TV Review: 'Sons of Anarchy'

Charliehunnam_sonsofanarchy_240_2FX excels at taking familiar TV templates -- the cop show, the medical drama, the single-friends sitcom -- and pushing and twisting them until they become original creations like The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Now comes Sons of Anarchy, which, to be overly reductive, is a show about mobsters. But it's a pretty intriguing one, and the specificity with which it sets up its world and its characters make me eager to see where the road takes them.

The show's title is also the name of the outlaw motorcycle club at its center. The Sons of Anarchy have run the small Northern California town of Charming for 30-some years, but progress is starting to encroach on their little piece of paradise. Wednesday's (Sept. 3) premiere opens with a rival gang robbing, then torching, the Sons' gun warehouse. A politically ambitious cop is out to bring the club down, and some local white supremacists -- in league with the aforementioned rival gang -- are looking to expand their meth trade inside Charming's borders.

On top of all that, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), the son of the club's co-founder and its current vice president, is starting to question whether gun-running and violence are the best ways to remain relevant. It's a volatile mix, and if things don't blow up in the first two episodes, you certainly have the sense that they can at any time.

Hunnam has done good supporting work in Undeclared and Children of Men, and he has no trouble stepping up to the lead role here. The introspective Jax doesn't conform to the live-fast-die-young biker stereotype, and he's reluctant to use a gun unless he's fired on first (though less hesitant to brutalize a drug dealer who sells meth to his pregnant ex-wife, played by Drea de Matteo).

Kateysagal_sonsofanarchy_240 Jax's questioning of the Sons' direction further worries his mom, Gemma (Katey Sagal), and her husband, SoA co-founder and president Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), who are concerned about leaving the club in good shape whenever Clay steps aside. Sagal delivers a performance that's alternately tender and scary, gently pushing Jax in the direction she wants him to go in some scenes and frighteningly exerting her will on de Matteo's character in another. Perlman (Hellboy), acting without pounds of prosthetics, lets a couple of insecurities show through his tough-guy facade.

Creator Kurt Sutter, a writer and executive producer of The Shield (and, incidentally, Sagal's husband), also populates Sons of Anarchy with a solid supporting cast that includes Mark Boone Junior as the club's treasurer, who has a side gig as an Elvis impersonator; Ryan Hurst as a member fresh out of jail who's trying, at his wife's (Sprague Grayden) insistence and not too successfully, to make it on the straight and narrow; Maggie Siff (Mad Men) as Jax's high-school sweetheart, who's recently returned to Charming as a resident at the local hospital; and Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files), who plays way against type as the leader of the white-power gang.

Sutter also establishes what feels like a pretty authentic look at motorcycle-club culture, and the show looks right too, with some of L.A.'s less populated areas standing in for the semi-rural NorCal surroundings where the show is set. He also smartly doesn't render judgment on his central characters: The club's lifestyle is hardly glorified, but neither does it look down at its characters. Our sympathies clearly lie with Jax, but Gemma and Clay are nuanced enough that viewers will get where they're coming from as well.

Sons of Anarchy does take its time to get rolling. The two episodes FX sent out for review spend a good deal of time on exposition -- some of which is normal for any new show, and some of which might be due to the fact that we haven't seen this particular setting much before and therefore need a little more time to acclimate.

Sutter also throws a number of balls in the air from the outset, from the birth of Jax's son to the shady alliances between rival gangs. Future episodes will also bring an ATF agent played by The Shield's Jay Karnes into the mix, which promises to complicate things even more. By the close of those two episodes, enough things are up in the air to make Sons of Anarchy worth coming back to.
----
Sons of Anarchy premieres at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on FX.

For more on the season's new series, check out Zap2it's Fall TV Preview.