Fox // 2008 // 594 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // August 31st, 2009
Let freedom ride.
When writer/producer Kurt Sutter (The Shield) created Sons of Anarchy, he had two goals. One was to explore a family tragedy in Shakespearean terms. The other was to explore the culture of outlaw bikers in a way that had never been seen before. His ambitions to do the former sometimes got in the way of the latter, which made the series something of a slow starter. Once the show got its footing, however, Sons of Anarchy: Season One worked like a shot, culminating in a spectacularly gripping climax. This is one of the most fascinating shows of the year and this DVD fully does it justice.
In the small town of Charming, California, the local outlaw biker club Sons of Anarchy (known colloquially as Sam Crow) has been keeping the peace since the 1960s. Things, however, are changing. Club vice president Jax (Charlie Hunnam, Green Street Hooligans) is becoming increasingly conflicted with the club's penchant for violence, especially when he discovers the journal left behind by his deceased father John Teller, who founded the club. By contrast, his stepfather and club president Clay (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) and mother Gemma (Katey Sagal, Futurama) want the club to remain as it is. Here are the 13 episodes collected on four discs:
Jax's ex-wife Wendy (Drea De Matteo, The Sopranos) overdoses on meth, provoking a premature birth of their son Abel. Meanwhile, the Mayans, the local Chicano biker club, has embarked on a dangerous alliance with the local white-supremacist gang the Nords and their leader Darby (Mitch Pileggi, The X-Files).
New deputy police chief Hale (Taylor Sheridan, Veronica Mars) decides that Sam Crow is a menace to Charming and vows to take them down. Club member Opie (Ryan Hurst, Remember the Titans) is being pressured by his wife Donna (Sprague Grayden, 24) to choose between the club and his family.
* "Fun Town"
A young girl is raped when a carnival comes to town, and Hale must race against time to find the rapist before Sam Crow does.
* "Patch Over"
Clay decides to patch over a tiny independent club in Nevada as Sons, provoking a shootout with the Mayans.
* "Giving Back"
As Gemma launches her annual charity picnic, Opie is forced to confront his past when a former Son arrives at the bash.
ATF agent Stahl (Ally Walker, Profiler) sets her sights on launching a federal RICO investigation of Sam Crow.
* "Old Bones"
Some old bones are found outside the city, reigniting the mystery of what happened to John Teller.
* "The Pull"
Jax's ex-girlfriend Tara (Maggie Siff, Mad Men), the doctor taking care of Abel, is forced to confront her stalker ex-boyfriend.
* "Hell Followed"
The Mayans betray both Darby and Sam Crow, launching a bloody gang war. Jax, Opie, and club enforcer Tig (Kim Coates, Prison Break) attempt to dispose of a corrupt government official.
* "Better Half"
Agent Stahl pressures the women of Sam Crow to betray their men, but even Donna decides to hang tough.
Agent Stahl launches a reckless plan to mislead Clay and Sam Crow into believing that Opie has become a government informant.
* "The Sleep of Babies"
Clay and Tig decide to handle the Opie situation once and for all, resulting in tragic consequences.
* "The Revelator"
As Sam Crow reels from a shocking murder that will surely tear the club apart, Jax decides that the time has finally come to implement his father's ideas.
For years, depictions of bikers in films and television have been thoroughly one-dimensional: guys with long hair and beards in leather jackets, getting in bar brawls. Such depictions have completely missed the point about what outlaw biker clubs are really like. These are not random groups of guys riding around and partying. Real outlaw clubs are highly regimented, with elaborate rules and rituals and intricate chains of command. It would not be entirely accurate to claim that these outlaw clubs are solely dedicated to organized crime; like most complex organizations, they're really far more dedicated to perpetuating themselves, by any means necessary. They can embody genuinely positive values of brotherhood and discipline, but the methods they use to maintain that brotherhood and discipline can be horrific and brutal.
It's this dichotomy that's at the heart of Sons of Anarchy. It's deliberately spelled out by the journal that Jax finds in the very first episode and reads throughout the series. The Sons of Anarchy are, of course, fictional, but their methods and rules are identical to real outlaw biker clubs like the Hell's Angels, the Bandidos, and the Outlaws. Like those clubs, the Sons are depicted as originally coming together to rebel against stultifying small-town conformity and function as an outlet for friendship and fun, but like those clubs, it has since evolved into an enterprise with a truly dangerous amorality. Jax sees that his father hated the transformation that the Sons made into a violent criminal enterprise and decides that maybe he could somehow find a way to return the club to his father's intent. To do so, he has to ask a basic question: Is it possible to take a creation that has devoted itself to using positive ideals for criminal means and turn it into a vehicle for good?
