Let me state right away that Sons Of Anarchy isn’t terrible, just flawed.
Partly it’s a victim of heightened expectations, which explain why I tried it to begin with. I saw it regularly mentioned alongside the gold standard of television dramas; The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Mad Men, but it doesn’t belong in that company.
So why have I been watching it?
The absence of anything better is one reason, thanks largely to Covid. But Netflix deserves its fair share for me watching up to the end of season four at the time of writing. The platform makes it all too easy to watch a series, even when it’s no better than decent. Before streaming services became good you’d have suffer through the archaic method of manual downloading, my mode of choice was torrents, usually overnight thanks to shitty broadband speeds. Having to do this, as recently as five years ago, had a knack of clarifying what was and wasn’t worth the bother.
The recent death of Michael K Williams brings Sons Of Anarchy’s failings to the fore. Few can come close to his brilliant portrayal of Omar Little, one of the great anti-heroes and antagonists, in The Wire, which, in quite the understatement, was a rather good. As The Wire didn’t have a main protagonist or antagonist, Omar wasn’t on screen for considerable periods of time, but when he was there was real gravitas to the acting; the rants (a Shakespearian delivery of Baltimore slang), the mannerisms, the conviction to his mission. Omar was so rich with detail that it seemed Williams was possessed by him.
Sons Of Anarchy falls down heavily on characterisation, lacking anything tangible. All venerated television dramas have strong characterisation. Having upwards of ten hours of air time in your average season provides ample runway to build backstory or to resolve multiple plot strands, but that’s also a lot of time to kill, so drawing characters that are engaging becomes a necessity to keep you engaged.
There’s no character that really grabs you in Sons, either through their comedic or sinister presence, pathos or neuroses, or their insight. No Roger Sterling. No Gus Fring. They’re all stock offerings; the psycho biter, the chibbed one (okay, maybe not), the teccy capable one (because you’ve gotta have someone who knows how to use a computer these days), the recently paroled one, the grizzled leader who’s getting worn down by it all (everyone loves Ron Pearlman, but he’s not got much to work with here), the lead character and leader-in-waiting who doubles as a Warren Beaty-esque Shampoo lothario type going through a crisis of faith in the gang’s direction.
More amusing is a preposterous Mommie Dearest character (played by Katey Sagal, aka Peggy from Married With Children), a master manipulator of her son (among others), the tie that binds, who is the leader Clay’s wife and right hand. She’s either suffering from the most serious case of Stockholm Syndrome ever recorded, or is the ultimate devotee, continuously extoling the virtues of being a wife to someone in the life and championing the MC life itself at all times.
It’s extremely difficult to create anything more out of Sons Of Anarchy when it’s essentially a glamorised depiction of the life by someone who’s clearly chosen to romanticise it. Still, one thing I’ve realised is that making a television show truly realistic is overrated. Make it entertaining first and foremost, and occasionally Sons Of Anarchy is. The Sons live a life rich with action; dealing arms bought from the IRA, controlling the local police through bribes and blackmailing when required, double-crossing and stealing from rival MC gangs and white supremacist thugs, not to mention Unabomber types and weirdo FBI agents.
Their acts of vigilantism and morally justified torture, out-manoeuvring then smacking down the local Arian gang, or winning a gun or a bar fight with a rival biker gang who don’t have the Sons’ wholesome streak is very satisfying when you don’t care about the characters or find it all remotely believable. And who would watch a show that was realistic about the life? What would that be? A bunch of fat forty and fifty somethings sitting on their arses smoking and drinking themselves to death, playing pool and cards, dabbling with meth, working construction or sheet metal three days a week, getting into bar fights (sometimes with their wives) and shagging strippers with cheap tattoos, misshapen tit jobs and missing teeth.
Sons Of Anarchy is successful because it knows what it’s audience wants – escapism, a vicariousness in the ideal, of a life you’ll probably never lead and doesn’t truly exist; hitting the open road travelling through California’s diverse geography with a freedom to drift wherever the day takes you, not tied to a menial nine to five existence as most of us are and are too afraid to relinquish because the consequences likely mean no Netflix. As Bob Dylan rightly said freedom is waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want for the rest of the day. Of course the characters in Sons Of Anarchy are not truly free of obligation, they still are bound by loyalty to each other and the club hierarchy, but compared with the lives so many of us lead, it sure seems like freedom, and even better, they get to be proper naughty, as Danny Dyer would say.
Twenty-five years ago this would’ve been viewed on televisions in kitchens while you did the ironing or prepared your tea. Thanks to technological progress and a pandemic, it’s now the perfect show to have on in the background if you’re working from home. With so much Basil Exposition among the spotty dialogue, and the hard boiled and formulaic narrative structure, you can focus on something else and miss little. And in the only area in which it excels, with a musical cue, Sons Of Anarchy will let you know when to take a ‘screen break’ from your work.