It's almost humorous in a quaint sort of way to look back on 1953's The Wild One, the film that established Marlon Brando as a new kind of movie star, but which, from a broader sociological perspective, helped to start the whole trend of 1950's film about alienated youth. The first thing you notice about Brando's biker antics throughout the film are how tame they all are, despite the hint of menace in Brando's performance. And the gang itself, while rowdy, seems positively clean cut compared to everyday people you see walking the streets nowadays. I have to wonder if 56 years down the line the same reaction may be awaiting Sons of Anarchy, the new FX series about a California biker gang that has a big pull quote on its new Blu-ray Season One box comparing it to The Sopranos, but which comes off more as a similarly scrubbed and polished update of the venerable Brando opus.
Set in the fictional (and rather ironically named) town of Charming, California, Sons of Anarchy follows the exploits of its eponymous gang, a group going back to the supposedly halcyon days of 1967, led by Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman, finally unearthed from the mounds of makeup he so typically wears in so many roles, looking strangely like the Lee Marvin character in Wild One). Clay is mentor to his stepson Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), whose deceased father was one of the original founders (along with Clay) of the gang. Clay's wife and Jax's mother Gemma (Katey Sagal, as impressive as always in a role diametrically opposed to Peg Bundy), is both nurturing and malevolent, one of the more sharply drawn characters of the series. There are a coterie of supporting roles surrounding this main trio, including other members of the gang, one comedy relief prospective member ("Half Sack" Epps, named for a peculiar anatomical anomaly, well played by Johnny Lewis), and a whole sidebar of personal relationships, especially with regard to Jax.
As the first episode opens, the Sons are dealing with their chief nemeses, the Mayans, who have stolen a contraband shipment of automatic rifles and other guns that the Sons were about to consummate a deal with. On a personal level, Jax's junkie estranged wife Wendy (Drea de Matteo), gives birth prematurely to Jax's son, one born with a host of major birth defects. Jax is also drawn to Tara (Maggie Siff), a doctor with whom he's had a previous relationship who volunteers to help minister to his newborn son. Tara, by contrast, is running from an obsessed ATF agent, and it just so happens the ATF very much wants to bring the Sons of Anarchy down, big time.
Sons of Anarchy is obviously a show still trying to find its way, and in its first season seems a bit schizophrenic at times, trying to decide whether it wants to feature the, yes, Sopranos-esque machinations of the gang and its inner workings, or the more intimate personal stories of the members and their attendant satellite characters. The only character who seems fully drawn and able to easily traverse both of these worlds is Gemma, a character who is one part Machiavelli, one part Borgia, and, oddly, one part nurturing Mother Goddess.
The equally obvious callbacks to Hamlet, something that Ron Perlman made some mention of when the show was first airing, are certainly interesting, but aren't yet fully developed enough to be paying dividends. One obviously expects Jax to start more actively suspecting the obviously duplicitous Gemma of not exactly being a sweetly nurturing mother as the series moves into its second season. (I for one can't wait to see who Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turn out to be). This first season does at least an adequate job of setting Jax up as a conflicted character, if not quite at the existential mess level the Prince of Denmark attained. If the show sometimes tries too hard with these literary ambitions, you have to at least give it props for trying, something far too few series even attempt.
If Sagal is the most immediately compelling performance in the series, Perlman also does great work here, with a rough-edged brittleness mixed with surprising amounts of tenderness at times that reminded me of his work in City of Lost Children. Hunnam makes a charismatic and appealing leading man for the younger set, and has a rather striking resemblance to Heath Ledger at times. Creator Kurt Sutter (The Shield) obviously knows how to craft intelligently written and developed characters, and if Sons of Anarchy needs a season to adequately set up the interrelationships and backstories of this motley crew, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least until the second season is well underway.
The show portrays the bikers as just a little too clean cut for their own good (despite every effort to "dirty" them up, which can lead to laughs when you see an actor like Mitch Pileggi, whom most will remember as the button down Skinner from X Files). Otherwise, there's a very real grittiness to the proceedings here, including some fairly shocking scenes of mayhem and what is, for the gang, "routine" violence. Hopefully that grit factor can spread more to the characters themselves as the show enters its sophomore year, at which point Sons of Anarchy may indeed be able to rise to the mantel of Sopranos excellence.