Kurt Sutter’s Outlaw Empires debuts tonight on Discovery Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Sons Of Anarchy is currently between seasons, but that doesn’t mean showrunner Kurt Sutter is wasting time on Twitter raging war against any and all that malign him. Well, he’s doing that too, but he has also created Outlaw Empires, a new reality series on Discovery that will document different outlaw organizations on a weekly basis. Those seeking insight into the research Sutter did in order to create Sons Of Anarchy will certain find a little of that in this show. But at least in the première, the most fascinating aspects don’t have anything to do with Sutter at all. And I imagine he would prefer it that way.
Getting Sutter’s name directly into the title of the show is a decent way to get people to tune into the show. But the Crips—the organization profied in tonight’s episode—have enough pull that people should want to tune in regardless of who spearheaded this endeavor. The promotional materials for this series boast that each installment “tells the complete story of an iconic American outlaw dynasty.” That’s not entirely true: Trying to tell the story of an organization such as the Crips in a 44-minute episode of television would be a fool’s errand. Instead of its touted comprehensivess, tonight’s première focuses on a few key members of the group and their experiences during a few key historical moments as a way to glean insight into its rise through the 1970s, the crack-laden era of the 1980s, the horrific events of the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s, and into today.
When inactive members of the Crips tell their first-person perspective of those eras, Outlaw Empires is riveting television. Near the end of the hour, one of these former members notes that he wasn’t prepared for the level of regret he would feel once out of the day-to-day illegal activities of the Crips. That word “regret” accurately describes the tone of the main participants in tonight’s episode, all men who were plucked from childhood far too early by circumstances all but out of their control. Some of them bear cool-sounding nicknames like “Sidewinder,” but their tales are the furthest thing from cool possible. Many similar stories have been told about the socioeconomic conditions that led to so many African-American males to join up with crews such as the Crips, but these men weave tales that are specific enough to warrant a retelling.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a better explanation on television about the specific power dynamic of the Crips themselves before tonight’s première. The lack of a central governing body in some ways freed the group to proliferate wildly throughout Los Angeles, and eventually the majority of states in America. But it also means that the group was forever fracturing, first along lines of geography and eventually along lines of fiscal success. It’s a compelling through line for the hour, one that drives home how a relatable concepts such top-down organizational principles and monetary inequality relate as much to Occupy Wall Street as they do to the streets of Los Angeles. Thankfully, the show is smart enough not to draw a line between the two.
In fact, one of Sutter’s primary influences upon the show lies in his resistance to pass judgment on the Crips or any future organization depicted on Outlaw Empires. (Upcoming episodes will cover groups like the Irish Mob, Italian Mafia, and Nuestra Familia.) Sutter himself appears throughout the hour, sitting at a bar and offering up findings from his research that augment or give context to the statements made by past members. While unintentionally so, Sutter’s insights often seemed distanced from the events depicted in the rest of the episode. That’s not to say he didn’t reach his conclusions in an honest manner, nor does what he says ring false. (Many of the power dynamics mentioned above spring from his lips.)
Still, that’s a small problem compared to this series’ biggest failings: The dramatic reenactments of the events described by former Crips’ members. While some of these are done in a fairly effective, tasteful manner, the tales woven by these men are so powerful that no reenactment could possibly live up to them. While tonight’s Outlaw Empires does feature stock footage and home movies to good effect, the reenactments reek of inauthenticity. For a show that strives for an authentic peek into the cultures of these organizations, that’s a major hiccup.
But it’s not a hiccup that should prevent you from tuning in. The sheer fact that these men have decided to come forward and tell their stories is enough of a reason to give this show a chance. And if getting Sutter’s name in the title gave the show enough juice to pull that off, then it’s less an act of self-promotion and more a way to provide an outlet for the stories that both fascinate him—but just might educate the viewer as well. That we’re so fascinated with these cultures is well-known; Outlaw Empires is most fascinating when it pushes past that fascination and shows the regret that can so often come from getting too close to organizations like the Crips.
The phrase “dramatic reenactments” gives me both the heebies and the jeebies.
Sutter actually meets one of the key figures in tonight’s episode, a man named Kershaun Scott, on the streets of Los Angeles. But rather than follow them through the streets in which most of tonight’s tales take place, the show quickly shifts to solo interviews inside a studio in which Sutter’s voice is never heard asking questions. I assume Sutter was on the other side of the camera for these, but I can’t know for sure. One could argue Sutter is removing himself from the story. On the other hand, we see him quite often alone in a bar offering up insights. It’s a curious decision, and I wonder if it will continue going forth.
In many ways, the Rodney King beatings apparently ensured the Crips didn’t eat themselves from within, as the rival segments within the city that had long been waging an internal war banded together in the wake of the King verdict. Whether or not you consider that a good thing or not is, of course, up to debate.