You won't often hear me argue in favor of simplicity and streamlining when it comes to an high-reaching series, but "Sons of Anarchy" returns to FX on Tuesday (Sept. 8) in a cleaner, clearer and markedly less ambitious form and it's better for those changes.
I was a lapsed "Sons of Anarchy" viewer in the first season, not because the show was too complicated, but because the reward for following the myriad plotlines and undercurrents wasn't necessarily worth the effort, even if the final episode or two were satisfyingly shocking and powerful.
The relief of starting the second second is that, plot-wise, the carry-over is limited and nothing that can't be picked up in the pre-credit "Previously on 'Sons of Anarchy'" montage. What you're missing is the character background developed over the first season, but that's mostly recoverable as well.
The point? If you're curious about "Sons of Anarchy," this would be a good time to tune in and see a show which, while still imperfect, is still a unique look at the biker subculture and at one of TV's most interesting family units.
[More review after the break...]
Created by Kurt Sutter, "Sons of Anarchy" began its series run positively choking on its Shakespearean overtones, with Charlie Hunnam's Jax still mourning the loss of his father and suspecting rottenness from his usurping stepfather Clay (Ron Perlman) and a mother (Katey Sagal) who was more cold-blooded Lady MacBeth than unsteady Gertrude. A disproportionate time every episode was spent trying to pin-point Sutter's epic-tragic influences, while simultaneously understanding the biker subculture, while also figuring out how Sam Crow (an sloppy acronym of Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original) fit in with the community of Charming, local law enforcement, other gangs in their vicinity and a looming investigation by the ATF.
The first season of "Sons of Anarchy" required a lot of effort, particularly in the early going, as Sutter set up the pieces that would unfold by the climax.
As Season Two begins, the central conflicts have been more clearly delineated.
Yes, they're still anti-heroes in Sam Crow. They're protecting Charming from incursions by gangs and drugs, but they're also still moving illegal firearms to gang members, always constantly aware that the feds may be watching.
They're dangerous, the Sam Crow gang, especially Clay and sociopaths like Tig (Kim Coates) and Chibs (Tommy Flanagan). The volatile wing of Sam Crow has also added Ryan Hurst's Opie, still torn up over the death of Donna last season, a murder that several characters know was ordered by Clay. The more sympathetic wing of Sam Crow includes Jax, as well as Johnny Lewis' comic-relief Half-Sack and, my personal favorite, Mark Boon Junior's Elvis impersonating Bobby. These very different men are bonded together by the club and by a complex history that Sutter is unfolding at a deliberate pace.
The key is having Sam Crow facing forces less ambiguously corrupt than they are. As long as there are unquestioned black-hats, Sam Crow's shades of grey can still look good.
In this case, Charming is facing in incursion by the League of American Nationalist, a white separatist organization fronted by Adam Ark in as Ethan Zobelle, who opens a cigar shop in Charming with his lieutenant AJ (Henry Rollins) and sets his sites on clearing Sam Crow out of town.
Zobelle makes for a perfect adversary and Arkin plays him with insidious menace. He's clean-cut and above-board where Sam Crow is mangy and underground. He's civil and gentile and reasonable where they're all uncouth, unpredictable and irrational. And he may be even more vicious than Sam Crow, as viewers will find out by the end of the first episode.
The things that happen at the end of the premiere insure that viewers won't have any hesitation as the season progresses who they have to root for. The moral terrain last season was rockier and thus somehow less satisfying.
If you want ambiguity, there are still plenty of conflicts within Sam Crow. Jax's distrust in Clay is less overt this season than last and yet I lost track of the number of conversations in the first five episodes that begin with some variation on, "I don't know what's the problem between you and the boy." There's a rift that's going in the MC, but it's certainly taking a backseat to Zobelle's dealings.
As much screen presence as he may possess (and I'm a big fan of his work in "Undeclared," "Children of Men" and "Green Street Hooligans"), I still can't let Hunnam off the hook for what may be the worst American accent on television. He's two seasons into playing the role, and no stranger to playing Americans, but he still can't make any of his vowels or consonants sound right, nor does he sound as if he can from the same continent as any of his co-stars. Hunnam's at his best when he isn't talking, so it's good that he has great chemistry with Maggie Siff, whose Tara has an enhanced profile this year.
Perhaps Hunnam is supposed to feel like a poseur so that the other members of the MC feel more authentic and not just like familiar actors playing dress-up. With Coates, Flanagan and Boone delivering the flamboyant turns, Perlman is very restrained in the early going, but I'm guessing he's got an emotional hurricane brewing.
Still holding the cast together is Sagal, whose Season Two arc ought to be enough to put her on Emmy shortlists next season. Sagal's Gemma is also building up to something big.
Unlike last season, where you never knew where "Sons of Anarchy" was heading from week-to-week, Season Two is streamlined and it's pushing toward a single climax. And unlike last season, I expect that this time, I'll stick around for the whole journey.
"Sons of Anarchy" returns to FX on Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 10 p.m.