The promotional material makes it clear: “Mayans M.C.” is set in a “post-Jax-Teller world.” That distinction may sound unusual, but it’s an important one. In this reboot-remake-reimagining TV landscape, the humble spin-off show has to make a strong decision about how it wants to frame itself. “Mayans M.C.” more or less picks up where “Sons of Anarchy” left off, following a motorcycle club that was not an insubstantial part of the original series. On “Sons,” the Mayans were one-time villains who ultimately became allies in the brutal dog-eat-dog-alive fictional world of creator Kurt Sutter. In bringing them back for their own series, he (alongside co-creator Elgin James) looks to recapture the magic that made “Sons,” at its best, so vital, while branching out to something new. The simple fact of an all-Latino cast is cause enough for interest, even if the show is still working on finding its voice.
Recently released from prison, Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes (JD Pardo) has pledged his fortunes as a prospect for the Southern California branch of the Mayans. He’s not alone; his brother, Angel (Clayton Cardenas), a full-patch member of the club, is in charge of his duties as a prospect, and his father, Felipe (Edward James Olmos), a local butcher, is on hand to provide moral support. Given the quagmire of sin and violence that clubs in the Sutter-verse typically attract, he’ll need all the help he can get. The Mayans run drugs for the Galindo cartel, never a safe bet, and EZ quickly finds himself trapped in a number of moral and mortal quandaries, some of them external, and some he’s brought down on his own head. It’s a spider’s web Jax Teller might have understood, if no one else.
Fans of “Sons” will be on familiar ground here. The first two episodes (the only ones made available pre-air) offer a wealth of well-worn pleasures, and it’s easy to see that four years and a co-creator haven’t done much to change Sutter’s take on the material. The Mayans bicker and bond like the lovable a–holes they all are, with characterizations ranging from pained and mature (Michael Irby as charter president Obispo “Bishop” Losa) to quiet and competent (Raoul Max Trujillo as vice-president Che “Taza” Romero) to weaselly and potentially bats–t crazy (Richard Cabral as Johnny “El Coco” Cruz). Watching the club deal with new crises and internal politics has a loose, comfortable charm that never really goes away. Bro jokes and camaraderie punctuated by shocking violence has long been Sutter’s stock in trade, and the individual members of the ensemble are well cast into familiar archetypes, their value as a unit immediately clear.
So “Mayans” is an easy watch for anyone who misses “Sons’” particular mix of broad humor, big emotions, and sudden bursts of gunplay. But the show doesn’t yet have much to offer beyond nostalgia and old charms. As a central figure, Pardo slots easily into the Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) role of swagger and pained expressions, but the actor has yet to prove whether he has the charisma to ground the series. It’s quickly established that EZ has a mysterious past, but the information is given out so intermittently that it’s hard to find reasons to get invested in him beyond his value as a focal point for suffering. As is often the case in Sutter’s work, there’s no shortage of misery to go around, but EZ appears to bear the brunt of all of it. By the end of the second episode, it’s hard not to wonder if the sheer volume of pressures assaulting him is meant as some kind of strange cosmic joke.
“Sons’” embrace of its anti-hero leads often meant letting them off the hook for their casual bigotry; seeing how a non-white group living on the border between Southern California and Mexico works to protect their community against the drug cartels and their ostensible government could make for a potentially compelling dynamic. But while the setting is strong, “Mayans” struggles to offer much of a story hook beyond the marginal novelty of Job in a leather jacket. “Sons” began as a Hamlet riff, using the basics of the Shakespearean tragedy as a way to build in larger concerns about the value of legacies and holding with the past. It was a goofy idea, but a sincerely meant one, providing an immediate narrative draw to bring viewers into its world, and the shows’ writers were smart enough to leave it behind when necessary.
“Mayans” lacks anything so clear cut. While not every new series needs to be easily mappable to a 400-year-old play, too many of the revelations in the first two episodes fall to spark interest. The show is also disappointingly dude-heavy. Of the handful of women introduced in these two episodes, only one gets more to do than worry on the sidelines. Katey Sagal’s Gemma Teller was arguably “Sons'” greatest contribution to popular culture, a monstrous, sincere, unnervingly sympathetic maternal figure who dominated the series for much of its run, for better and worse. Her absence here–and the lack of anyone even remotely positioned to follow in her footsteps–is keenly felt.
It’s entirely possible that “Mayans” improves over time, though. The fact that the show’s post-Teller world acknowledges the existence of its predecessor (largely by the ongoing presence of Emilio Rivera’s Alvarez, an antagonist-turned-friend from the original series) without spending too much time being indebted to it is a good sign. It took a little while for “Sons” to find its cruising speed, and “Mayans” has earned the grace period necessary to find its own pace.