. It feels very wrong to write that it took a rape to get me intrigued, but I was immediately invested in how this season would play out. And this week she stunned me with her weary stoicism: When Jax’s girlfriend, Dr. Tara, recommended a plastic surgeon work on her bruises, Gemma waved it off with an, “I’ve been hit before.” I defy you to find a trace of Peg Bundy in her.
This white supremacist story line has dragged me in (Adam Arkin, slickly great; Henry Rollins, predictably one-note), and I do like intra-gang power struggles, though the persistent tough-guy shtick over at Anarchy HQ still tries my patience. Take the scene last night when the gang woke up after a long night’s partying, and there were strippers everywhere. There were scenes just like this in The Sopranos, but they never made me roll my eyes. This one did. Here, there was nothing to toy with the convention – it was just amped up, with one guy waking up with a near-naked, unconscious stripper straddling him backwards. It was the hangover equivalent of a Michael Bay scene: they thought, “How can we make this more extreme?” rather than, “How can we make this more real?” Another Sopranos reference was intended, but no less damning: When Jax met the skittish porn director, Luanne, in a deserted office and she thinks she’s about to be whacked, he said, “You think I brought you here to Adriana you?” This bugged me for two reasons. 1) His tortured accent and self-conscious reference made it seem like he was a film geek dressed up as Marlon Brando in The Wild One. And 2) It underscored the impression that these guys were trying way too hard to be tough; now they were even optimistically comparing themselves to famous TV tough guys to boost their cred. But few of them earn it.
Well, except one guy, who’s the last guy I expected: Tom Arnold. He was insiduously creepy as the brutal porn mogul trying to take over Luanne’s business. I think after 15 years he’s done enough penance for his loudmouth boob years: it’s time to start giving Arnold a real career.
I’m gonna stick with the show, mostly for Sagal, and hope that the Sons of Anarchy start easing up on their machismo. They’d seem a lot more threatening if they weren’t trying so hard to be threatening. What do you think of the show? Were you as impressed by Katy Sagal and Tom Arnold as I was? And did you have trouble telling all the gang members apart? (There’s the guy with the beard, then the guy with the tattoo, then the guy with the beard and the tattoo…) And how do you think it matches up with The Shield?
Okay, next week’s assignment: Let’s check out the debut of HBO’s new detective comedy series, Bored to Death, with Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and the man who in my mind can do no wrong, Ted Danson. “But I don’t have HBO!” you cry. Aha! Problem solved: the season premiere is being streamed for free at Amazon. (If you’re one of those old-schoolers who need an actual TV, it airs Sunday at 9:30 p.m.) So check it out and we’ll meet back here next Thursday. But for now, let’s rumble, Sons of Anarchy-style! Oooh, look, now I’m a tough guy!
PHOTO CREDIT: Prashant Gupta/FX
Sons of Anarchy
Kurt Sutter’s original series, starring Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, and Katey Sagal.