This is a remarkable idea for a TV series. It's why The Sopranos, the series that Sons of Anarchy is most frequently compared to, doesn't really work as a point of reference for this series. No one would ever mistake the Mafia for anything other than a moneymaking enterprise. The Sons of Anarchy, on the other hand, does on occasion embody the lofty ideals it claims to uphold. Members are depicted committing appalling acts of violence, including one in the season's climax that will eventually bring the whole club down. They are also, however, capable of genuine moments of generosity, affection, and loyalty as a club. Witness how the club rallies around Jax as his premature son fights for life in an incubator, or how club members bend over backward to help Opie get back on his feet financially.
These touches make Sons of Anarchy such a great show. The characters are not just criminals fighting not to get caught, but actually struggling to find a place in a world that seems to change faster than they can adapt. For years, Sam Crow has kept Charming a small town with controllable crime, but now that the Mayans and Darby have decided to grab their piece of the pie, how much longer can the local police be in Sam Crow's pocket? Jax recognizes that the same old ways are becoming increasingly more problematic, and he can also see that the club's members are capable of changing if they need to, but he is powerless to turn the entire ship in another direction without a catalyzing event. The climactic murder may actually provide that, though surely Jax and the club would have rather that it had never happened. It's here that the show reveals its true ingenuity: the storylines involving the characters that led to the murder seemed unrelated and convoluted, but in this climactic moment, you realize that they were all planned to come together in a way that seems catastrophic but also inevitable.
Clever plotting isn't the only reason Sons of Anarchy is superb. The performances are uniformly stellar. Sagal may be the most lauded, and for good reason: Gemma is a complete departure from anything she has ever played before. Sagal may be best known for her comedic chops, but here she plays a truly devious and dangerous biker old lady with relish. Perlman gives Clay more weight than just an aging biker -- he's a king whose reign is slowly coming undone by his own inadequacies. Though Hunnam seems a bit unsure early in the season, he grows in strength as the season progresses, so that by the season finale, it's easy to see him as the only logical challenger to his stepfather. Of the supporting players, all do great work, but Coates is the standout. In lesser hands, Tig might have simply been played as a psychotic hothead, but Coates gives him a depth that makes him a truly compelling character: for all his acts of awful violence, he really does have a conscience, which makes his obligations all the more painful to manage.
Sons of Anarchy also explores the world of bikers in an unusual way. This is really the first time viewers will see just how complicated the subculture of bikers really is. What rules govern how women are treated by club members? What is the role of the club's prospect (apprentice member)? What does biker jargon mean? Sons of Anarchy explains. There's even one particularly grisly scene that demonstrates exactly what happens to former members who don't remove their club tattoos. These scenes make the show more authentic, but are also important to demonstrate that the show is specifically about an outlaw biker club, not just criminals who ride motorcycles. Sutter and his crew did plenty of research to ensure that the show's overall atmosphere rings true, and this attention to detail just adds one more reason why Sons of Anarchy is such a riveting show.
Fox has done Sons of Anarchy proud with this DVD set. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is gorgeous, showing off vivid colors and sharp edges. There's no compression or artefacting, and the image has almost no grain, making it virtually flawless. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is also stellar. There's plenty of bass during explosions and shootouts, but the dialogue is also loud and clear, unlike some mixes that make the mistake of emphasizing the effects over the dialogue.
The set also comes packed with extras. There are three audio commentaries for the episodes "Pilot," "The Pull," and "The Revelator." On each, Kurt Sutter and Charlie Hunnam are joined by various other cast members in discussing the filming and ideas behind those episodes. Amusingly, the commentary for "The Revelator," which includes all the actors who play bikers, turns into a riotous drunken frat party. Consumer note: though the liner notes promise a commentary for "The Sleep of Babies," there actually isn't one. There are also some brief featurettes: "The Making of Sons of Anarchy" (9:00), "Casting Sons of Anarchy" (14:46), "The Ink" (4:50), and "The Bikes" (7:10). These are all very informative, but way too short. The set also includes deleted scenes (34:47) taken from several episodes. Some of these scenes fill in minor holes left in the finished episodes, so they're definitely worth a look. Finally, the set is rounded out by "Anarchy on the Set" (6:53), the series' gag reel, which is mildly amusing.
Sutter has admitted in interviews that when he began the series, he attempted to do too much, and he's right. The first few episodes are so stuffed with subplots and characters that they sometimes overshadow the main story of Sam Crow and Jax's crisis of faith. That's why viewers who find the first few episodes cluttered and disjointed should be patient. About halfway through the second disc, Sutter and crew found their groove and began focusing the show more on the world of the bikers and their adversaries rather than trying to pile on unnecessary subplots and characters. In particular, the storyline involving Tara and her stalker ex-boyfriend is drawn out far longer than it needs to be. Viewers will breathe a sigh of relief when it's finally resolved at the beginning of the second disc.
Sons of Anarchy: Season One compiles one of the most remarkable dramatic series of 2008, a worthy and original entry into the rank of classic crime dramas. Viewers who give it a chance will be impressed with the stellar performances, clever writing, and authentic atmosphere. Anyone looking for a smart and entertaining series in the manner of The Shield and The Sopranos should check it out.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 594 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Official Site