After two episodes, “Sons of Anarchy” — FX’s gritty drama about a brutal, gun-running motorcycle gang — still appears stuck in neutral. Eager to occupy the mob turf vacated by “The Sopranos,” the series features an intriguing cast and introduces a bleak new world. Once that’s accomplished, though, there’s not much momentum to the story, other than fits of nastiness designed to establish that this is one dangerous group of hombres. Mission accomplished, but when does this hog stop spinning its wheels?
Series creator Kurt Sutter cut his teeth on “The Shield,” and he seems well-versed in the tense links among disparate gangs of California. There’s the motorcycle club — which essentially rules the small town of Charming — supplying weapons to African-American drug dealers, who are at odds with Mexican drug dealers, who may be collaborating with the white supremacists. As for the cops, they’re corrupt enough to sit on the sidelines, until a young deputy begins to take interest in the bikers’ activities.
At the show’s core, though, is Jax (Charlie Hunnam), the son of one of the biker group’s founders. He’s a tough, good-looking ladies man, and his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal, in perhaps the least-flattering performance of her career) is a badass in her own right — having married the club’s current leader, Clay (Ron Perlman), after her husband’s death.
The premiere opens with a raid on the gang’s stash of guns, leading to vicious reprisals. Yet the ostensible turn to the story — the event that alters the existing dynamics and thus should produce drama — centers on the birth of Jax’s son by his ex-wife (“The Sopranos'” Drea DeMatteo, in a wasted cameo), and Jax’s discovery of his father’s diaries, which hint at more noble ambitions than the criminal enterprise Clay has established. It’s a lifestyle an outsider describes as “white trash thugs holding on to a dying dream.”
Theoretically, these twin tugs from his past and present could prompt Jax to reexamine his life, but that’s only an educated guess as to where this is heading. Indeed, as initially played by Hunnam (from the British “Queer as Folk”), it’s hard to picture Jax experiencing a transcendent moral quandary, or, for that matter, any sort of intricate thought process.
Working with directors Allen Coulter and Michael Dinner, Sutter does bring a visceral quality to the violence, while detailing the club’s code and commitment to functioning as an extended family; there’s just so little dimension to the characters early on that it’s difficult to care. That’s particularly true of Sagal’s biker-chick Lady Macbeth, motivated by her desire to see Jax eventually assume control of the club, who apparently fears that his late dad’s sensitive scribbles will distance him from his anything-goes stepfather, who Perlman gruffly maintains at a constant low boil.
Admittedly, “The Shield” felt a trifle cliched at the outset too — corrupt cops in L.A.? — before finding novel ways to develop and prolong its cat-and-mouse scenario. Given that, there’s still modest hope for “Sons of Anarchy” — the disclaimer being that before the series gets much further down the road, somebody better check the steering.