Sons of Anarchy: Season One

(2008) *** Unrated
594 min. FX. Directors: Allen Coulter, Mario Van Peebles. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman.


OMGs (outlaw motorcycle gangs)—or as they'd prefer to be called, M.C.s or "motorcycle clubs"—inhabit a world where gang, racial, and domestic violence (including rape) are commonplace, and a rigid, proud hierarchy dare not be questioned: each gang is fiercely territorial, and each club has a sergeant-at-arms. Of course biking in and of itself is not a crime, and recreational bikers must be distinguished from criminal hellraisers involved in drug deals, illegal-arms sales, and the sex trade. But there’s no love lost between Hell’s Angels, Mongols, Bandidos or any of the other proven crime organizations calling themselves M.C.s, and brutality becomes tragedy when innocents stumble into their paths. In Julian Sher & William Marsden’s tome Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs’ Crime Empire, one clinical psychologist describes OMG members as uniformly psychopathic by nature.

And yet, television is a habitat that no longer shies from edgy, violent material. Quite the contrary: TV actively seeks out material that might spawn another hit show like The Sopranos or The Shield. Kurt Sutter obliged by creating FX's Sons of Anarchy, the first series to examine the world of OMGs. It has elements (and cast members) of The Sopranos and FX's late cop drama The Shield, as well as The Wire (the ins and outs of local police efforts and federal RICO investigations) and FX's Rescue Me (clubhouse-style bonding and a dim-bulb "prospect" similar to that show's fire-fighting "probies"). Despite having something of the flavor of TV's most testosterone-laden shows, Sons of Anarchy is its own distinctive beast and another worthy entry in the stakes of addictive serialized TV.

Set in Charming, California, the series takes us inside the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original Charter (SAMCRO), known colloquially as "Sam Crow." As it happens, the Sons of Anarchy aren't uniformly psychopathic, but they are morally dubious, given to brutal violence as enforcement, and never far from the contemplation of murder when push comes to shove. The show's vascillating, compromised moral center is Jackson "Jax" Teller (Charlie Hunnam of Undeclared), whose late father was the club's co-founder. Jax has a troublesome conscience, exacerbated when he discovers a lost manuscript, written by his father John, that explains the club's original intent (inspired by Emma Goldman, no less). SAMCRO was never meant to be a criminal enterprise, but a social rebel cry of freedom. As the club faces increasingly bloody problems, Jax begins to gravitate toward his father's vision.

Jax's evolution is a cause for concern for his Machiavellian mother and stepfather, Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal) and Clarence "Clay" Morrow (Ron Perlman). Loving but horribly manipulative, Gemma does what she thinks is best for Jax by manipulating the women in his life and steering him to follow Clay's example instead of that of her late husband. Naturally, much of the show's pleasingly eccentric character comes from the ensemble of bikers: burly sometime Elvis impersonator Bobby (Mark Boone Junior), perverse "Tig" (Kim Coates), hard-nosed Scotsman "Chibs" (Tommy Flanagan), dopey dullard "Juice" (Theo Rossi), prospect "Half Sack" (Johnny Lewis) and "Piney" Winston (William Lucking), who co-founded SAMCRO with John Teller. Piney's son Opie (Ryan Hurst) loves the club, but stands apart from it at the behest of his wife Donna (Sprague Grayden), still burned that Opie did time to protect SAMCRO.

Like a real OMG, the Sons of Anarchy must do a delicate dance around the local law enforcement, and be ever-vigilant against infiltration and investigation by the feds. Police Chief Wayne Unser (Dayton Callie of Deadwood) is in the club's pocket—happy enough to look the other way as long as violent crimes stay outside Charming's borders—but he's fighting cancer and has every intention of retiring. That would leave Deputy Chief David Hale (Taylor Sheridan) in charge, and given that he tells Clay, "You're white trash thugs holding on to a dying dream," the club's workable relationship with John Law would turn hostile right quick. Of course, constant tension and threats come from another source: other OMGS like the Mayans and the Nords (the latter led by Mitch Pileggi of The X-Files).

