Every year I review the season’s first episode of Sons of Anarchy. Every September I watch the show, think about it for a few hours then criticize it. And every year people write back to explain to me the two principal ways in which I just don’t get this profitable fantasy. On the one hand I don’t understand motorcycle clubs and on the other I just don’t get the concept of drama – let alone television drama.
I am, my kindest critics tell me, like an unsophisticated, old outlaw sitting in a movie theater in 1903, watching Edwin S. Porter’s 12-minute-long The Great Train Robbery and becoming so excited by the action that I must draw my revolver and shoot up the movie screen. “Whoa old timer! It’s only a movie!”
Maybe my kind critics are right. I loathed last night’s episode so much that I wanted to draw the loaded revolver I keep by my bed. And, I would have, too, if the screen I was watching didn’t happen to be the front of my television.
It Don’t Matter
It hardly matters what I think anyway. Sons of Anarchy is not aimed at me. The show has nothing to do with motorcycle clubs, bikers, living in the moment, America, wide open spaces, personal courage, a blunt contempt for the world’s bullshit, a radical devotion to individual liberty or living and dying on your own terms. The show is about post-millennial Hollywood and the plight of the doomed, young, American men who watch it.
I admit there were many moments I enjoyed in last night’s episode. When Ron Perlman snaps shut a big bore revolver he reminds me of me. I could listen to Katie Sagal talk drug black outs, blow jobs, well worn pussy and granny fetishes all night. Jimmy Smits’ line, “I’m a companionater. I bring people together. It’s all about the love,” made me smile. I thought a montage of cartoon violence choreographed to a rock n’ roll sound track was fun. I get it. I’m not quite as obtuse as I seem.
Shut Up Jax
But, I also sighed impatiently at Kurt Sutter’s literary pretensions. As a working hack, the show’s writers embarrass me. Somebody should tell Jax to burn his fucking journal, get a grip and start over.
Within a mind numbing 90 seconds Prince Hamlet of Charming prattled poetry slam noise so awful it turned me deaf; he quoted Nietzsche’s sophomoric platitude, “That which does not destroy me strengthens me;” then he ripped off Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published essay – written as Hitchens was dying of cancer a few months ago – in which Hitchens argued that Nietzsche’s line couldn’t be more complacently stupid. This is what writing means at FX television central – which I am certain is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tyrell Corporation. Creative writing is stealing the dying sentiments of a literary lion and then just brazening it out on the assumption that nobody who watches this crap will notice. The producers don’t make this air filler for people who have heard of Christopher Hitchens. But the writers should have heard of Hitchens. And, if they have they should be ashamed. If they are capable of shame.
The imaginary “motorcycle club” at the center of all this noise is rotten with weaklings. Perlman’s character Clay, who we are to think is a steely-eyed murderer and combat Vet, is punked by his whore wife. Then Perlman shows us that Clay is so decrepit he can no longer sit on a motorcycle. Worst of all the yellow son-of-a-bitch refuses to fire that black bitch up one last time and aim for the nearest brick wall.
Charlie Hunnum’s Jax and his faction have such high regard for the psychological sensitivities of black gangsters that they take meetings with them to work things out. How wonderfully, politically correct. Then these motorcycle outlaws disarm themselves when told to do so.
The ugly dramatic climax of this season’s premiere came when an empty cut named Tig, convincingly portrayed by the actor Kim Coates, allows himself to be captured and then handcuffed. He is supposed to be this club’s sergeant at arms. Then Tig pleads and dances while the black gangsters in suits burn his daughter alive. A coward dies a thousand deaths. A man would have jumped in the fire with her, then crawled back out and at least tried to set one of them on fire.
It is hard to know what the producers were after with this grotesque scene. Maybe Kurt Sutter, the series’ show runner and the real life husband of the actress who plays the whore, is trying to start a race war. Maybe FX has shown him some research that indicates his black audience share will increase if he dramatizes black mafioso heartlessly tormenting white alpha males. It may be a cynical pandering to the resentments of the dispossessed young white men who worship this show. Or, maybe there was no point to it at all. Maybe, as the gunfighter said on the day he was hung, “It ain’t much but it’s a way to pass the time.”
My problem with this show has always been that it is produced by hollow men. Whether by design or instinct, by consensus or fiat, the scripts proclaim that the creators learned everything they know from television. Maybe the intention of that is put people who are afraid to think at ease. “See. Look. Nothing to think about here.” When the writers look at a woman they see tits. When they look at a man they see a costume.
The show, by general pronouncement, is an homage to the vanishing, white, American proletariat and its most dramatic and obstinate manifestation – the motorcycle club world. Another show might have something interesting to say about this counterculture in the American moment when most national institutions have become actually dangerous to the citizens they are supposed to serve. But another show might not translate well into the Tajikistani tertiary market so the producers avoid such difficult sentiments. And, so the show mines the ruins of that old America that made things as medieval Romans mined the Coliseum. It simultaneously rips off and diminishes the people it claims to admire. And it comes off to me as being at least as spurious as the current advertising fad for using veterans – particularly recent female veterans, or even better adorable children dressed as veterans – to sell insurance policies, bank accounts and Disneyland.
It might be this self-glorifying hypocrisy that enrages many of the show’s viewers – not just me. We all understand this is just a television show. And, we all understand that Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and the economic recovery are just a television show, too.
Of course, Sons of Anarchy isn’t made for me. It is made for an audience that kills its jobless days with videogames and is about to buy a tablet computer on credit. Sons of Anarchy is a masterful blend of pheromones sceintifically created to attract the upscale consumers who must own all the latest gadgets lest they remember who they are. So what you actually see when you tune in is a torrent of fleeting images and throwaway buzzwords: “The Irish,” “the cartel,” “the CIA,” gang bangers in Italian suits, empty male posturing and Dynas with fairings travelling lonely roads at night.
It is quite literally a comic book. First you invent the evocative image then you insert a one liner. “Did I give you a blow job too?” “No! No! No! Nooooo!”
The mindless, pop images invite viewers to shower in a torrent of upscale luxuries.
This is obviously an important show – anyone can see the respect advertisers bestow upon it. It delivers the important audience of dispossessed and hopeless American males who think their identity can be made of things. Drink tequila, watch HBO, look at Charlie Sheen, does he look worried, play more video games.
Sons of Anarchy is an idiotic cartoon that uses sound and fury to sell shit. The violence and cruelty in last night’s show might be a video generation’s moral equivalent of war – a war they intend to win with mindless consumption. And, it is candy coated with nostalgia for a vanished America. It is a fantasy about a lost world that eagerly anticipates our imminent cyberpunk future.
And, I just want to go on the record as saying that there is nothing wrong with that. I’m just not buying.