There's something familiar about the pilot episode of Sons Of Anarchy. That's not necessarily a bad thing. With great TV, you can spend five minutes watching your first episode and already feel at home, like the world and the characters they inhabit have always been there in your head, just waiting for someone to come along with the good sense to film them. I'd say the jury's still out on Anarchy being great, although it has potential; that familiar feeling is something else. It didn't take me too long to pick up on it, either. Take away the motorcycles and the leather jackets, and this is just another mob story.
Which, again, is not necessarily a bad thing. The mafia has been the subject of some of the greatest movies ever made, and some of the best TV ever produced; they're really the closest we have to royalty these days, because the fictional mob is all about privilege, violence, and family. The power is the initial turn on, for obvious reasons, but what gives the best of these stories their lasting power is that they make you want to belong. Sure, there's the risk of violent death or jail-time, but until the hammer comes down, you're one of the elite. More than that, you have value.
The pilot does an efficient job of introducing us to both the premise and the series regulars. The biker gang Sons of Anarchy (or SAMCRO, "Sam Crow," a nickname I didn't get till about five minutes ago) runs the town of Charming just the way they like it, with the law in their pocket and a strong arm for anyone that tries to muscle in. Of course, things don't always go as planned; the episode opens when the Mayans, a rival gang, breaks into one of the Anarchy's gun safe-houses, stealing a large chunk of the merchandise and torching the rest. Which puts the Sons in a spot, since the guns are due for delivery and finding a large number of automatic weapons quickly enough to satisfy their customers isn't going to be an easy task.
And that isn't their only problem; Jax (Charlie Hunnam), club vice-president and the son of Anarchy's former president, is having trouble with his ex-wife Wendy (Drea de Matteo), a pregnant junkie who nearly miscarries their son after her umpteenth drug hit. The doctors are able to save the baby, but it's a close thing; the kid needs multiple surgeries if he's going to make it through the week, and the prognosis isn't good.
If the biker gang is a stand-in for the mob here, and if the mob is just the royal family in business suits–well, it's pretty easy to see how that family structure holds. Jax is the prince, heir to the throne, and the most charismatic and liked member of the gang. His mother, Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Segal), is the queen, the sort who comes on polite but would gut you in an instant if you got in her way. And then there's the king, Clarrence "Clay" Morrow (Ron Perlman), who rules it all with an iron fist that's getting a little weaker every day.
Plus a whole gaggle of lords, ladies, and fools. The cast here is terrific, and I spent most of the episode trying to recognize all the faces–there's that crooked cop from Batman Begins (Mark Boone, Jr.), the department store head from Mad Men (Maggie Siff), and even Mitch Pileggi (Skinner!) as the head of a Neo-Nazi group trying to take over Anarchy's turf. As an ensemble, most everybody gels. Segal is particularly terrifying in the Lady MacBeth role, and Ron Perlman is, well, Ron freakin' Perlman. Dude is made out of awesome. You just sit back and enjoy it.
I'm not entirely sold on Charlie Hunnam. Everyone around Jax seems either in awe or lust around him, and while the actor isn't terrible, he's nowhere near as interesting as the people he rides with. I'm not sure if that's the writing or the performance. A number of plot threads get introduced in this first episode which will most likely take a whole season (or more) to play out, and probably the most important one is the one I'm initially least interested in because it revolves around Jax; he finds his dead father's papers, including an essay (or thesis, going by the length) about "How The Sons Of Anarchy Lost Their Way." Which leads to a lot of soul searching on Jax's part. The "we need to go straight!" arc has long been a crucial element in crime drama, but I can't help dreading a little all the naval gazing we're going to get.
It's not all bad, though. Gemma and Clay's suspicions about Jax's discovery, and their immediate determination to nip it right in the bud, promise some solid revelations down the way. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Jax's father's unfortunate accident wasn't entirely accidental (or, for some people, all that unfortunate). Plus, the set-up with the gang feud promises to be interesting. The invasion on the Mayans' gun cache at the climax of the show is a tense comedy of errors, with Jax trying to cover for a friend but failing. This leads to some avoidable deaths but also the discovery that the Mayans and Pileggi's group are working together. So that's probably going to come up again. On the character front, even apart from her concerns about Jax, Gemma is a nasty piece of work, bringing the detoxing Wendy a syringe and talking her into OD'ing.
I've got no problem spending more time with these folks. The sense of belonging is definitely there, as is the entitlement. My one big reservation is, well, like I said–this is all pretty familiar. Some of it's familiar in a good way, but right now a few script edits and this could be just another Sopranos knock off. There's an attempt in the final montage (and who the hell decided that every TV show these days has to end in a montage?) at a distinctive sense of humor, but it doesn't really work; there's something unpleasantly smug in the way the beating of a Korean Elvis-impersonator is filmed. This is just the pilot, though, and pilots are for laying ground. With some more time spent on the biker angle, and a better grasp of tone, who knows where this could go.
--Went ahead and watched the next episode, and it's a step-up; no lightning bolt or anything, but definitely less derivative.
--I want to see Mitch Pileggi's character here and J.K. Simmons' character from OZ in a buddy comedy now. A horrible, horrible buddy comedy.
--So, what did you think?