I've known about Sons of Anarchy more for its reputation as a decent show more than anything else, but when I'd heard about the much talked-about whiskey juice box in Season Three, it sure seemed like the moment to get a chance to further examine the show, albeit skipping the ground floor. What I did not expect was to get as quickly invested in it both for its performances and its quietly brilliant casting.
To set things up for a second, the Sons of Anarchy is the name of a motorcycle club in the fictitious town of Charming, California. The main conflict in the show is between the club's President, Clay (Ron Perlman, Hellboy II) and Clay's stepson Jackson, or Jax (Charlie Hunnam, Children of Men). Clay is a founding member of the club, but Jax is the son of one of the club's founding members who passed away years ago, but Clay married Gemma (Katey Sagal, Married with Children) and took Jax under his wing. Jax' father left him a manuscript which showed his son what his thought about the club, and how it's lost its way and what can be done to right the ship. So while Clay's the head of the gang, Jax could be viewed as its true heart, and this causes some within the gang to choose alliances, despite still uniting for the brotherhood in the club when it's called upon.
Kurt Sutter was a longtime writer for and show runner on the critically acclaimed F/X show The Shield. I may be one of the few people left who hasn't watched more than one episode of that, but in Sons of Anarchy, one gets the feeling that this material feels more personal to him, that it's something he identifies with. And if he doesn't relate to it, the viewer certainly can on a different level than we might expect. Jax might have the long-term interests of the club at heart and is maybe a little more pragmatic. Clay represents little more emotion and reactionary way of dealing with things, and tends to lean on his business relationships a little heavier than Jax does, or even when dealing with the Charming police chief, Unser (Dayton Callie, Halloween II).
However, the one really thrown into the balance on this is Gemma. Married to Sutter in real-life, Sagal gives us the center of the club both in its members and family, and simply put, she's a revelation in the role. Frankly, all I knew about motorcycle clubs (and their families) in California is what I saw in Mask. Sagal takes the similar role that Cher had and transforms it into a woman who balances her two men's respective goals admirably, to say nothing of being a "biker's wife" along with being a nurturing mother. She's considerably warmer in the role and in Season Two, she suffers a damaging event whose ramifications come home later to the club. She holds these events in for so long without telling Jax or Clay that I found myself literally yelling at the television for her to tell them. Sutter brings these actions back around in the story arc in such a way that I hadn't seen since the days of Tom Fontana, Paul Attanasio and David Simon on Homicide: Life on the Street. When Sagal finally reveals the truth to Jax and Clay, it's a powerful moment, one of the best I've seen on televised dramas in recent memory.
Sagal is one of many pitch-perfect casting notes for the show, as there are a few faces that make you marvel at the inspiration to bring them in, or even the changes of pace for those involved. The main protagonist for the show's 13-episode second season is Ethan Zobelle, played by Adam Arkin (A Serious Man). Arkin is the furthest away from a white supremacist who sides with the FBI in providing them information while dealing drugs and guns to rival gangs of the Sons, but he makes expending energy into it so effortless and easy, but he starts to give folks the creeps as the episodes wear on. His character would seem to deserve a better fate than what he was left with in Season Two, but I'm still watching Season Three to figure it all out. Musician/spoken word artist Henry Rollins plays Zobelle's second in command and whose agenda of racial purity is a lot easier to follow, and while he's got a painful scene here and there (he doesn't consider himself a big actor that I know of), he holds his own with the pros on screen nicely. On the Sons side of things, William Lucking (The Limey) plays Piney Winston, another Sons original who knew Jax' father well and is familiar with Clay's actions and he manages to be a quiet presence to the club that proves to be powerful when given a chance to roam. Piney's son is Opie (Ryan Hurst, virtually unrecognizable from his role in Remember the Titans), whose wife was murdered in the first season and he tries to get his life back together in Season Two, and Hurst makes this ordeal very convincing, particularly when he finally finds out who was responsible for his wife's death.
Both the stories and performances in the second season of Sons of Anarchy are outstanding, full of emotion, well-acted and immersive storylines and character development. I have to quietly curse Sutter for a couple of things; first off, even though I came in late, I'm now rapidly consuming all the other Sons eps out there, and urge others to do the same. Second and perhaps more importantly, where the hell's the whiskey juice box?
Sons of Anarchy is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen consistent with its original broadcast format. The show looks solid in standard definition, lots of detail in close-up shots of the characters and even some fine detail in pores and facial hair. There are some moments where blacks tend to crush and some of the wider shots seem to have a seam in them from the practically shot against the computer generated backgrounds, but they aren't distracting in the overall experience and the show looks good.
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for all the episodes, which isn't too shabby for the show. There are lots of quieter moments in the show, yet environmental sounds are well-placed directionally in the rear channels. Explosions have subwoofer involvement occasionally, and there's a fair amount of music in the show, be it from Anvil's cover of "Slip Kid" in the premiere to the more emotional "Mary" by Patty Griffin. Dialogue doesn't require much user compensation either, and throughout the season, Sons sounds solid.
The mix of supplements on the discs is abundant (for a 13-episode run) and informative to new fans and to returning supporters. Disc One starts with a commentary on the premiere episode (titled 'Albification') with Sutter, Hunnam, Perlman, Arkin and Guy Ferland, who directed the episode. They spend time recalling the challenges in the production and how a normal day on set for them is, and they talk about some of the cast not available for commentaries like Sagal and Rollins. The track is a little dry but worth the time for fans. Seven deleted scenes (7:49) are more extended sequences, a couple of which extend Gemma's friendship with Neeta, the babysitter for Jax and Tara's son. Disc Two has ten deleted scenes (12:57) that are a little more forgettable.
On Disc Three, there's a commentary on "Balm" with Sutter, Hunnam, Perlman, Sagal, Siff and director Paris Barclay. The tracks a little friendlier and includes some teasing among the cast members, but they also joke at some small continuity gaffs and recall some of the scenes between one another. Definitely a better track than the first. The ten deleted scenes on this disc (15:09) also expand Neeta's presence a little. Disc Four has the bulk of the material, with a commentary on the finale by Sutter and the stars, along with some actors that play members of the gang. This is by far the funnest, with Tommy Flanagan (Chibs) being the biggest culprit of the bunch. Sutter dries to drive actual insight in the track but doesn't get far. It's still fun nonetheless. Four deleted scenes (6:20) don't add much to the discussion.
The remaining extras include a slightly funny gag reel (3:58) and something called "The Moral Code of Sons of Anarchy" (10:34), which not only sheds light into the makeup of a club but also provides some Season One back story for those like myself who aren't familiar with it. It's a very welcome addition. The biggest extra of the bunch is the "Sons of Anarchy Roundtable" (40:28), which Sutter asks some fan-suggested questions of the cast. There's some pretty funny stuff to glean from the piece, and there's also some semi-serious stuff too. It's definitely the highlight of the set.
Sons of Anarchy makes it easy for the new viewer to hit the ground running both with the stories and the supplemental material that's both revelatory and fun. Technically it's solid and from a creative point of view is one of the best and purest dramas on television today. Strongest recommendation to watch whether you've seen the show or not.