At its core, though, Sons of Anarchy is a family drama inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet (and, in the devices of Gemma, Macbeth), with Jax as the prince and Clay as the King. Adding to the stakes is Jax's infant son by ex-wife Wendy (Drea De Matteo of The Sopranos); even little Abel wears a baby beanie with SAMCRO patches. Jax finds himself torn by old loyalties to Wendy and the woman to whom has heart has always belonged: ER doctor Tara (Maggie Siff). The show is exceptionally well-produced, following a lead taken by the pilot's co-directors Allen Coulter (The Sopranos) and Michael Dinner (Karen Sisco). Guest stars include The Shield's Jay Karnes (as demented A.T.F. Agent Kohn), Keir O'Donnell, Tom Everett Scott, Brian Van Holt, and Glenn Plummer, with Ally Walker a standout as ATF firebrand Agent Stahl. With a wall proudly displaying their members' framed mugshots, the Sons of Anarchy are guaranteed to continue to raise hell in the show's second season, set to premiere in September 2009.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 8/18/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Every current TV show on Blu-ray should look as good as Sons of Anarchy does in its 3-disc special edition from Fox. Sharply detailed, with beautiful contrast and color and impressive shadow detail, these transfers deliver convincing dimensionality. The detail carries over into a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that isn't as lush as a feature film but still does a nice job of pumping up the thrum of engines and the plentiful music cues.

Fans and new adopters will also be pleased with the selection of bonus features. "The Making of Sons of Anarchy, Season 1" (8:59, HD) gives a solid overview of the show's intent. Interviewees include producer Jack LoGiudice, Charlie Hunnam, creator/executive producer Kurt Sutter, Kim Coates, Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman, Theo Rossi, production designer Anthony Medina, costume designer Kelly Jones, Johnny Lewis, Tommy Flanagan, and Sprague Grayden.

"The Ink" (4:50, HD) focuses on the symbology of patches and tattoos that distinguishes M.C.s. Coates, Medina, Sutter, Hunnam, tattoo artist Freddy Corbin, Rossi, tattoo artist Derrick Snodgrass, Sagal, Mark Boone Junior, Perlman, and Mitch Pileggi participate.

The coolest feature may be "The Bikes" (7:08, HD), which explains and show's off each actor's bike and how and why it has been customized for the character in question. Participants include Rossi, Boone Junior, Hunnam, Flanagan, Sagal, Coates, Sutter, picture car coordinator Chris Gordon, mechanic John Landon, Perlman, and Lewis.

"Casting Sons of Anarchy" (14:47, HD) is self-explanatory. Commenting are Sutter, casting director Wendy O'Brien, Taylor Sheridan, Flanagan, Rossi, Coates, Grayden, Boone Junior, Sagal, Ron Perlman, and Hunnam. What makes this segment special is its audition tape footage of Pileggi, Taylor Sheridan, Lewis, Flanagan, Rossi, Coates, William Lucking, Ryan Hurst, Grayden, Maggie Siff, and Hunnam.

Fox also provides twenty-nine "Deleted Scenes" (35:08 with "Play All" option, SD), the cast-and-crew's "Anarchy on the Set (Gag Reel)" (6:55, SD), and three commentaries, one per disc: "Pilot" Commentary with Kurt Sutter, Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal; "The Pull" Commentary with Kurt Sutter, Guy Ferland, Maggie Siff and Charlie Hunnam; and "The Revelator" Commentary with Kurt Sutter, Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, Kim Coates, Mark Boone Junior, Theo Rossi, Ryan Hurst, William Lucking, Johnny Lewis and Tommy Flanagan.

Fox has set a nice standard here for future Sons of Anarchy releases; hopefully, this concurrent Blu-ray/DVD release will win more converts to the series.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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